I have long been skeptical of self-help books, especially the kind that promise a better life if you follow a list of simple rules.
My sister’s shelves are full of them; she collects guides to business, relationships, and time management. I roll my eyes.
But in 2021, as so many of us think about who we want to be and how we want to live after this pandemic, I find myself wondering what these books might have to offer. I want someone to tell me how to be better to the world. How to balance my time. How to be a better friend. How to date. Maybe. (Gasp.)
Some readers of my advice column devour self-help. In the comments section, they mention titles that have helped them make sense of love and partnership. (For the record, “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman comes up a lot.)
In this column, I and writer Christina Tucker (you’ll meet her next month) will take a closer look at self-help and what it can offer, especially new titles. We’re using a broad definition of the genre. Memoirs, for example, can be the most helpful self-help guides because they can document a path for growth and change.
Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer host the podcast “By the Book,” where they actually live by the rules of self-help books and then talk about their experiences. When I asked for some guidance on evaluating the books, they advised me to question the author’s expertise and whether a book gives you “actionable steps.” They also reminded me that sometimes self-help feels uncomfortable to read when it’s hitting too close to home.
That’s a good reminder, because it’s often the dating books that make me want to roll my eyes. Maybe they’re just touching on all of my insecurities.
Here are two reviews to start this column, which will run once a month. Worth noting: Both of these books are spun off from podcasts. That’s how a lot of books happen these days.
“10,000 Nos: How to Overcome Rejection on the Way to Your Yes” by Matthew Del Negro, Wiley, $25
You might recognize actor Del Negro (on the book’s cover) from “The West Wing,” “Scandal,” “Goliath” or “The Sopranos” — or maybe you don’t recognize him at all, which is kind of the point of the book, released in October. Del Negro, a Boston College grad, explains that he’s heard many nos to get to a yes, and that even when he lands a role, he has to start over for the next job.
He uses behind-the-scenes stories to explain how he’s coped with so much rejection, and how he knows when to keep trying or walk away. Each chapter ends with bulleted conclusions, such as “Contrary to popular belief, you can’t have it all.” (Amen to that.) The book is peppered with quotes from CEOs, actors, athletes, etc. about how to pursue dreams. I found Del Negro’s own narrative, which gets honest about marriage, finances, and all of the things we often skip over when we talk about steps to success, more helpful.
While he often wonders whether he’s the best person for a role, Del Negro doesn’t suffer from overwhelming impostor syndrome. I found his “just keep hustling” attitude instructive, as opposed to frustrating. He makes it OK to say, “I want to get this opportunity because I love this work.”
The two main things I got out of his story were:
1. Any career — any life, really — is a body of work. If you don’t get one thing, you might get the next, and then it all goes onto a long list of cool stuff you’ve done. Del Negro, in case you’re wondering, is now on the Boston-set show “City on a Hill.”
2) Breakups can be the best. I was delighted by how many times Del Negro credits a breakup for giving him the will to make a massive change. A college breakup “ultimately led to my decision to quit playing lacrosse my junior year at Boston College. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I auditioned for a play, and the rest is history,” he writes. (Del Negro didn’t get that first role, but it led to him trying another audition.)
Who it’s for: recent graduates; anyone in entertainment; fans of the “West Wing,” specifically; anyone who wonders whether actor Chris Messina would be a good friend (he is … swoon); the recently dumped (this is a great breakup book); and anyone who feels like they’re failing at the thing they love.
“Friendshipping: The Art of Finding Friends, Being Friends, and Keeping Friends” by Jenn Bane and Trin Garritano, Workman Publishing, $14.95
For those looking for better ways to connect with other adults, especially those balancing kids and other responsibilities, December release “Friendshipping” — by Bane and Garritano, hosts of the “Friendshipping” podcast — is a thoughtful, step-by-step guide to building a close relationship as a grown-up. It gives you friendship pickup lines and the language you need to grow your chosen family. It also helps you figure out if you’re the toxic friend. Other topics include social media, gifts, favors, and when friendship can lead to romance.
Most of the book can apply to COVID times, even the parts about over-booking. You probably shouldn’t be on Zoom 10 times a day for social events, because everyone needs “extra time to think, breathe, or worry.”
My favorite part of “Friendshipping” is the section about how to give good advice. The authors offer language for listening without judgment, and understanding that sometimes people just want to vent; they don’t always need solutions. In my not-so-objective advice columnist opinion, giving advice — or knowing when not to — is the most important skill of all.
Who it’s for: anyone who’s moved to a new place or started a new job; people who feel like they’re losing touch with those they love; anyone who needs a reminder that they shouldn’t feel like a bother; people who love a pretty book on a table; humans, in general.
There’s a virtual event for “Friendshipping” on Tuesday at 7 p.m.