Here’s something obvious: I’m a fan of personal development. Self-improvement is a wonderful thing! Through improving ourselves, we learn to overcome our fears, achieve our goals, develop stronger relationships, push past boundaries and plateaus, and get to know and understand ourselves far better.
But there is also a dark side to personal development. The self-help industry is huge, and there are many unscrupulous purveyors of products that are useless at best and harmful at worst.
It’s not just the people selling snake oil to whoever will buy it; there are many more subtle problems with the personal development industry and, in particular, the way consumers will actually use the material that they read or listen to. This is why you have self-help junkies, or the people who spend two or three years buying every product they can get their hands on, and still remain stuck in the same place.
There is a right way and a wrong way to consume personal development information. Scratch that; there are many right and wrong ways. That being said, you could be doing it wrong, and doing more harm than good.
In this post, I want to draw the distinction between using self-improvement materials effectively and using them as merely an emotional crutch. First, let’s take a look at some of the problems with personal development in general.
Problems With Personal Development
Self-help, including books, DVDs, seminars, life coaching, and so on, is a $13 billion per year industry in the U.S. There is a ton of material out there, and just as much demand for it.
In any industry this large, there are going to be some “good” guys and some “bad” guys, charlatans who will overpromise and under-deliver. This section isn’t about these “bad” guys per se (although they are disproportionate contributors to the following problems), but rather about issues with self-help as a whole.
Who Is The “Self” In Self-Help?
Recently, I read this fascinating article in which the author brings up a great point that I had never considered: in most self-help materials, the concept of the “self” is largely dualist. There is the part of the self that is a failure of some kind, a creature of poor habits. Then there is the more divine portion of the self, which somehow is unaffected by the same conditioning, and has the power to exercise judgment and make good choices. This seems contradictory.
And I think that’s a fair criticism, at least to a point. It certainly explains why personal development can be some damn challenging; it assumes the existence of some aspect of self that can rise above the problems that have gotten us to wherever we are in the first place.
But, as the author acknowledges, there are many techniques that fall under the umbrella of “self-help”, and a number of these don’t necessarily apply to this model. For example, the admonition that we should “accept ourselves” does not require these two aspects of a dualist self to have differing abilities. And volunteering or engaging in social activities isn’t exactly “self”-help, even when the self is benefiting from it.
Overall though, it is a legitimate point. Science and philosophy have tried to define and isolate a “self” for a long time without coming up with a satisfying solution. This lack of understanding surely contributes to the difficulty of pursuing personal development, though it hardly invalidates the entirety of it.
Creates A False Sense Of Achievement
Consuming personal development materials creates a certain feeling of having accomplished something. We assume that by honoring our impulse to improve ourselves, we do in fact become better people. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.
I’ve been an avid consumer of self-help books and articles for many years now, but it’s only been in the last two or three that I’ve made serious progress because of it. What was I doing all those years before positive changes started to happen?
I found that reading a good personal development book would give me an emotional boost, without me needing to make any changes to my life. In other words, it made me complacent. The dopamine release that I got from reading was enough that I felt no need for doing.
This reminds me of a cartoon I saw a while back. Its caption was: “My doctor told me to start my new exercise regimen slowly. Today I drove past a store that sells sweatpants.”
This is the way many of us pursue personal development. We trick ourselves into believing that we’ve accomplished something, which just makes us more disappointed when we realize that our lives have been stagnant for the past X years.
The dopamine released by consuming these materials, plus the “crash” that comes with realizing you haven’t made any progress in your life can lead to an emotional addiction. Reading a book gives you hope, and allows you to escape to a fantasy world where life is easy, you are a millionaire with a six pack, and every girl is totally into you.
But then reality hits, you realize that you still kinda suck, and you reach for another book, DVD, or seminar.
This cycle can and does grab a hold of many; however, many people are able to benefit heavily from self-help without it keeping them stuck forever. In the past two years, I’ve made so much progress that it makes my head spin, and I’m not the only one.
Personal development materials do help people, but only the ones who can separate fantasy from reality. There is nothing wrong with having a “fantasy” life, but you can’t just live in it forever when it is in conflict with reality. Have a goal in mind, but also have a realistic assessment of the obstacles you will encounter on your way there.
Sacrificing this fantasy world can be incredibly challenging and painful for many people. But real personal development demands that it be done.
Reinforces Perceptions Of Inferiority
Strongly related to the previous point, self-help materials can reinforce the perception that you are inferior.
Many of the individuals attracted to personal development are those who believe that they are fundamentally flawed. And until this perception is changed, self-help tends to contribute to this view.
For example, I might be hard on myself for not having an online business, because I’ve read so much about other people who do. Or, in my quest to look good, I’ll have exposed myself to so many images of ripped dudes that my mere 180 lbs of pure muscle (ahem) just isn’t good enough.
You are particularly at risk here if you are caught in the fantasy versus reality struggle described above. As you consume more and more self-improvement material, you become more and more convinced of your inferiority. You reason that if you have been “trying” to improve yourself for so long and haven’t succeeded, clearly there is something wrong with you.
On top of that, you wonder why you “need” personal development in the first place. After all, other people aren’t talking about it, so why is it “only” you who is doing this? Of course, plenty of other people are attempting personal development, or it wouldn’t be a $13 billion dollar industry, but that doesn’t occur to you.
It is through this mechanism that self-help can actually do more harm than good. Perhaps this is the most damning criticism of self-help.
Luckily, this isn’t an intrinsic feature of personal development. It is just “bad” personal development. Everyone, but particularly the types of people most attracted to self-improvement, must begin with a foundation of self-acceptance.
The Illusion Of A “Magic Pill”
There is a diverse array of personalities in the self-help world. Some of those who are big marketers are liable to make grandiose claims about how following their system will lead to miraculous results with little effort.
The “Law of Attraction”, even though parts of it can be valuable, is a perfect example of this overhyping. Sure, visualization has some merit and your beliefs are incredibly important, but it takes real effort to accomplish real results.
People will always be searching for a magic pill that will make their lives perfect, and there will always be people ready and willing to take advantage of them.
Oh, and don’t go blaming these authors for trying to trick you. It is your responsibility to parse out the wheat from the chaff.
If you are checking out some personal development product and it seems to be promising too much, it probably is. If it says that self-improvement is easy, they are lying to you in order to make more money.
Here’s the reality: changing your life is difficult. It takes a lot of work, it takes the courage to confront your fears, and it takes a willingness to experience some bumps and bruises along the way.
If you spend enough time consuming personal development materials, you’ll come across a huge number of inconsistencies and contradictions.
Should you focus on having more leisure time or on working harder? Should you eat low-carb or low-fat? Tell her you’re into her or play hard to get? Focus on setting long-term goals, or live in the moment?
It’s no wonder people can get so confused about how to pursue self-improvement.
When you read something off this site, you are reading about what works for me. Now, I like to think that I provide some decent scientific evidence for most of my claims, but that doesn’t guarantee you will experience the same results as I did from doing the same things I do.
And it’s the same for ALL of personal development. If you read a book about overcoming adversity, you are reading that one person’s perspective on it.
Multiple, competing perspectives can coexist. It’s quite possible that what works for me will have the opposite effect for you.
This is especially true for the more “new age” prescriptions out there. A lot of what is written in the self-help genre has no scientific basis. That doesn’t mean that it won’t work (just as being backed by science doesn’t guarantee that it will work either), but it does mean you shouldn’t expect the same results as someone else.
And, luckily, there are a growing number of people in the industry making recommendations based off of evidence from positive psychology and other research. For example, the practice of keeping a gratitude journal is well-researched, and is increasingly being recommended as a means of becoming a happier person.
Difficult To Apply To Yourself
My final criticism of self-help in general is in how challenging it is to personalize most of the advice to your individual situation.
As I mentioned above, a lot of the material that’s out there is ultimately about its author, and isn’t necessarily applicable to you. Unfortunately, many of these authors will write as though it should work exactly the same for you as it did them. As a writer, it can be hard not to.
They will peddle some one-size-fits-all advice, despite the fact that different people have wildly varying value systems.
A big thing right now is the “quit your job and become an internet entrepreneur” meme, even though that lifestyle may not be compatible with your values. Perhaps a more “typical” job will provide you the stability you need to pursue other goals more important to you.
There’s nothing wrong with a personal development author explaining what has worked for them. In fact, it is one of the best ways to get a point across. However, it becomes disingenuous when the author then goes on to claim that you should follow the same path and expect the same results.
How NOT To Consume Personal Development Material
While there are many legitimate criticisms of the self-help industry, I think some of the failure to improve peoples’ lives is a consequence of the way people consume this material. As I said in the introduction to this post, there are right and wrong ways of pursuing personal development.
Let’s go into some of the wrong ways.
Many people have this belief that they need perfect knowledge before taking action. They don’t feel adequately “prepared” to take action, so they just read another book or watch another DVD, hoping that will fill in the missing piece of the puzzle.
Well I’ve got news for you: you’ll never find that missing piece. There will never be a time when you are fully prepared and ready to handle the challenges that personal development brings. Taking action in spite of your fears is never easy, and thinking that one day it will be is just more “magic pill”, fantasy world, la la land thinking.
This paralysis by analysis held me back for many years. The information I gained during that time was valuable, to be sure. But it was only valuable insofar as I eventually took action based on it. Had I never broken out of my “analysis paralysis”, all the information and mindsets that I learned about would have been completely worthless.
And when you spend so much time reading and not taking action, you forget the things you’ve read. I’ve read certain personal development books several times, not because they are that good, but because I didn’t remember if they were or not.
Taking action won’t necessarily give you results, but not doing anything is a guarantee that you won’t.
Looking For “Problems” To “Fix”
I think this is a characteristic of one of the major types of person who consumes personal development material. It’s not about improving their life so much as it is to fix their problems.
Many an insecure person have assumed that they need to be “fixed” before they can be happy/healthy/wealthy/successful. When they don’t end up with the results they want, they reason that it is because of some inherent defect in themselves, and suddenly have another thing that requires “fixing”.
In these people, there is a presupposition that they are inadequate. This, of course, is not a good place to start. No amount of personal development will make this feeling of inadequacy go away unless and until that person learns to accept himself.
So many people are unsatisfied with the results they’ve achieved in the area of personal development largely because of this lack of self-acceptance.
“But Mike, aren’t self-acceptance and personal development mutually exclusive?”
Nope. You can accept yourself as you are now and still recognize the infinite growth potential you have. It’s easier said than done, of course, but personal development is rarely easy. If you start from a mindset of inadequacy, it’ll be nearly impossible to pull yourself out of it.
Assuming That Growth Is Linear
Even if you don’t admit it consciously, there’s a good chance you have an expectation that if you put X effort into self-improvement, you’ll observe Y effect.
Framed differently, most people expect some type of feedback from the efforts that they are putting in. Unfortunately, this usually doesn’t happen. And then the same people are disillusioned, because they can’t see any results.
Real growth tends to reveal itself in spurts. This means that you might spend six months dutifully applying whatever you’ve learned and yet still not see any results. Then one day it just clicks.
I like to think of this like Pokemon, or some other role playing game. You can grow levels and evolve, but between each level, you have a period of time where you are stagnant. And as humans, we can’t see how many “experience points” we earn after each “battle”.
Yeah, I know, that totally blows. It especially blows because you could very well be doing something that is ineffective, and it’s hard to tell. How can we get around this?
First of all, you must trust the process. Don’t be so focused on the end game that you can’t appreciate the changes that you are making. In fact, there is no “end point” or condition after which you can consider yourself successful and done. Growth is a lifelong commitment, and you will never suddenly be “satisfied” to the point that you are beyond growth.
Second, you should focus on more scientifically valid ideas. If you are trying to be happier, keeping a gratitude journal is more likely to work than positive affirmations will. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do affirmations, but why not go with the more proven option first?
Over time, you become more tuned in to your own personal growth, and you can notice results/feedback more easily. But until then, you may only notice growth when you look at bigger chunks of time, such as comparing yourself to where you were a year ago.
Overall, you need to release yourself of expectations. This doesn’t mean you should be complacent, or that you should indefinitely continue using a technique that doesn’t appear to be working. What it does mean is that you should be ready to have inconsistent results, to win some and lose some, and to even backslide at times. And when you do experience growth, it may hit you hard and fast, or it may be gradual. But it’s not very predictable.
Making Improper Social Comparisons
Comparing yourself to people who’ve already “made it” can be either inspiring or highly detrimental.
There are many people who over rely on these comparisons to judge their own progress. If you look at the abs of some fitness “guru”, chances are good that yours aren’t as chiseled. If that just encourages you to keep working out and eating right without making you insecure, great! But for many, it just reinforces a negative self-image.
Social comparisons in general are risky. Don’t get me wrong; they serve an incredibly valuable function. However, due to our many biases, social comparisons are often inaccurate and potentially harmful.
Your personal development journey is your own, and the relative standing of other people should be irrelevant.
The Right Way To Consume Personal Development Material
If you’ve read this far, you might think that personal development is more trouble than it’s worth. Yes, there are risks, and yes, it takes a lot of work. However, a commitment to personal growth is still important and worthwhile, provided you do it correctly.
In this section, I want to go over the right way to consume self-improvement materials. Not all of these will work for everyone, but if you keep these things in mind, you may avoid the pitfalls that so many growth-oriented individuals seem to fall into.
There Is Always Room For Self-Improvement
Recognize this fact, and internalize it as quickly as possible. No matter how great you are at something, you can always find a way to improve.
Depressing? Hardly. I’m not trying to argue from the “what’s the point? I’ll never be good anyways…” side. Rather, I’m pointing out that there is no “end point”. You will never be done.
The massively important corollary to this is that no matter where you are now, you’re okay. Just because you have plenty of room to grow, it doesn’t make you “bad” now.
I like to compare this to a great redwood tree. Even if it is hundreds of feet tall now, it was once just a seed. And at all stages of its growth, it was fundamentally the same thing.
We are all the same. We grow, but that doesn’t make us any “less” when we are at an early stage in this growth.
Always Be Closing
Here is a great scene from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross:
While personal development is not the same as selling real estate, the ability to take action or “close” is still the master key to success. Self-improvement without action is like learning to drive from reading a book; sure, you can pick up a few things, but you aren’t really getting better until you’ve stepped into the car and taken it for a spin.
It’s perfectly natural to have an information gathering phase, and especially in certain areas of personal development. For example, if you want to begin saving for retirement, you might want to learn a little about budgeting, IRAs, etc. before diving in head first. That being said, you can and should immediately take action by, say, not buying that unnecessary trinket you come across.
During this information gathering phase, I would advise you to keep the 80/20 rule in mind. Since only 20% of the information you gather will provide you with 80% of your results, you ought not to spend too much time in analysis without having begun to take action.
Develop A Plan Of Action Or Strategy
As you consume personal development material, it is important that you don’t just read it and then forget it. When you come across useful bits of information, write them down somewhere, and throw them into your action plan.
That’s right, an action plan. I support and encourage jumping right in and applying anything you learn, but it is even better to do this as part of a wider plan.
The personal finance example remains illustrative here. Yes, you can immediately cut down on certain unnecessary expenses. But for a larger goal, such as saving for retirement, is nearly impossible to accomplish with only arbitrary actions. However, a plan or strategy will make this far easier. As you find useful money-saving or income-generating tips, you can add them into your plan to maximize their impact.
Getting in shape is another good example. Again, I would encourage healthy eating or exercising without needing to gather huge amounts of information first, but having a plan is still quite helpful. For example, having a targeted, well-designed workout will be far more effective than arbitrary workouts where you don’t know what you are doing.
So, as you consume personal development material, make sure you immediately add the useful information into your action plan/strategy, and begin applying it. Otherwise, that information will get lost somewhere.
Stop Spending Money On Personal Development Materials
There is an absurd amount of free and high quality personal development material on the internet, and probably at the library as well. For the majority of people, spending money in order to gain self-improvement knowledge is unnecessary, and it will increase the risk of personal development’s “addictive” qualities described above.
Of course, I do want to qualify this statement a bit. There is absolutely nothing wrong with purchasing a book about self-improvement, particularly if you enjoy it as a piece of literature (I enjoy reading personal development books the way other people enjoy reading novels). However, if your intention is personal growth, I would be more wary.
Spending money on these materials opens yourself up to a whole host of issues, including the emotional addiction and analysis paralysis. These problems still exist with free materials, of course, but I’ve found that spending money creates an irrational feeling of commitment to using/reading whatever it is I’ve bought. In other words, it causes me to delay action by needing to “understand perfectly” what it is I’ve read.
This “don’t buy stuff” principle is hardly an unbreakable part of my recommendations, but I would keep it in mind as a rule of thumb. Before you go emptying your bank account, spend time taking advantage of all the free stuff out there, and get started in applying it to your life. Once you’ve gotten yourself on the right path, I think it is totally okay to purchase some high quality books or courses if you so choose. But wait until then.
Re-Familiarize Yourself With The Materials That Vibe With You
While I don’t want to discourage you too heavily from consuming new personal development materials, I specifically want to encourage you to bookmark or make note of the materials that vibe with you particularly well.
There are certain blog posts I’ve read (and a few books) that have been especially influential upon my thinking. Rather than constantly pursuing new material, I’ve found that rereading the things that I know are good helps me understand them better and integrate their wisdom into my life more thoroughly.
I get the feeling that the majority of personal development materials are saying roughly the same thing or have a similar message, but express it in a different way. It’s worth exploring new materials because you can look at a problem from multiple angles and get other perspectives on it. However, if you find something that you know you like, you should make a point to internalize that perspective.
Focus On Your Next Action
While it important to take a long-term view of your overall growth, you should be focusing on the short-term when it comes to the actions you will take to further that growth. When you consume personal development materials, look for the actionable bits that you can put into practice immediately.
Growth may be a lengthy process with many ups and downs. There are many factors that you can hardly predict, let alone control, that will impact this growth. However, you do have control over the actions that you take right now. In other words, you can choose to go to the gym right now, but it is far more challenging to commit yourself to going to the gym tomorrow, next week, or a year from now. Who knows what will come up during that time?
That’s why your focus must be on the actions you can take right now. At this very moment, I am choosing to write this blog post, when I could be watching Archer on Netflix. I could have put this writing off until later today or tomorrow, but I don’t know what other factors, both psychological and circumstantial, might prevent me from writing later. I can do it now, so I am.
For more details on this mindset, read this and this. Switching to this moment-by-moment decision making process has had a massive positive effect on me. I find it far easier to stick to positive habits and break bad ones, which leads me to…
Establish Positive Routines And Habits
A habit is an action that you perform without much conscious thought or attention. When something becomes a habit, it takes little effort to do, and can even take extreme amounts of effort to not do. Therefore, establishing positive habits (and removing negative ones) is key to your personal development.
In my opinion, a good morning routine can work wonders. For example, I wake up at 4 AM on weekdays, will either write or do research until 5, then I go to the gym and shower before heading in to work. This routine ensures that I make progress with my writing as well as maintain my health. Of course it took some effort to get this routine started (less than you think), but now I can do it on autopilot. With minimal conscious effort, I can make steady progress toward my goals.
Therefore, as you consume personal development materials, you should look for ways to incorporate new habits or routines into your life. If, for example, you read about meditation and decide you want to try it out, you should look for ways to make a habit of it.
That’s not to say you can’t just try it out a few times first. But if you truly want to gain the full benefits of meditation, you will need to do it often. And if you just do it when you “have time”, it will always seem like a burden.
Since positive habits can be hard to form, it is generally best to focus on one or two things at a time. Once you’ve made a habit of those, you’ll free up some willpower and mental bandwidth to begin forming even more positive habits.
The brilliant comedian George Carlin said in one of his stand-up routines, “I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’ She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.”
Besides being hilarious, this line has some real wisdom to it. There is this inherent irony/contradiction in self-help where people are too often seeking the help of others through books, DVDs, courses, etc. And while there is nothing wrong with this per se, personal development will only happen when you take it upon yourself to do something about it.
The self-help industry has its fair share of shady characters. It also has a number of risks and generally negative aspects. That being said, I strongly believe that there is serious utility to many of the products that come out of this industry, and innumerable people have benefited from insights that were spawned out of these materials.
It is your responsibility to incorporate the good aspects into your life while discarding the bad. By reading this post, you have taken an important step in reducing the risks that the personal development industry might subject you too, while simultaneously enjoying the fruits of it.
Have you experienced any negative effects from your quest for self-improvement? Let me know in the comments.