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Your Best Year Yet! 2023 and every other year

The End is Near. The end of the year, that is, and if you’re the type who makes New Year’s resolutions, it’s the time to think about what you want to do better. You are not alone. Self-improvement books continue to have a huge market, and its only getting bigger. According to NPD Bookscan, sales in this publishing category nearly doubled between 2013 and 2019. I’ll give Trump credit for the latter years of that period: he offered people a window into how truly awful a human being could be, and no doubt spurred many to seek the path of not becoming Trump. More recent years have seen continued growth, as people deal with the fallout from Covid-19: the loss of connection, of certainty, of loved ones, of routine and expectations. The number of self-improvement titles in print is pushing 100,000.

I’ve never been a big consumer of self-help titles. I have a soft spot for the book in this diary’s title: Your Best Year Yet!: Ten Questions for Making the Next Twelve Months Your Most Successful Ever, by Jinny Ditzler. Part of that has to do with how I acquired it: In late 1999, after years of working in restaurants, I had just taken my first bookstore job, with the Barbara’s Bestsellers outlet in the Philadelphia International Airport. The company generously gave all its employees a one-hundred-dollar gift certificate for Christmas. I only remember two of the books I bought: my first Bukowski, Hot Water Music (the link is to the 2002 printing), and the new printing of Your Best Year Yet!, published on January 1st, 2000. The latter book just seemed right, given that I’d just switched career paths, and, well, it was the dawn of the year 2000, a New Year’s on steroids.

I can’t say I’ve ever used the book in any comprehensive way. Still, at this time of year, I usually find myself browsing through it as a way of refreshing my appreciation of the past and affirming my hopes for the future. It’s a nice little book in the genre. She doesn’t so much tell you what you should do, but rather, asks you to do the work yourself. The format is ten questions to ask yourself over the course of three hours, to ponder where you’ve come from and where you want to go.

  1. What did I accomplish?
  2. What were my biggest disappointments?
  3. What did I learn.
  4. How do I limit myself, and how do I stop?
  5. What are my personal values?
  6. What roles do I play in my life?
  7. Which role is my major focus for the next year?
  8. What are my goals for each role?
  9. What are my top ten goals for the next year?
  10. How can I make sure I achieve them?

So, basically, take stock, create a narrative about your life, and set goals. The essence of every self-help book out there. But if you’re going to read one, Ditzler’s is a congenial and valuable start.

I also admit to a soft spot for Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking: 10 Traits for Maximum Results, though my modern self is uncomfortable with his nostrums today, and by the fact that such people as Nixon, Reagan and even Trump have cited him as an influence. Still, in my high school days, that book may very well have saved my life. I was a shy kid, and in 1960s San Jose, California, had attended grammar school at a tiny Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod (read very conservative) school, so small that there were two grades in each of the four classrooms, with the teacher alternating between grade lessons.

In 1969, my family moved to the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where I started ninth grade in an enormous public school with hundreds of kids. The stress of the change really threw me into a tailspin, and by the middle of the tenth grade I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, begging to stay home sick one or two days every week.

There weren’t many books in my parent’s house, but for some reason, one of them was a copy of Peale’s classic, first published in 1952. I started reading it, and I have to say it just flipped a switch in my mind from negative to a hopeful belief in myself. At the time, it was almost miraculous. It was still a long climb, and the person I am today does not feel very attached to that book, but I can’t deny that it provided something I needed at a time I very much needed it.

There are a number of other books that influenced me in my twenties, books I would not necessarily categorize as self-help, but which did indeed help set the course of my life. One was the first edition of Ed Buryn’s Vagabonding in America, first published I believe in 1972. It was a big, oversized paperback about traveling, about letting yourself be vulnerable, letting yourself be open to experiences, and it had a huge influence on me, and set me on my path of travelling the world.

Part of the reason I managed to do so much global travel for so many decades was a frugality that allowed me to save up enough money to quit my job, go away for months at a time, then start all over again. There were a number of books that I remember as influencing me in that path. One was another book that today I would be leerier of: How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World: a Handbook for Personal Liberty, by Harry S. Browne, first published in 1973. Browne was a die-hard Libertarian (and was the presidential candidate for that party in 1996 and 2000), so in some ways I feel as sheepish as someone who was wowed by Ayn Rand in their younger days. Still, there was a lot of value in the book about finding your own path that wasn’t necessarily tied to economic or political libertarianism.

I also have fond memories of Living Poor With Style, by Ernest Callenback, published in 1972, with its focus on not getting caught up in the consumer frenzy by living a simpler, more frugal yet still enriching life. (It also included chapters on Dealing With the Law, Avoiding the Draft, and Taking Politics Seriously.)

The image of “affluent” America has vanished and been replaced by one of a nation with miserable standards of health care, education, and public welfare; malnutrition, infant mortality and desperate poverty are still widespread in America.

This failure of the old American way is naturally generating a new life-style, arising to challenge the old. Millions of young people who grew up in the rank atmosphere of war-fare-state “affluence” have seen the consequences of that way—and found it wanting. They are not sure what they want instead, but they know what they don’t want.

The Whole Earth Catalog was a big influence, as was a book by one of the Whole Earth crowd, Michael Phillips, called The Seven Laws of Money, published in 1974.

The Seven Laws of Money tells how to live with money: how to get it, care for it, and forget about it. An underground classic among corporate executives, accountants, and entrepreneurs since the 1970s, it is rooted in the author's commitment to right livelihood, to learning how the world works, to a willingness to "fail young," and to networking. Phillips shows how to combine these principles with the seven laws to engender a healthy, fearless attitude toward money.

So, Happy New Year to all. Make your resolutions, if that is your thing.