Vintage Advice: The Secret of Perfect Living

that The Secret of Perfect Living
James T. Mangan
Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1963

The subtitle really drew me in:

  • How to set into motion tremendous “sleeping powers” that can bring you all the good things of life as if by magic.

Confession: when I read “tremendous sleeping powers,” I expected to find a cure for my ongoing insomnia. No such luck. James T. Mangan is referring to powers within yourself that you haven’t fully realized or activated. Oh, well. First: what are we striving for?

Perfect Living is a state of absolute togetherness, a union of the conscious and subconscious selves for the ultimate good and benefit of your whole person. It’s a highly thoughtful state of being. Mangan suggests that using switchwords helps people gain the cooperation of their subconscious selves instead of battling subconscious fears and desires.

This book is written in a winsome, witty style. Read the contents of chapter 2, The 12 Answers to Life. Along with the usual suspects (God, service, art, love, etc.), there’s a section called All the Answers are Confusing to help the reader sort out what might seem like conflicting advice. I love a self-help book that helps itself!

The book’s introduction is titled: The Shoe Clerk Quoted Goethe. Irresistible. A clerk loses his shoe horn, jeopardizing a sale. The customer says, to break the tension, “We do these things to ourselves.” The salesman agrees, and quotes Goethe: “There are two souls in my own breast, and one is determined to beat down the other.”

This rings very true. I am often my own worst critic or enemy. Mangan explains that the two souls Goethe described should get together, but they want to fight. I love his description:

The stronger and bigger of the two, often called the subconscious…is the one with all the experience. But the little and weaker soul [the conscious mind], is the boss of the person and like a silly little office boy is eternally giving orders to the big underself, the real president of the corporation. The president then goes out to fight down the little office boy and it knows how.

Switchwords are cues our conscious mind can use to activate better subconscious functioning. I occasionally suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. My therapy involves doing something to change the tape that runs in my head and/or switch direction. When I feel the flush of anxiety begin, I say, “triple A” (the Antidote for Anxiety is Action) and find something to DO that will take me away from the helplessness of panic and move me toward acting (and therefore feeling) more in control. For example, I work well under pressure, but sometimes I procrastinate too long and get overwhelmed with anxiety. When I recognize that sensation kicking in, I make a detailed list of all the things I have to accomplish. This allows me to focus and start crossing things off my list, and thus feel less overwhelmed. And even powerful! The act of making the list makes me cognizant of all the work I need to do, it acknowledges my fear, and it gives me a positive action I can take.

(I’m sure somewhere, somebody reading this is laughing at the thought of a grown woman repeatedly mumbling to herself, “triple A.” Let me assure you that 1. it’s not the weirdest thing I say to myself, by far, and 2. I will laugh with you, all the way to the bank or the grocery store or whatever productive task this self-talk enables me to accomplish. As Popeye says, “I yam what I yam.”)

Mangan says we are each the sum of all our experiences, positive and negative. We can use switchwords to actively push the positive experiences to the forefront in our brains in order to react effectively to challenges. He explains that consciously accessing these unconscious (hidden) mental files can speed up the process of learning to cope, because each success will beget more success.

One example of Mangan’s switchwords is change. He says humans often employ this switchword without being aware of it, for example when someone dresses better for an important meeting or changes location in order to get a better perspective on a problem. This is productive but subconscious behavior we have learned based on past experiences.

to dispel an attack of the blues: UP

Getting back to change…in my case, when I recognize a  headache I think: HYDRATE. Dehydration is a primary cause of headaches, but even when it’s not, taking time to drink a glass of water empowers me. I can affect the outcome of the situation rather than surrender to the pain.

In spite of my general aversion to “power of positivity” peptalks and a tendency to dismiss most self-help books, I really enjoyed The Secret of Perfect Living! The writing is clever and engaging, and the way Mangan framed internal struggles really resonated with me. I am not on board with the notion that specific words are the perfect switchword for everyone, but I appreciate the author’s attempt to outline them. Some make great sense, while others seem silly.

File under “sensible” switchwords:

  • To be a good mechanic: CONSIDER
  • To meet a deadline: DONE
  • To achieve moderation in any field where tempted by excess CUT
  • To break a bad habit: OFF
  • To get ride of inertia: MOVE
  • To stop faultfinding: PRAISE
  • To handle anything unpleasant: ADJUST

File under silly:

  • To be kind: TINY
  • To relieve constipation: SWIVEL
  • To heal a scab: ALONE
  • To make your children obedient: CROWD
  • To cure hypersensitivity: DUCK (I know it kind of works, but I can’t help but picture the bird)

What are your switchwords or mantras?


PS: I also use visual switches. This photo of me when I was about 3 reminds me of the child’s perspective that the world is full of good things just waiting to be discovered.


This entry was posted in Life, Vintage Advice and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Vintage Advice: The Secret of Perfect Living

  1. Al Dawson says:

    Dear Ms. Vestergaard,
    Thank you for this excellent blog entry! I have ordered my own copy via Amazon (currently working on p. 132, word-switch SMILE because my day has been a challenge!) and have ordered a copy of one of your books (the one that rhymes with orange) which has yet to arrive.
    I should explain I found this blog via Goodreads, when I was approaching James Thomas Mangan via a different road. I’m assisting my wife (and “volunteering” to teach two lectures) in a course she will give to (hopefully) talented freshmen and freshwomen this fall: “Biology Through Biography” I had mentioned that her Darwin lecture needed a reference to Charles Waterton (naturalist and taxidermist, educated at the Jesuit school that would later train Conan Doyle) and this led to the question “why do the English corner the market on eccentrics?” I started exploring and found Mangan, who, around the time I was born, was patenting Outer Space :) Anyway, thanks for the heads-up on the book and I think YOU should consider writing a biography of this interesting man! You probably have seen his grave (online I mean) but here is the reference:
    Al Dawson (

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>