I recently interviewed the radio DJ Shaun Keaveny on behalf of a trouser company called Spoke. Shaun anchors the breakfast show on BBC Radio 6 Music, which means that, five days a week, he has to get up at stupid o’clock. So I asked him. I said: tell us your tips for dealing with the soul-erosion of prolonged sleep deprivation. He thought about it. He ran his palms pensively over the smooth stretch-cotton of his Spoke chinos. Then he replied: you need to go to bed early.
That was it. He’d been hosting the breakfast show for ten years and that was the full extent of his insight. But of course he was right.
The point is that most of the really profound pieces of life advice are actually bloody obvious. It’s just that, sometimes, we need to be told. Which is why the idea behind Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement is so terrific. Two sceptical business school professors, André Spicer and Carl Cederström, devote a year to exploring what used to be known as the self-help industry but is now called the optimisation industry because it sounds cooler. In January they focus on Productivity. In February, it’s Body. And so on, through Brain, Relationships, Spirituality, Sex, Pleasure, Creativity, Money, Morality and Attention, before winding up, optimistically as it turns out, with Meaning.
The idea is that these guys test out the technical tricks and intricate techniques so that you don’t have to. And then they report back, saying whether they’re transformative or a load of baloney.
And we do learn a few things from this slim and genial survey. We learn about the Pomodoro concentration technique (work for twenty-five minutes, then take a five-minute break). We learn about the Tabata exercise technique (alternate between intense activity and rest). But most of what we learn is interesting without being useful, except as a reason not to take optimisation too seriously. We learn that there are some truly ridiculous apps out there, with an appeal that must surely be limited (Poo Keeper, anyone?). We learn that a surprising proportion of optimisation gurus are muscular middle-aged men with shaven heads, prompting us to wonder if the whole optimisation industry may be rooted in midlife crises triggered by male pattern baldness.
We learn that a lot of these guys are preening, priapic prats. I particularly enjoyed the description of one of the creators of neuro-linguistic programming, who bounds on stage at a conference and starts yelling about how he hasn’t taken a holiday in eight years and then claims that he can kill anyone with his bare hands. Later, he declares that the hotel where the conference is being held is haunted. But don’t worry, he assures his bedazzled audience, ‘I’ve performed exorcisms. I know a lot about demons.’ This magnificent vaunt struck me as a bit like whispering in a woman’s ear, ‘I’m very good at sex’, before making love to her. You may turn out to be very good at sex, but you’re still an asshole.
If this had been the general tenor of the book, I would have loved it. Or if it had devoted itself to extracting useful life tips and repackaging them in enjoyably banal form, then ditto. Or if, conceivably, it had somehow managed both, it could have been a book for the ages. But I’m afraid to say that, although the idea is appealing, the structure beautiful, the writing elegant and the authors talented, entertaining and (not always a given) broadly likeable, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement.
For one thing, a month isn’t really long enough for exploring most of their chosen areas. If you’re a man trying to achieve multiple orgasms, you probably need to put in the time. That’s just my guess. For another thing, they don’t settle on whether they’re serious about self-improvement or want to mock it. The result is a fuzziness. One problem with the pose of post-irony – when you leave it vague as to whether you’re ever being serious about anything – is that it’s a kind of commitment aversion. There comes a point when you have to take a stance.
I’m guilty of this too, so I associated with Spicer and Cederström. At times I admired their honesty. This book is at its strongest as a frank portrait of the tensions of collaboration. The authors get on each other’s nerves. Like TED Talk equivalents of John McEnroe and Björn Borg, they are character opposites, and the differences between them increasingly take their toll. Personally, I preferred the maverick Spicer for his readiness to make a fool of himself, although I feel obliged to applaud in passing the lofty Cederström for his bravery in trying out a prostate vibrator.
In the final chapter, the duo wonder what the point has been. They don’t really have an answer. And that, I suppose, is a kind of answer in itself.