Reading Room

Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters – Philip C. McGraw

“The winners in this life know the rules of the game and have a plan, so that their efficiency is comparatively exponential to that of people who don’t. No big mystery, just fact.”ReadingRoomMcGraw

“Become one of those who get it. Break the code of human nature, and find out what makes other people tick. Learn why you and other people do what they do, and don’t do what they don’t.”

“Fact: Life is a competition. They are keeping the score, and there is a time clock.”


In a nutshell

Get realistic about yourself and smart about the world. No one can do this for you.

Echoing the Chinese proverb “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names,” Phil McGraw is famous as the man who “tells it like it is.” He frequently reduces people to tears by his frank assessments of their situation, but few of these individuals truly resent it.

Amid the earnest, sympathetic tone of most self-help writers, McGraw is a breath of fresh air. He introduces himself in the book by noting: “Everything has something they do. Some people build houses. I build strategies for living.”

Dr. Phil and Oprah

In 1999, television talk-show host Oprah Winfrey had civil charges filed against her for fraud, slander, and defamation for statements she had made about the dangers of “mad cow disease” in the beef industry and her unwillingness to eat hamburgers. Forced to stand trial in the white-male-dominated “beef capital of the world,” Amarillo, Texas, she hired courtroom strategist Dr. Phil McGraw to help with the defence.

Oprah could not believe what was happening to her. She believed the trial to be totally wrong, yet stood to lose $100 million in addition to her reputation if she did not win. Despite what was at stake, McGraw felt that she was not really coming to terms with it. As he recounts in Life Strategies, he felt forced to look her in the eye one night and tell her to “wake up,” to “get in the game, or these good ol’ boys are going to hand you your ass on a platter.”

McGraw realised that this was quite a thing to say to probably the most influential woman in America, but it had the desired effect. From that point Oprah resolved to win on the court’s terms. She won the case, McGraw believes, at that moment.

The message

Oprah indeed credited McGraw as crucial to her victory, and rewarded him with endless airtime on her show. But he relates the story only to demonstrate his belief that the courtroom is a microcosm of life: People will take things away from you unless you stand up for what is rightfully yours, but because life unfolds over a much longer timeframe, you may not notice that, lacking a clear strategy, you are losing.

The very effective purpose of Life Strategies is to jolt you into realising that the “trial” is permanently on and that there is no recess. If it could be boiled down to nine words, the book’s message would be: Life is serious and you are judged by results.

The life laws

Before he was a court strategist and a writer, McGraw was a student of what he calls the” life laws.” He says: “No one is going to ask you if you think these laws are fair, if you think they should exist. Like the law of gravity, they simply are.” There isn’t space to cover all of them here, but the following are a taste.

You either get it or you don’t

If you don’t “get” what behaviours create what results, if you don’t have a plan for your life – as opposed to wishes or hopes – you are not even in the race with those who do have these basic skills and strategies. Part of having this plan is to become a person who “knows the system.” You must become a scholar of human nature and the way things are done if you are going to get what you want.

McGraw lists the 10 most significant characteristics of how people think and act that you need to know to get what you want. The first two are “The number one fear among all people is rejection” and “The number one need among all people is acceptance.”

You create your own experience

You are accountable for your life. If you are in a job you don’t like, it’s your fault. If you are in a bad relationship, you got into it. If you don’t trust members of the opposite sex, even if you were abused as a child, it is you who are not doing the trusting. Stop being a victim and start being responsible for all the results and situations in your life. McGraw says: “you have to be a steely-eyed realist who calls it like it is, not like you want it to be.” To be anything less will prevent you from properly diagnosing your situation and making the right changes to your life.

People do what works

Why do we end up doing precisely the things we have told ourselves we don’t want to do? Though a certain behaviour seems to defy rationality, there will always be a hidden “payoff” for doing it. Only when you have discovered what the payoff is will you be able to alter the behaviour. Nevertheless, when a behaviour “works” it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is healthy – it works to the extent that by doing it you avoid some form of risk or rejection.

A young woman came to McGraw with a serious weight problem. It turned out that she had been sexually abused as a child and that each time she lost weight, male attention would remind her of horrible past situations and she would start eating again. Identifying this subtle pay-off alone was enough to break her cycle of self-sabotage. Identify your payoffs and you’ll gain control of your behaviour and your life.

You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge

Psychologists use the term “perceptual defence” to describe those things our minds cannot face up to. This is commonly called “denial” and damages every aspect of our lives. Why? Without first being able to see and name the problem, you’ll never be able to deal with it; over time it consumes you.

Follow the way of Alcoholics Anonymous when looking at your life: You can only get better once you admit you have a problem. “What most people want is not truth, but validation,” McGraw says. We desperately want to be right, even if what we are doing is not working. But to have change, you must do differently.

Life rewords action

We should learn, McGraw says, that “the world couldn’t care less about thoughts without actions.” Judging your own life by its results may seem hard-nosed, but it doesn’t actually matter whether you like this approach or not or whether you’d prefer to live by your own set of rules-the world already has its own. Living by outcomes requires change and risk, but you get the crucial satisfaction of knowing you are in control.

“The difference between winners and losers is that winners do things losers don’t want to do,” notes McGraw. It may be a cliché, but you really do have to do what it takes to get what you want, otherwise you will remain a “passenger.” This applies to family life as much as career. Be a person who tells someone close what they mean to you – don’t presume that they know. Act on the love you feel or you will regret it.

There is no reality, only perception

Understand that the world is not necessarily as you perceive it. Everyone has “filters” and only by acknowledging them can you begin to get a clearer picture. Even in a close relationship the same simple act can be viewed differently. A man will see taking out the trash as a duty, while his wife, because she finds it distasteful, will perceive it as a small act of love. Try to cultivate a more mindful attitude, make new categories and connections and appreciate that your “views” might be prejudices. Most importantly, make sure that the perceptions you do retain or adopt are grounded in verifiable fact, can be tested. Otherwise, any actions you take based on your beliefs will be on shaky ground.

The last four life laws are:

* Life is managed; it is not cured.
* We teach people how to treat us.
* There is power in forgiveness.
*You have to name it to claim it.

Final comments

What makes Life Strategies stand out from the crowd of contemporary self-help books is not just that McGraw “tells it like it is,” but that he is genuinely funny. Consider the “Rut Test”:

“Question 9: Do you only eat out at places where you have to look up rather than down at the menu?’ “Question 20: ‘In order for you to meet someone new, would they have to throw themselves on the hood of your car, or pull a chair up in front of your TV set”

McGraw refuses to let the reader be part of the “epidemic” of tough decision avoidance and jelly-like consistency of most twenty-first-century lives. He quotes Mark Twain: “We do not deal much in facts when we are contemplating ourselves.” Yet your life clearly does rest on facts – who you are with, what you do, the conditions in which you live. While it may be fashionable to say that “the most important thing is that you tried,” the world will only take note of your success.

This copy was taken from 50 Self-help Classics, written and compiled by Tom Butler-Bowdon.


About Tom Cottrell

A struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.
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One Response to Reading Room

  1. Pingback: Developing the mind – a start | A short stroll to the horizon

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