The best part of publishing a book are the questions it engenders. For years you’re trapped in your own head, asking yourself your own questions about the material, then upon publication the party starts. One of the best questions I continue to receive about In Praise of Difficult Women is what do my difficult women have in common. The subtitle is Life Lessons from 29 Women Who Dared to Break the Rules, and biggest rule most of them broke was saying thanks, no thanks to self-improvery. I’d be lying if I said they didn’t care about their appearance. Even the most bad ass among us wants to look good. Amelia Earhart was self-conscious about her board-straight hair and curled it daily. Elizabeth Taylor worried about her weight. Kay Thompson, the most sui generis among the sui generis, had several nose jobs.
But when it came to making their way in the big wide world, they didn’t feel they needed to rejigger their personalities to enjoy their lives. They didn’t need to be “better.” They pursued what they were interested in, sure, and they hoped to become better at those things. When my difficult women discovered something new about themselves – I’m thinking about Elizabeth Warren, who dropped out of college to marry her high school sweetheart, never imagining her fierce passion for the law and equity would propel her into Congress, or Frida Kahlo, who before her near fatal accident which left her an invalid for life, had planned on becoming a doctor. But fate intervened and she took up her paintbrush and that was that.
It’s one thing to pursue an interest, follow your passions where they lead, master a subject – my difficult women did and do that – and another thing entirely to devote yourself to self-improvement, taking it on faith that you would be happier, more fulfilled, and an all-around better person if you just [fill in the blank.]
The subtext of self-improvement is that we’re not good enough the way we are and ironies of irony, this lack of self-esteem contributes to our failure to successfully complete whatever regime we’ve launched upon. We fail to become better, and then we blame ourselves, rather than the cockamamie regime. My difficult women were having none of that, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted that attitude for myself, and also for my readers. I want all women, old, young, and in between, to live their lives without apology for who and what they are.
Yeah No Not Happening makes a case for taking a hard pass on self-improvery. Forget the obsessive self-optimization, the insane scheduling, the persnickety progress-charting, the thought policing, the enforced good cheer, the strict wishful thinking, the crazy ass wellness regimes, and the obligatory journaling (unless you generally enjoy it, then go crazy).
What do I suggest instead? It’s easy – and not even easier than it sounds — be in your body, find some people you like and care for them, find some stuff you like to do and care about it. Oh, and stop thinking about yourself so much. Really.
I love Medium, and every morning I receive an email of some of the day’s offerings. Recently, a guy wrote a summary of the five best life lessons from the top fifty self-help books. To help illustrate the most common ideas, he made a word cloud. The largest words, indicating those that occurred most often, were: time, life, people, will, work, need, and change. Surrounding these concepts, in smaller type: Success, different, decision, lessons. I had to squint to see the smallest print, but aside from ‘exercise’, there were no words that suggested improving your life by finding simple joy in the five senses. No stroll, swim, sniff, taste, stroke, snuggle, dance. No listen. No laugh.
I think we should try to feed our bodies this way. Have you visited a perfume counter recently? Or a flower market? Or even a stable? (I love the smell of horses and hay). Have you baked or cooked something that makes the kitchen smell amazing? I go to my local bookstore and stick my nose in a new book. I then stroll on down to my knitting shop to feel up all the new yarn (baby alpaca!) I walk in all kinds of weather. I get massages. I do karaoke and not only sing but dance. I listen to music. And I’m trying to more of it. And it makes life better, every day.