By Tanya Vasundharan
My best friend recently bought herself a ‘Passion Planner’. It’s a diary that lets you divide up vague plans into concrete short and long-term goals, and organise your time around them. In theory, it sounds good, and may help you avoid the problem Pink Floyd describes: “Plans that either come to naught, or half a page of scribbled lines…” The only aspect that annoyed me is that it’s marketed as a ‘24/7 life coach’, the main objective being to ‘declutter your mind’.
In this marketing strategy, there is a preconceived notion that everyone must necessarily want their lives to revolve around themselves, and be arranged in a neat, uncomplicated arc towards a certain kind of self-improvement. This ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula, which guides you towards success of some form or the other, echoes exactly the narratives of most self-help books. Canadian-based comedian and vlogger Lilly Singh’s brand new manual How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life is certainly not the only one guilty of it. But Singh’s version is particularly grating.
Singh (also known by her alias, Superwoman) became the highest-paid YouTube sensation with over 9 million fans last year, and her online campaign GirlLove, which talked about breaking the cycle of viciousness by women against other women, went viral. Her hilarious sketches have had many of us in splits—particularly the one in which she, along with Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez, does some intense code and dress switching while attending a bachelorette party and a business meeting simultaneously. You might remember first seeing her in the still-perfect Shit Punjabi Mothers Say. Singh seems delightful all-round.
So what went wrong with her book?
For starters, several of its passages are trite. Like Archies card-level inane. Here’s how she recommends you get over your ex: “You know who isn’t right for you? The person who is everything you love about your ex, except for the part that hurt you.” “Don’t just tell your girlfriend you’re loyal; be loyal… Talk is cheap, so leave it at the thrift store” goes another axiom, and the combination of stating the obvious along with the high-handedness of the tone is an instant put-off. The book is disingenuous too, because it denies that it will have cute, inspirational quotes (certainly, that isn’t Singh’s style in her videos at all) but these are littered throughout the book.
And to make it worse, a lot of the snappy quotes in the book assume that you, the reader, will only understand the complex points if she talks shop: “Think of discomfort as currency – It’s the price you pay to learn some pretty crucial things.” Singh is also fond of using hollow analogies that, once again, reiterate the self-help book ideology that life is a game and you have got to be a winner, or else: “Videogames are a great analogy for life. You go through levels, get thrown off by obstacles, and face several enemies. The game will become harder and harder, but it’s okay because you become smarter, faster, and more skilled. When playing a videogame, you control a character by making it jump, run, duck, and attack.”
Self-help books don’t all have to be this way. Another new book, Why Won’t You Apologise: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, by feminist psychologist Harriet Lerner, which focusses on handling apologies and betrayals, doesn’t categorise itself as self-help per se, but it does address how women in particular could navigate through self-blame or a tendency to become defensive—in short, how you can actually feel like a ‘bawse’.
Lerner uses extensive examples from her time as a therapist to address why people find it difficult to apologise first, which include everything from ego and shame to cultural differences, and the assumption that apologies create social distance. Particularly compelling, and useful, is a section where Lerner unearths the reasons why a mother and daughter blew up at each other after a Christmas dinner, and why feelings of abandonment and rage can suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, cause a relationship to implode. In this bit, Lerner talks about how to avoid a ‘faux-apology’, where you portray the other person’s negative reaction to your mistake as the real problem, because you can’t bear the accusation that you’re responsible for a relative’s suffering.
Perhaps, the most irritating thing about Singh’s book is the way she deals with complicated situations like suffering. For instance, she refers incessantly to her period of ‘depression’ in little boxed sections called ‘Out of Blue’, where she compares her past lows to later moments of dazzling success: “I could have let my depression take me down a path that led me nowhere. But instead I decided to get my hands dirty with some Play-Doh and create something new”.
Good for her, but that trajectory to a ‘post-depression’ existence does not ‘justify why you should take advice from me’. Because what Singh does is spell out genuine recipes for depression, like “have fewer emotions” unless you’re at a wedding, a funeral, or a kid’s graduation—because emotions are messy, and nobody needs a tantrum during work hours. Bawl your eyes out at home, but be a no-nonsense ‘bawse’ at work. In reality, struggling with mental health is a journey through a darker labyrinth, which may not have a shiny light at the end of the tunnel.
I remember a phase during which I believed that the stoic approach was the best way forward too. Stiff-upper-lip, and don’t-bring-life-into-business is how I attempted to deal with a difficult downward spiral, where I was coping with my father’s onset into bipolar disorder. Needless to say the attempts to separate my two worlds—‘work’ and ‘life—collapsed quickly, and it wasn’t a self-help book, but the wise words of an older person, to make me realise that it was okay to be wildly and uncontrollably sad.
Uncontrollable is the key word here. The fact that people may be embroiled in bizarre difficult situations where they simply don’t have the time, energy or enthusiasm to focus on success, appears to elude Singh completely. Which is why she keeps pushing you to live your best life and prioritise things that might seem very alien to most people: “Don’t just aim to pay your bills; save enough to travel. I don’t want you to write a script just to see a movie get made, I want you to win an Oscar”.
Some of what Singh articulates makes perfect sense. She calls out our generation for yakking about their resolutions on social media, and warns that the addiction to announcing your every achievement online could mean that much of this doesn’t get translated into real action. A book by a hit entertainer is an obvious cash cow so perhaps no one cared too much that her book would be not useful. Shouldn’t they have cared that her book would end up boring? In her own words, she’s not as effective when ‘talk[ing] the talk’ instead of ‘walk[ing] the walk’. The book ends up being narcissistic and dull, while serving as a reminder that we are all suckers for the celebrity advice book.
If you want to feel amused, entertained and even a little touched, you should find Lilly online. If you’re itching to browse through a self-help book, I would recommend one like Lerner’s, which calmly examines a particular phenomenon through several real-life examples, rather than pushing you to be someone else’s version of a ‘bawse’.
Co-published with Firstpost.