The Best Self-Help Articles Are Songs
Michael Thompson wrote a fantastic article for Mind Cafe (I Asked a Bunch of ‘Self-Help Haters’ to Rip Apart My Article) that freaked me out a little. Thompson lives in Spain and, apparently, Europeans hate self-help people. Point #1 was:
“This guy just wrote an article about the importance of learning from your mistakes and then quoted Elon Musk who’s been married like 37 times.”
Gulp. Because I just did that. In my defense, I qualified it:
Musk has said and done a lot of things since that phone call.
I had one experience with Musk. He handled it with class. I learned a lesson. Whether Thompson was writing about my article or one of his own, I can’t quite figure out. But it’s besides the point. He’s one of Medium’s best writers. I strive to achieve a modicum of his success. As always, his article got me thinking. I don’t feel like I’m writing self-help. I’m relaying my experiences.
Self-help, in and of itself, isn’t always the issue. It’s the mentors and gurus offering the advice. Often, they’re opportunistic hacks, telling tall tales and selling big dreams on the basis of their success. Success they can’t seem to stop telling you about. Do the loudest voices offering self-help do it because they like to hear themselves talk (about themselves)? Do they pervert all over their followers, who look to them for answers? Does noisily offering self-help validate the mentor’s success when the mentee fails to attain it or even come close? All burning questions.
But we’ll save them for another day.
I draw a distinction between types of self-help. For example, there’s self-serving self-help. And there’s genuine people relaying their life experience — with humility — in an honest effort to provide at lease some semblance of tangibility for the reader. I strive to fall in the latter camp when I write about life or something less perplexing, such as writing.
I use great songwriting as one model. Great lyricists provide the best — and most authentic — self-help. I’m sure you have your favorites. I have mine:
- Tom Petty
- Gord Downie
- Taylor Swift
- Brian Fallon
- Elliott Smith
- and, the one who started it all for me, Bruce Springsteen
Relaying Shared Experience
I often include personal details in my writing. Some of it’s not so flattering. I do it for two reasons:
- I’m not gonna lie. It’s therapeutic. And I sort of get off on it.
- I learn the most from people who are able to effectively relay their experiences.
That’s something great songwriters do so well. They take things we all feel — from typical life situations to more psychologically confounding issues, such as heartbreak and redemption. They put these things into words that resonate. They let us know we’re not alone. They’re not trying to fix anything for you. Or even tell you how to fix anything yourself. They’re just telling you how it is from their perspective. More often than not, the greats I listed (and your favorites) tell you how it is — how it feels — from your perspective as well. That’s shared experience. There’s something beautiful about the narrative encapsulation of shared experience. It’s what keeps many of us going.
As we relay our experiences, we illustrate our thoughts and ideas about how to overcome. We’re not dictating prescriptions. That’s the distinction between writing from experience with the goal of maybe helping somebody, somewhere, even a little and writing self-help that tells everybody how it is because you’re so freaking successful you absolutely have it all figured out.
I can come up with endless examples from every lyricist I love, but here’s a classic one from Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love.
There’s a crazy mirror showing us both in 5-D
I’m laughing at you you’re laughing at me
There’s a room of shadows that gets so dark brother
It’s easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love
It ought to be easy ought to be simple enough
Man meets woman and they fall in love
But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough
One possible, yet somewhat broad solution:
And you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above
if you want to ride on down in through this tunnel of love
“You’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above” — one of Bruce’s most famous and, for many, inspirational lyrics. If I was writing an article along that trajectory, I might include a few bullet points or subheadings with strategies I use to learn to live with what I can’t rise above.
I could make this a series. Find great songs that present a problem, mitigate it with hope and redemption, and lead the listener on the path to a solution. That’s the model I wish more self-help writers would follow. While we have shared experiences, the way we navigate and emerge from them varies wildly by individual. Nothing’s absolute.