The Three Dark Sides of Self-Improvement

Sean Kernan

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Editorial Rights purchased from Surhai Holdem via iStock Photos

The first self-help novel was penned in 1859 by Samuel Smiles. It was appropriately titled Self-Help and sold 250,000 copies, a massive figure in those days. It launched Smiles from relative obscurity to huge fame and fortune, touring the nation as a guru.

What’s interesting, and concerning, is that Smiles’ prior careers as a doctor and journalist were a string of failures.

Perhaps it is poetic in its own way. The self-help industry is worth more than $10 billion annually and is only growing. Its many players dance across stages making big promises to their constituents, all for a low low price but only if you buy today. There is so much to gain from self-improvement. But be careful of these three things.

A symbolic but true surfing story

Around age 10, one of my friends suddenly had this new passion for surfing. We lived in Florida where that was a big thing. His walls were covered in posters. He could name every surfer, as well as the many types of waves. His encyclopedic knowledge of surfing was immensely impressive— until he actually surfed.

I was surprised. He couldn’t even stand up on his board for more than two seconds. And to be fair, neither could I. But I hadn’t spent a mountain of time studying and talking about surfing.

This speaks to a common issue in self-improvement. People read self-help books for hours. They listen to podcasts and attend seminars. They do all the things except the actual work. Yet by being near the problem, they feel like they are getting things done. This is why blogs with titles such as “tiny habits” are so popular — they imply massive change comes from small increments of effort.

The easiest way to get better is to focus on one simple framework or set of advice. Put that reading time directly into the effort instead. Our brain can’t focus on twenty self-help priorities at once. It is focused efforts protracted across stretches of time that produce lasting change. In other words, dedication.

The issue of perfection

A guru’s message often hammers away at miserable jobs and not feeling accomplished. It’s easy for readers to conflate this with, “I’m not good enough.” It’s even easier when these gurus are successful, charismatic and attractive. They seem to be at the top of their game.

Yet even if everything these gurus say is true, people forget their persona is an act. Each of them is still at the mercy of prevalence-induced concept change. It is the phenomenon whereby you redefine your life’s problems as your circumstances improve. It’s why not having time for yoga before brunch becomes a major life problem. So you can be sure that at least a few of those gurus are whining about having to fix their third Porsche.

The second trap of self-improvement is thinking there is a promised land where you suddenly stop feeling broken. Contentment and the practicing of gratitude should transcend any mission to better your life. The work never stops.

To make an analogy, imagine yourself as a video game console — a PlayStation 3. It wasn’t broken. It was incredible. But there was still room for improvement so Sony made a PlayStation 4. Consider yourself a consumer product going through the R&D evolution. Don’t let self-improvement crush your self-image.

The credibility problem

I had a mild falling out with a very popular Quora writer several years ago. In his now-deleted post, he was advocating people quit college and pursue their dreams. He said education didn’t matter and listed all these platitudes that life coaches often preach.

My issue wasn’t just that he was wrong — because he was. Even with increased costs, getting a college degree remains one of the most reliable ways to boost lifetime earnings. My bigger issue was his hypocrisy. He’d graduated from an Ivy League college. He’d used that degree to land a job on Wall Street. He’d used that successful background to sell his self-help books.

As someone who writes self-improvement, I can assure you it isn’t difficult to produce content. You just look up the things people are saying and you repackage it. Even if you have no sources for your claims, people will eat it up.

My point is this: credibility matters. If someone makes claims about self-improvement and changing your life, ensure they have authority. I love reading articles by academics who have labored over a subject and met with people and had their claims picked apart by panels.

The good news is that there is a massive body of research covering the many things self-improvement writers talk about. There are proven ways to change your life. But don’t drink someone’s Kool-Aid without justification.

It brings to mind a line from Bernard Shaw’s play, Man and Superman, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Be careful with your sources of advice.

I hope each of you never ceases your quest. Self-improvement is a noble and good journey. If you’d like to succeed watch out for these three traps.

  1. You are consuming lots of self-help but not actually putting in any work. Pick one set of advice and focus on those goals before chasing another rabbit.
  2. You start feeling worse about yourself because of the content you read. Remember, not all is as perfect as it seems online. Practice gratitude and appreciate the blessings in your life.
  3. Ensure your author is citing sources or has authority on the subject. Don’t buy the sizzle when you need the steak.

And lastly, ensure you are celebrating milestones. The other day I saw a woman posting her latest fitness progress photo. She was thrilled with the results and sharing them with all of us. When I see people really taking the time to spike the ball and feel good about their journey, I know they have a chance of achieving their goals.

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