I went to see Up in the Air last night. It is an odd film. The central character is a man whose home is a studio apartment with a view of an enormous air-conditioning unit and whose job involves spending almost all his time somewhere other than the apartment, sacking people. At the beginning of the film this man, played by George Clooney, is happy with his life, spending his time in airports and hotel rooms and hire cars and limiting his ambition to the accumulation of loyalty points. He has few possessions and no attachments.
There are lots of things to say about the film - not least that it can't decide whether it is a Soviet propaganda film, depicting the merciless brutality of a capitalist corporate world, or a clunkingly cliched Hollywood piece of schmaltz, celebrating the dull virtues of small town bores - but the number one problem I had with it was that the central character seemed implausible. 'There is no real person who is so utterly cut off from normal human life,' I thought. Today though I read an extract from a book called Why People Fail by Simon Reynolds, and I began to wonder if I'd been wrong.
Mr Reynolds kicks off with the absurd statement that 'if you're not achieving all that you'd like in life, it's probably because you haven't established a daily ritual'. He then goes on to advocate a 'success ritual' that should be practised every day, consisting of 'three intelligent steps or actions', so that by the end of the year you move '1000 steps towards your goals', something he describes as 'an extraordinary achievement'.
In the extract I read, he provided an anti-procrastination ritual (which inevitably - the sort of bread and butter of all self-help - involved visualising your goals,) and an industry-mastery ritual which suggested daily reading of 'an industry book (20 minutes)' and 'industry magazines, websites and blogs (10 minutes)' - I love these precise allotments of time - and 'Quarterly: have a coffee with one industry expert'.
Finally came the 'Social-Life-Improvement Ritual.' According to Mr Reynolds 'Anything can be quickly and easily improved with the right daily ritual - even your social life. Make a list of the friends and acquaintances you'd like to see more of and read it each morning. Set a target of one social event including one of these people each week (coffee, lunch, movie, etc). Make one call or email each day to say hi or to arrange a catch-up with friends. Do this, and within a short time, you'll have three weekly social appointments. Easy.'
Imagine being part of someone's target number of 'social interactions', imagine needing to have that list of possibilities - '(coffee, lunch, movie)' - spelled out for you - or indeed needing to make a list of friends and acquaintances and read it each morning (and why do you have to do that - is it in case you forget who they are?) Imagine living a life where you had a goal for the number of 'social appointments' you had each week. Imagine describing meeting your friends as 'social appointments' (and what about if that one call or email each day produces the response, 'Piss off'?) Only someone as completely out of touch as the guy in the film could write this drivel - or take it seriously enough to publish it. Which means that, after all, such people must exist.