Updated: May 18, 2019
We all could use a little help sometimes. And I believe that everybody would benefit from life coaching and/or therapy. But when should we take it upon ourselves to try to help others, to act as a life coach or mentor, or even as a therapist? Giordano’s novel, Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One teaches that we could all benefit greatly from a little commonsense life coaching, but a surprise twist at the end gives a whole new meaning to the concept of paying it forward. Should we all try to be heroes?
In Your Second Life Begins, the protagonist, Camille, gets in a car accident on a rainy evening while driving through the woods outside Paris. She walks to a nearby mansion to call a tow and ends up spilling her woes to the owner of said mansion after warming up. Her job stresses her out, she’s fat, parenting stresses her out, her marriage is unhappy, she is estranged from her father and she is intimidated by her domineering mother. The owner of the mansion, Claude, listens sympathetically. They have a conversation about – what else? – Plato’s allegory of the cave – and Claude explains that there is a way to change her thoughts; to “work on your mind-set so that it’s stops playing tricks on you.” P. 13. Claude welcomes Camille to come see him again and gives her his card, which says he is a “Routinologist.” He later explains that his counselling methods are unconventional but doesn’t go into his background or credentials.
Camille ends up calling Claude and entering into an arrangement with him. He agrees to help her find meaning and excitement in life again. He does so through exercises and challenges meant to help her identify and eradicate negative mental loops and replace them with positive thoughts, to replace unhealthy communication habits with constructive and nurturing techniques, and to implement new routines consisting of healthy habits. Basically, he teaches her to rewire her brain to live by her values and thus dramatically improve her life. In return, Claude says he accepts payment only once the therapy is complete and she feels fulfillment and joy again, and at that point, she can determine the amount she deems appropriate to pay him.
Spoiler alert: at the end, Claude reveals that there’s no such thing as a Routinologist. Claude’s just a former loser who was able to transform his life with the help of a mentor. That mentor also claimed to be a Routinologist and set Claude up with the business cards and written program so that Claude could go forth as the next Routinologist. In helping Camille, Claude ultimately asks her to go forth and help someone else in turn. Hero saves victim, who becomes hero looking for the next victim to save.
The book is a gem with lots of touching moments. Despite that the English version is translated somewhat ungracefully by Nick Caistor from the French, it’s completely relatable and contains characters and scenarios you’ll feel like you’ve met and lived before. However, the fact that Claude lies to Camille, gives her fake business cards, gets his secretary and others in on the prank to convince Camille he’s a therapist, and doles out advice with zero credentials makes me wonder: how and under what circumstances do we differentiate between someone who is ill and needs medication, versus someone who needs professional psychotherapy, versus someone who just needs a little commonsense life coaching based off of personal experience?
At the end of the book, there is no formal instruction provided by Claude to Camille regarding how to screen potential clients as she shoulders the responsibility of becoming the next Routinologist. I suppose that, in choosing a person to help, one might run down a checklist regarding the overall mental health and stability of the person – but how can you know? This isn’t something that can be derived from appearance or one casual conversation. I worry that the book encourages “hero syndrome” – go out and find someone to fix. You don’t need to be a therapist – anyone can be a counselor! I take issue with that for several reasons, not the least of which is the “what if you screw up” factor.
Despite this warning, I have to say I truly enjoyed the book and would love to meet a Claude. It was a quick and fun read that provided the ABC’s of how to handle some difficult topics, like parenting, how to rekindle romance in a relationship, and asserting your identity and values to a parent. Some of the lessons include:
How to Actively Listen:
“’You tend to interpret your partner’s behavior through the lens of your own negative thoughts. And that distorts everything. Right now you don’t love yourself very much, because you’ve got it into your head that you are less pretty with those few extra pounds and your first little wrinkles. You unconsciously project onto your husband your fear that you are no longer someone to be loved. And if you carry on like that, it’ll become a self-fulfilling prophesy! ‘” P. 78.
The Importance of Role Models:
Claude encourages Camille to envision the woman she most admires, and to imitate the things she admires about that woman. To “Get into the skin of one of your role models.” P. 94. He encourages her to create a list of all the role models she admires, their good qualities, and to “[s]tudy their lives, read their biographies. Make a collage of images using photos of them.” P. 94-95.
What about you? What traits to you admire? Why do you admire those traits? And, which of your role models exemplify those traits?
If you don’t have a list of role models, why not? Why not start researching and paying attention in the news and in your life in general, to build a rolodex of admirable people? Having positive role models to aspire to is helpful in lots of ways.
Camille writes: “I’d like to have the wisdom of a Gandhi, the calm of a Buddha, the grace of an Audrey Hepburn, the business acumen of a Rockefeller, the willpower and self-denial of a Mother Teresa, the courage of a Martin Luther King Jr., the deductive skill of a Sherlock Holmes, the creative genius of a Picasso, the inventiveness of a Steve Jobs, the visionary imagination of a Leonardo da Vinci, the emotive power of a Chaplin, and finally the composure and good nature of my grandfather!” p. 97-98.
As for me, here are some of the folks I admire:
Joan of Arc: Born a peasant, she was a badass who at age 15 performed miracles, got a bunch of men to not only trust and believe in her but to follow her into battle and win – in the 15th century, no less! – and was burned at the stake at age 19 for her faith. I first learned of Joan of Arc’s story watching the 1999 movie, The Messenger. Later, I took an entire college class on Joan of Arc in 2004 or 2005, and fell in love with her story and the personality that shines through her history. She was courageous, convicted, and demonstrated leadership and strategy during the battles she fought and won.
Nina Simone: Simone was a singer, songwriter, and civil rights activist. You might know her songs “Feeling Good,” “Sinnerman,” or “I Put a Spell On You”? She was the 6th of 8 children of a poor preacher in North Carolina. Denied admission to the Curtis Institute of Music in 1951 due to her race, she rose to become one of the most well-known African American female vocalists of the century, famous for her jazz, blues and folk songs. Later she wrote songs addressing racial inequality and the fight for civil rights in America. She traveled the world, finally settling in France to avoid prosecution for unpaid taxes, and once shot at and tried to kill record company executive who tried to swindle her. Bad. Ass.
Sheryl Sandberg: I admire that she is an executive, activist, author, and billionaire – who doesn’t want to be ALL of these things?!? Sandberg is the chief operating officer (COO) of Facebook – she was their first female board member – and wrote the 2013 best-selling book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. If you haven’t read this, you must. . It’s about having a kickass career and living a fulfilling, empowered life. Lean In was one of the first women’s empowerment books I read in 2013 or 2014 when my best friend Patty recommended it. Sandberg also founded a women’s empowerment group by the same name (Lean In), that helps connect women with other women to work on women’s issues. There are Lean In circles in Seattle – you should check them out, the events are incredibly inspiring! Apparently she’s currently under fire for mismanagement at Facebook; only time will tell what her lasting legacy will be.
This isn’t an extensive list, but the point is that it's useful to identify people you admire. Our role models give us something to aspire to, they teach us and inspire us, and spur us to greater heights.
How to Overcome Routinitis:
To overcome Routinitis, Camille starts to say “yes” to things to which she would normally say “no.” Kind of like in the Jim Carey movie, “Yes Man.” Spontaneous, fun activities that are in line with her values help to expand her world – like riding up in a hot air balloon to release all of her negative thoughts, written onto paper airplanes; meditating underwater while scuba-diving; and finally, playing boardgames with her son when he begs her. “This was something Claude had suggested. To stop being too adult. To let myself go more in sharing moments with my son. ‘The secret is to join in,’ he had said, winking in complicity. So there I was trying to reconnect with my inner child, that playful, creative side of myself too often held in check by the adult, party-pooper side of my character.” P. 97. And it worked!
The concept of “amorous creativity” is another way to battle routinitis in your love life. “Brainstorm loving ideas [like leaving your spouse a romantic poem, or surprising them with a trail of rose petals leading to a bubble bath], and jot down all of them following the principle of ꞒQFM. Ꞓ for no Censorship or Criticism. Q for Quantity: produce the maximum amount of ideas. F for Fantasy: note down even the most ridiculous and improbable suggestions. M for Multiplication: one idea leads you to think of another.” This exercise will spark romance and battle against the boring relationship routines. P. 219.
These are just some of the great suggestions and practices to spark joy in your life.
Claude tells a great story that, for me, encapsulates why positive thinking and self-talk is so important.
“Positive thoughts have a real impact on your body and your psyche. Some very serious studies prove it. Here’s one example, an experiment carried out under scientific conditions. They filled two containers about the size of a dessert plate with the same amount of earth. Then they planted twenty-three grass seeds in each of them, with the same amount of compost. They put them in a greenhouse next to each other to make sure they would receive exactly the same amount of sunshine each day and enjoy the same temperatures while the seeds were germinating.
“The only difference was as follows: three times a day, each of the researchers took turns to sit in front of both containers. In front of the first, they said very negative things, attacking the seeds verbally... In front of the second pot, they behaved completely differently: they were confident and said nice things. They were positive about the seeds germinating and the possibility of seeing grass grow...
“Three weeks later, a photo of the two pots appeared in Time magazine. I hardly need to tell you that from the first pot, which had been exposed to the negative comments, only two or three feeble shoots had sprouted. The second, on the other hand, was covered in a dark green grass, deeply rooted in the soil and already robust and tall. I’m sure you’ve understood my point, Camille: our words give off vibes. Our attitude as well. If they have such an amazing influence on seeds, just imagine the effect they can produce on people! That’s why we have to pay as much attention to our inner dialogue as our comments to others.” pp. 127-128.
Apparently, IKEA tried to replicate this experiment in 2018 and has been accused of fudging the results as a stunt. https://www.ikeahackers.net/2018/05/ikea-bully-a-plant-experiment.html. I'm not sure I buy into the validity of this or any other studies I've seen purporting to demonstrate that plants grow better as a result of positive talk, but I do know from personal experience that positive and negative talk can influence your environment, the energy of a room or of a group, and can impact outcomes.
In sum, I think Giordano’s book is a great read with a great message, so long as we are careful when we go out into the world and try to be everyday heroes. I don’t condone lying to folks or tricking them into thinking you’re a therapist – but it never hurts to share your advice and experience with those who could use a lifestyle readjustment.