Affluence Intelligence: Earn More, Worry Less, and Live a Happy and Balanced Life. By Stephen Goldbart, Ph.D., and Joan Indursky DiFuria, M.F.T. Da Capo. $25.
The Nerdist Way: How to Reach the Next Level (in Real Life). By Chris Hardwick. Berkley. $24.95.
The Geek Dad Book for Aspiring Mad Scientists: The Coolest Experiments and Projects for Science Fairs and Family Fun. By Ken Denmead. Gotham Books. $18.
There is never a shortage of books telling you how to live your life better, more effectively, more peacefully, more whatever-you-want-fully – because there is never a shortage of people dissatisfied with the way their lives are currently going. Generally, the books fall into a familiar pattern: a one-size-fits-all approach to life that “anyone” can use to his or her immediate as well as long-term benefit. Almost always well-meaning, often well thought out, generally earnest, the books as a rule offer helpful advice that will be useful to some people some of the time. But they also invite depression, or more likely a mild case of “the blues,” among readers for whom the supposed panacea just doesn’t work, or ones who cannot figure out how to implement the suggestions and therefore conclude that there must be something wrong with their abilities. Affluence Intelligence shares the strengths and weaknesses of many of these books. Stephen Goldbart and Joan Indursky DiFuria call themselves “financial psychologists.” They are cofounders of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute, whose very title makes it sound like something out of California – which it is. Their book’s title derives from their idea that the right approach to life results not only in sufficient money but also in satisfaction derived in part from what money can buy and in part from what it cannot. Thus, “You are not affluent if you are financially rich but feel, at the end of the day, that all the money you have amassed means nothing because some core part of your life is missing or has been forgotten.” This is scarcely news. The authors spend much of their time discussing “core values” and “balance,” which are matters of considerable importance but, again, nothing that has not been discussed ad nauseam in other books. What Goldbart and DiFuria offer that is new is an “AIQ Test” (the acronym stands for “affluence intelligence quotient”) that they say will pinpoint what is right in every reader’s life, what is not right, how big a gap there is between current and wished-for circumstances, and what can be done to bridge that gap. One key to using the AIQ test is that “whenever possible, you want an objective second party to weigh in on your answers” – Goldbart and DiFuria did this for each other, and their results (which, not surprisingly, show that their lives are pretty much in balance, although not perfect) are given as examples. The test itself involves point assignments according to how much you agree or disagree with a variety of statements – a standard approach in psychological testing. The authors define different elements of the test as evaluating your priorities, determining your behaviors and attitudes, and calculating your “financial effectiveness.” Each of these sections is subdivided further. Under “financial effectiveness,” for example, “financial competency” includes the how-much-do-you-agree-or-disagree statement, “I always know how much money I have,” while “financial ease” includes, “I am free and comfortable to do what I want with my money.” After a reader completes the test, Goldbart and DiFuria show how to make changes that will lead by degrees to a life more aligned with one’s underlying priorities. This involves tried-and-true ideas such as stepping back from routine to evaluate where your life is, compared with where you would like it to be; and imagining it is some time in the future – three months, a year, 10 years – and thinking back to the imagined past with an eye toward taking steps that will avoid future regrets. There is little that is new in Affluence Intelligence, but the way the material is assembled is different enough from the way similar elements have been put together elsewhere so that the Goldbart-DiFuria approach may be useful for people who already have sufficient purely material affluence to be able to spend the time and effort to look for better life balance and self-actualization. This is, however, scarcely a concept that will be congenial for everyone or a generalized solution to problems of either affluence or intelligence.
It would not have hurt Affluence Intelligence to pull back on the intensity and throw in some humor. And it would not have hurt The Nerdist Way to get serious now and then. Oh, Chris Hardwick says he is serious about helping people put their talents for analysis and self-awareness to work for them (those being, not coincidentally, the same talents needed to put Affluence Intelligence to work). But Hardwick’s style is so me-me-me-me-me, and so hyperkinetic, that digging through it to the nuggets of value within may for many people be more trouble than it is worth. Typical Hardwick, explaining how he accumulated a series of fears while a teenager: “The fear had invaded my mind like a termite colony and slowly began to munch away at almost every other part until my emotional foundation was so crippled that, for a period of time in college, I couldn’t leave my apartment. It turns out they won’t relocate your philosophy lectures to your apartment, DESPITE the very sound argument that representational realism suggests that the concept of a ‘classroom’ is defined by the perception of the observer. As the selection of my irrational fears grew, I realized that they were like a collection of dipping sauces for my brain – all flavor variants of the same basic stuff.” Then, a few years later, Hardwick has generally gotten over the debilitating fears (he doesn’t really say how), and when he confronts one of them again and conquers it, he says he “realized that every once in a while, I needed to reexamine my fears to affirm or deny their presence.” There’s a kernel of value in all this, but it’s a mighty small kernel; while the potentially much more valuable information on exactly how Hardwick beat back those debilitating fears is missing completely. (Actually, Hardwick does say that he read an article that “streamlined all of my fears into one manageable mess” and that “this knowledge alone was instantly comforting,” but good luck applying that technique.) Hardwick is essentially a blogger (The Nerdist is his blog…well, duh), and his prose is as hectic (and filled with four-letter words) as much blog writing. It is fresh, often funny, and occasionally insightful, and certainly Hardwick wears the “nerd” label proudly and urges others to rejoice in it as well. But he sounds blithely dismissive of many serious subjects, even when he actually does take them seriously: “Addiction is a tough one. …[I]t’s like having thousands of hungry baby birds in your soul, chirping and begging to be fed on a molecular level.” Still, he does sprinkle the book with useful advice: “If you know you should eat better, try doing it just one day a week. The other six days you can dump sugar into your mouth until your blood caramelizes.” Hardwick’s chatty and snarky approach makes The Nerdist Way appealing, but whether it makes it useful is much less certain.
Back in the 1980s, a popular teen sex comedy called Revenge of the Nerds featured the much-maligned geeks at a college campus triumphing over the arrogant jocks, undoubtedly to the cheers of audience dweebs everywhere. But the real revenge of the nerds is more clearly shown through books like Hardwick’s and the Geek Dad series by Ken Denmead. The Geek Dad Book for Aspiring Mad Scientists is the third in Denmead’s sequence, and like the earlier ones, it celebrates love of learning and does everything possible to make knowledge cool – all within a family context (geeks and nerds do grow up and have kids, which does not mean all the kids will necessarily be geeks or nerds). The basic scientific information in The Geek Dad Book for Aspiring Mad Scientists is not unusual and not at all “mad,” but Denmead tries to set up his straightforward experiments with appropriately “mad” introductions. For example, before getting into a crystal-growing experiment, he suggests that there are “secret alien oppressors” everywhere, many of them possessing “a stargate – a large device shaped like a ring, which when powered correctly, opens a portal through space to other such devices located on other worlds; other galaxies even. …But to get a stargate to work, you need a controller mechanism to filter incoming power through special crystals. This experiment will show you how to grow your own crystals.” Uh…yeah…well, that’s a comedown from traveling among galaxies. But Denmead’s intentions are good, and the experiments are sensible and really do teach sound scientific principles. They’re just not as interesting as their titles: “Growing Tasty Sea Monsters,” “Mastering Alchemy,” “Post-Apocalyptic Particle Detector,” “The Music of Fire,” and so on. Geek dads – and, for that matter, nerd moms – will find a lot to like in this book as they help their little geeklets navigate through science fairs and home-based experiments that may not change the world but that will provide answers to such burning questions as, “What’s the best ammunition for your potato gun?”