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My Favorite Self-Help Author Isn’t a Self-Help Author at All

Yep, a former hedge fund manager has become my go-to guy for spiritual matters.

Roughly a year ago, I stumbled across the wisdom of James Altucher. I was certainly not the first; you could easily call me quite late to the game. But to be fair, the guy isn’t really in my wheelhouse. I have successfully avoided learning anything useful about investing money and, until I started my own business, was fairly indifferent to the trials of entrepreneurs. But Altucher intrigued me: he seemed to not be a business guy at all while still being entirely a business guy. How many former hedge fund guys share about what they discover while their lives are falling apart?

Now that I’m getting familiar with the Altucher oeuvre—which he doles out through books, podcasts and blog posts, among other mediums—I feel confident saying that his theme is often that he’s failed a lot and gleaned more from his mistakes than his successes. But it’s another of his regular philosophies that resonates with me the most: help other people. Now lots of people pay lip service to that idea but few, in my experience, actually do it. While I’ve never met the guy so I certainly can’t say for sure, he seems to actually follow this recommendation: he does a weekly Twitter chat every Thursday where he answers people’s questions. He offers advice to strangers who randomly email him (though it’s safe to say he doesn’t always do this quickly; one of his recommendations is to pick emails from years ago from your inbox and reply long after the person has surely given up on hearing from you). But his number one recommendation for being of service is that people should come up with 10 business ideas a day.

Sounds like a good recipe for success, doesn’t it? Well, Altucher isn’t talking about coming up with 10 ideas for yourself (though he does recommend that, too). He’s suggesting you brainstorm these ideas for other people—people you don’t know. He has reasons for why this is good for your brain but the main reason I know this would be good for mine (not that I’ve done this or frankly have any real plans to) is that it would stop the endless stream of self-obsession that runs through my mind. Every time I manage to think about other people—any time I’ve really thrown myself into being of service with no thought of what I could gain for myself—I’ve been happy simply because I’ve given myself a break from trying to “figure out” that in my life that almost never needs figuring out.

For six months, when I was newly sober, I choreographed The Wiz for a free rehab whose residents were entirely destitute and often recently released from jail. It was a sometimes scary and oftentimes frustrating experience (trust me when I say these people weren’t that interested in learning the Munchkins dance I’d worked hard on and the turnover rate at that rehab was high enough that there were new Munchkins every time I showed up). Still, I’d often think when I left rehearsal, that there were people I knew who were paying thousands of dollars to go to spas where they could get away from their lives in order to gain perspective that might never come when all they really had to do was drive down to the hood and pretend to be a Munchkin for a little while.

I’m not a selfless person. I’m actually a very selfish person and a large part of what drives my desire to be of service is the same thing that drove me to do drugs: I’m after a quick fix.

But back to Altucher: another lesson I’ve gleaned from him is about self-reinvention. He talks and writes extensively about the times he’s lost everything and built it back up. He’s had some quirky ideas for how to dig himself out of holes he’s always quick to admit he himself dug (exhibit A: handing chocolate out to Wall Street-ers during the 2009 crash) but I always get the sense, when he’s talking about the down periods, that despite the hopelessness he describes, there’s always hope. Since a major sign of depression is that you don’t know you’re depressed anymore but believe life sucks, what more important message is there than that there’s hope amidst hopelessness?

Since I’m relatively new to the Altucher experience, I had assumed that those peaks and valleys he described were a part of the past. But then last week came a newsletter where he talked about having to start over, after losing a bunch of money and the dissolution of his marriage. I checked the date of the missive; it must have been an old newsletter, I thought. It couldn’t be current! But it was. Suddenly, the one he’d sent out a few weeks earlier, where he’d written about how he had no address and only a few possessions, made sense. I was intrigued by that one, just as I was fascinated by how director Tom Shadyac started asking to be paid scale rather than the surely outrageous rate he was getting. If the American dream is about acquisition yet people who can acquire things aren’t, what, it made me wonder, are we supposed to be striving for?

I guess I’ll find out as I follow Altucher’s reinvention and admit that a business guy has become my favorite self-help guru. In other words, Wayne Dyer, Byron Katie and Marianne Williamson are all solid but I’m looking for wisdom from a guy who wrote The Choose Yourself Guide to Wealth.

Now let me go come up with those 10 ideas.

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