“Quiet: The Book” and More Thoughts on Self-Help

“Paler indeed than the moon ailing in some slow eclipse was the light of it now, wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing.” The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien

In the comments for my post “The Quiet Ones,” Loribeth asked if I had read the book “Quiet.” As it so happened, shortly after I wrote that post (one of my all-time favorites), I had a long layover at an airport and found “Quiet” in a nearby book kiosk. It seemed a happy circumstance, and I began reading it.

There is much to enjoy about “Quiet,” but I particularly liked Cain’s description of self-help gurus, including Tony Robbins. What is most interesting about “Quiet” is that it dispels many a conventional wisdom, like the commonly-held belief that extroverts make the best leaders and most persuasively, that the American tradition of self-help is one that is at odds with much research, as well as our own personalities.

I believe that the most seductive and destructive fantasies in our culture involve the belief that if we just change something fundamental about ourselves, we will become better. If we can buy into the latest weird health trends, we will become thin, and our husbands will love us more. If we get Botox, we will remain young and relevant. Most especially, the idea that we can overhaul our personalities to become different, more successful people is disturbing. We’re told in the media that we should follow the advice of success stories like Suze Orman and Tony Robbins, who frankly have had their own bizarre and completely unique paths to success. Tony Robbins is most likely, according to Susan Cain, a “hyperthymic:” a kind of super extrovert characterized by one psychiatrist as possessing “exuberant, upbeat, overenthusiastic and overconfident lifelong traits.” His own personality is most likely unusual, and it’s really cool that he used his unique traits to become very successful. But I personally, could never be more “like him.” Why try to be something we’re not?

In other words, “Fitter, happier, more productive.” To quote my beloved Radiohead.

In “Gone Girl,” the psychotic but brilliant “Amazing Amy” famously describes the ultimate self-help female nightmare, “Cool Girl,” and hilariously pokes fun at how false it is.

“We know from myths and fairy tales that there are many different kinds of powers in the world. One child is given a light saber, another a wizard’s education. The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of available power, but to use well the kind you’ve been granted.” Susan Cain, “Quiet”

I honestly believe that all of us are granted in our own way the potential to be our best selves. But the most important way to become our best self is to be different. Truly, different. Whether it’s embracing being childless not by choice, or changing opinions by being an open adoption advocate or full-on “leaning in” or knowing we would be best at staying at home with our children. We ALL have the capacity to be our best selves.

But only by knowing ourselves will we ever fully be ourselves. Otherwise we might yet be tricked by false lights – illuminating as J.R.R. Tolkien says – nothing.

Have you ever tried to change something fundamental about your personality, and did it work? Or do you believe that being yourself is the best way to live your life?



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12 responses to ““Quiet: The Book” and More Thoughts on Self-Help

  1. 1banjo

    Very nice post. For some reason, it made me think of the owner of Trump Tower. He’s said to be very outgoing.

  2. I don’t think changing and being oneself are mutually exclusive; it’s the trying to change that trips us all up. We change. People change. But not on purpose, not deep down. It’s hard for a conscious adaptation to stick.

    I love the change of embracing my childlessness not by choice. Yes, dear God yes, it still aches at times. But the other day, when we arrived at the hospital door as a brand new mother was holding her newborn and waiting for her ride to bring the car around, I did not envy her. I didn’t cry, or drool, or have chest pain. And I haven’t thought of it again until now.

    That’s surely a fundamental change, but it’s so much a part of me that I couldn’t be myself without it at this point.

    I write every day. I see children as cute without losing my shit. And I’m happy.

    I should read this book. I’m reading Wasted by Marya Hornbacher now, which is probably what helped moved me to such verbosity on change and self.

    • “I don’t think changing and being oneself are mutually exclusive; it’s the trying to change that trips us all up. We change. People change. But not on purpose, not deep down. It’s hard for a conscious adaptation to stick.” That’s really wise, and quite true.

  3. I don’t think I have ever bought a self help book! However, I do try to be a better version of me if that makes sense.

    In saying that, I have followed many diets over the years!!! Perhaps that counts.

    When it comes to change and infertility – I tried to change my body and I tried to understand why I was infertile (still have never cracked that one) but I didn’t try to change the fundamental mental me. if anything my strong mental state got me through it. Barely, by the skin of my teeth but it got me there.

    • Just heard an interview with Judd Apatow, and he said the only reason he tries to eat right and exercise is so “he doesn’t die.” Which is funny but also true. That’s the best reason to do both those things!

      “Quiet” recommends that we can all be “our best selves” like you said. The unique message was that we can and should do that by working with what we have, as opposed to frantically jumping from one crazy fad to another to try to be someone else. I love that idea. Because Lord knows that I’ll never be like Suze Orman or Tonny Robbins or the Food Babe or whichever new self-help craze comes along next. But I can use my own unique strengths and talents to be my best self. And that is a reassuring message 🙂

  4. Heather

    Loved this book.

  5. Glad you read it & even more glad that you enjoyed it! 🙂

  6. Ana

    This book kind of changed my life (or at least my perspective on life). I agree that people DO change, but that change either comes organically—through the effect of our experiences, or it comes slowly and painfully through changing our way of thinking (therapy, basically). And you can’t change the fundamental elements of your personality. You may be able to figure out ways to be less anxious in social settings, but you can’t “make yourself” an extrovert (I’ve tried, for years! Exhausting and ineffective.) I was told all my life, from early childhood, that being “quiet” was a negative “she’s sooo quiet!” everyone would say. even my evaluations in med school “very quiet”. It was extremely empowering to learn that introversion is a trait, not a failing, and can be a strength in some ways.

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