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by Cheryl Richardson
Broadway Books, 2000
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 30th 2001

Life MakeoversHere's a best-selling book full of advice I would be well advised to take, yet I find it nauseating. But then, that's to be expected -- I and the people I like cannot take self-help books seriously. Is it just intellectual snobbishness, or maybe a matter of personal taste, or is there some reason for the people who want to buy this book to think twice?

First, what's good about Life Makeovers?

Most importantly, it encourages people to interrupt their lives and think about how they are living. It encourages self-awareness and questioning. Here's a typical passage.

"At the risk of sounding dramatic, it's important to remember that when we put the needs of our business or company before our personal lives, we put our lives at risk. Not only do we put our emotional and physical health in jeopardy, we put our relationships with loved ones at risk as well. And of course, we damage the most important relationship of all -- our relationship to ourselves." (p. 50)

Richardson can't be accused of telling people to just accept the world as it is. She focuses on making life more meaningful. She highlights the importance of spontaneity. She calls her approach, "extreme self-care." The fundamental idea is that "in order to be there for others in a healthy way, you must first be there for yourself." (p. 87). She argues that far from being selfish, this approach will in the end enable one to help others more. She suggests that most of us, most of the time, engage in inefficient ways of working and living with confused priorities. By self-examination, we will be able to sort out our priorities and live far more efficiently.

Furthermore, Richardson is not snobbish. She writes very clearly, without jargon, for a wide readership. She has appeared on Oprah, and so has influenced millions of people. Her approach is simple: the book is set out into 52 chapters, one for each week, although most people will read the whole book in a few days or less. Each chapter ends with a "Take Action Challenge" and a list of resources that may help the reader to start working on the advice Richardson gives. She talks about problems that most people will have experienced: fear of the challenges we face at work and home, a sense of isolation and the need to connect with others, clutter in one's home and office, lack of exercise, sleeping badly, and so on. She has many helpful hints about how to deal with those problems.

What is problematic about this approach?

Richardson makes awfully big promises in the Introduction--that one's life will start to unfold in wonderful ways and become "pretty amazing." It's possible that some readers will benefit profoundly from reading the book, but I imagine that most readers will end up taking just one or two ideas from the book. That might be enough to make it worthwhile, but it will hardly be a radical transformation of one's life.

Some of the advice is banal and annoying. It's a great idea for people to have fun, but to advise making a sign that says "AM I HAVING FUN YET?" and hang it in your home or office smacks almost of self-parody. My wife says if I did that, she would wonder who had given me a lobotomy. Some of the suggestions for resources at the end of each chapter are useful, but many of them are all-too-revealing of new age sensibilities: New Age Magazine, the music of Kenny G and Yanni, Hallmark cards, and Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work. This fuels my suspicion that this approach is for people without any edge or taste, too ready to immerse themselves in warm fuzzy feelings and nonsense about spirituality.

Another aspect of Richardson's approach that I find off-putting is her apparent assumption in her suggestions that she is talking to successful, affluent people. She herself, as well as being a successful writer and speaker, is a personal coach. I don't know how much personal coaches charge, but I don't think I could afford one, and I don't know anybody who could. Since this book draws from her own experience and her experience with clients who can afford her services, it may be more specialized than readers expect. And although this is obvious, Life Makeovers is not for people starting out in their jobs and careers: it is for people who are some way into their lives and who have started to get stuck.

Richardson would probably say that her central idea of extreme self-care is potentially useful to everyone. Most of the resources she suggests are not very expensive, it's true. Maybe we can't afford a weekly massage or maid service, but often the reason for this is that we spend money on other things which are equally expensive, and we could afford to pamper ourselves if we changed our priorities. I like that Richardson suggests that people spend less at Christmas in order to focus on what is important. Nevertheless, she assumes that her readers have their own offices and that they have control over their office space, so she doesn't seem to be writing for people who work in office cubicles or who work in factories, prisons, garages, department stores, malls, and restaurants.

Richardson is a religious person and includes both the general idea of living a spiritual life and the more specific idea of praying in her advice. The seeming minority of people who, like myself, are impatient with talk of spirituality will find this off-putting (Oprah's daily section Remembering Your Spirit always has me shouting at the TV when I catch her show), but I suppose the majority will have no objection.

Overall:

There's less to this book than it might seem. It contains some good advice, most of which is pretty obvious. If you are the kind of person who finds self-help books useful, and you are among the target readership, it might well be worth reading. It is thoroughly shallow, never discussing any issue for more than a few pages. Ultimately I suspect it will encourage people to adjust their lives rather than to make their lives over, as the title, Life Makeovers, seems to suggest. But then a makeover is really just a improvement in appearance, and so maybe the title is actually being honest about what the book is promising. The best I can say is that Richardson could be helping the reader take a step in the right direction. Ultimately, I would hope that readers could undertake systematic and profound reflections on how they are living their lives, but Life Makeovers does not have enough substance to enable them to do this.

A note on the audiobook:

The audiobook of Life Makeovers is available unabridged on a 4-CD set, read by the author. Richardson reads her own work well, in a calm and friendly voice. The track division on the CDs is a little strange: one would expect to have one track per chapter, but in fact there are fewer tracks than chapters, so some tracks have more than one chapter on them. The tracks start and end at unexpected points, including in the middle of chapters, which seems ill-planned. There is no listing of which chapters are on which tracks, and there is no accompanying booklet or insert. The audiobook also does not include the epigrams that begin each chapter and the list of resources that end each chapter.

© 2001 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.