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By The Book
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Episode 32
By The Book
As they say: new year, new you... Or is it? In time for the expected flood of New Year's resolutions, Nick talks to Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer of By The Book, a fun reality-ish podcast that features the two hosts documenting their attempts to live by a different self-help book, down to the letter, every episode. Just how valuable are these books, anyway? And who are the people that write them? Have any of these books actually been life-changing?

As they say: new year, new you... Or is it? In time for the expected flood of New Year's resolutions, Nick talks to Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer of By The Book, a fun reality-ish podcast that features the two hosts documenting their attempts to live by a different self-help book, down to the letter, every episode. Just how valuable are these books, anyway? And who are the people that write them? Have any of these books actually been life-changing?

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Servant of Pod By The Book Episode 29

Sat, 2/6 10:33AM • 22:09

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

book, laughter, kristen, books, people, feel, living, wrote, steps, read, rules, date, life, frickin, hot chick, guru, influencer, care, loved, thought

SPEAKERS

Kristen Meinzer, Jolenta Greenberg, Nick Quah

Nick Quah 00:01

Kristen, how do you feel about New Year's resolutions?

Kristen Meinzer 00:03

Oh, I don't do them. [Laughter]

Jolenta Greenberg 00:06

Yeah, I don't think Kristen touches them... ever?

Kristen Meinzer 00:10

Correct. Yeah. I don't really see the point of it. It's such a very loaded thing to do. It almost feels like it's too much pressure. And if you fail that, it's your resolution, your whole year is ruined. And it's usually ruined within three weeks when you stop going to the gym, or when you start eating cookies again, or whatnot. And so, I'm just like, I don't want to set myself up for failure. I don't want to make a giant declaration on the same date that everybody else on the planet is, I just want to everyday do the best I can.

Nick Quah 00:42

What about you, Jolenta?

Jolenta Greenberg 00:44

I've always been a little bit pro-New Year's resolution. For a long time, in my early years--my teens, early 20s--I sort of enjoyed the momentum of like, "all the nations joining gyms, signing up for yoga, Whole 30 this, and more massages that!" [Laughter] I like the momentum, but I've realized, in doing By The Book, that momentum is pretty easy to recreate. And sometimes the bigger the initial excitement is, the less the changes stick. It's just what I have found, having forced ourselves to do tons of mini-resolutions, is sort of what By The Book can feel like sometimes...

Nick Quah 01:31

Yeah.

Jolenta Greenberg 01:32

...where I think, in the long run, I've learned Kristen is right: the ones that feel less like a sort of tidal wave of excitement and more like "here are a billion little tiny changes that over a long period of time add up to that big change you've been wanting."

Nick Quah 01:49

If it isn't clear yet, this is the dynamic Kristen Meinzer and Joleta Greenberg bring to their podcast, By The Book: Kristen's more skeptical, while Jolenta's a little more freewheeling. And that is what makes By The Book, and what it does, so fun. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: the good, the bad, and the entitled in the world of self-help books.

=====

Jolenta Greenberg 02:28

Hey, Kristen.

Kristen Meinzer 02:29

Yeah, Jolenta?

Jolenta Greenberg 02:30

Lots of us are feeling really stuck in place right now. Would you agree?

Kristen Meinzer 02:35

Oh, yeah. We're working from home, we're schooling from home, we're living at home, we're socializing on our video screens at home, we're crying at home, we're doing it all at home, right?

Jolenta Greenberg 02:48

Yes, very true. And under these circumstances, some folks are feeling more trapped and less in love with where they live.

Kristen Meinzer 02:56

Oh, but I bet we can try to remedy that right.

Jolenta Greenberg 03:00

Uhhh, yeah, with a book! Because I'm Jolenta Greenberg.

Kristen Meinzer 03:04

And I'm Kristen Meinzer.

Jolenta Greenberg 03:06

And this is By The Book!

=====

Nick Quah 03:10

Kristen Meinzer and Jolenta Greenberg met while working on a news show and became fast friends. That's where Jolenta came up with the idea for By The Book, and knew she wanted Kristen as her co-host. Each episode, Kristen and Jolenta to fully commit to living by a self-help book for two weeks.

Kristen Meinzer 03:28

Sometimes the rules are explicit, sometimes they're implicit, but Jolenta and I work really hard to distill those rules, to find them in the books. And then every book we live by, I think the shortest was only four steps, but it ranges from roughly, usually it's somewhere between six and eight steps that we live by. The longest books sometimes have 10 steps.

Jolenta Greenberg 03:48

And there's always a vernacular, too, that we try to keep intact, even when distilling it, and when talking about it, and living by it, we try to use that as a tool to help sort of immerse us quickly. And then we have to backtrack once we make the episode to make sure everything makes sense and it doesn't sound like we're talking about jibberish intentions too much. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 04:11

They've tried out some of the most famous self-help books of all time, like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and The Secret.

=====

Jolenta Greenberg 04:18

It's sad that I have to just force myself so hard to say things that--other than being a popular, well-known comedian--the other things I'm asking for are super basic. Like, "like myself, feel confident that my dog's not a piece of ****." I'm not reaching for the stars.

=====

Nick Quah 04:37

And they've also tried some recent classics, like The Gifts of Imperfection and Girl, Wash Your Face.

=====

Kristen Meinzer 04:43

For a book that's supposed to be about living your best life and being happy, the fact that everything is focused on "listen to this lie you tell yourself, and "I lie to myself this way," and "don't do this!" I just thought, first of all, I don't tell myself these lies, and other people, I'm sure, would react better if you didn't just presume they were lying to themselves all the time. There's got to be a better approach to get into things.

=====

Nick Quah 05:06

And they're willing to try all sorts of books, though there is one particular type of book they can't exactly experiment with.

Jolenta Greenberg 05:13

We've always wanted to try dating books or pickup techniques.

Kristen Meinzer 05:17

Yeah. [Laughter]

Jolenta Greenberg 05:18

But as we are both legally partnered, in monogamous relationships, our partners have requested we not, but I've... That would just be so much fun to try, and just make for such good sound of like, one of us psyching ourselves up, either getting a hit or a miss... Ugh, it would just be so much fun to make.

Kristen Meinzer 05:38

Yeah, living by The Rules would be amazing. If we could live by The Rules, it would be fantastic.

Jolenta Greenberg 05:43

That's the book about how to get a husband?

Kristen Meinzer 05:45

Yeah.

Nick Quah 05:46

Tell me more about it, because I've only heard about it passing.

Jolenta Greenberg 05:49

Oh, my gosh, the opposite of The Game. [Laughter]

Kristen Meinzer 05:52

Yes. It's essentially like, "Don't call him back for four days, only wear dresses, keep your hair long."

Jolenta Greenberg 05:58

"Make this chicken on date 8."

Kristen Meinzer 06:00

Yeah. There are a lot of rules about how to essentially play yourself down, to be feminine, not threatening, submissive...

Jolenta Greenberg 06:10

Chasable, but interested.

Kristen Meinzer 06:12

Yeah, all of the above. And the authors of that book, if I'm not mistaken, they were very, very highly educated businesswomen who just wanted to apply certain principles of business to dating. "You just gotta have your goal in mind, you gotta follow the steps, you gotta do this, and then by the end of this, you'll have a husband," and they did. But what most people don't talk about is that while both of them got married, I think it was only three years later, they both got divorced also.

Nick Quah 06:40

So what was it like when you first started to read these books and follow the guidance?

Jolenta Greenberg 06:45

I think what's been shockingly difficult throughout this process is distilling the actual advice from books as we begin the two weeks, and making sure Kristen and I, after reading it, agree, like, are these the sort of things that the book is outlining that will improve our lives, or did you read this completely differently?

Kristen Meinzer 07:10

I mean, I'll just be frank with you: a lot of self-help books are just really poorly written. They're absolutely...

Nick Quah 07:15

Well, that... That's what I was gonna say! [Laughter]

Kristen Meinzer 07:17

They're absolutely terrible.

Jolenta Greenberg 07:17

A lot of them are based on tweets. [Laughter] Or like, a fun idea with nothing behind it.

Kristen Meinzer 07:25

Yeah. And a lot of them are just like, "I felt this thing, and then I said this thing to myself," and then there's nothing there beyond that. Where are the action items? Where are the actual steps? What am I supposed to do other than just visualize this thing? A lot of self-help books are really like, "If you can dream it, you can do it." And it's like, "...And? And then what?" [Laughter]

Jolenta Greenberg 07:46

"And here's how I, a privileged, white, often male person did it."

Nick Quah 07:52

Yeah.

Jolenta Greenberg 07:53

"Yay. You don't have those resources, or the benefit of that doubt, bye!"

Kristen Meinzer 07:58

Yes.

Nick Quah 07:59

I don't want to stereotype, because I actually consume a lot of self-help stuff and I do personally take some good amount of value from some of it, but I feel like the kinds of people who are drawn to, who's saying that "I will write a self-help book," it takes a certain kind of character. [Laughter]

Jolenta Greenberg 08:14

Ohh, they're amazing. They are amazing people. That's one of my favorite things about this show, that I think has has never waned, is the fact that, essentially, in reading a self-help book, we get to read a self-study in obsession, and how to alleviate, or feel like some sense of control over, what said person is obsessed with in any area of life, whether it's like home decoration, storage, meditation, you name it. It's a study in extreme people.

Kristen Meinzer 08:52

And there's something really interesting about the personality of someone who feels like they've figured it out enough that they should be a guru for the rest of us, because a lot of them, if you scratch the surface, it's like, "I don't actually know if you should be a guru. I don't think you should." [Laughter]

Nick Quah 09:10

"You're as messed up as I am!"

Kristen Meinzer 09:14

Yeah.

Nick Quah 09:20

After the break, Kristen and Jolenta's picks for some of the best, and worst, self-help books they've lived by.

Nick Quah 09:41

Since starting By The Book, Kristen and Jolenta have become published authors themselves. Kristen wrote a book called So You Want To Start a Podcast, and she and Jolenta wrote a book together called How To Be Fine, all about the lessons they've learned from reading so much self-help. And Kristen learned what the building blocks of a good self-help book are.

Kristen Meinzer 10:00

I would say state clearly what your premise is, then follow through with distinct steps and chapters. I mean, I'm going to introduce the book, tell you my credentials, tell you my overall philosophy, break it into seven sections, and these seven sections will be broken down further, and every single part will be actionable and easy to follow, and there will be examples in every single chapter.

Jolenta Greenberg 10:25

But if you were told to make a chart of just the steps, you could, so easily.

Kristen Meinzer 10:30

Yeah. And I think that one reason I was able to write that book as effectively as I did was because I'd read so many bad self-help books for By The Book with Jolenta. And with Jolenta, I'm like, oh, I could not write a book that's as bad as these ones. So I really thank you, all bad self-help book writers, because thanks to you, I wrote a better book. Thank you.

Nick Quah 10:53

They crawled so that you can run.

Kristen Meinzer 10:55

Yeah.

Jolenta Greenberg 10:56

Exactly, yeah.

Nick Quah 10:57

And Jolenta? Would you agree that that would be the the right rule to approach a self-help book?

Jolenta Greenberg 11:03

Yeah, actual steps with the goal clearly stated. And also, I think, one of the books that I didn't necessarily love the advice, but I loved a section, was Dan Harris's Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics, in which he talks about how he is an affluent, straight white man who was born into an upper middle-class family, got a good education that was paid for--essentially, he was born on third base. So it's easy for him to preach about taking an hour to meditate every day when he has a nanny and health insurance. Just having that acknowledged makes the advice, to me, so much friendlier, and so much I don't feel talked down to about my station in life if I can't match where the author is also starting from, and I just thought it was such an easy thing to put in a book, and it really made a difference for me as a reader. And it's one of the only times I've seen it, and we've read over 50 books.

Kristen Meinzer 12:08

Yeah.

Nick Quah 12:09

Yeah, that's also come across to me listening to the show, and also reading a bunch of self-help books myself, is the sense that so many of these books are, most of the time, and to really reduce it down to a stereotype--I'm sure there are exceptions, really important ones--but it really does feel like, more often than not, even the notion of the project of mounting a self-help book comes from a sense of privilege, and also comes from an unawareness of how that privilege prevents it from being really universally effective. And I'm curious as to whether you've seen any really strong examples of a self-help book that really is grounded and understands its privilege?

Kristen Meinzer 12:48

Oh, yeah. I was gonna say, you hit the nail on the head there, Nick. There are so many books that pretty much are saying, "If I can do it, anyone can!"

Jolenta Greenberg 12:56

All books by influencers and bloggers.

Kristen Meinzer 12:58

Yes. And none of them mention, "Oh, my parents paid for a prestigious private school. I never had to take out loans to go to college."

Jolenta Greenberg 13:05

"When I was applying to Harvard, I got nervous I wouldn't get in. That was hard, but I overcame it. Yay!" [Laughter]

Kristen Meinzer 13:12

That's a real self-help book we looked at.

Jolenta Greenberg 13:13

That's a legit self-help book!

Kristen Meinzer 13:16

And that was her story of struggle, to show if she can deal with struggle...

Jolenta Greenberg 13:20

That was her one obstacle.

Kristen Meinzer 13:21

Yes. But yeah, there are absolutely books that I think do a better job of that. There was one we lived by this last season, So You Want To Talk About Race, that was absolutely one of the best self-help books we have not just lived by this season, but ever. And it's also just one of the best books I've ever read in my whole life. And a lot of it, for people of color, might be obvious, especially people of color living in America. But what I thought was so good about it is she speaks frankly about the mistakes she's made. She speaks frankly about the advantages she has. She speaks frankly about the times where maybe she was being biased towards certain people and wasn't doing the best that she could, and that was so refreshing. We hardly ever get to hear those kinds of stories in the self-help books we read, and especially when there's so much at stake in that kind of book. And that was just so refreshing. And it made this book that was so important, that much more relatable and less scary, I'm guessing, for a lot of the readers.

Nick Quah 14:25

what kinds of self-help books would the both of you like to see more of?

Jolenta Greenberg 14:31

I feel like that's easy. The ones that look outward more. There are the ones that look inward that are like, "You can cultivate this bubble of everything you imagine, and perfection, and try to keep it and curate it like an influencer." Or, there are the ones where it's like, "Let's try and push a bubble of contentment, as far out as we can and make neighborhoods happy," or, "Get involved in our political system and make changes," or, "Look at how we talk about and treat race." It's the ones that look outside of us.

Kristen Meinzer 15:05

Yeah, the ones that try to tackle the things that cause us to be unhappy in the first place, because if we're dealing with the systems and fixing those, that's going to do way more for us than just telling people to visualize each morning before they get out of bed. I'm not saying that visualization in bed each morning won't make that one person a little happier, but it won't fix the systems that are causing all those people to not want to get out of bed in the morning in the first place.

Nick Quah 15:29

So not self-help, but mutual aid, essentially.

Kristen Meinzer 15:33

Yeah, I mean, some people call it community care, some people call it self-help with a broader lens.

Jolenta Greenberg 15:39

Humanist self-help.

Kristen Meinzer 15:41

It's part of a social movement, more than anything, the idea that self-help and self-care... I mean, and part of it is just because self-help and self-care, this was originally an Audre Lorde idea, taking the idea of self-care as a revolutionary thing for Black women saying, "I take care of myself, and that in and of itself is a revolutionary act. It's one that says I belong here--taking care of myself, choosing to live, choosing to wake up each day, choosing to stay strong for the fight." That is a Black woman's vocabulary, originally, that was essentially stolen by a bunch of white self-help people.

Jolenta Greenberg 16:21

On a Karen's Pinterest board.

Kristen Meinzer 16:23

Yes, yes. So that's the origin of the term "self-care" in America. And so to broaden out beyond that, and to look beyond the individual and the community, and to think in terms of community care is kind of an extension of that. And I think that's what Jolenta and I are saying, that we think it's important to acknowledge the roots of where the terminology of self-care first came from, and then to broaden that to something that can help more than the individual.

Nick Quah 16:50

Hmm. Looking at the entire body of books that the both of you have tried out, what would you say has been each of your favorites?

Jolenta Greenberg 17:01

I'm gonna just say the first thing that comes to mind, which is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. And I know that sounds so basic, but I feel like it really helped get me from dragging a bunch of belongings with me every time I move to another apartment and not even thinking about what they are to now knowing what I own, and where chargers are, and what they go to, and being better at donating things as I am done with them, or just thinking twice about buying something if it's fast fashion. I feel like organizing my life and taking inventory of my stuff. And giving it away, and recycling it, and all of that helped give me a cleaner perspective on so many different things in my life. And that sounds so frickin' corny, but it's true.

Nick Quah 17:56

Safe space to be corny here.

Jolenta Greenberg 17:58

And I still fold my socks like cute frickin' pinwheels. [Laughter]

Kristen Meinzer 18:03

I really enjoyed living by Why Good Things Happen To Good People. It's not a perfect book, some of its... It has some cringeworthy moments in its writing, but the overall philosophy of doing good in the world doesn't just make the world a better place, which will then make us happier, but just the simple act of being kind causes us to have an endorphin rush that increases our happiness in the moment. Even talking behind people's backs and saying kind things about them, that gives us a rush and makes us happier, and I really loved living by that book. What's not fun about waking up each day and thinking, how am I going to be kind today? How am I going to make someone else's life better today? I loved that. That was the whole book and I loved it. And I was so happy when we live by that book. I loved it.

Nick Quah 18:51

Feel free to punt this one if it feels inappropriate, but what are both of your least favorite book that you lived by?

Jolenta Greenberg 18:57

So many!

Kristen Meinzer 18:58

Oh God, yeah.

Nick Quah 18:59

Gotta pick one! [Laughter]

Kristen Meinzer 19:03

I hated The Four Agreements. I know it is a crowd pleaser. People frickin' love those four agreements.

Jolenta Greenberg 19:08

I was underwhelmed by that one as well.

Kristen Meinzer 19:12

That was very disappointing. There's a lot of victim blaming in it. And there's a lot of victim blaming in lots of self-help books, but that one in particular, it's like, "If you're abused, maybe you need to think about what you did to ask for it" is essentially what it's saying through half the book. It's like, uh, what? It's like, "Maybe it's just your fault your feelings are hurt, because no one can hurt your feelings. Yeah, so if someone beats you up, it hurts. But maybe you made the decision for that to hurt." And it's like, well, maybe they shouldn't have beat me up in the first place.

Kristen Meinzer 19:42

Yeah, but there was a lot of that in that book and Jolenta and I both were like, "Whoa, eek!" [Laughter]

Jolenta Greenberg 19:42

Yeah.

Nick Quah 19:49

Jolenta, what's your pick?

Jolenta Greenberg 19:50

I mean, my pick is The Subtle Art of Not Giving a ****, which I feel like is just sort of the same book wrapped in a ******bag veneer, where it's just... It's by this guy, Mark Manson, who used to be known for being a pickup artist and wrote a book on how to date models. And then he decided he's a self-help guru--because that's where the market shifted, most likely--and wrote a book about how he realized flashy cars and all the hottest chicks don't fulfill your heart, and getting turned down by a hot chick and hiking by a tall cliff really gave him perspective. And it's just written from like one of the most unaware vantage points, sort of like what you were talking about earlier, Nick--this guy has no idea how privileged he is and just how awful he sounds while telling people to sort of get over their bullshit and follow their bliss.

Nick Quah 21:02

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, I really appreciate it.

Jolenta Greenberg 21:05

Thank you. It was so nice.

Kristen Meinzer 21:06

Thank you so much, Nick.

Nick Quah 21:20

Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.