What You Can Change & What You Can't

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I went to the library here in town, which has a great selection of business books, to start some reading I needed to do on Chris Argyris’s action science. A reviewer on Amazon suggested a book by Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism, as the second book in a learning series. When I looked online before I left the house, the local public library had a copy, saving me a discouraging trip to the local college which has a great theology section (especially Lutheran theologians) but an abysmal business collection. While getting the call number for it, I noticed that Seligman had another book, What You Can Change and What You Can’t: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement

. Intrigued, I decided to see what that was about. As a change consultant, knowing what I can change and what won’t ever change can save a lot of time.

I picked it up at 4 PM (16:00), had to sit with my lovely wife at dinner and go to our friends’ steel drum concert and I’m still more than halfway through. It’s a fascinating read.

Seligman sets out to present a “fair and balanced” look at the self-improvement industry. The Kogod Professor and Director of Clinical Training in Psychology at Penn., Seligman has worked in changing people for 30 years and he wants to apply the best solution for the particular problem. He is not averse to pharmacological solutions where they work, as in the case of lithium for manic-depressives, but points out where the research shows that they have lower success rates than other methods.

What he wants to do is to provide the reader with information about what can actually be changed. Our culture of self-improvement is partly wrong, he says. There are some things that are set in us biologically. Working against them is very difficult. Other things are not difficult and don’t even require psychotherapy. His discussion of phobias surprised me. I had no idea we humans are predisposed to become afraid of certain triggers, things that we as a species would need to learn to be afraid of.

Most interesting is how he lays bare the intellectual assumptions that undergird the various camps in the psychological arena. He not only provides the background on their philosophies but also clearly shows what the current (as of 1993, of course) evidence showed about each theory. The summary of research, which comes from a variety of fields, is impressive and useful.

The chapter on depression is worth the price of the book. He has particular views about depression and its causes that are, simply put, disturbing. Our current epidemic of depression (people who are twenty today are 50x more likely to have had an episode of depression in their short lives than people who

ninety over that much longer life) is well documented and any light that can be shed on it is worth getting.

I never could just read what I was supposed to. Always going far afield. But this has been so enjoyable I’m going to send a copy (once I get my contract going) to my “doctors and pharmacists are simply money-grubbing simpletons” brother, the one who reads FDA reports because the doctors poisoned his wife. (I should tell you his very well argued attack on the thyroid treatments one day.) Great read.

I have been plowing through those books on complexity theory and wondering why the going is so rough. I really don’t care about the topic too much. And the writers are not very good at writing clearly. Having written technical material for a living (thank you, Gevaert!) I have little use for people who can’t do the job right. Seligman’s book is clear, concise and interesting.

Who knows what you will find at your local library?

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