Kristen Meinzer and Jolenta Greenberg know all about self-help. Over five years and ten seasons hosting their podcast By the Book, Meinzer and Greenberg have read hundreds of books in the genre, testing out their wisdom and reporting back on how useful it actually is. The duo have tried out countless programs, from Marie Kondo to Rachel Hollis. Now, with a new Audible podcast Romance Road Test, their partners are in on the experimentation as they take on relationship advice.
Meinzer and Greenberg never thought they would share so much of their lives with listeners, but in their “half reality show, half self-help podcast,” they laugh, cry, and document reading erotica with their significant others. In 2020, they released their own book, How to Be Fine: What We Learned From Living by the Rules of 50 Self-Help Books, adding to the self-help canon themselves.
This week on the In Her Shoes podcast, Meinzer and Greenberg joined the Cut’s editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples to talk about the gendered division in the self-help genre, expanding into relationship podcasting, and more. Listen below and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to learn about why they hated French Women Don’t Get Fat, the law of attraction, and anything that treats men and women as “two different species.”
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Lindsay: Welcome to In Her Shoes. I’m Lindsay Peoples, editor-in-chief of the Cut. On this show, I get to talk to people that we love, admire, or just find interesting. We’ll explore how they found their path, what got in their way, and how they think about bringing others along now that they’ve arrived.
Kristen Meinzer and Jolenta Greenberg are really good at testing things out. They’re kind of like the Try Guys, but the self-help version. On their podcast, By the Book, they apply advice given from different self-help books in their own lives to see what’s actually helpful. From their discoveries, they went on to write How to be Fine: What We Learned from Living by the Rules of 50 Self-Help Books. Now on their latest podcast, Romance Road Test, they’ve extended the experimenting to their partners. Their new show tests out relationship hacks on their marriage, which you can listen to all the episodes of Romance Road Test on Audible. Thank you again for both doing this. I really appreciate it.
Jolenta: Thank you.
Kristen: Thank you so much for having us.
Lindsay: So I have to start every show by asking my guests what kinds of shoes they have on, because the show is called In Her Shoes and I like to be nosy. So what kind of shoes do you have on or what are your favorite pair of shoes right now?
Kristen: Well, we don’t wear shoes in my house right now or ever. We’re very strict about the no shoes in the house because Brooklyn is a beautiful but very filthy place. So —
Jolenta: This is true.
Kristen: I am barefoot at this moment. But I will say this. Since the pandemic, I’ve gotten kind of lazy with my footwear and I only wear two pairs of shoes in the summer. I wear Taos Trophy metallic sandals, which are kind of gladiator sandals that are gold or silver.
Kristen: And then in the winter, I wear Allbird Pipers, which are just little basic wool sneakers. And I’ve been wearing these two types of shoes for two and a half years every single day.
Lindsay: I love a routine. I love it.
Jolenta: Solid routine.
Lindsay: How about you, Jolenta?
Jolenta: I am also wearing no shoes because we don’t like to bring the grody streets and all the gum I have the luck of stepping on into the house. But I was just wearing some regular Birkenstocks, what’s the double strap? Is that the Arizona or something?
Lindsay: Yeah, mm-hmm.
Jolenta: Just wearing those in black while I was walking the dog this morning.
Lindsay: Love, love. So you both obviously have your own projects, you have projects together, you have the podcast By the Book, you’ve authored How to be Fine, and you have your latest podcast, the Romance Road Test. Walk me through … I mean, what was even the story of how you guys started to create content together and continue to evolve into making some of these projects over time?
Kristen: Oh Jolenta, you’ve got to tell this because you get credit here. This is your story.
Jolenta: Well, we met … Gosh, we met a decade ago, and we were working for a radio news program, just your typical daily news roundup show. And we would get pitched books a lot. I’m sure even just hosting a podcast, you get pitched books and stuff —
Jolenta: And people, publishers, publicists send you all these books. And I was the administrator in charge of getting all these books. So I would open them, distribute them, mostly put them in a pile for anyone can take these to give away as presents and stuff because we’re not going to cover all these 80 biographies of Real Housewives. But we also got lots and lots of self-help books, which, again, we probably weren’t going to cover on the news.
Jolenta: So I began hoarding all of them because I was a mid-20s, trying to figure out what I’m doing with my life still, was trying to be an actor, trying to be a comedian and was like, “Maybe if I follow these books, I’ll get my shit together. And because I’m determined to be an entertainer, I should record this.” So then I roped my friend Kristen into it because she was probably my best friend at the show, because she was the culture reporter and could talk about movies and TV. And also, while I want to believe the promises of self-help, Kristen is a bit more skeptical and I felt like she’d be a good control group to try out these self-help tactics —
Jolenta: With me and keep me grounded, maybe keep me from joining a cult by accident. So then we started making By the Book.
Lindsay: Yeah. I mean, you guys are all in your tenth season, correct?
Lindsay: I mean, but what has kept that longevity going, how do you keep listeners coming back, and what has that process been like? To have ten seasons is such an amazing feat.
Kristen: Oh, well thank you. We keep coming back partly because we’re very lucky to have a wealth of self-help books. Hundreds of new ones get published every year.
Jolenta: They never stop making them.
Kristen: Yes. And we’re also lucky that we have listeners who want to continually see us tortured living by these books. The show is essentially a reality show podcast. So we don’t just live by the rules of each of these books. We record ourselves while living by each book, following every single rule down to the letter. So listeners hear us doing things like taking our life into our own hands or saying terrible things to ourselves or saying loving mantras to ourselves.
Kristen: They are there as we throw out everything that we own if it doesn’t spark joy. They are there as we experiment with our relationships. So I think that that’s part of what keeps it going too, is the fact that it’s not just a show where we review books. It’s a show where our lives are fully a part of the show. And because our lives just keep going and going and going, so does the show.
Lindsay: Right. I feel like that experimentation, though, to continue doing it so much over time has to be incredibly vulnerable. And I mean, obviously the listeners love it because it feels like they have some insight into the process and knowing if they want to read that book or if they want to try this certain process. Have either of you ever though struggled with that or struggled with the vulnerability and just how much you have to share to go through that process?
Jolenta: Oh, totally. Especially, I feel like navigating that with relationships. We encountered this a lot in our newer show, the Audible Original Romance Road Test, where we test out romance advice specifically and just sort of meeting our partners where their boundaries are because this isn’t their work. This isn’t necessarily their vulnerability on display, even though it’s the relationship’s vulnerability. So being able to find the fine line of how do I get my husband to read erotica on mike to me, but make him feel comfortable possibly sharing this? So where me, I kind of have no boundaries, but learning to find and respect other people’s in this process has been really interesting.
Kristen: Yeah. I have to say, for me, it’s been harder than for Jolenta because I came into this, as Jolenta was saying earlier, a culture reporter, a culture critic. My job was to analyze things, not necessarily to speak to my deepest insecurities or the things that are sad or traumatic in my life. And this show kind of has pushed those things to the fore, where I talk about all of those things.
And I remember the first episode where I really let it all be broadcast, where I started revealing things about myself in the first season was we were living by French Women Don’t Get Fat, and I cry in that episode. And I never thought I would be the person who is crying on a microphone after nearly a decade in media where I am making documentaries or I am reporting on reality TV, to bring in my own story and my own self was really hard. And I remember the night before that episode came out, I did not sleep a lick all night. I stayed up all night. I was so nervous. I had diarrhea. I was just scared about what would happen.
And then it came out and we started getting just a couple trickles here and there. And then before you know it, it was an avalanche of letters from people who said, “Thank you. I see myself in your story. Thank you for talking about what it’s like to live with disordered eating. Thank you for talking about hating your own body or living in a world that doesn’t necessarily treat women like we matter unless our size is this or this or this.” And I don’t know what I thought would happen to me. I thought maybe I would die of embarrassment, that the vulnerability would kill me somehow. But it was such a tremendous relief to hear from listeners saying it made them feel less alone in the world. And that’s kind of what’s kept me going opening up, even though it’s still really hard sometimes and I don’t share every single detail of my life. I definitely keep some things close to the vest, but that’s what helps me go back and tell more and more of my story.
Lindsay: Yeah, totally. Obviously, you guys know this all too well, the self-help genre, though, is so crowded. And there’s a new trend, a new book, a new idea, or an old idea with a new name on TikTok every week. And it’s obviously hard to parse out, is this a scam? Would this be really helpful? After several seasons of “living by the book,” what has been your consensus about just the self-help genre and all of these “wellness trends” that are trying to help people but also, understandably, people are trying to sell products and books and a new line every week as well on top of it?
Jolenta: Right. Right. It’s definitely hard to parse through what is essentially just an influencer self-promoting endlessly and what is actual advice that could be worth listening to. Kristen and I have found definitely look at your source. If the person says they’re a doctor, check and see where that doctorate’s from. Sometimes it’s honorary. Sometimes it’s from a nice prestigious institution, or just one that’s real and you’ve heard of.
Jolenta: Make sure you know where the advice is coming from. A lot of these self-help authors are people who are really into a certain subject and how that subject can enhance your life, whether it’s tidying or getting up early. And these people are usually just really zeroing in on something that vibes with them or something they’ve struggled with. It’s not necessarily an overarching theme. And usually, we have found advice that’s about groups or the collective or how to make the world a better place tends to be better advice. Less blame-y, more actionable, more about doing good and putting good out into the world and less about visualizing things you want for yourself and blaming yourself if these things don’t happen.
Kristen: And I’ll just also add to that, that a lot of self-help books are so navel gaze-y. And there’s nothing wrong with looking at our navels from time to time and looking inside of ourselves and what makes me feel this way, where did this stem from, and this and that. But oftentimes, what it’s really stemming from isn’t our navel at all. It’s from structural inequalities. It’s from larger issues like racism and sexism and so on.
And so just saying a mantra every day is not going to fix the thing that’s really the cause of my unhappiness in this world, or really the cause of me feeling unsafe or unsettled in this world. And a lot of the authors of self-help books, according to Goodreads, two-thirds of the authors are men and two-thirds of the readers are women. So it is an industry of men telling women what to do. A lot of these men coming from very privileged backgrounds, born on third base, saying, “If I can do it, anyone can.”
Kristen: But I don’t know if that’s true that anybody can when you already had most of life handed to you on a silver tray.
Lindsay: Right. Yeah. Is there a particular book that you guys have read over the past ten seasons or just mantra, if a book is too hard to recall, that has been the most helpful?
Jolenta: Oh, that’s a tough one.
Lindsay: I know, it’s naming —
Jolenta: For me, I always go back to What to Say When You Talk to Your Self by Shad Helmstetter. He’s a real doctor and talks about the cognitive pathways that are made when we set thoughts as concrete facts in our head and how we can change those and why we tend to absorb negative facts about ourself and not positive ones and that literally changing how you talk to yourself can change how you feel about your self-worth. And for me personally, it’s been one that’s stuck the longest and just isn’t full of, again, visualization or blaming yourself for things that are far beyond your control.
Kristen: It’s not a perfect book, but I really took some good things away from a book called Why Good Things Happen to Good People. And the idea of that book is really more about not just self-care, but about community care, about putting out goodness into the world, about making the world a better place to make yourself happier, but also the endorphins we get when we commit an act of kindness in the world. It genuinely feels good and it makes us feel less alone. It makes us feel more connected with something larger than ourselves. It gives us a sense of purpose and just ticks all of these boxes in life because saying a mantra doesn’t necessarily fix the same things that doing good in the world does.
Lindsay: On the opposite spectrum, is there really bad advice that you really want to tell people to stray away from? Or just … I love what you were saying earlier, Jolenta, about … I do feel like a lot of the social-media trends come about and everybody’s like now, “You have to manifest it and you’re going to be this person.” And then seeing them, in real time, then being let down because they thought if they said this this way or did this this way, that it was going to happen. Is there certain advice that you found that you were like, “This is crazy advice. I would never do this again,” or advice that you see people kind of taking now because it’s popular that you want people to do a little bit more research behind?
Jolenta: I mean, we hate dieting advice. We lived by French Women Don’t Get Fat in our first season, and after that decided never again. It’s not —
Jolenta: Self-help, it’s weight control and often disordered eating veiled as healthy advice, so we steer clear of all of that.
Kristen: Also, Jolenta and I take real issue with anything that includes the law of attraction, which is a lot of self-help books. The idea that if you believe it, you can be it. But the idea that you only get what you manifest, “I received this thing because I believed in it harder than others,” really erases the fact that are you saying that people who are poor, people who are living with debilitating diseases, did they ask for that because they didn’t believe hard enough in health? Did they not believe hard enough in having a living wage?
And the first place we saw the law of attraction was the very first episode of our show. We lived by The Secret in season one, and the question came up, oh, so if you were in a death camp during the Holocaust, if you have cancer, is that because you just didn’t believe hard enough? And yes. According to the book it is.
Kristen: And I just refuse to believe that people were asking for it. People didn’t ask for abuse. People didn’t ask for poverty. But the law of attraction says that they did because they didn’t believe hard enough in what they deserved.
Jolenta: Also, any advice that talks about men and women as two different animals, two different species, from different planets. It furthers these social structures of gender. It furthers the divide between them. It doesn’t remind us we’re all human. We all were socialized to communicate in certain ways, especially by gender, and we’re not different animals. Not all men should be approached a certain way. Often, advice that is parsed out this way tends to be advice heavy for the woman in how to approach her man and not cause friction, but not necessarily how to communicate wants and needs or have a nice, equal exchange. So any advice that really paints men and women as vastly different and impossible to be from the same planet, that’s not helpful.
Lindsay: Yeah. I mean, on that note, though, you’ve talked on the pod before about how so many self-help books are written by men but read by women. But it does seem like, even we get sent a ton of books to review or excerpt for the Cut, that women seem more inclined to even read self-help books in the first place. So how do you guys manage both ends of that and also just the idea that it feels like women are more concerned with bettering themselves and more concerned with the topic overall?
Kristen: Yeah. I mean, I also think that we live in a world where the idea of masculinity is you tough it out and you don’t ask for help, you don’t go to a shrink, you don’t read self-help books. Those things are weak or they’re feminine or they’re sissy. There are a lot of words for what that is, as far as how we create our gender binaries in the world and what each supposed gender does. And I think that it’s interesting to see over the last decade, how there has been this rise in self-help books for men, but they never identify themselves as self-help books. Oftentimes, they’re business guides. They’re guidebooks to stoicism. They are books that have the word “fuck” in the title usually. And there’s a whole world of books now that are self-help for men, but most men and most marketers and most publishers don’t even put them in the self-help section.
Lindsay: Mm-hmm. I totally agree. And I also was just curious now, with you all doing the Romance Road Test and trying to extend all of the things and learnings to romantic relationships, were your partners, how was that conversation of getting them to be willing to go on this journey with you? Did it take convincing? What was that like?
Jolenta: Well, again, I feel lucky because my partner, he’s the activity person and I’m the not-activity person in the relationship. So he’s always chomping at the bit to go do something fun or go on a different kind of date or try something new. So when I pitched this to him and was like, “We’ll be trying 15 different dating tips, probably in a row every weekend,” he was like, “Yes! Finally. Built-in activities.” So he was mostly on board, except for every once in a while when something would scare him. One of the dates was doing something scary, so that scared him. And reading erotica did scare him, but we made it through.
Kristen: And my husband, he’s such a ham and he loves being on the microphone because in his regular, day-to-day life, he’s a chief technologist for a company. And as he always says, “I’m such a nerd, and on this show, I get to just be a star.” Although the way he is a star is just by being a loving, supportive husband most of the time, and then every once in a while, just getting fed up, which he does many times on Romance Road Test. There are many episodes where he’s like, “Oh God, this sucks. This is terrible. Never take me to another play again.” At one point, I brought him to live theater and he just hated it. Yeah, we had a couple of moments where he did not enjoy it.
Lindsay: Were there any things that you tried with your partners that caused actual, real tension outside of the recording of the episodes?
Jolenta: Weren’t there?
Kristen: I mean, I can say, in my marriage, yes. I mean … Well, that the time we went to live theater. That was on our hobby date. I introduced him to my hobby, he introduced me to his hobby. His hobby is playing video games. We recorded … I mean, our episodes of our show are only about 35, 40 minutes long, but the actual raw recording of us fighting while playing video games was, I don’t know, an hour and a half or something. It went on and on and on.
Kristen: We were not getting along during that. And there were definitely other points where what you hear in the show is just a tiny snippet of how much bigger it was when it was happening.
Lindsay: Yeah. Yeah.
Jolenta: Yeah. I would say tension lingers. For me, it’s not necessarily tension with my partner, but just a sour taste from, “Oh right, when we did that, that bugged the shit out of me.” We did each other’s grooming, and when my partner was doing my makeup, he was like, “Oh my gosh, it’s an art project. I didn’t sign up for. I can’t believe you do this all the time. Oh, this is such a waste of time. What if you’re not good at drawing?” And now every time I do my makeup, I just think about him complaining and being like, God, the social inequity of the fact that I should have eyebrows on for this call and it doesn’t matter if he does. And so now when I do my makeup sometimes, I’ll just think about how he made this big to-do over how ridiculous this whole process is. And now it’s much more apparent. Even though I always knew it was ridiculous, now it just feels more ridiculous.
Lindsay: Right, yeah. Yeah. I was also curious with the Romance Road Test and how you’ve been able to have conversations with your own friends and community about it, because I do often feel like when I talk to my girlfriends, they always feel like they are doing a lot more of the work in making the relationship better. And similarly, with all of the self-help books, feeling like women tend to be more interested in the books and bettering themselves, as I was saying before, and I’m just curious of what your conversations have been like with women in your lives and how they have felt about trying to better their romantic relationships as well.
Kristen: Yeah. I mean, my gay friends, it’s been really interesting talking with them about this because they are not dealing with those same sort of socially-assigned norms of women do this or men do this. And some of my gay friends who’ve listened to the show, as well as some of our gay listeners, are just like, “Ugh, straight people. The worst.”
Lindsay: Annoying, I know.
Kristen: So I’ve definitely heard that. And Jolenta and I definitely both heard from a lot of women in, I guess I would call really heteronormative, more traditional relationships, where they say that they always carry the mental load. It’s always on them to be pretty, be exciting for the relationship, be a good mom, keep a good house, do all of these things. And we hear from them also because I would say Jolenta and I are kind of more in the middle of those extremes. We are not in what I would call patriarchal marriages and we are not in same-sex relationships either, but people do write in and they’re like, “Well, you have partners who do all the housekeeping and cooking, so you don’t know how hard it is.” So we hear that too. Because that comes out in the show that our specific gender dynamics don’t always match those of other people and traditional relationships.
Lindsay: Is there anything that both of you have taken away in just having a bit more of a retrospective approach of how you actually are in your relationships or just things that you discovered about yourself that you didn’t realize of the way that you are in your relationship?
Jolenta: Well, here’s the silly thing. One of the things we did for Romance Road Test is we did those 36 questions for love that were in the New York Times. It’s supposedly …
Lindsay: Yeah, yeah.
Jolenta: If you answer these questions with someone you’re on a date with, it’ll help you fall in love. And they’re all “get to know you” type questions. And one of the questions was when was the last time you sang? And maybe to whom, or I’m not sure if that was part of it. And my partner and I realized, “Oh right, probably earlier today when I was making up a song about the dog or you or what I was doing.” And we realized, “Oh, right, we sing all the time to each other.” And I don’t think we ever stopped to notice that about our relationship, even though it’s a weird, surface-level thing. Oh, we love singing to each other and we’ve never thought of ourselves as a couple that makes up songs all the time, but we are.
Kristen: I like that. That’s a good one.
Jolenta: Nice and simple.
Kristen: And I would say for me and Dean, it just hit me this weekend, actually. He went on a bike ride and he was five neighborhoods away, and he called me up and he said, “Do you want to meet me in this neighborhood and I’ll take you out for lunch?” And I paused for a second. I’m like, “Oh, do I really want to? Oh God, how many subway lines do I have to take? Do I have to transfer?” And then I was like, “Yeah, I do want to do that.”
And one thing that Romance Road Test, while we were in production on the show, did was every week I did that to him. “Hey, this week we’re going to do this. Hey, this week we’re going to do this.” And just, it’s a gift to be able to shake things up and to be able to say yes to those things. And we definitely have our routines and we have moments of relaxation and those routines. There’s nothing wrong with those routines. There’s absolutely not. But when there’s the chance to shake it up, it is nice to say yes. So yeah, that just hit me this past weekend.
Lindsay: I love that. I love that. How do you both feel about aggregating, trying all these different life hacks in a quest of self-discovery? Do you feel like it’s enhanced your relationships? Do you feel like it’s changed your view of yourself? What has been some takeaways after doing this for so long now?
Jolenta: I definitely think it’s enhanced communication. I feel like it has to have for both of us where have to really break down what we’re about to do, kind of what we expect, and we have to break down our boundaries about what we’re willing to expose or just what we’re willing to do on a date, even. That’s definitely been something that I’ve had to get better at and that’s been lasting, luckily.
Kristen: I think it’s so hard for me to measure that because for our entire marriage, we’ve been making this show. We started making the pilot for this show … Or actually, Jolenta, the earliest iteration of the show before it was even with the network, our first go at it, Dean and I had only been dating for a few months, I think, at that time. So Dean has essentially lived his entire relationship with me being recorded. So I think the real test will be once the recording stops, what will things be like then?
Jolenta: Yeah. Ooh.
Lindsay: I guess my last question … I mean, if there’s one thing that you want listeners to take away living vicariously through you, all the things you’ve tried, what would you say to them?
Jolenta: If something rubs you the wrong way, it doesn’t mean, “Oh, I need to try it and push my boundaries.” It might be because it’s bad advice. That’s one thing we’ve learned. A lot of the time, when I’m like, “Ugh,” it’s usually because it’s not sound. And if I do a bit more research, I can prove my gut right. So I’m not saying never push yourself, but especially when it comes to just sort of a random self-help advice snippet you hear on TikTok or something, and if you’re like, “Ew,” it’s fine if you’re like that. It doesn’t need to resonate with you. You’re not broken if it doesn’t resonate with you. It might be shitty.
Kristen: Yeah, absolutely. And on that note, as Jolenta always says, nobody is more of an expert in you than you, especially not this person who wrote a self-help book in their Santa Barbara office overlooking the ocean, who is a millionaire, who you have never met before. They’re not more of an expert in you than you, so take what they say with a grain of salt. And to go back to what I was saying earlier, keep in mind also how much of what is hurting you or challenging you or making you question yourself, keep in mind that some of that may not be you at all. It may be the bigger structures and problems in this world.
Lindsay: Thank you guys so much for doing this. I’m so appreciative of you taking the time.
Kristen: Thank you.
Jolenta: Thank you so much. Such a delight to talk to you.