Out self-help author and motivational speaker M.J. Dougherty moves ahead by screwing up


M.J. Dougherty will share his upbeat outlook at a book signing Sunday at Barnes & Noble.


Life has handed M.J. Dougherty many lemons — perhaps more than his fair share. Yet he has deftly managed to transform the proverbial sour fruit of hardship into something sweetly satisfying. Compiling anecdotes of his triumph over personal misfortune, Dougherty authored Life Lessons from a Total Failure, an engaging and relatable autobiographical self-help book.

After launching a multi-city tour to promote the release, Dougherty — who makes a book-signing stop by Barnes & Noble in Dallas on Sunday — quickly learned that sharing life experiences publicly can be unexpectedly interactive. Dougherty finds that, after hearing his stories of failure, others are often motivated to share their own. The resulting discourse is therapeutic.

“I’m an open book,” Dougherty says, intending no pun. “Other people aren’t. It may take just one person to open a dialogue with them to help [them] to open up and share. I know how good that is for the soul. That’s kind of how I decided to write the book.”

Dougherty identifies two common threads that run through most stories of personal failure. The first is one’s natural tendency to feel regret. The other is a propensity to harbor shame. Dougherty’s mission with his book, in part, is to help dispel these negative emotions and to release their chilling grip on life.

“We all have things in our past that we regret,” Dougherty says. “We have shame attached to them. I saw how great it is when you can open up and talk about your failures… and how it takes the power away from them.”

On a positive note, Dougherty counsels that defeat offers a built-in opportunity for redemption. Life’s failures, when they are properly embraced, can inspire and even propel future success. As a survivor of attempted suicide, Dougherty knows better than most that failure can sometimes be a godsend.

“My original opening of the book was me waking up on the floor and saying, ‘Oh my God, I cannot even kill myself right!’” Dougherty says. “Honestly, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It woke me up, and it forced me to make the changes that I needed to have the life that I have now. My life is now pretty great.”

Not surprisingly, Dougherty, who is also a motivational speaker, advocates prioritizing self-care in everyday life. He strongly believes that before we can be really useful to others, we first have to help ourselves. Dougherty employs umbrella imagery to illustrate this idea. In fact, a red umbrella graphic graces the cover of his book, and he has dubbed his cross-country journey the Red Umbrella Tour.

“An umbrella is a good example of a small ordinary thing that you use directly to protect yourself,” Dougherty says. “You shield yourself from the world and make sure you are okay. This tour isn’t just about my book. It’s about learning how to fully embrace who you are from the inside out… and doing what you need to do so that you can be everything you need to be for yourself and for the world around you.”

Another of Dougherty’s methods for coping with failure is simply to accept the fact that life is a roller coaster. He suggests that tempering one’s reactions to life’s ups and downs can be a useful tool. In this regard, Dougherty shares advice that his Uncle Jerry once gave him.

“A major message of my book is to learn not to live your life in extremes,” he says. “Don’t let the highs be too high. Don’t let the lows be too low. Learn how to keep things in the middle ground. Then you can continue without having to try to regain that balance in life.”

Interestingly, the out author finds that his audiences are generally more straight than gay. He attributes this lopsided support to the fact that members of the gay community probably don’t find his life experiences all that unusual. On those occasions when he does engage with the LGBT community, he feels instant kinship.

“They understand [my experiences] on such a deep level,” Dougherty says. “It really kind of shows this fraternal connection in the gay community because we understand isolation and pain and shame really better than most.”

Dougherty recently learned that a television production company is developing a sitcom adapted from his book. As planned, the show will be similar in style to shows like Seinfeld, Roseanne or Ellen. For Dougherty, the exhilarating news is nothing short of a dream come true.

“They are developing a sitcom based on my book set to star me,” Dougherty smiles. “I will play M.J. on the show. I’m very happy. I’m overwhelmed.”
Now that is some impressive failure.

— Scott Huffman

Signing and discussion at Barnes & Noble, Preston Royal Shopping Center, 5959 Royal Lane. Feb. 12 at 3 p.m.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February, 10 2017.