Illustrations by Branche Coverdale.
Deepak Chopra is a fraud.
This is what I was thinking as I lingered 20 rows back, waiting for Bree, my boss, to finish huddling with Deepak onstage about the presentation he would give that evening.
Bree ran the San Francisco chapter of The Learning Annex, that mainstay of adult education courses for the personal-growth set. This was the mid-nineties, when people still called the New Age movement “the New Age movement.” Deepak was our big get that season. We proudly positioned the blurb announcing his lecture at the front of the newsprint catalog on its own two-page spread, rather than tucked away amid the litany of courses taught by shamans, sexperts, and self-professed real estate tycoons.
I had nothing against Dr. Chopra. I just found it surprising that moments before the dry run now underway, this beacon of enlightenment, a man supposedly above the trivialities of ego and self-doubt, had asked Bree if the khakis he was wearing made him look fat.
Apparently, I learned, gurus are people too, even gurus lining the self-help shelves of friendly neighborhood bookstores. They aren’t infallible, all-knowing oracles above worrying about their generous muffin top or widening backside. They are businesspeople — businesspeople with books, keynotes, and openings in their consulting practice to peddle.
“It’s all smoke and mirrors,” my friend Cherise, a ghostwriter for a number of these bestselling gurus, told me the following week over tea, her Mission District apartment stuffed with piles of self-help books, CDs, and videos. “Many of these people are no more qualified to dole out life lessons than you or I.”
A decade and change later, I got a firsthand taste of the guru trade. It was 2007 and my first book, a career guide for creative types who didn’t want an office job, was approaching publication.
“Wonderful!” my mother said when I called to tell her my advance copies had arrived in the mail. “When do you go on ‘Oprah’?”
I explained to her that most authors, especially small press authors like me, don’t get the opportunity to meet the queen of daytime television. I also broke the news that I would not be flying first class around the country on my publisher’s dime or drinking Champagne from dollar-bill‑shaped flutes any time soon. For most nonfiction authors I knew, “going on a book tour” meant blogging obsessively and visiting a couple cities where you had couches to crash on and knew someone who knew someone who ran a conference or an event space at which you could speak. More often than not, you footed the bill yourself.
“You never know,” my mother countered. “Look at that Eat, Pray, Love lady. She certainly didn’t sell herself short. Just keep me posted so I can tell everyone what shows to see you on and when.”
Shortly after this pep talk, the marketing director at my publisher gave me one of her own. Everything was on track, she said across her large, cluttered desk. Press releases and review copies had gone out. The PR team had begun to get some nibbles; I could expect to see a couple early reviews soon and would start getting calls for interviews any week now.
“The rest,” she said, “is up to you. Any grassroots steps you can take to connect with readers and build a following will help.”
So began my year-long odyssey of doling out career advice to anyone who would listen. Suddenly I was speaking in public, giving TV and radio interviews, writing nationally syndicated columns and recapping it all on multiple social media accounts.
Book promotion is both the best and worst job a writer can have. Yes, getting asked to do interviews and appearances means people actually care about your book, or at least some producer or event organizer facing a hole in their programming schedule does. It’s flattering, thrilling, a dream come true — that is, until you sit before the TV camera in your pancake makeup and realize you’ve forgotten everything you’ve practiced saying for the past three days and, despite doing a hundred jumping jacks in the bathroom to calm your nerves moments earlier, your hands are shaking and your eyes are twitching and you’re pretty sure you’re going to throw up.
To say I was an awkward public speaker is to put it mildly. Most radio and TV interviewers are trained to smooth over their guests’ rough edges. At bookstore and library podiums, it’s possible to pass off repeatedly losing your train of thought or bonking your glasses into the microphone as charming. Not so much when you’re at the head of an auditorium filled with hundreds of professionals who expect you to sound like you’ve been commanding crowds your entire life.
During one particularly disastrous talk I gave to a chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers, I took the stage only to realize I’d brought the wrong speech. I had agreed to pontificate on how self-employed professionals could stay organized. Only in my haste to leave my hotel room, I’d brought my speech on how writers needed to diversify their skill set. Flustered, I tried to improvise, shuffling through my printed pages for some semblance of a relevant talking point. A couple minutes in, I abandoned my carefully crafted slide deck, as it no longer had any bearing on the morass of words tumbling from my mouth.
“Thank you for coming today,” the association board member who’d enlisted me to speak said once it was over, pressing a fifteen-dollar Starbucks gift card into my hand. (Thank you notes, gift cards, and the “opportunity to sell books afterward” were standard payment for D-List speakers like me.) I smiled sheepishly, desperate to make my way to the book signing table. “You might want to check out Toastmasters,” she said, nodding toward the stage. “I used to be terrible up there, too.”
I met a lot of other self-help authors along the way. And I discovered there were two types of us: people who lived to write, and self-appointed experts hoping to get rich and famous. “A book is just a means to an end,” one A-list blogger told me in the green room of a local TV station, where we awaited our upcoming live segment. Eyeing her crisp red blazer and perfect blowout, I smoothed my rumpled blouse and tried to forget about my frizzy mane.
Attaining Chopra-like status was tough but not impossible, my fellow authors assured me. The key was to monetize my expertise, as though every person I’d ever encountered was loose change waiting to be salvaged from the couch. To do so, I needed to pepper my website with authoritative photos of myself — arms crossed, face confidently arranged into a tell-me-something-I-don’t-know expression. I needed an e-newsletter promoting products my many acolytes could buy, like webinars, e-books, and $499 coaching packages. I also needed to invest $10,000 in a media trainer who could teach me to hold my own with Terry Gross and Anderson Cooper. Never mind that $10,000 was far more than I’d received for my advance and I was already behind on my rent.
If Deepak Chopra was a fraud, then so was I. As I was beginning to glean, playing pundit was a hypocrite’s game.
Rather than follow any of the aforementioned advice, I zigzagged along like the harried freelancer I’d become, rushing from column deadline to media interview to public event and back again, trying to keep both my Amazon ranking and checking account from tanking, often pulling all-nighters to keep up.
I started to miss deadlines. My inbox began to crowd with angry “WHERE’S YOUR STORY?” e-mails from editors. Each Monday morning ushered in a new round of deciding which late project to finish first. Sometimes I’d arrive at my public talks on two hours of sleep. “You look tired,” a colleague said after one particularly lackluster conference session I delivered on how writers could build an impeccable reputation. She neglected to mention the river of pasta sauce I’d unwittingly dribbled down the front of my dress at lunch.
My social life wasn’t faring much better. Friends were growing annoyed with me for repeatedly canceling plans so I could work late. My fiancé asked more than once if we were still engaged. At a rare dinner with a couple of buddies, one asked what I was working on. “A story about entrepreneurs who don’t work 80 hours a week!” I chirped, entirely serious. One friend cackled wildly. Another spit out her beer.
Around this time I started having chest pains. My doctor thought I just needed some TUMS. Three weeks later, the TUMS I was popping like Life Savers stopped working. The tornado in my chest was all I could think about. My doctor now on vacation, I was left to my own neurotic devices. I called the 24-hour number on the back of my insurance card.
“When did the pain start?” the hotline nurse asked.
“About two days ago.”
“Shortness of breath?”
I took the nurse’s advice and went to the ER. Six hours and multiple tests later, a cardiologist told me there was nothing wrong with my heart. I’d probably been having a panic attack. The prescription? Less stress, more rest.
Publicly I was the poster child for the well-balanced, successful freelancer. Privately I was unraveling. Writing a book about creating a self-styled career you love had led me straight to a job I hated. I was supposed to be this emissary of work-life balance, the queen of controlling one’s career destiny. Yet Sunday evenings now gave me the same fetal-position dread my book claimed to help readers avoid. I’d gone to the hospital with chest pains in my thirties, for chrissake, racking up $4,000 in out-of-pocket expenses in the process.
Practicing what you preach is tough. And not just for me. I’ve known dating advice columnists who don’t date. I interviewed a career expert who advocated nanny care for telecommuting parents while trying to manage two crying children between sound bites. I know a “turbocharge your freelance income” workshop leader who’s privately admitted he has no idea how much he makes because his wife handles all the money.
The dirty little secret of those in the advice business is that we wind up teaching others the lessons we most need to learn ourselves.
When the recession hit, my inbox filled with emails from people facing foreclosure and bankruptcy. People with unfathomable health problems and insurmountable piles of medical bills. One career advice columnist I knew had received letters from people asking if their family still could collect on the life insurance policy if the letter-writer committed suicide.
After one of my bookstore appearances, a woman with short gray hair who resembled my mother approached me, her contorted face the embodiment of all those desperate emails. She had been out of work a year and was out of employment ideas. She was also worried about paying her mortgage the next month.
I ran through my usual spiel about the hidden job market, interim freelance work, networking strategies for job hunters over 50. She spoke slowly, mournfully, shooting down each suggestion, insisting she’d already tried them all.
It worried me that people in such dire straits would tap a stranger they stumbled upon online or in a bookstore for legal, financial, or mental health advice. These were questions to which the only responsible answer was, “You should really talk to a qualified professional about that.” It’s not that I didn’t want to help. It’s just that I didn’t know how.
“I don’t really have anyone to talk to about this,” the woman continued, the small bookstore now empty save for the two of us and the event coordinator, who looked to be closing up shop. “I live alone. And nobody cares.” The conversation limped along like this for some time, fruitless, hopeless. I suggested a couple sliding scale counseling services and she shot those down, too. I left the bookstore desperate to sleep.
I was starting to feel irresponsible, like the only way I could keep doing this was to forget about all the people my one-size-fits-all platitudes couldn’t help. But with coachology comes great responsibility. Responsibility to offer advice you know works, preferably advice you’ve put to the test yourself. Responsibility to rise above bullshit artistry. Responsibility to not try to solve people’s problems you are in no way equipped to fix.
Advising others on how to steer their professional lives and livelihood was a job I no longer wanted. This wasn’t just a crisis of skills or cash flow; it was a crisis of conscience.
I’d reached the fork in the road. It was time to make a choice: I could embrace a life of gurudom, assuming a slicker, more polished persona, selling what I knew and faking my way through what I didn’t. Or I could return to the quieter, simpler life of a freelance writer. Essentially, I could go Chopra or I could go home.
I chose to go home.
Michelle Goodman is the award-winning author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide and My So-Called Freelance Life. Her essays and journalism have appeared in Salon, Vice, Bust, Mental Floss, nytimes.com, Seattle Times, Seattle magazine, Entrepreneur and several anthologies.