Is Self Help Really Worth It?

Pete Ross

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I inadvertently stumbled into the whole personal development/self improvement thing about 10 years ago while I was still in the army. At the time I didn’t really realise what I was doing — all I knew was that I was competing at a high level in judo, I’d really gotten my act together in terms of life and I was succeeding at work. Since that time I’ve tried just about every practice that’s out there and even written plenty of my own articles on it in addition to a book on elite athlete development (I’ve competed at national level in 2 different sports).

As usual in life, there are two camps at either end with extremely rigid opinions. On the one hand you have the sceptics who think self improvement is just a bunch of BS for people like Tony Robbins to sell seminar tickets. On the other hand, you have the people who read every self improvement article they can get their hands on and pay thousands for seminar tickets without ever really accomplishing anything. As always, the best spot to be is always in the middle, evaluating everything on its merits and giving it a try. Here’s what I feel like I know that might benefit you.

No amount of self improvement is going to make you a billionaire

Man, the Medium self improvement crowd love to talk about the routines, habits and practices of billionaires as though doing them are going to help you become one. Here’s the thing, all of that is utterly inconsequential to their success. They aren’t billionaires because of their routines and habits, they’re billionaires because they’re either incredibly intelligent and insightful (like Peter Thiel) or they have the right idea at the right time and in the right place, with the right advantages. No amount of hard work or self improvement is going to substitute for that.

Not everything is going to work for you

You’re forgiven if you think after being here that you have to drink green tea, practice meditation, wake up at 5am, do a gratitude journal every day and take a cold shower. Sure, a lot of the practices you’ll find are great, but you’ll find some of them just don’t do anything for you. Cold showers feel really good, but I can’t say that they’ve really done anything for me in a development sense. Likewise the fact that I spend a lot of time writing both here and for my job means that journalling is somewhat superfluous for me. If you find a practice that everyone is talking about for sure give it a try but if it doesn’t land for you, don’t keep forcing it.

When it comes to a lot of practices in the self development world, people like the idea of them more than the actual doing, but they’ll flagellate themselves to either keep doing it when it’s not useful or because it didn’t give them the results they expected. Don’t beat yourself up or waste time on things that don’t work.

Finally, something not working for you doesn’t necessarily mean that you aren’t doing it right either. I still recall a douchebag who kept insisting that my sluggish athletic performance on a keto diet was because I wasn’t doing it right, not because it didn’t work for me. As I go into below, there are no silver bullets, so something not working is never the end of the world.

It’s going to make your life a heck of a lot better

Ok, so self improvement isn’t going to make you a billionaire or a hot shot entrepreneur. Maybe if you’re like me, you still work for a company and live like most of society — not in a mansion and not as a digital nomad. That doesn’t mean that your effort is wasted. The great thing about self improvement is that you maximise everything. The fact that I have routines in my life, that I know a lot about elite performance, nutrition, finance and keeping drama in my life to a minimum means that I have a pretty freaking great life. I have meaningful relationships, I perform really well at my job which pays well above the average salary, I have excellent finances and most importantly, I have a great family and personal life. That to me is what self improvement is about — it’s not about being rich, it’s about having your act together and operating at a level that you love life and aren’t struggling.

After all, if all this self improvement isn’t actually making your life better and more enjoyable, then what the hell are you doing it for?

You have to be kind to yourself

The problem with being driven and highly motivated, always trying new things and always striving to improve also means that I have a tendency to beat myself up for not doing it fast enough. No matter how much you focus on yourself, you’re going to see other people who seem to be doing better at a younger age and you’re going to hate yourself at least a little bit for not being better earlier. The thing is, you’ve got to remember what you’re doing it for. Are you doing it to be better than other people? Better how? That road is a neverending one that you’re best off not driving down.

I’m a very future driven person, so one thing I’ve found to be worthwhile is to have an achievement wall in my home office. It’s so easy for me to slip back into the mentality of “I’m not doing well enough” by ignoring everything I’ve achieved in the past, so having a reminder of it is a good way to add perspective.

Don’t look for the silver bullets

They don’t exist. There are only things that will help you with various levels of ROI. Getting a solid routine going is a high ROI activity and can be so effective that you springboard off it with a bunch of other practices that really change your life. It’s not going to make you a CEO in 3 years though. Stop looking for life changing practices and start by trying out one small thing at a time and seeing how it goes. You’re curious about meditation and think you need it to hit the next level? Ok, you don’t need to go on a 3 day silent retreat, how about you start with just 5 minutes a day, every single day and see how that works for you. Increase it by 5 minutes each week and after 3 weeks evaluate how you feel.

Looking for silver bullets is what causes people to get conned and pay thousands of dollars on courses by people that don’t know what they’re talking about. To be honest, I still feel dirty for buying The Secret and The $100 Startup, even though they only cost around $20 each. Both of those books were nothing more than silver bullet promises that were a bunch of BS.

You’re never going to find perfection

It doesn’t matter whether it’s your routine, your diet, your work, your relationships, no amount of self improvement is going to mean that your life is perfect and you don’t have any troubles. Remember at the end of The Lion King when Simba ascends Pride Rock and looks up to the sky with uncertainty? After everything he’s been through and accomplished, he shouldn’t need reassurance, but he does. We all do. No amount of self improvement is going to mean that you’ll do everything perfectly, that you won’t need help, that you won’t make mistakes, that you won’t get frustrated.

You’re still going to encounter all the difficulties in life that other people do, but the difference is that you’re going to be much better equipped to handle them. You’re the little pig that builds his house with bricks rather than straw, so when the big bad wolf comes along, your house is still standing.

You’re still going to have to work hard

I love motivational videos, but if there’s one thing I’m tired of hearing, it’s this almost religious like assertion that once you decide to make a change, the whole universe is going to open up to you. Uh, WRONG. There are 7 billion other people on this Earth who want different things than you do, and they aren’t just going to make way and give you everything you want because you’ve decided to become the best version of yourself. There will still be frustrations, road blocks and failures. Real self improvement means learning how to handle those things in the best way possible and to keep forging ahead without giving up.

You are going to deal with haters

I hate the term “haters” — I think it’s asinine and used far too often. That said, by constantly improving yourself and doing better in life, you’re effectively holding a mirror up to everyone around you and showing them that they aren’t. People are going to resent you for that, or at the very least will project their insecurities onto you by calling you smug, arrogant or saying things like “you think you’re so good” or “well excuse me Mr I have everything together in my life.” Don’t pay any attention to it or take it personally. It’s not your job to save the world or to improve their life, but at the same time it is on you to be kind and help them if (and only if) they ask for it. Being the best version of yourself is no good if you’re an arrogant jackass, looking down on everyone else as though they’re not worth your time because they don’t live the same way as you.

Don’t turn it into a religion

There seems to be plenty out there in self help land who act as though their piety somehow makes their life even better. They never indulge in coffee because “that’s bad for you”, they never have a single bad meal, and their morning routine is more rigid than the one that I experienced at army boot camp. They’re like the Ned Flanders of self-improvement.

To that I say, Jesus Christ, pull the stick out of your butt. It’s not a competition, and the whole point of self improvement isn’t to be some monument to purity. Don’t take this stuff too seriously — use it to improve and enrich your life, not to make a prison for yourself. Loosen up and have a beer, you’ll live longer.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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