Be Honest About What You Offer Readers—Theory, Model, or Anecdotes

I’m reading a wonderful book right now—How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen from Harvard Business School. It was written in the wake of ethical scandals by some of the “best and brightest” graduates of that institution—such as Jeff Skilling, a classmate of Christensen’s.

Animating the book are three questions:

How can I be sure that:

I will be successful and happy in my career? 

My relationships with my spouse, my children, and my extended family and close friends become an enduring source of happiness? 

I live a life of integrity— and stay out of jail?

What a strong premise for a book!

Christensen’s answers are fascinating. But what interests me at the moment is the role of theory in guiding our thinking and our writing. Consider this passage from Christensen’s book:

Indeed, while experiences and information can be good teachers, there are many times in life where we simply cannot afford to learn on the job. You don’t want to have to go through multiple marriages to learn how to be a good spouse. Or wait until your last child has grown to master parenthood. This is why theory can be so valuable: it can explain what will happen, even before you experience it.

I read that paragraph several times. It points to the highest good that authors of self-help, business, and other “how-to” books can offer the world—a real, honest-to-goodness theory.

Theory is one of the most understood words in the English language. We often hear the term used derisively—as in “that idea sounds good in theory, but it will never work in reality.”

Whenever you hear this, know that you are listening to someome who’s truly clueless about theory.

A theory is a set of assertions that state causal relationships between observed phenomena. It is not a set of vague, half-assed guesses about how the world works.

A genuine theory allows you to predict the consequences of your actions. If a set of assertions doesn’t do that, then it doesn’t deserve to be called a theory.

This is why I’m excited by books such as Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life and Mind and Emotions. They are grounded in a theory—Relational Frame Theory, to be exact. These are examples of the gold standard of how-to books—those that are wedded to scientifically-tested theory.

Standing below these books are books based on models. Whereas theories describe why things happen, models describe how things happen. Though this is a lesser level knowledge, it can help us a lot. Examples from the self-help literature are books based on Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Ellis didn’t convince me why people make themselves miserable, but he did a hell of a job in describing how they make themselves miserable.

At a lower level are books based on anecdotes, such as Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  I don’t find theories or models in such books. They’re not research-based, and their explanatory and predictive power is often nil. Even so, they can be illuminating and even useful in the conduct of daily life.

So in summary, we’re talking about three levels of writing:

  • Books based on a theory
  • Books based on a model
  • Books based on anecdotes

If you truly understand the differences between these levels—and where your own book stands on this hierarchy—you will place yourself among the top 10 percent of nonfiction authors.

Define Your Values in a Way That Makes a Difference

I just finished reading Spontaneous Happiness by Andrew Weil. This book is filled with practical insights. And, I still disagree with Weil’s tendency to equate happiness with pleasant feelings. There’s a more practical and powerful definition—acting in alignment with your values, moment by moment.

As the body of literature on Constructive Living reminds us, feelings are inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable. Our constant attempts to influence them—even in the  sophisticated ways that Weil suggests—can frustrate us.

I prefer the perspective of Steven Hayes, creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and his colleagues. They offer a rich and useful conversation about happiness as acting in alignment with values.

It starts from the fact that behaviors, on the whole, are far more controllable than feelings. This means that you can start acting on your values right now, in the midst of your current circumstances—now matter how miserable you feel.

The trick is define values in a way that promotes action. You might begin with a list of lofty ideals, such as compassion, integrity, and wisdom. The problem is that these notions are too abstract to guide your very next action.

You can solve this problem with a short list of your most important domains of activity. Here’s one from Peter Bregman’s wonderful book, 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done:

  • Serve current clients.
  • Attract future clients.
  • Write about my ideas.
  • Be present with family and friends.
  • Have fun and take care of myself.

Notice that each item on Bregman’s list starts with an active verb. That makes it  easier to think of a physical, visible action you can take right now to act in alignment with your values. For example, “take care of myself” can translate to taking a 15-minute walk. “Write about my ideas” can mean starting a 300-word blog post.

For more details on defining values from an ACT perspective, see this cool worksheet from psychotherapist Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living.

And contemplate these words from Steven Hayes, from his book Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life:

We believe that right now at this very moment, you have all the tools you need to make meaningful and inspiring life choices for yourself….the actual ability to live in the service of what you value. That doesn’t mean that circumstances will necessarily allow you to achieve all of your goals; this is not a guarantee about outcome. And it doesn’t mean that you have all the skills you need to accomplish your stated goals. But it does mean that you have what you need to choose a direction. 

Two Speech Habits That Kill Possibilities

As a writer, I worry about word choice. The ways that we speak can do more than  clarify or confuse. They can also open up possibilities—or put us on a path to needless suffering. Following are two examples and how to avoid them.

The language of resignation

Notice how many times you start a sentence with phrases such as:

  • I have to….
  • I’ve got to….
  • I really should….

These are all variations on the phrase I must. When speaking this way, we hypnotize ourselves into believing that we are victims—that we have no options in a given situation. Psychotherapist Albert Ellis called it “musterbation.” I call it resignation.

In a wonderful post, Michael Hyatt offers a simple and powerful alternative. In place of I must or any of its variations, substitute I get to. For instance:

  • “I have to exercise this morning” becomes “I get to exercise this morning.”
  • “I’ve got to go to work” becomes “I get to go to work.”
  • “I really should see my dentist” becomes “I get to go see my dentist.”

If you think this sounds a tad corny, just try it. The resulting shift in attitude is subtle but significant.

The fact that you get to exercise means that you’re still alive, still able-bodied, and still capable of aerobic movement. Can any of these things truly be taken for granted?

The fact that you get to go to work means that you’re still employed. Even if you hate your job, the fact that you’re working any job will make it easier to get your next job. (See Richard Bolle’s excellent book, The Job-Hunter’s Survival Guide: How to Find a Rewarding Job Even When “There Are No Jobs.”)

The fact that you get to see your dentist means that you have access to health care—and dental care that’s more gentle, overall, than at any time in human history.

I get to opens the door to expressing gratitude—a strategy for increasing happiness.

The language of identification

A second experiment: Notice what you say in response to the question How are you? Depending on the day, you might say:

  • I am exhausted.
  • I am angry.
  • I am sad.

The problem with such sentences is that they identify you with an unpleasant emotion. You become the exhaustion. You are the anger. You are fused with the sadness.

If you ever choose to practice mindfulness meditation, you’ll learn another subtle but significant shift. As a meditator, you simply witness what arises in your mind or body.  You also discover that thoughts and bodily sensations are constantly changing. And, as Steve Hagen explains in Buddhism Plain and Simple, anything that changes is not “you.”

Think about it: The notion of self implies something that is stable and unchanging—something that persists in the midst of change. From this perspective, the thoughts and sensations that make up emotions such as exhaustion, anger, and sadness are not your self.

So, let’s speak in a way that acknowledges this. Take a cue from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which recommends language for defusing from thoughts and sensations:

  • “I am exhausted” becomes “I’m noticing exhaustion.”
  • “I am angry” becomes “I’m having angry thoughts.”
  • “I am sad” becomes “There’s sadness again.”

Do you see how tweaking those sentences puts a little space between you and the emotions?

Defusing reminds you that a sensation is present but not forever—that a thought is present but that you are more than that thought (or any thought, for that matter).

But if we are not our thoughts or our sensations, then what are we? Damned if I know. That’s another post.