Self-help book praises Alaska attitudes

Posted: Thursday, December 04, 2003

People move to Alaska for the fishing, the scenery, the fat paycheck or that intangible, special something about living on the "Last Frontier."

Judith Kleinfeld, a professor, psychologist and writer, explains that "special something" in her new book, "Go For It! Finding Your Own Frontier." Her explanations combine simplicity with insight and leave readers feeling proud to be American and lucky to be Alaskan.

She describes a frontier state of mind and how individuals can use it to attain happiness and success.

"On a frontier, you can make the most of yourself and contribute the most to others while, at the same time, having a whale of a good time. You don't have to go to Alaska to find a frontier. You can find your own Alaska anywhere," she writes in her introduction.

Frontiers are more than places. They can be new fields of study, business opportunities, spiritual quests or social changes.

Exploring her topic, Kleinfeld pondered her own life, interviewed more than 75 people and studied writings about America's frontier history. In her afterward she describes the result as "... a serious book about American psychology that masquerades as a self-help book."

Kleinfeld, who teaches at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and is well known in the state as a newspaper columnist, says she resisted the urge to write an academic treatise about America's frontier attitudes. Instead she created an accessible guide to help people use the frontier attitude to break out of limitations and explore new options.

The concept of a frontier as an exhilarating realm of opportunity is unique to the United States, she asserts. Looking at other nations and at non-English words closest in meaning to our use of "frontier," she found that other peoples view frontiers as limiting boundaries, obstacles or wastelands. Even other nations that have settled wilderness in modern times, such as Canada, Australia and Russia, tend to view their hinterlands as undesirable, she writes.

In contrast, in the U.S. and especially in Alaska the frontier is seen as a place for self-discovery and self-improvement.

"The frontier is our national romance," she writes.

This special interaction between the people and the frontier encourages Americans to be optimistic, creative, independent, assertive, risk-taking, open-minded and ultimately successful. We also are unusual in viewing dreams as important to setting life goals and failures as valuable learning opportunities, she writes.

On a frontier, society is more fluid, competition is less, good people are needed and a person with the right attributes talent, hard work, good judgment and motivation can succeed more easily than settings where all the slots are defined and filled. A person not only is a metaphorical bigger frog in a small pond, but is more likely to grow in competency and confidence to really become a bigger frog.

"Go For It!" maintains a chipper tone, but it does contain cautions. The author warns that not everyone has the right stuff to thrive on a frontier. Such a place can be more dangerous. She even includes an example of the psychotic "Bush crazies" who are the bane of remote Alaska.

Kleinfeld fills her book with anecdotes about people who followed their dreams savvy or cockeyed. She starts with her husband, who upon graduating from Harvard Law School wanted to pull up his East Coast roots, move to Alaska and become a senator. His bride was understandably skeptical. But when they arrived in 1969, she found her own academic work on educating minority children much in demand. Her husband never became a senator, but he did become a circuit court judge, and the Kleinfelds are confident that their careers blossomed due to their relocation.

The people she features range from an East Coast lawyer who became a potter living in a log cabin at Sutton to a former drug addict who became an award-winning medic. These people, and many others in the book, began new lives by moving to Alaska and reinventing themselves as the people they yearned to be.

Compelling and inspiring as these anecdotes are, they also reveal the book's limitations. The interviewees, although diverse, are weighted in favor of people more like the Kleinfelds: professional, Republican, Jewish and, more critically, not worried about how they are going to pay the bills.

The book emphasizes people who migrated to Alaska, saying little about what those who were born here think of the frontier adventurers. And by focusing so much on Alaska, wonderful as that is for those who live here, the author may be limiting the appeal of her book in other states.

The book's combination of pop-culture pep talk with serious analysis is odd, but ultimately it feels more refreshing than discordant. Kleinfeld can be controversial, but she is a great communicator, and she knows how to sugar-coat even her bitter pills for easy consumption. This is a fun book, even if you disagree with some of her assertions or stop short of her sunny assessments about life in our society. It is jaunty, thoughtful and hard to put down.

If you have friends you have been trying to persuade to move to Alaska, this might be the book to convince them. Or if you are having trouble explaining to dear ones elsewhere why you like living in Alaska, this might be the book to answer their doubts. And if you are not happy with your current life, maybe "Go For It!" really will help you help yourself.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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