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Book Review: Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin Better Than Before. Am I right or am I right/

Here’s a confession: I have discovered my soft spot for self-improvement books. I don’t say “self-help,” because that genre has long been maligned (and justly so, for titles like these), and now it just sounds stupid.

But “self-improvement” books—books based on research, on science, on facts—those I can get behind. So, when Birchbox Book Club sent me a free copy of Better Than Before, I set about reading it.

Better Than Before is an obnoxiously profound read.
I wanted to like it. And I did.

Step 1: Recognize you are just completely, totally flawed.

Rubin writes in a casual, conversational style, which is great when you’re subconsciously comparing yourself to her and losing.

I held off judgment until page 20 or so, when Rubin describes the “Four Tendencies” of people. There are Upholders, who meet both internal and external expectations, but may get exhausted and fail to find time to recharge. There are Obligers, who have no trouble meeting external expectations, but won’t meet a goal if no one’s relying on them for success. There are Questioners, who will only meet an expectation if it seems worthwhile, valid, and reasonable to them. And then there are Rebels, who don’t give a fuck about “expectations”.

I’m not one to dichotomize myself, but it was pretty gratifying to immediately identify with the Obliger tendency. Most people see me as an Upholder, but they have no idea how many of my own projects and commitments are languishing at the back of my mind, slowly starving to death. I know I should do [Certain Thing], but unless someone is counting on me to do it, there’s a good chance I won’t.

For example, my exercise schedule tends to go something like this.

Friend: “Hey, want to run around the park on Wednesday?”

Me: “Yeah, let’s do it!”

Friend: “I can’t go today ūüôĀ “

Me: *sits at home binge-eating pita chips and re-watching Battlestar Galactica*

The book offers more tendencies and how to identify your own—from things like when you wake up and go to sleep (Owls vs. Larks), to whether you’re able to control your food cravings (Moderators) or you’re better off avoiding temptation completely (Abstainers).

Each idea is framed by Rubin’s own experiences forming new habits, breaking old ones, and inflicting her Type A personality on friends and family members.

Step 2: Be okay with that.

The point is not simply to classify yourself, though.¬†The point is to get a close-up view of the type of person you are–so you can approach forming better daily habits in a way that works for you and will be more likely to stick.

Rubin peppers the book with research citations and other examples that, while less scientific, are at least inspiring. This is another book that makes you think, “Well, why not?” or “What if…?”

She then offers several “pillars” for building stronger habits. These strategies are often rooted in common sense, and more often than not, the need to be honest with yourself replaces the need for iron willpower.

Step 3: Are you enlightened yet?

It’s funny, because I’m not sure if Rubin and I would be friends in real life. She says she doesn’t like music and prefers plain food, and other things that sound, well, pretty boring. But she¬†knows these things about herself, and she is fine with them.¬†She has enough self-knowledge to empower habits that matter to her (like enforced daily “Quitting Time”), and ditch the ones that don’t (like meditation). Seriously, though? Everyone can benefit from meditation.

Her main commandment is “Be Gretchen”. That earned her my grudging admiration (you’re welcome, Gretchen. Surely you were sitting at home, waiting for that).

In some way, it’s almost like permission to “Be Lianna”. It’s a heady feeling for someone already deep in the process of trying to be her best self (still talking about me here). This book is Mindfulness Lite, for people who want to gain more self-knowledge—which makes it especially funny to me that Rubin didn’t see any benefit to meditation.

But far be it from me to call the kettle black. I can’t promise that I’ll stick with my newly re-energized dedication to 10 minutes of daily meditation, or with the ¬†bright yellow blocks of time on my calendar dedicated to twice-weekly yoga. Or that I’ll stop eating sugar. (Hell, I ate half a bag of Hershey kisses while I finished this post.)

But the one ¬†lesson of Better Than Before¬†that stuck in my mind¬†(and was promptly supplemented by this TED Talk) is that once you’ve decided to do something, you’ve decided. You need waste no more time on agony.

I hadn’t thought of my life like that before. It seems like a game-changer. We’ll see what happens.

 

Book Review: I am now Mindy Kaling’s best friend, or at least I feel like it

Mindy Kaling Book Review
I’m not sure why she made this face, but it was probably to avoid the insincerity of some “I’m super great!” celebrity book covers.

Before I sat down to write this review of Mindy Kaling’s book, I had a glass of white wine. Because, obviously, #WWMD? (What Would Mindy Do?)

I have no idea What Mindy Would Do, but that’s the whole point of her book,¬†Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns (Three Rivers Press, 2011).

From the first page, you feel like you know exactly what Mindy would do. She’s not hiding anything. Not even her elementary-school pictures, which are regrettably adorable, or the other way around.

You can tell what an affinity the book creates between Mindy and her readers by the sheer fact that I’m calling her Mindy, not “Kaling,” as any self-respecting pseudo-journalist would do.

In a series of short chapters, punctuated by lists with titles like “Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who Are Not Real,” Mindy talks about her exceedingly normal upbringing and downplays the perks of her Hollywood celebrity. She has no illusions about how famous she is. In fact, in a chapter called “The Exact Level of Fame I Want,” she outlines the (presumably) best parts of being an A-lister: never waiting in line for brunch; having a pseudonym; and making something instantly trendy simply by wearing it.

More of a fifth-grade-diary-meets-stand-up-comedy-routine combo than an autobiography, the book succeeds at being irreverent, which it totally wasn’t trying to, you guys, because trying¬†is¬†lame.

(That was me, trying to channel Mindy’s writing style so you could get a taste of it.)

Did I mention that I actually laughed out loud more than once, reading this book? That should impress you, assuming you know what a joyless sourpuss I am about books that aren’t capital-L Literature.

The one part of this book where I think Mindy isn’t really honest? The absolute drudgery¬†it takes to become a television writer.

Yes, she mentions having a tough time¬†in¬†New York City in a chapter called “Failing at Everything in the Greatest City on Earth”–but somehow, she¬†manages to¬†turn¬†those lemons into¬†seriously hilarious lemonade in the form of this gem:

“The staircase in our third-floor walk-up was the steepest, hardest, metal-est staircase I have ever encountered in my life. It was a staircase for killing someone and making it seem like an accident.”

The book’s worth buying for that sentence alone. Also, you know at least 10% of your money will go toward keeping Mindy Kaling from living¬†in an¬†apartment with terrifying murder-stairs.

PS. Birchbox sent me this book to review as part of its #birchbloggers program! My bad for not buying it, Mindy. I’ll get the next one. Cool? Cool.

90-Year-Old Copywriting Advice That Still Works Like a Charm

Allow me to introduce you to one of my favorite people. Though long-dead, he’s still a total boss.

Ladies and gentlemen, please meet Claude Hopkins, whom I like to refer to as the Original Gangster of Advertising.

Claude Hopkins is the reason you use toothpaste.

Claude Hopkins
Behind those cute owl glasses and sweet ‘stache lies the cutthroat mind of a killer. A killer salesman, that is.

He’s also the reason you use coupons. (And, if you send email newsletters, he’s the reason you have the option to do an A/B split test with different versions of your letter.)

Who the F*** Is Claude Hopkins?

Our friend Claude was born in Michigan in 1866, and grew up working his face off as a school janitor, paper boy, and other various pursuits.

By working until 2AM in the morning every day of the week, Claude eventually ended up writing advertising for Bissell Carpet Sweepers (yep, the same Bissell vacuum cleaner company you’ve heard of).

Bissell Carpet Sweepers
Claude sold, like, $300,000 worth of these wooden carpet sweepers, back when that amount of money was basically the worth of the entire United States.

From there, Claude snagged himself a position as advertising manager at Swift & Company–by asking every single client of his to write a recommendation and mail it to the person in charge of hiring.

THEN, he got his local newspaper to agree to publish a daily advertising column so he could show off his knowledge. He mailed all of the columns to the Swift & Company hiring manager. (Still think writing a cover letter is too much effort for a job application?)

Job application
Claude Hopkins worked harder as a 9-year-old than you do as an adult.

Long story short, our boy Claude ended up managing advertising for Lord & Thomas (which you might know as FCB, or Foote, Cone and Belding–one of the world’s biggest ad agencies.

In 1923, Claude wrote a book called Scientific Advertising,¬†which he followed up with an¬†autobiography:¬†My Life in Advertising. He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy with a lot to say.

Here’s Claude Hopkins’ best copywriting and advertising advice from both books. Bullet-point summaries in bold, courtesy yours truly.

1. How to appeal to people

  • Be trusting.¬†“Try to hedge or protect yourself, and human nature likes to circumvent you. But remove all restrictions and say, “We trust you,” and human nature likes to justify that trust. All my experience in advertising has shown that people in general are honest.”
  • Know your customer.¬†“We cannot go after thousands of men until we learn how to win one.”
  • Frame everything as a benefit.¬†“Argue anything for your own advantage, and people will resist to the limit. But seem unselfishly to consider your customers’ desires, and they will naturally flock to you.”
  • Don’t push too hard.¬†“People can be coaxed but not driven. Whatever they do they do to please themselves.”
  • Promise access to a secret.¬†“Curiosity is a strong factor in human nature, and especially with women. Describe a gift, and some will decide that they want it, more will decide that they don’t. But everybody wants a secret gift.”
  • Offer cures, not prevention.¬†“People will do anything to cure a trouble, but little to prevent it.”
  • Don’t be cheap.¬†“We learn that cheapness is not a strong appeal. Americans are extravagant. They want bargains but not cheapness.”

2. How to write persuasively

  • Write plainly.¬†“Successful salesmen are rarely good speech makers. They have few oratorical graces. They are plain and sincere men who know their customers and know their lines. So it is in ad-writing.”
  • Write to one particular customer.¬†“Don’t think of people in the mass. That gives you a blurred view. Think of a typical individual, man or woman, who is likely to want what you sell.”
  • Spend more time on your headline.¬†“The purpose of a headline is to pick out people you can interest…What you have will interest certain people only, and for certain reasons. You care only for those people. Then create a headline which will hail those people only.”
  • Be specific. “The weight of an argument may often be multiplied by making it specific.”
  • Pick a descriptive name.¬†“Often the right name is an advertisement in itself. It may tell a fairly complete story, like Shredded Wheat, Cream of Wheat, Puffed Rice, Spearmint Gum, Palmolive Soap, etc.”

3. How to avoid wasting money

  • Use space wisely.¬†“Some advocate large type and big headlines. Yet they do not admire salesmen who talk in loud voices…[Large type] may not be offensive, but it is useless and wasteful. It multiplies the cost of your story.”
  • You’re here to sell.¬†“Do nothing to merely interest, amuse, or attract.”
  • Instead of “buy one, get one,” offer a free sample…¬†“Before a prospect is converted, it is approximately as hard to get half price for your article as to get the full price for it.”
  • …but make them work for it.¬†“Give samples to interested people only. Give them only to people who exbihit that interest by some effort. Give them only to people to whom you have told your story.”
  • Imitate what works.¬†“Before you use useless pictures, merely to decorate or interest, look over some mail order ads. Mark what their verdict is.”
  • Sell to new prospects only.¬†“In every ad consider only new customers. People using your product are not going to read your ads. They have already read and decided.”
  • Track your returns.¬†“Never be guided in any way by ads which are untraced. Never do anything because some uninformed advertiser considers that something right.”
  • Know your customer’s financial situation. “We must learn what a user spends a year, else we shall not know if users are worth the cost of getting.”
  • Budget for waste.¬†“The cost of advertising largely depends on the percentage of waste circulation.”

Did I mention that Claude Hopkins published Scientific Advertising in 1923? Ninety-one years later, this man still knows more about successful, efficient advertising than most CEOs.

Do yourself a favor and get to know Claude.

You can find copies of My Life in Advertising and Scientific Advertising online, but you should probably just buy it.

Scientific Advertising
Yup. Yup yup yup.

What do you think of Claude’s advice? Anything to add? Throw it in the comments.