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Self-Help When Self-Help Doesn’t Work Anymore
How to Sell Yourself on Positive Change: Reviewing Ray Edwards’s ‘Read This or Die!’
How do you do the stuff you know you should do but don’t want to do? And what about stopping the stuff you want to do but know you shouldn’t?
There’s an amusing scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that plays with these questions. Tom, as Mark Twain tells us, joins a temperance club. “He promised to abstain from smoking, chewing, and profanity as long as he remained a member,” says Twain.
Why this self-imposed abstemiousness? Tom is impressed by the crimson sash that club members are permitted to wear at public functions. But the decision to abstain brings complications—
namely, that to promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing. Tom soon found himself tormented with a desire to drink and swear; the desire grew to be so intense that nothing but the hope of a chance to display himself in his red sash kept him from withdrawing from the order.
In the end, the sash isn’t enough. Tom quits—and thereby discovers the corollary to the prior realization. “He could drink and swear now,” says Twain, “but found to his surprise that he did not want to. The simple fact that he could took the desire away, and the charm of it.”
The story amuses because we’ve all been there, or somewhere nearby, that minefield of conflicting—maybe warring—emotions and motivations, the situation St. Paul describes when he labels his predicament “wretched” in Romans, chapter 7.
We know we need to stop doing something but can’t seem to muster the motivation to stick it out. The problem comes when the consequences are more serious than a little tobacco, booze, and cussing. That’s the situation my friend, Ray Edwards, found himself in when the doctor delivered his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
Better Vibes, Worse Results
Ray’s first response? As detailed in his self-help memoir Read This or Die! he more or less tried to wish it away. Encouraged by his faith tradition, social circle, and background in the self-help movement, he distanced himself from the diagnosis, believing if he rejected the bad news, good news would follow.
He prayed for healing, uttered affirmations, and mustered all the positive emotion he could—to no avail. Good vibes weren’t cutting it. Ray’s condition deteriorated. And as bad as his body felt, his mind felt even worse; his beliefs had failed him. The way he saw the world didn’t match the world he now experienced.
Compounding his problems, those blindspots masked several growing crises in his life, some of which predated his disease. He was, for instance, submerged in debt, and his successful copywriting business was struggling. During his deepest moments of despair, Ray contemplated suicide. But what if copywriting held the solution?
Things had to change, especially his diet, spending habits, time spent working vs. time with family. Along with medication and other treatments, lifestyle improvements could dampen his disease and extend his life. Unfortunately, none of them would prove easy. How to make these new habits stick?
It might seem trite, but Ray wrote himself a sales letter. As a marketer Ray knows a thing or two about motivation and what drives people to act. He’s worked with Coca-Cola, Ford, Home Depot, and other companies, helping them improve their advertising results. And he’s trained and mentored countless students on how to write persuasive, compelling ad copy; he’s famous for it.
Now the client was himself. Ray Edwards was in charge of the Ray Edwards account. Could he close the sale?
Method to the Motivation
Ray began with his proprietary persuasive framework, the PASTOR method. It’s something he teaches his copywriting students. You can use it to outline a message, frame up pitch, structure a story, or craft a sales letter. The acronym points to six elements:
Pain. Nobody changes without some imagined or real pain. Unfortunately, sometimes an initial bout of discomfort only pokes and prods without enough direction or motivation to respond in a meaningful way. Ray had pain. But he could—and did to the best of his ability—ignore it at first.
Amplification. Copywriters start with the reader’s recognized pain, but then mash their thumb into it. The bigger the ouch, the greater the response. In Ray’s personal letter, he leaned into this pretty heavily—detailing the consequences for refusing to act. “Here are the lions crouched outside your door, waiting to see whether you will let them eat you alive,” he wrote. He then listed death, disability, and regret with details designed to crank the pain knob to 10, maybe 11.
Solution. A good pitch makes a promise: It doesn’t have to be like that. Ray’s letter to himself revealed what he already knew. The solution was “simple, but not easy.” The only real question was whether he’d adopt it.
Transformation. What does the future look like if the reader opts for the solution? The copywriter’s mission is to draft a vivid, appealing, irresistible future worth achieving by whatever means required. In Ray’s case he detailed six outcomes he could experience in five to ten years, all of which addressed and upended his amplified pain. The promised transformation was basically all the good things his current behavior was then preventing him from experiencing.
Offer. This can be a simple as a question like “Are you in?” It’s the “get started,” “buy now,” or “click here” button. It’s the moment of commitment, leading to . . .
Response. “You have to do it,” says Ray. “You have to do what you’re selling yourself on doing.” In his case, he detailed four specific habits he would cultivate, along with a list of twelve rules he determined to follow.
You’ve probably noticed when you get to the end of a pitch the “act now” message dials up the urgency. Why? It can feel manipulative, but there’s a purpose behind the push. Assuming we have the means to accept the offer, the greatest threat to relief from our pain is procrastination. All the words are useless unless they lead to action. “This process is not about positive thinking,” says Ray. “It’s about positive action.”
You Can’t Tickle Yourself, But . . .
Ray included the letter he wrote himself in the book. Interestingly, he chose to include it right up front, just a dozen pages in. At first pass, I thought this was a bit anticlimactic. But I withheld judgment. Ray’s an effective writer, and he worked with another friend and good writer, Jeff Goins, on the book.
This duo knows what they’re doing, and the tactic works surprisingly well. As Ray details the rest of his story, the reader can fall back on the outline and the content of his letter to see how each of the events, reconsiderations, arguments, decisions, and determinations fit into the framework and how they lead one to another.
Will the process outlined in Read This or Die! work for you? Maybe persuading yourself is like tickling yourself or telling yourself a joke—it doesn’t really work because you know what to expect. But there’s an important and fascinating difference here.
The act of writing is full of discovery, revelation, and insight. We don’t know what we know—or hope—until we articulate it. Expressing what we think is how we think it, even if only in our minds. That’s all the more true when we trouble ourselves to scratch it all out on paper or type it up on a keyboard. The feedback loop of seeing our own thoughts reflected back on the page or screen allows us to edit, refine, elaborate, and develop our thinking.
Thoughts that wouldn’t have occurred to us suddenly spill out of our minds. Why? Because writing is thinking, and our thoughts emerge sequentially, not all at once; we discover and shape them along the way.
“What does it take to persuade yourself to live a better life?” Ray asks.
It’s not being right or even having an accurate belief that changes a life. What it takes to change is motivation; and this is not an easy thing to understand, because everyone is motivated by something different. . . . The way to change your life is to sell yourself on your own story first, to break down the process of what you want, how much it hurts not to have it, and what you want to happen.
The privilege of wearing a red sash wasn’t enough to get Tom Sawyer to stop smoking and cursing. And unless we’re fully bought into the change we seek, however trivial or serious, we won’t change either. But look around your surroundings right now; there’s ample evidence everywhere of our susceptibility to good marketing.
What if we deployed that kind of persuasion on ourselves? It seems reasonable to imagine we’d learn something about our minds and motivations and probably grow in the process.
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