October 2003

Melissa Roy

scarlet woman of self-help

Road therapy

If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far during my time as your self-help maven, it’s that this is a genre of literature that must be approached with a “Choose Your Own Adventure” kind of attitude. The best kind of self-help texts are also written with that same approach. In other words, the author, when writing, recognizes that they can’t provide all of the tools their reader will need to rehaul their lives completely; in turn, the reader understands that the text is supposed to provide them with ideas and inspiration, but not necessarily answers. In past columns, I’ve criticized books that were too narrow in their ideas but too broad in subject matter; too absolute and not flexible or relative enough; and, frankly, too ambitious. In my opinion, these are the kind of self-help texts that have the potential to ruin people’s lives instead of improving them, simply because the kind of readers who seek out books that provide all of the absolute answers that they need so desperately are precisely the kind of people who need, most of all, to be given independence and self-confidence. Inspiration, not indoctrination, is the key to a good self-help text.

Roadtrip Nation is a good self-help text. Authors Mike Marriner and Nathan Gebard, along with co-writer Joanne Gordon, sought to give readers a book that was a “guide to discovering your path in life.” That’s exactly the kind of subtitle you might think I’d hate given the opinions expressed above, and I would -- if it were true. This book is not a guide at all. It’s not a “how to…” or “you should…”; it’s a guideline. In other words, the authors present the story of what they did, how they did it, and, most importantly, why. Then they let the reader judge for themselves, only providing advice on how to duplicate their adventure (almost like a scientific experiment) at the end of the book.

Marriner and Gebard start off describing the why of their own roadtrip, the results of which are the meat of this book. Both graduated from college having followed educational paths that suited their family backgrounds and the “noise” of society, both of which told them that conformity and steady income were of greater value than personal development, pleasure, or individuality. They discovered that neither of them liked the career paths that their college majors would provide for them and craved something more, something different. They decided that the path to discovering “what else was out there” was the open road, where they could “explore all the options [we] didn’t know existed.” The two felt that they needed “more experience” and information from “more people” before they could make a decision about where to direct their own lives.

They started by interviewing successful business people in their local California area, but decided that it wasn’t enough. They wanted to go across the country and interview other unique and talented people to see what their paths and experiences had been. To this end, they began propositioning magazines, asking that the publications fund their trips in exchange for a story. They found a home with a book publisher through one of these magazines, and the publisher eventually offered them more money than they had hoped to write a book. However, the dream wasn’t quite realized, because lack of creative control was a price the two would have had to pay for cooperation with “The Man.” Eventually, the CEO of Monster.com agreed to fund the project and build a website for the boys where they could track their progress and post their thoughts and experiences.

That website and those experiences obviously later turned into a book. The book seems to be exactly what the website was. After the introduction, the bulk of the text is merely a series of interview excerpts. These excerpts are exactly what make the book into what I consider to be a good self-help text. There’s a little something for everybody, with a common thread running between the interviewees: they’re all successful, they all worked hard, they all found their own paths. Like to draw? Talk to Dennis Muren, Visual Effects Supervisor. Like to talk? Find Luanne Calvert, PR woman extraordinaire. Want to be a rock star but can’t sing a note? Think about designing for one.

Each of the interviews are interesting, but naturally some will be more interesting to certain readers than others -- and the authors make you feel like this is okay. The book is there so that the reader can take what they need from it and leave the rest. For example, if you think that the idea of a roadtrip is the best thing since sliced bread and want to do one of your own, the authors provide practical advice on how to make the “cold calls,” who to talk to, and what questions to ask. If not, think up your own idea. The beauty is exactly how wide open the information is. I like that the authors, intentionally or not, are giving people of their generation a sort of “call to arms,” because society can only be improved by people doing the things they enjoy and do well. We’d all be more productive, more successful, and happier if we spent a little more time listening to the silence inside instead of the “noise” outside. Marriner and Gebhard, in the end, provide the reader with the inspiration to be innovative, a characteristic that they both share with each of the people they chose to write about. Maybe somebody will be interviewing them someday.

Roadtrip Nation by Mike Marriner and Nathan Gebhard with Joanne Gordon
Ballantine Books
ISBN 0345460138
246 pages