November 09, 2017


This Is How We Rise: Reach Your Highest Potential, Empower Women, Lead Change in the World. By Claudia Chan. Da Capo. $26.

Play Big: Lessons in Being Limitless from the First Woman to Coach in the NFL. By Jen Welter. Seal Press. $26.

     It is hard to escape the thought that if the world’s problems, or any subset of them, could be solved by a book, they would already have been solved. There are so many earnest, brightly written, sincere self-help and society-help books out there that surely one of them must contain the solution to whatever ails us at any given time. Unfortunately, for all their promises, self-help books can at best serve as personal memoirs of success through application of certain ideas and techniques that might help other people achieve somewhat comparable success in the future – assuming the future contains the same characteristics that made the books’ authors successful in the past. This reality, though, never stops new self-help authors from trying, with commendable earnestness, to show readers their particular vision of the utopia that would exist if only everyone would follow the authors’ prescriptions. Usually there are only a few such prescriptions, and they are gathered together into some sort of cutesy acronym. Not so in Claudia Chan’s case, though. In This Is How We Rise, Chan, founder of a media company and former president of an event-planning firm, offers no fewer than 13 “foundational pillars of personal leadership.” The decidedly non-acronymic list consists of Purpose, Vision, Faith, Resilience, Energy, Productivity, Humility, Gratitude, Grace, Community, Self-Love, Courage and Mindfulness. There is nothing modest in the goals Chan expects her readers to set for themselves: “Get ready to take on the challenge of your life and show the universe what you’re made of.” The first part of Chan’s book is strictly for women, containing multiple tables such as “Women and Confidence,” “Women and Financial Literacy,” and “Women Globally,” designed to show where gender matters stand now and where improvements are needed. Chan does argue for “synergizing the sexes to service society,” though, and she bends over backward to be politically correct in saying that “luckily, we live in a new gender-pluralistic era that embraces the many differences that make up the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, intersex, asexual) community.” Having established her bona fides, she then moves into the practical portion of This Is How We Rise, in which she lays out her 13 pillars and gives readers “Homework” in the form of questions to “ponder and answer…in your journal.” In “Faith,” for example, she asks, “Where do you have the most scarcity in your life and need to build more faith?” In “Energy,” one question is, “How can you proactively design your life so you spend more time with people who give off positive energy?” And in “Gratitude,” she says to “take a moment now to name and write down your three to five most common scarcities, then cross them out and write gratitude/abundance statements.” Chan essentially invents her own jargon that readers must absorb in order to follow her “Homework” suggestions; those who find Chan’s approach congenial will of course benefit from her guidance more than those who do not. At the same time, This Is How We Rise includes plenty of old-fashioned self-help statements and ideas; for instance, “You are already what you seek.” She labels quite a few of these sentences as “mantras,” such as “Obstacles are growth opportunities if I pause to see the lesson,” “Grace is forgiving others even when I don’t think they deserve it,” and “Vulnerability is the greatest act of courage.” Chan is to be commended for trying to offer practical rather than pie-in-the-sky recommendations to readers who accept her underlying premises and her approach to life and work, even if some of what she writes sounds a bit like the fortune-cookie thought, “When in doubt, just take the next small step.” As with all self-help books, Chan’s will resonate with some people but not all; others will find motivation elsewhere.

     For example, people who actually believe that sports are important may prefer to turn to Jen Welter’s motivational memoir, Play Big. Professional sports are important, of course, to billionaire team owners and the many multimillionaire players who take the field against many other multimillionaire players. They are also important to gamblers, to healthcare professionals who treat sports injuries, and so on. But their relevance to most people’s everyday life is exactly zero, except that people want sports to be meaningful and therefore indulge in all sorts of decorations, rituals and celebrations designed to make themselves feel part of teams that know nothing of everyday people’s lives and care about them even less. This is a rather sad state of affairs, and unfortunately not a unique one: people who follow the meaningless lives of entertainment celebrities outside the sports field are in much the same position as sports fans. But it does create enthusiasm for self-help books by people for whom sports do matter. Welter is one such: a former football player (the first woman to play in a professional male league) and the first female coach in the National Football League (for the Arizona Cardinals). Play Big – a title that becomes a phrase that Welter repeats and varies cringingly often – is mostly directed at young female athletes, although Welter does spend some of her time detailing her own background and experiences. Most of the book, though, is intended, like Chan’s, to be inspirational, and Welter tries to state lessons that she believes would serve the business world as well as the sports world. This is actually not all that big a stretch, since professional sports teams are themselves simply businesses; but Welter has little original to offer in this regard. For instance, she says it is important to appreciate diversity, because “football just doesn’t work if all eleven people are identical, or if the coaches treat every player alike.” But that formulation is not what is meant in modern, politically correct discourse about diversity, which refers specifically to skin color and ethnic background rather than to talent – in fact, about 70% of NFL players are African-American, so the league has very little diversity even in PC terms. Welter’s book, however, suffers from what might be called over-diversity: she packs so many things into it, personal and professional and advisory and memoir-ish, that it is a bit of an unfocused mishmash – certainly less goal-directed than Welter indicates sports coaches (and, by extension, people following the advice of sports coaches) need to be. Actually, Welter’s book is more original and interesting as a memoir than as a rather lukewarm self-help volume. For instance, after discussing breaking up with her fiancé (by text message, a rather déclassé move that seems justified in context), she writes, “Many times he had promised that if I ever left, he would do everything in his power to ruin my life. What he didn’t know: he wasn’t that powerful. He had watched me tackle the biggest and baddest women in football and then pop back up and do it again with attitude. He should have known he couldn’t break me.” Those are the words of a woman from whom other women – and men – can expect strong, well-directed, goal-oriented advice. But they are not the sorts of words Welter uses in her much milder, more-refined self-help recommendations. And that is too bad: sports may not be important, but Welter is someone whose life experiences could be turned into something important to others – they may not be unique, maybe not even atypical, but they become important because when she chooses to write about them, she does so with force, sincerity and more strength than she brings to her avowed self-help pronouncements and recommendations.

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