Book review: What's Stopping You? by Robert Kelsey

This self-confessed 'practitioner of failure' claims to know how to make you a success. Caroline Plumb isn't convinced.

by Caroline Plumb
Last Updated: 23 Aug 2011
I've never had a boss, so I've always tried to pick up tips and ideas from a wide range of sources. I'm an avid reader of business magazines, advice for start-ups, entrepreneur autobiographies - even the endless pamphlets sent out by accounting firms touting their wares. But although I'm big on self-improvement and people taking responsibility for their development, self-help books have never appealed. Perhaps it's the cheesy titles: Unlimited Power, Eat That Frog, that sort of thing. Or perhaps it's the scientist in me questioning whether the evidence base is strong enough to support the author's claims. So I was interested in trying something new, but also a little sceptical about Robert Kelsey's latest book.

Kelsey's aim is to deal with the fears that limit our progress and stop us from achieving the things we want in life - specifically our fear of failure. He begins by describing himself as a 'practitioner in failure', a problem that his long-term addiction to self-help books failed to resolve. But he reckons he's worked out why the books didn't help, and it's all to do with a distinction made by Stanford University psychologist John Atkinson between those with high and low levels of 'achievement motivation'. 'High-AMs' set themselves challenging but achievable goals because they enjoy the rewards of success. But those at the other end of the scale - High-FFs, as Kelsey calls them, because they have a high fear of failure - choose tasks that are either so simple that they can't fail, or so difficult that even being a 'trier' is viewed positively.

Kelsey argues that this AM/FF divide has been largely ignored by the self-help industry because of its focus on 'you can do it'. In his view, this just encourages High-FFs to continue setting inappropriate goals - 'go on, be a popstar', as he puts it - without taking into account their insecurities and the flaws in their thinking. However, that's not to say self-help books are worthless, he insists; they just need to be viewed through a High-FF prism.

One thing that's obvious is there's not a great deal of new or original thinking here. Kelsey's book is essentially a collection of ideas drawn from pretty much every well-known self-help book of the past 50 years, but reinterpreted from the author's 'High-FF' perspective. The sheer volume of research is undeniably impressive: he quotes from over 100 books, with some referenced over 20 times.

Don't get me wrong. As an entrepreneur, I'm all in favour of cherry-picking the best existing ideas and bringing them together to create a new whole. But it didn't really work for me here. Kelsey lacks the storytelling ability of someone like Malcolm Gladwell, who can bring other people's work to life and make it easier to digest. Nor does he seem to weigh the relative merits of his many sources. The result is a barrage of tips and advice, grouped loosely under broad sub-headings like 'Goals' or 'People', where sweeping generalisations from pop psychology sit alongside (and with equal status to) core principles of modern clinical psychology. I'm sure there are enough facts in there to be helpful to everyone, but you have to do quite a lot of sifting.

I couldn't help but admire the bravely personal experiences and stories shared by the author. At times it makes for uncomfortable reading and I can see how it would build empathy with a High-FF reader. On the other hand, some may feel that it detracts from his credibility; it's not often the writer of a book like this spends so much time telling you what a failure he is. Particularly since it seems to be a rather harsh judgement - Kelsey has clearly been a success as an entrepreneur (though he would presumably argue this just illustrates the insecurities he's talking about).

Personally, I can't help feeling that any division of six billion people into just two categories is bound to be a bit crude (although I'm not necessarily blaming Atkinson for this - I did a course recently at Harvard Business School that touched on the self-same study, and I'm pretty sure his thesis was a lot more complicated than this).

Although, since our attitude to failure is apparently shaped in early childhood, it did make me realise how grateful I should be to my piano teacher, who after I failed my Grade 1 exam told me not to worry, because we were just going to ignore the result and press on to Grade 2. Thanks, Miss Tope, I owe you one.

What's Stopping You? Why smart people don't always reach their potential and how you can
Robert Kelsey
Capstone/Wiley £10.99

- Caroline Plumb is co-founder and CEO of FreshMinds Group

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