Books: How to go with the flow of your own will

Behind the cosy style, you'll find a collection of useful ideas that may help you live the life you want, says Francis Beckett.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Mind Gym - Wake Your Mind Up

Time Warner Books £12.99

MT price £10.99

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This book has nothing to do with gymnasia and not much to do with the mind. It contains some useful hints about how to avoid destructive behaviour and get more out of your life and career. But avoid taking the gimmicky title seriously and skip the formulaic references to popular culture. The plots of Sex and the City and Ghostbusters and the interviewing style of Jeremy Paxman have little to teach us about how to run our lives.

And try not to be too irritated by the patronisingly folksy style in which some of the messages are delivered, as in: 'The lunch has been cleared away and you are settled in a favourite, slightly worn armchair. Your newly teenage great-granddaughter, Jasmin, comes to sit by you. "I loved your advice that everything is possible," she says ...'

If you can get past the tables and the psychobabble demanded by modern publishing, you will find quite a useful little book lurking shamefacedly underneath. To its great credit, the authors (whose names are not given anywhere in the book) have resisted the other great modern publishing heresy, that of pretending that every insight they offer is new.

It is what it should be: a collection of useful ideas culled from writers, philosophers and psychologists over the past century. The book gets close to admitting as much when it says: 'Is The Mind Gym content original or just borrowing other people's ideas? The answer is a bit of both.'

Sometimes it even waters down the stark conclusions of earlier writers.

Thus, it claims that existentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger were the first to assert that people have free will. But the idea of free will goes further back than that. It's implicit in medieval theology - for, after all, if people do not have free will, it makes no sense to consign them to Heaven if they use it well, or Hell if they use it badly.

What the existentialists added was the revolutionary idea of bad faith.

If you say 'I am an accountant', and let yourself be defined by that description, you are guilty of bad faith, Sartre says, of failing to accept that you are making a decision at every moment in your life about what you are.

You may be an accountant now; but if you are still an accountant in five minutes' time, it is because you have made a decision to remain in that groove. This is too radical a conclusion for The Mind Gym.

This is not one of those How To Get On In Business books. It's a book for people in any walk of life and does not define success in the conventional manner. Lotus-eating could well be the right solution for you, and if it is, have the strength to go with the flow of your own will, the authors seem to be saying. But, disconcertingly, when it comes to illustrating success, they too often fall back on sales and marketing.

In theory, success is achieved when you are happy. In reality, when the authors want to illustrate success, they tell you - to take one example - about a woman who accosts you in an airport and successfully sells you a new credit card.

It would be churlish not to name a few of the many nice things about The Mind Gym, which, it should be mentioned, also has a monthly advice column in MT. There is a selection of useful irregular verbs - I'm honest, you're direct, she's rude. A neatly designed questionnaire at the front, intended to tell you which part of the book to read first, took me just 10 minutes and provided a remarkably accurate picture of the ways in which I would most like to change my own life (though not one that was exactly new to me).

There are some useful, if fairly standard, breathing exercises to relieve stress, and some useful - but again standard - suggestions on how to avoid getting worked up and to see problems in a more positive light.

It can't, of course, live up to its billing. It is hardly life-changing to tell you, as The Mind Gym does, that if you are worried about people not coming to your birthday party, you should organise great music and a DJ, and if you are worried about the dress shop running out of wigs for your party's theme, you should give the shop plenty of advance warning so they can order some more.

This book won't change your life, but it may help you to live it.

- The Blairs and their Court by Francis Beckett and David Hencke is published by Aurum.

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