Self-help books are the snake oil of our times. We suspect they won’t work, but with hope springing eternal, we buy them anyway—over 10 million copies last year, according to Nielsen Bookscan (which excludes Wal-Mart from their tally). After the first two or three chapters, they end up under the bed or in a box bound for Goodwill—anything not to have the smug visage of Dr. Phil reminding us of how little we’ve accomplished or how late we’re entering the game. Now, at last, author/musician Dave Dunseath offers some counsel we can use. Though tongue-in-cheek, his Aim Low: Quit Often, Expect the Worst, and Other Good Advice is a harsh deconstruction of the self-help biz. It also contains some kernels of truth.
A Nashville drummer, Dunseath knows a thing or two about keeping expectations low. He’s kept time for stars such as Lee Ann Womack and T. Graham Brown, but like many middle-tier Music City pros, he spends a lot of time, according to the author’s profile, “recording songs you’ll never hear, playing in clubs you’ll never go to, and working with some of the most talented people you’ll, unfortunately, never hear of.” From this perspective, Dunseath realizes how futile are pithy sayings like “You’re a winner!” or “Yes, you can!” As he writes, “you know you can’t, or you would have by now.”
Dunseath revels in the ease and beauty of diminished expectations. After all, he maintains, you probably have all the tools you need to avoid a life ruled by fruitless ambition—like the ability to make excuses. If your slacker skills are wanting, however, Aim Low offers its own warped pronouncements. The chapter “Hope,” for example, concludes with the following affirmation: “I can’t be a failure when I have no hope of winning.” Hope, Dunseath maintains, leads to “dream chasing,” which more often than not ends in obsession, envy and misery. He writes that “a yes-I-can attitude will not make me the president or an astronaut or Tiger Woods. [And] that doesn’t make me a bad person.”
“I wanted something that parents could give to teens who have busted their rudder and are struggling,” says Dunseath, whose book is appropriate for all age levels. “I thought, ‘what if you could go to a high school and grab the real troublemakers and put them in one room? What would you say to them?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, you’re right. Everyone out there is working hard and struggling to make it, but they’re wrong.’ I’d agree with them just to make the ridiculous point: ‘All those people who are struggling out there, they’re going to fail too.’ ”
Dunseath’s approach is Zen-like. A form of Buddhism that relies on humor and iconoclasm, Zen advocates the tearing down of doctrines, dogmas, and, in this case, self-help books, all of which can stand in the way of enlightenment. Like the short poetic riddles known as koans (i.e. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”), Aim Low offers no rational solutions. Rather, the lesson lies in giving up the rational quest in favor of mental clarity that lies beyond sensible judgment. “This is meant to be a motivational book,” Dunseath says. “It’s not a parody, it’s not a satire. It’s a motivational book in reverse. I flipped the telescope around and looked through the big end. We have to find a way to keep going, and when you’re at a down time in your life, every motivational book seems like it’s filled with half-lines. I’m finishing those lines and laughing, going ‘this is how life really is.’ ”
Stripped of its cynicism, Dunseath’s negativity makes a point. As shelves full of self-help books prove, our culture is obsessed with winning—an obsession that keeps us from recognizing what we already have and makes us repress the fact that failure is a possibility no matter how hard we try. Since even the most successful people bomb as often as not, losing really is okay. By embracing failure, Aim Low implies, we find a strategy to cope with a world in which competition often feels obligatory. Our happiness doesn’t have to depend on results, no matter what Dr. Phil says.