The 7 Habits of Highly Suggestible People

Trip Start Aug 04, 2009
Trip End Aug 30, 2010

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43 Hour Kanyakumari Express

Flag of India  , Kerala,
Friday, November 13, 2009

“Look, for the tenth time, it’s pronounced ‘a-NAL-rap-ist’ “
-Tobias Funke, Analysis-Therapist

Book Review: The Monk Who Sold His Ferrarri
Robin Sharma
bought in Mumbai in scramble to find any English language reading material before yoga retreat

There's a great episode of South Park where a huckster opens up a New Age store and starts peddling her hippie claptrap spiritual remedies to the wide-eyed mothers of South Park, posing her two assistant, voiced by Cheech and Chong, as Native Americans to lend credibility to her
wares.  High point of the episode: when Kyle falls ill with appendicitis, they urge his mom to take him for proper western medical treatment, confessing: "were not really like Native Americans.  We're more like ... a ... Mexican."

If I hadn't undergone CBT some time ago, I would have dismissed this book within the first ten pages as pure insufferable schlock.  In fact, it's a thin layer of insufferable schlock carefully wrapped around a Cliff's Notes distillation of core CBT principles.

And I do mean thin.  Judging by his name Robin Sharma might be of Indian descent, but he grew up in Canada, has a degree in law, and runs a company that gives motivational speeches on leadership and personal development to executives of Fortune 500 companies like Nike and Microsoft.  Which is all to say, he's as close to being an authentic Indian guru as I am to being a Korean Confucian scholar.  He does have a number of other, less catchy but more forthrightly titled books like "The Greatness Guide," but this one was his breakout success, which goes to show that a spoonful of Orientalism makes the medicine go down.

For those unfamiliar with CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, it's basically the 20th century psychology community's response to 19th century Freudian Analysis.  Unlike most of the self-help psychobabble out there, it's supported by a healthy amount of empirical data gathered from countless clinical studies.  Which is to say, until the day we start understanding how the brain works under the hood, it's about as good as science is gonna get.

The tenets of CBT are pretty simple.  Rather than sitting on a couch, looking backwards to work out the precise manner in which your parents screwed up your life, it's better to stop dwelling on it and break your cycle of depressing thoughts.  The most direct way is to recognize that it's happening, and replace the negative ones with positive ones.  However, that sounds a bit simplistic and Tom Cruise-ish, and only really works if you're conscientously working through a CBT exercise book or under the direction of a therapist.

For the rest of us, a pragmatic avenue to short-circuiting the depression loop is to do something - often ANYTHING.  Cleaning your room, adding the album info to your MP3s, whatever.  From the point of view of whatever brought you down in the first place (eg unfiled taxes 3 days before the deadline) it may seem like procrastination, but if it's constructive - albeit in a sense that is oblique to the initial problem - it's enough to break you out of your funk and give you some momentum.  For me, nothing kept me more sane at work than sorting out other people's problems while Russia fell days, weeks, months behind.

Writing out goals and tasks is a good tool to accomplishing this aim, since it accomplishes several goals.  Your mental todo list - email Sundeep about this weekend, write the weekly status report for Mike, call home - becomes less pressing once you know it's in persistent storage.  It also reduces the size of the meta-thought: "crap, what am I forgetting?" which is perhaps the single biggest item when you work in a 1,000-emails-a-day office.  Secondary benefit is locking in your priorities, rather than simply escalating whichever though happened to pop up in your head the most recently (which, in turn, is usually influenced by which coworker is yelling the loudest or most senior).  And going back to the momentum thing, seeing items on the list crossed off reinforces the sense of momentum, and even composing the list often feels like a meta-accomplishment in itself.

You might be noticing that, considering this is a way of treating depression, this all sounds a lot like time management techniques.  Well, you wouldn't be the first.  At the very least, Sharma did and has raked in a fortune teaching these techniques to strung out executives.  Which is all well and good, I've got no beef with a guy making a buck marketing the fruits of someone else's intellectual labor.  That's capitalism for you, a bedrock of America, dammit (yeah he's Canadian, but they're basically our 52nd state -- the UK being our 51st of course).

What does get on my nerve is the pastiche of exoticism he uses to sell his wares.  This run-up on page 33 pretty much sums up the simple premise:

One of this country's best known trial lawyers throws in the towel, sells all his worldly goods and treks off to India on a spiritual odyssey, only to return as a wise prophet from the Himalayas.  This could not be real.

The lawyer-turned-guru has returned to New York to teach his former protegee, the narrator, the mystical techniques of positive thinking handed to him from the sages high in the mountain how to transform his life.  And how is the narrator's skepticism of New Age self-help hodgepodge overcome?  What proof are we given that the power of positive thinking can turn out a burnt-out husk of a geezer old beyond his years by the time he was struck down by a heart attack in court at the age of fifty into a happy, youthful-looking man radiating inner calm?  Why, the proof was standing before his very eyes:

"Look at the evidence that I have offered you.  Look at my smooth, lineless face.  Look at my physique.  Can't you sense the abundant energy I have?  Look at my peacefulness.  Surely you can see that I have changed?"
He had a point.  This was a man who, only a few years ago, had looked decades older.

Ah, therein lies the insidious narrative sleight of hand.  The narrator, as our proxy, articulates a line of skepticism which resonates with the reader.  Then the rebuttal comes in the form of irrefutable evidence -- which only exists in this fictional universe.  It's an intellectually denigrating logical phallacy that any half intelligent reader (and given that the target audience is upper-middle class professionals, presumably that implies most) would spit out as tripe were it not wrapped up in a saffron robe and stamped "Made in Tibet."  It's like Asiatic cultures are intellectual Krytonite for white people.

I've never read Dianetics, but I'll bet L. Ron Hubbard used a similar trick to rope in his followers.

What bothers me most about it all is that the underlying product being sold - basic CBT strategies for time management and fighting depression - are valid, but the book is marketing it as eternal youth.  Again, considering the presumed intellectual sophistication and maturity of the upper-middle class readership, the idea of being pandered to like children is as insulting as the packaging is odious.


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Sherry on

Happy Turkey Day!
Thank for the quick summary of the book. Saves me from having to read it. Heard it recommended before.

david_chung on

Thanks Sherry! Did you go home to Jersey for Thanksgiving?
Man, I was really missing the turkey and stuffing on the Ashram.
Yoga diet prohibits meat, cooking oils, seasoning, even garlic and onions.
Surely spiritual enlightenment cannot be worth all that ...

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