Prisoners of Our Thoughts

prison2Alex Pattakos’ book Prisoners of our Thoughts synthesizes the work of death camp survivor Viktor Frankl down to seven key principles that will help you be happier and more successful in your life:

  1. Exercise the freedom to choose your own attitude
  2. Know your “why”, and discover your higher purpose
  3. Overcome your fears through self-knowledge
  4. Don’t try too hard or delude yourself, so you don’t work against your self-interest
  5. See yourself from a distance, so you ‘get outside yourself’
  6. Shift your ‘frame’, your focus of attention, so you can see things differently
  7. Get beyond your own self-interest, and connect with community and the world

It’s hard to argue with these principles, but I have the same problem with these that I do with the whole mountain of ‘self-help’ books out there. I don’t believe that people fundamentally change (although if they go through what Frankl did, which I can’t imagine doing, maybe they could). For the rest of us, I feel about these make-yourself-better programs much the way I feel about ‘beauty’ products: They make us feel we aren’t good enough as we are, and create expectations of becoming a better (or better-looking) person, expectations that are almost certain to be dashed. So we either get addicted, signing up for more self-improvement in the futile hope that with enough work we will finally get there and become (spiritually or intellectually or physically) beautiful (when by implication we aren’t now), or we get disillusioned, and our self-esteem suffers lasting damage.

We are who we are. We are not prisoners of our thoughts, I think, so much as prisoners of our bodies and our genes. What we can affect, much more than who we are, perhaps, is what we do with our lives. By learning about the real world, and taking responsibility and acting on that learning, I believe, we are more likely to change who we are, and make the world better in the process, than we would by introspection of the type suggested by self-help authors. That’s not to say we needn’t change ourselves before we try to change others (and the world) — just that that self-change will come first from our actions in the world, not from self-analysis and reading.

In a complicated universe, it makes sense (as Snowden says) to analyze before you act. But in a complex universe (which I think the one we all live in really is) analysis is futile — you probe, outside yourself, before you act. When I visit the bookstore, you’ll usually find me in the cultural studies, fiction, history, poetry, politics, economics, humour, nature, science, philosophy and business innovation sections. The self-help section is huge and busy, but I usually give it a wide berth.

Am I being unfair here? Is there something in all these million-seller self-help books that I’m missing? Can reading a story about moving cheese really save your career, your marriage and your life?

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13 Responses to Prisoners of Our Thoughts

  1. Damozel says:

    I’m glad to see that there are people out there besides me who doubt the efficacy of navel-gazing as a cure to 21st Century anomie. I think, though, that you’re missing the other side of the self-help industry: they encourage self-absorbed, narcissistic, navel-gazing jerks to think they’re all right as they are. I think the problem with self-help books is that they make people who already think too much of themselves to do even more of it. There aren’t any easy answers, but getting involved in the world so you remember that you’re not alone is an excellent start.

  2. Greg Burton says:

    We are more prisoners of our belief structures than anything else, I suspect. Consider that our bodies undeniably change faster than our core beliefs…. and that what and how we think – our habits – directly affect our brain wiring over time.That said, I’m sorry you used something based on Frankl’s work as a way of going after the self-help industry. If you haven’t read his work directly, please do – it’s among the most heartening and empowering material I’ve ever read.I’m curious though, Dave, about how you reconcile this belief that people don’t change with your own story about formerly being (or thinking of yourself) as “uncreative”. It seems from way outside that you did change, and did change your perceptions of yourself. Does this relate?Of course, it’s not an either/or situation, as you allude. Introspection is good in moderation, as is action in the world. Either one alone leaves you somewhat imbalanced.

  3. punit pandey says:

    Nice post. According to Hindu Vedanta philosphy, anybody can become the god just by believing in it. The meaning of god it very wide here but from the post perspective we can take it as a perfect soul. I do not agree with you regarding your assesment of books. In this universe nothing is perfect and IMO there is no harm if we can improve by reading books. Though I can not tell you a single book, but I found it really useful to keep reading such books. It helps you in thinking from another perspective and improve your whole life. I pesonally think that these books helped me a lot as a person and as an entreprenuer. I believe that you should understand one very imporant point. If some book is suggesting to improve doesn’t mean that you are not good enough rather it is suggesting that by understanding few more concepts, you can do things better than the way you are doing it presently.

  4. Rob Paterson says:

    I agree with in you this regard Dave that the self help industry is a fake that fees on our insecurities.Where I disagree wiith you is your thinking about reality. We are as much cultural beings as natural beings. It is pretty clear that we are wired by the relationships we have with our parents in the first 3 years of life. This is when our lens through which we determine who we are and how we fit into the world is set. We are culturally the product of our parents’ Memes while being physically a product of their genes. We can see this in the filed of literacy. A baby by the age of 2 who understands 300 words will track out until grade 10 where they will be perfomring intellectually like a 2nd year university student. A baby that only understands 150 words will never progress beyong a grade 5 level, The pathway to this is both environment and the total number of words heard. If your mother has “seen” you as an annoying object, she will have had few conversations with you but will have ordered you to stop this or that. By 4 you will have heard only 10 million words mainly in the context of being ordered around. You may also have had a mother who largely ignored you or simply did not seem to have the energy to participate in her mind with you. You also will have ended up hearing only about 10 milion words. Neither of the parents will have helpd you much. Touch for all primates is a critical paathway to uncliking developmetn as is the social lubricant of all primate relationships. Dunbars work on language is all about the link between touch and talk. What does work is if your mother paid attention to you – she held you a lot, and she talked wwith you – had in effect conversations. Look David – here are your toes etc By 4 you will have heard 40 million words. Your brain will have bene wired for language!She also will have set you world view of safety and where yopu were an actor in it not a victim or at sea. She would have been clear about your boundaries but open about your own space in the world. In short, just as in the classroom authoritarian culture and permissive culture is not developmentally good for us. We do best in an authoritative cultureFinally. all the wisdom that has any value and that cannot simply be adopted as a matter of will reflects Frankls’ thinking. You don’t get to this place simply after reading a book. You get therer as for instance General Dallaire did by submittting to Calvary and Crucifiction

  5. otterhound says:

    Dave, you don’t think that we are prisoners of our thoughts, yet you admit that you find meditation quite difficult. Try to stop your inner dialog for five continuous minutes and you will have a new appreciation for the control our thoughts exert on us. Our entire experience of reality is filtered through our belief systems. You cannot act before you have *chosen* to, through thought. Your *choice* whether to respond to a stimulus with kindness or aggression must precede the action, be it a kind or aggressive one.

  6. medaille says:

    My perspective is that most people in our society are thinking in a manner that prevents them from making solid conclusions and healthy choices or opinions. Personally (I’m 22) I’ve just started to notice a lot of weird patterns in the way that I think subconciously, that don’t correlate with how I feel on the inside. I’m getting convinced that our schooling process has had the effect of making me overly passive and introspective when it feels like I should be more dominant and active. I don’t feel like a failure, but more like a work-in-progress as I try to shape myself into who I really am inside (or from another point of view, who I desire to be). It’s not really about changing who I am, more so about removing the clutter that is preventing me from being who I already am and allowing it to shine through.I will agree that a lot of people who buy self-help books feel a missing quality in their life that they are trying to fill, and they are just grasping out for a promise to fix it. I think a lot of people fall into the trap of fixating on what they are trying to escape or fix instead of on the result they are trying to become. I think that is a sure-fire method of preventing any change, as you are just reinforcing those patterns in your brain, whereas they should be trying to strengthen new more desirable patterns and leave the old ones to wither away.I think that the best way to reinforce good patterns is the same way you learn a skill (as I understand it). First try to create the pattern in your brain through analysis or imagination. Then act on it and practice it until your subconcious has a good grasp on it. I think this is similar to what you were trying to say in that I think you are trying to state that the people who buy self-help books, spend too much time thinking about what they are reading and not enough time practicing it. I think what happens is that they are reinforcing the thinking processes in their head, but they aren’tchanging the patterns in their subconcious so it has little effect on their life.I keep coming around to the idea that in order to produce change you shouldn’t focus on what you already have but focus on the end result and how to remove the obstacles that are in the way. By imagining that you are already there, your brain will find a way to get you there instead of finding out how to keep you as you are.

  7. Zach says:

    If you believe you can’t change, you can’t. Its that simple. If you believe you can, you can, although its not always instaneous. You have to face the truth about yourself and I suspect most people refuse to do that. I think ‘self help’ has been around for thousands of years. Its called “religion.” Why is religion so popular? Because it works. It makes us feel better.

  8. dilys says:

    Dave, Dave, Dave…You should have seen me Thursday after 45 minutes with the La Prairie ladies at Neiman-Marcus. Beauty products are like Martha Stewart’s folded napkins. Opens up the possibilities for occasional fun and play, no need to do it all the time..So much of what you and the commenters say is accurate, however. The uses and limitations of analysis, and the necessity and effect of action. The problems with books like you cite, and indeed, as with a lot of high-level admonition including my own tradition of Christianity, the outcomes are inviting, but access to reliable means remain clouded. Or worse, purported means are dangled before us in manipulation..It is in the shadow of this that personal consultants with effective methodologies and approaches labor. Yes, in my 15-year-observation of myself and coaching clients, it is about the thoughts, but not just thoughts as concepts, but emotion-infused belief-backed thoughts with all their baggage of what-if and if-then. These emotions and (as it turns out) less-than-accurate beliefs can directly and rapidly change, with respect and authenticity, by v-e-r-y targeted conversation and imagination. Thus changing the thoughts or at least opening up room for more productive ones. The small leveraged changes become larger, and effect it would appear habits, brain connections, even physiological processes. (No news that less stress is better for the body)..Change-engagement has to actually be desired, be honest, and undertaken in a bit of humility and curiosity. And seldom, for me at least, comes from reading an incoherent narrative-metaphor about cheese. It doesn’t come by analyzing or blaming ourselves, or even “knowing better.”.But the big news is, an astonishing amount of self-directed (with frequent bursts of surprise and unpredictability as the landscape changes and enlarges) change is possible. If one is willing to play in order to find out what to leavebehind, what to re-direct, and what to celebrate. The promise is not that you would get to dictate item-by-item what goes in each basket, but that you would find and even cook’n’decorate lots of Easter eggs, a basket of life so full of unexpected satisfaction that many of us forget to be miserable about our old objections about how hard it is to change..As you know, it’s the difficulty of selling innovation. You’ve seen CEO’s who “want” innovation and have all kinds of ideas about what it will be, and why it can’t happen.

  9. I both agree and disagree with what you have said in this post. I

  10. Kate says:

    Perhaps it’s not about “change” but about recognizing our true nature. In zen, it is not about “transformation” but about actually relaxing by stopping all of our thoughts. When we sleep our minds are at work, furiously creating dreams from the moments of our lives. When we’re awake, we bog ourselves down with hope for a future that has not come, or lock ourselves in a past we are desperate to change, rather than spending our time on the present, “taking care,” as Thich Nhat Hanh says. I’ve read one of Finkl’s books and I think it has probably helped a lot of people. That’s a good thing. Personally I have found much more “help” through my own zen meditation practice than in any book or religious service. The wisdom of settling the mind and focusing on the present moment is not new, it’s not “new age.” Having said that, I think the idea of being against “self-help” is sort of silly. Who else can actually help you except yourself? Who knows you better than you do? Trusting ourselves with our own lives is pretty serious stuff, because then we have to take responsibility for our actions. But it’s also liberating. There are plenty of things that we can’t control; our thoughts and our actions, however, we can.

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Damozel: Well put. And welcome to Salon blogs — your blog is fascinating!Greg: Thanks, I’ll do that. When I say ‘we don’t change’ I don’t mean we can’t learn. Becoming a decent writer, and a creative (or at least imaginative) person was acquiring a skill, like learning carpentry. It didn’t change me.Punit: I see your point, and I certainly read my share of books, but while they may change my worldview and my understanding of things I don’t think they have made me a different person. My weaknesses, like procrastination, idealism, lack of perseverence, periodic depression, even insensitivity, have not significantly changed from reading books. At best they have helped me accept, and cope better with what I am.Rob: Yes, I agree that while nature trumps nurture it is not all-or-nothing. The formative years are, of course, critical. But Freakonomics argues that the amount of time you spend reading with your child has no correlation with the success of your child. We can be damaged in early childhood, but beyond that, we are who we are.Otterhound: Good point. I’m not sure that through such thinking we can become better or different, but perhaps we *can* ‘unconstrain’ ourselves. I suspect it depends on the individual, and how constrained they are to begin with.Medaille: Yes, exactly. But not always, and not for everyone. Just as there are some things we can learn and other things we cannot (and that varies by individual), there are some things we can ‘remove the obstacles from’ and others we cannot. I have become more perceptive and more attentive, by having good models to follow (like Chelsea) and by practice, but I still procrastinate, brood, get depressed, go idealistically overboard, and I’m still insensitive. That’s just who I am, and I don’t think any book or religion or program will change that. And I think it’s foolish and unhealthy for us to beat ourselves up for what we’re not in the belief that if we tried harder and did the right things we could change.Dilys: I’m so looking forward to the opportunity of having a conversation with you someday. Your argument is very eloquent and persuasive, but I don’t think I quite buy it. You can mitigate bad behaviours through coaching, and you can bring out in someone something that has always been there but has been obscured, but I don’t think you change people in any significant, enduring way, making them ‘different’. But then we each see this through our own lonely lens, so perhaps we’re both judging others by what we are ourselves.Dick: Makes sense — we are all so preoccupied with and addicted to ‘quick fixes’. Your arguments are compelling, and I look forward to reading one of your books. Kate: Yes, yes. Good coaching, and advice, and provocations, and life experiences, are all about becoming more who we really are, not becoming something or someone else. That’s why I believe it is more effective to get us to go out and *do* something different and unfamiliar rather than trying to think our way out of the clutter that keeps us from self-realization and self-actualization.

  12. Thanks, Dave, for generating this kind of dialogue. The fact that neither you nor I “forced” anyone to become engaged is, I guess, a form of “self-help!” For whatever its worth, I’ve been using the principles in my book to train volunteers in the Province of Aceh, Indonesia, since right after the Asian Tsunami. The results have more than justifed the time and effort that went into publishing Prisoners of Our Thoughts. This year, moreover, marks the 100th anniversary of Viktor Frankl’s birth. I know that, since he personally urged me to write this book, that he would be proud to see the kind of meaningful discussion being posted here. For this I also want to thank you! All the best, Alex

  13. Dave — I thought of this post and you, and I chuckled, when I read this today in Deepak Chopra’s The Book of Secrets: “Much time is spent in self-help trying to turn a bad self-image into a good one. As reasonable as that sounds, all self-images have the same pitfall: They keep reminding you of who you were, not who you are.”File that under “problems with self-help.”

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