As a rule, I am not a fan of self-help books. They are often big on promises but small on practicalities; good at telling you what is possible but rarely willing to recognize that each of us has limitations. Self-help books, it seems to me, sell the lie that you can be whoever you want and have whatever you want (Can I really marry Scarlett Johansson?). However, a self-help book based on Zen Buddhist principles might be different.
The book rests on the contention that ‘embracing life’s paradoxes is a powerful skill’ (p.4). Lesser, a Zen teacher and executive coach, proposes that we explore five key paradoxes: First, ‘Know Yourself, Forget Yourself; second, ‘Be Confident, Question Everything’; third, ‘Fight for Change, accept what is’; Four, ‘Embrace emotion, embody equanimity’; and five, ‘Benefit Others, benefit Yourself’. He presents these as a hierarchy of increasingly refined practices resulting in the development of five areas of life: attention, outlook, action, resilience, and effectiveness. This all sounds good, even intriguing.
Title: Know yourself, Forget Yourself: Five Truths to Transform your Work, Relationships, and Everyday Life
Author: Marc Lesser
Publisher: New World Library
Available from: New World Library, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.
While the book presents itself as designed for ‘everyday life’, it is clearly focused on those working within a corporate context since it was inspired by Lesser’s work as an executive coach. Many of the issues treated specifically concern those working in business and even running businesses. While in some respects this excludes many readers, Lesser points out that each of us can see ourselves as a business; ‘We all have a brand’ (p.252).
It seems churlish to criticise a guy who has set up his own business and been CEO of several others, especially when you don’t know much about business, which I don’t. But I do know quite a lot about Buddhism and, despite Lesser’s impressive Buddhist credentials, I found the Buddhist aspects of the book lacking in depth. Yes, there are plenty of Zen anecdotes but I wasn’t sure how useful many of them were and less sure of the Dharmic foundation that stood behind them. At no stage does Lesser hint at any conflict between the values of the corporate world and the world of the Dharma, which I find surprising. In exploring what we might want and how to get it, for instance, he never suggests that we ask ourselves whether what we want is really worth having, whether it is skilful, or whether it is even realistic. Yes, it can be great to aspire but many things are not worth aspiring to; our aspirations need to be rooted in wholesome motivations.
There are some insightful, distinctive moments where a unique voice can be heard for a moment but these are crowded out by the torrent of generic, self-help advice: ‘communicate openly’; ‘take care of your health’; ‘tell the truth’; ‘have real conversations’. The list goes on and at times is overwhelming. And none of this is bad advice but Lesser seems to assume that these are things that we can simply just do. But change is rarely so easy; if we are not, for instance, used to communicating in an open manner then cultivating this will be no small challenge. The book represents something of a missed opportunity and, to use Lesser’s own metaphor, lacks a clear brand since it is rather swamped by its general, self-help and positive thinking focus.