Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff …and it’s all small stuff (1997) by Richard Carlson

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This is reputed to be one of the fastest selling books of all time. It spent nearly two years in the New York Times best seller list and went on to be published in 135 countries. Yet it very nearly wasn’t written. In many ways the story surrounding its publication is more inspiring than its actual contents. Richard Carlson was a handsome and athletic young Californian psychologist, with a healthy desire to make good. He noted that many of his of his older colleagues had achieved both riches and fame by writing books. Thinking that this was the route he should take he studied the writings of other self-help gurus and quickly dashed off a series of books which he hawked around the country and publicised on local radio shows. One of these carried an endorsement from his mentor Wayne Dyer, a psychiatrist whose lectures he’d attended at college and who went on to hit the jackpot when he wrote a self-help book called Your Errogenous Zones. But the eleven books he’d published had made so little money that Carlson was on the verge of quitting writing altogether. Then he had a stroke of amazing good fortune. Out of the blue he had a phone call from Oprah Winfrey who had an unexpected spare slot on her programme and wanted to know if he’d come in for an interview the following day. She’d been looking for a book on stress management, and while hunting through her review copies had stumbled across his recent book ‘You Can Be Happy, No Matter What’, which literally toppled off the top shelf and hit her on the head.

From that moment on his career took flight. His life became a whirlwind round of interviews and speaking engagements. While on the road he wrote another, as yet untitled, book which his publishers accepted with the proviso that he should ask Wayne Dyer to provide another plug to adorn its jacket cover. He duly wrote to his old teacher but got no reply, which he immediately took as a total rebuff.  Not daunted, the publisher went ahead with the printing, using Dyer’s original testimonial on the jacket cover. Carlson was horrified, and sent his idol an abject apology explaining the position and promising to do his best to get the books withdrawn. This was his second lucky break, for after a few weeks he got a reply: ‘Richard. There are two rules for living in harmony. 1) Don’t sweat the small stuff, and 2) It’s all small stuff. Let the quote stand.’  This gave Carlson the perfect title for his book.  (Self-help writers tend to lift material from their competitors, and these particular words of counsel seem to have appeared first in a book written by Robert Elliot.)

I love the phrase, which I’ve used on countless occasions, but when I first read the book I got the sneaking feeling that Carlson was the person who most needed to take the title’s message to heart. He was a stress management consultant who seemed unable to manage the stress his own frenetic life style engendered.  He was an obsessive worker, who wrote about love but left his wife at home to look after their two daughters while he lectured, appeared on chat shows, wrote a syndicated newspaper column and penned a series of other motivational books. It was on a flight from San Francisco to New York to make two TV appearances to promote his latest book Don’t Get Scrooged that he collapsed and died from a pulmonary embolism. He was just forty-five, a legend in his own brief life time.

His technique was to take the world’s wisdom traditions and turn them into practical, easy-to-remember advice. One might take a critical view of his writing, saying with some justification that what is helpful is not particularly original, and what is original is not particularly helpful. On the other hand many swear by this book, and there’s little doubt that anyone who read its collection of a hundred tips will find some pearls of wisdom and comfort like: ‘Don’t finish other people’s sentences for them’, and ‘Your in-box is not your life.’ In any case the title alone is worth more than a year’s supply of Valium, and should be repeated daily by anyone who finds it difficult to escape the grip of anxiety and tension.

Don’t sweat the small stuff (1997) by Richard Carlson

Reviewed by psychologist Tim Norfolk, probably best known now for his pioneering work in establishing and enhancing the therapeutic rapport between doctors and their patients

* * * *

How can you argue with a book that sells umpteen copies, gets umpteen positive reviews from readers, and offers a rapid road to happiness via 100 bitesize nuggets of wisdom? You can’t, of course – because if you did you’d be falling into the very trap the book wants to free you from: ‘sweating the small stuff’…

Fortunately some of the nuggets are fresh. Try these: Imagine yourself at your own funeral; imagine that everyone is enlightened except you; ask yourself the question: will this matter a year from now? Three simple, accessible ideas inviting us to step back for a moment, to observe the choices we make as we journey through this life – and the precious energy we use up dealing with those choices. Weighing the true value of making those choices, by being honest about what is gained and what is lost as a result… Wondering what other folk – indeed every single other person we meet – might be able to teach us, how they might enlighten us, if we could only be curious enough to listen.

These are powerful yet effortless invitations to reframe our thinking, to deepen our understanding of ourselves and ultimately to act more in line with our needs rather than our hunger. And to do so for free; no need to go on a waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy. A win-win, surely?

One proviso… Any ‘one-size-fits-all’ development pack takes a scatter-gun approach: throw enough nuggets up into the air and everyone will surely catch a few? Well possibly, if they have sufficient inner resources available (emotional intelligence, emotional stability, openness to change, capacity for insight etc). If not, then invitations like ‘surrender to the fact that life isn’t fair’ or ‘think of what you have instead of what you want’ may well seem glib, patronizing, presumptuous etc. In unprepared hands such nuggets can alienate as easily as they can inspire.

A related proviso… Carlson suggests we can develop such deep qualities as compassion and humility simply through practice (‘intention and action’). This is the ultimate behavioural model of change: triggering a character switch by stating the desire for it to happen. As I say, questioning the validity of such a claim would – in the spirit of this book – seem churlish, as if ‘sweating the small stuff’. Instead, what this approach (and thus this book) depends on is individuals primed for change, hungry to fast-track a shift from clouds to sunlight, and therefore willing to try anything. Echoes of the irresistible mood and aroma of a Victorian marketplace, where the salesman’s energy and enthusiasm intoxicates his audience into impulse buying. Magic. Money well spent? Suck it and see…

Tim Norfolk (December 2010)

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