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All Self-Help Coverage

In You Are Here (For Now), artist and author Adam J. Kurtz is vulnerable, wise and hilarious as he doles out advice and comfort to anyone who's really going through it.


What's the worst advice you've ever received?
Sometimes the worst advice comes from the people who love us the most. I won't go into it (oops, bad start to an interview), but someone who loves me was enabling me when what I really needed was a full reset. 

Advice is always going to be highly subjective, even when it comes from the most intuitive and special people in our lives. I make sure to be especially transparent about that when dispensing any myself, including within my books.

What motivates you to motivate others? Is motivation even the right word for it?
I don't think it's motivation so much as me continually searching for a way to be OK—yes, me, an infamously (to myself) not OK person—and then wanting to share it with as many people as possible. In the last few years, and particularly as I did more speaking, I realized that my weirdo-brain way of thinking through shit actually sounds a lot like other peoples' inner monologues, and so I began to think that maybe there's power in opening up the conversation to others.

Do you remember the first time you reached a "vibe equilibrium" (when good vibes and bad vibes can coexist)? How sustainable is such a state?
"GOOD VIBES ONLY" is tone-deaf at this point because we're all in the jello now! It's pandemic year two, and everybody is simultaneously struggling through very real hardships and loss while still experiencing moments of joy and celebrating milestones in spite of everything. That's the vibe equilibrium I'm talking about. Turns out, it's pretty sustainable. In fact, it's the only thing that works, because pure ignorance is dangerous, but focusing solely on the news cycle makes it impossible to feel good at all.

"Pure ignorance is dangerous, but focusing solely on the news cycle makes it impossible to feel good at all."

When you sit down to write, who do you imagine you're talking to? What role does the idea of an audience play in your process?
This is literally SO mentally-ill-gay-Jew of me, but at least half the time I'm just talking to myself. I mean, aren't we all? Even our most objective advice and anecdotes are still rooted in our own lived experiences. I think about a younger version of myself, or a friend sitting across from me on the couch talking through their current mix of stress and insecurity. 

I am totally a secret-keeper and confidant for people, and it's an honor to be "that friend" for the people I love. I imagine my readers as friends who are going through it right now, and since it's not always appropriate to instigate a heart-to-heart, I thought about this book as a way for readers to opt-in to talk about all the stuff we don't usually talk about—like failure, shame, anxiety and death.

What is it about being glib that helps you cope? Is this a way to reach deeper levels of honesty?
I mean, yes, in the way that my favorite deadpan, self-deprecating humor is often incredibly honest. It's also the kind of deep-level honesty that this poor barista did not ask for. So it's about finding the funny silver lining for yourself, but also making sure that you have and respect boundaries.

Has the shift in how we talk about self-care changed our lived experience of it? If so, do you think this change is for the better?
Yes yes yes yes yes. I am so grateful for the way this conversation continues to change, and I try to be very intentional about my use of the phrases "self-care," "mental health" and "mental illness." It's so necessary for us to allow ourselves and one another to acknowledge mental well-being in a mainstream, practical, actionable way. 

Seeing Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, two incredible Black women at the top of their games, speak openly about mental health and even deprioritize their passion, pride and income to focus inward is so incredible. It means a lot to me to have a small part in this conversation that continues to unfold around all of us.

"I thought about this book as a way for readers to opt-in to talk about all the stuff we don't usually talk about—like failure, shame, anxiety and death."

It often feels like it's becoming increasingly hard to be a human being. Is there reprieve from this? If so, where do you find it in your own life?
I think we're simply seeing more ways of being and are subsequently faced with far more comparisons and possibilities than before. It's hard for me to realize I'm unhappy if I don't know how happy I could theoretically be! But many of the same tools that hurt us (hi, social media) can also bring us comfort, inspiration and community. I always think of my art as a breadcrumb trail left out in the universe to attract my people. Sharing this process has brought incredible friendships, and my husband, into my life. Not to mention a book deal . . .

What music has helped you stay alive? What's the soundtrack of your life right now?
Michelle Branch's "The Spirit Room" meant absolutely everything to me as a teen. It came out around the same time that my family moved from Canada to the USA and I was coming to terms with my sexuality and how it conflicted with our Jewish religion. "Goodbye to you, goodbye to everything that I knew," sung in such literal terms, meant the world to me as a 13-year-old. It's that album's 20-year anniversary this year, and she's rerecorded it, so I've had that in rotation, a fresh take on the words and melodies that are hard-wired into my brain.

Alanis Morissette's "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie" also must receive credit for being an incredible, dense, vulnerable look into a young, intelligent and complex mind. Sometimes I think that if Alanis Morissette could find joy and success in her art on a complicated path through teen fame and pain, I can do my thing and have that be enough.

Speaking of musicians, did you mean for the handwritten parts of the book to look like the cover of Drake's "If You're Reading This It's Too Late"?
Oh my god, get away from me!!!!!!! I'd been doing this thing for many years, and when that album came out, so many people asked me if I worked on it. That type was actually created by the street artist JIMJOE, and when I first moved to New York, he had tagged the door downstairs "OK OK OK OK NO PROBLEMS." I wish I had written THAT first, but I've saved the photo and still might get it tattooed some day.

Author photo © Michelle Mishina

Meet Adam J. Kurtz, a mental health guru you can actually relate to.

In How to Hold a Grudge: From Resentment to Contentment―The Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life, mystery and thriller author Sophie Hannah looks at the positive aspects of grudge-holding and how they can lead to personal growth. Drawing on her own experience and the input of psychotherapists, Hannah urges readers to stop trying to suppress negative feelings and offers advice on how to use grudges to strengthen relationships. She discusses forgiveness and the importance of letting go in a dryly funny, refreshingly down-to-earth tone in this guaranteed conversation-starter.

Shannon Lee passes on the philosophies of her famous father, action movie legend and cultural icon Bruce Lee, in Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee. Grounded in martial arts, a practice that Lee faithfully followed from an early age, the teachings shared in this inspiring book are geared toward self-realization and inner growth. The author emphasizes her father's "be water" mantra and explains how it can help us be more flexible, adaptable and at ease in our daily lives. Highly relevant subjects such as living with change and defining yourself and your identity will get book clubs talking.

In You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters, New York Times contributor Kate Murphy delivers tips on how we can improve our listening skills, stop getting sidetracked and focus on the present. In a brisk and lively narrative, she talks with professional listeners (including a CIA agent) and checks in with psychologists and sociologists for insights into the process of listening. A rewarding selection for reading groups, Murphy's book offers numerous discussion topics, including technology's impact upon communication and the human need for connection.

Readers who are seeking a sense of purpose will find a helpful guide in Casper ter Kuile's The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities Into Soulful Practices. Ter Kuile feels that even as traditional notions of community change, we can still find meaning, connection and (yes!) joy in our daily routines with pastimes like yoga, journaling and reading. Through these simple pursuits, ter Kuile believes we can cultivate contentment. His hopeful book will guide readers on their individual journeys, and his thoughts on the meanings of community and personal fulfillment will trigger lively dialogue within reading groups.

These truly inspiring self-help books will energize and refresh your reading group.

Luvvie Ajayi Jones' Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual (8 hours) is a candid, can-do guide to making the world a better place by cultivating a better you. Narrated by the bestselling author, three sections—"Be," "Say" and "Do"—detail steps toward understanding the core of yourself and making decisions based on those crucial personal values. Jones describes her own process and experiences, draws inspiration from her Nigerian heritage and shows what it looks like to live authentically in a judgmental world, with her grandmother as her favorite example.

Famous for her blog posts, podcast and TED Talks, Jones will hype up even the most fearful listener with her commanding, cheerful voice. She recommends that professional-troublemakers-in-the-making find friends or aunties to "gas [them] up" and cheer them on in their journey, and for the length of this audiobook, she is that friend. With special audio-only features such as a recording of Jones' aunt speaking in Yoruba, it is impossible not to be won over by Professional Troublemaker's empowering message that fighting fear is finding freedom.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of the print version of Professional Troublemaker.

Luvvie Ajayi Jones’ commanding, cheerful voice will hype up even the most fearful listener.

Acquiring a new skill is often daunting, and as an adult it can be downright embarrassing to struggle with an unfamiliar process. In Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning (7.5 hours), author Tom Vanderbilt invites us to work through our fears and embrace the joy of learning something new.

Vanderbilt, who reads his own book, acknowledges that adults are rarely comfortable learning new skills. He takes listeners on an exploratory tour through infant psychology, educational theory and cognitive science. As he chronicles his own experiences of studying how to sing, surf, draw, weld and juggle, he encourages listeners to embrace a "beginner's mind" that facilitates lifelong learning. He's also subtly radical in his unabashed rejection of futurism. There may be instructional videos galore on YouTube, he argues, but it's still better to learn with a class and a teacher.

Whether inspiring parents to join their children in trying new activities, encouraging group learning experiences or explaining how a neurobiologist might benefit from studying the tango, Vanderbilt maintains an upbeat and optimistic tone, like an encouraging friend.

 

To guide you on the path of positivity in the new year, four books provide support, affirmation and inspiration.

In Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning (7.5 hours), author Tom Vanderbilt invites us to work through our fears and embrace the joy of learning something new.

In Buddhism it’s referred to as “monkey mind”—that cascade of often critical and judgmental self-talk that runs in a ceaseless loop in our heads. In Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, experimental psychologist and neuroscientist Ethan Kross provides a useful introduction to some of the intriguing research on this phenomenon and offers a toolbox full of constructive techniques for quieting our persistent inner voice or, better yet, turning it in a positive direction.

When he received an anonymous threatening letter several years ago, Kross, who directs the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan, first turned inward to investigate how our default biological state creates an “inescapable tension of the inner voice as both helpful superpower and destructive kryptonite.” Any attempt to silence that voice, he explains, is doomed, but through a process of trial and error, most people can find some method of transforming it from foe to friend.

Relying on a host of laboratory studies and compelling anecdotal evidence—like the story of major league pitcher Rick Ankiel, who suddenly lost the ability to control a baseball but reinvented himself as an outfielder—Kross is an amiable guide through this fascinating and complex territory. He illustrates the value of the simple act of distancing—visualizing oneself as a third-party observer or invoking mental time travel—to gain perspective on how a momentary crisis might appear to a neutral party or with the benefit of hindsight. In one experiment, something as simple as a temporary shift from negative “I-talk” to referring to oneself in the second or third person provided dramatic benefits. And in one revealing chapter, Kross explains how placebos and rituals can help tame the worst aspects of the inner voice.

“The challenge isn’t to avoid negative states altogether,” he concludes. “It’s to not let them consume you.” Anyone seeking help along that road will find Chatter a useful traveling companion.

In Chatter, experimental psychologist and neuroscientist Ethan Kross offers a toolbox full of constructive techniques for quieting our persistent inner voice or, better yet, turning it in a positive direction.

From autism to anorexia, people with mental illnesses or neurodivergent brains have long experienced stigma. The extent of what they endure depends on their culture—for example, some Nepalis are placed in restraints, and some Americans are incarcerated when they should be in treatment—but for centuries, humans have placed less value on humans who need more help. In fact, mental illness categories were first invented in Europe during the industrial revolution, to separate those who were not productive workers.

“We’ve long idealized the autonomous individual, dignified those who produce the most capital, and stigmatized those who produce the least,” writes anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker. In the fascinating and illuminating Nobody’s Normal: How Culture Created the Stigma of Mental Illness, Grinker explores the origins of this stigmatization.

Much of how Americans think about mental illness stems from the traumas of war and our nation’s woeful response to troops’ needs. At the beginning of World War II, the U.S. Army only had 35 psychiatrists, most of whom were doctors with minimal training in mental health. In 1973, Vietnam veterans began lobbying for more attention to their psychological needs, as they experienced homelessness, substance use disorder and depression.

Yet even as society began recognizing mental illness as a real issue, there remained significant controversy about how to treat it. Grinker recalls the grim midcentury period when a neurologist in Washington, D.C., performed thousands of lobotomies by inserting an ice pick into patients’ eye sockets. His patients included Rosemary Kennedy, who was institutionalized for the remainder of her life after this surgery.

Pharmaceuticals have, of course, helped individuals with mental illness live fulfilling and stable lives, and Grinker explores how use of drugs and therapy has evolved over time. His compassion shines through in this meticulously researched and carefully written book, a passionate call for humans to think about how we view those with mental illness. “Of course, it is impossible to end stigma completely—every society can find something to demean and marginalize,” Grinker writes. “But we can still resist, name, mute, and shape it. Stigma is not a thing but a process, and we can change its course.”

In the fascinating and illuminating Nobody’s Normal, Roy Richard Grinker explores the origins of the stigmatization of mental illness.

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