Updated: Feb 18
Old school and ahead of its time advice on
how to get what you really want
Before there were Instagram influencers, dime-a-dozen life coaches, and slick packaged live-my-amazing-six-figure-life gurus, there was Barbara Sher. And she was amazing. She was a struggling single mom with a “useless” degree in New York City in the late 1960s, prone at times to a scattered brain, exhaustion, low self-esteem, complaining, and other nonproductive habits.
But she had kids to feed. And she had a heart of gold and a forged-in-fire belief in her fellow humans — and their right to be fulfilled and not settle and live their best life. She eventually became a best-selling author, workshop leader, public speaker, and — in her down-to-earth, affirmations-are-dumb, self-improvement-doesn’t-work way — a pioneering life coach with her own wand of manifestation to wave.
Her first book, Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want* (1979, 2009), has sold over a million copies and still offers us fresh, brilliant, relevant advice. Throughout the book, she tackles things that were issues then and are still issues for many of us now: ways society and culture and all of us may make some things harder for women than men — and how to work with and around those things; and toxic individualism — the idea that we can and should do everything ourselves.
I’m sharing some highlights only to whet your appetite. Do yourself a favor and read the book. It’s not only supremely useful, it’s inspiring, convincing, and fun to read. It is like having your own no-nonsense fairy godmother chasing after you in comfort shoes calling out hilarious, tough-love support.
Know What You Want —What You Really Want— and not What You Think Is Realistic for You
This is the wish part. You only go around once and there’s only one of you. Honor the truths of your uniqueness and the limitations of time. Focus on what you want. Take note of what lights you up.
The Secret Is Not Self-improvement or Fixing Yourself
You’re beautiful, you’re amazing, you’re exquisitely you, and you’re a flawed, fearful human being with lots of negative thoughts. Oh well. Get off the idea of needing to fix or improve yourself before going for your dreams. Getting what you want simply requires know-how and support. This is the craft part.
You and Your One Life and What You Want Are Important
“Contrary to what you may have been taught, there is nothing frivolous or superficial about what you want. It isn’t a luxury that can wait until you’ve taken care of the ‘serious’ business of life. It’s a necessity. What you want is what you need. Your dearest wish comes straight from your core, loaded with vital information about who you are.”
And that alone entitles you to call the shots, do your things your way and not succumb to the shoulds, rewards, and success routes of others or social norms. Put this type of individualism to work for you. Toxic individualism is thinking you have to do everything alone, that you shouldn’t get help from others. There’s no room for that in the Wishcraft scheme.
There Is an Environment That Creates Winners
There is an environment that creates winners and chances are you didn’t grow up in it. Nor are you likely to be living in the middle of it right now.
“…[I]f you know somebody who’s winning and loving it (and that’s the only definition of winning I’ll accept), you can bet that there’s a source of support and nourishment in that person’s life. And I don’t mean only in the past. I mean right now.”
What is a nourishing environment for winning?
One where your distinct kind of “genius” is love and respected.
One where you are encouraged to do and be what you want.
One where you know you’ll be loved and accepted no matter what.
One where you’re given the kind of support and advice that helps you discover what you want to do and how to accomplish that.
One that promotes your exploration of all your talents and interests.
One that allows you to change course when you reach a natural end of your interest or achievement in an area.
“I can’t think of a better way to live than to do something till
I’m satisfied or bored with it and then do something else.”
One that permits you to complain when things are hard and gives you sympathy, understanding, and even help— but doesn’t suggest quitting.
One that extends an ear and a hand when you get into trouble without lectures, disapproval, etc.
One that is happy for you when you succeed.
You can probably see where Sher goes with this: There are real structural, environmental reasons why getting what you want has been hard for you. But now you’re a grown up and you’ve just read about elements of a winning environment. It’s time to create that for yourself. (She shows you how.)
This is an example of the kind of juicy originality you’ll find throughout Wishcraft:
“Your style is your most precious clue to your genius….[it] is the biggest field of free play and free choice left to you. Your deepest resources — your talent, your imagination, your identity — cannot be completely suppressed. They must declare themselves….Your style is the place where you still exercise the creative power to shape your world and design yourself. It is proof that you haven’t lost that power at all.”
Indeed. Sher has a whole chapter called “Stylesearch,” in which she leads you through exercises where you investigate your sense of style, what it’s telling you about yourself, and how to listen to that, go forth, and prosper.
A Goal Is the “Basic Unit of Life Design,” and Your Goals Should Be Big — Larger than Life — Worthy of You
“Anything you want can come true if you cast it in the form of a concrete goal.”
That’s right. This book sets you on a path to make goals that are worthy of your one finite life and your entirely one-of-a-kind self. Her measure of goal appropriateness: Can you fall completely in love with it? Oh, and do you want all the things?
“Congratulations! You haven’t got a problem, you’ve got an embarrassment of riches.”
She addresses parallel and sequential goal achievement.
Allow Yourself “Hard Times” and “the Power of Negative Thinking” or You’ll Never Reach Your Dreams
“I happen to believe in the efficacy of complaining the way some people believe in the efficacy of prayer. It’s good for you.”
In pursuing your big goals and the life of your dreams, things won’t go as planned. You’ll encounter external and internal obstacles. You’ll get down on yourself and want to quit. Where others may gloss over these realities, Sher jumps in with permission to honor and indulge your complaining and depressed outlook, and tools for working through and around your tough times and sour attitudes. She even instructs you on how to get applause from your friends for your most theatrical, creative griping.
With Structure and Support, and Brainstorming and Barn-Raising, You’ll Get Where You Want to Go, One Goal After Another
This is the guts of Sher’s message and her well-tested methods: 1) You need structure and a support system to get what you want, and 2) here’s how you build these things for yourself.
She devotes a whole chapter to inventive uses of and approaches to brainstorming, and another to what she calls barn-raising, how to successfully engage others in your efforts to get what you want. She elaborates on the logistics and value of such delightful tools as a planning wall, a pantheon of “saints” who inspire you, booster phone calls, a buddy system, resource parties, and many more.
You Can Win Despite Fear, Through “Timidation”
“Fear is the natural companion of creative action. There is only one way to live free of fear — and that is to live without hope, change, or growth….That is the game we’re playing. That’s the law of human growth.”
Moving through our fears, resistance, and obstacles is part of the winning, the growth that will take us where we want to go. Sher directly takes on survival fear, which she identifies in “first-generation winners,” those of use who grew up in environments not tricked out for winning, in families who weren’t able to teach us about attaining what we want. Her primary survival messages are 1) prepare, and 2) lower your standards — at first. She expands on each with useful practices like SuperMe/SuperFool, Fessing Up, and Task Therapy, that all exhibit her characteristic ingenuity and depth of understanding.
All of Sher’s encouraging and thorough advice is based on an amalgam of her personal experience, a fine understanding of human psychology, and meticulously observing her workshop participants victoriously navigate the ups and downs of getting what they really wanted. Still warm from its magical transmission, it’s a love letter from 1979 to us in 2021.