You’re not very happy are you? Be honest.
There is something nagging away.
As your friends are chatting, cracking jokes and enjoying a glass of wine; you’re trying to join in with the fun but something is holding you back. An invisible rope, fastened around your torso, tightening the slack and reigning you in whenever you’re about to let go and enjoy yourself.
What is it? Do you know?
Of course you don’t.
So you end up endlessly searching for a solution for a question you haven’t yet asked. How can you? You don’t know what it is you’re supposed to be looking for.
In the quest for a solution to your unhappiness – Google becomes your best friend. Working in tandem with your fingers to gather the secrets that hide within; a double act of unstoppable momentum. Wave after wave; the information filters into your brain. It becomes a drug. Typing – searching – clicking – devouring – an infinite pool of wisdom designed to create the ultimate high.
You can’t get enough of it.
Yet, as with any addiction, the feeling persists. The emptiness grows.
Why is this so?
Nothing that you are reading is making any sense. There is no connection – no chemistry. If this was a first date, you would have said your goodbye’s a long time ago. You’re after something exciting. Something that feels like it was written just for you.
Where the hell is it?
You’ve tried everything, but you’re no closer to happiness.
A horrible realisation starts to dawn.
“Could it be… is it possible… what if this self-help stuff is a load of horseshit?”
A wry smile appears on your face as the fog begins to clear…
The modern belief that we can talk ourselves into a positive frame of mind is thought to stem from Samuel Smiles’ 1859 book ‘Self-Help – perhaps the first true book in the personal development genre.
Ever since, it has been widely accepted that the cure for a lack of confidence is to stand in front of a mirror and lie your way to a positive state of mind. This seems great in theory. I mean – if our sense of self-worth can be influenced by the words of our peers, then it stands to reason that a hearty ‘You’re a star’ can put a smile on our face to match any other forms of self-love we may or may not indulge in.
There is a small problem. Research has shown that having a conversation with our reflection is not only a little silly; it can actually make us feel worse.
A Canadian study at the University of Waterloo instructed people with both high and low self-esteem to repeat the mantra ‘I am a loveable person’. Surprisingly, this only had a positive effect on those who already thought they were living an awesome life. Everyone else felt worse. The belief is that we mainly use our past experiences and real evidence from our lives to base our feelings on, and that everything else; including these self-affirmations, merely serve to highlight our pre-existing emotions or insecurities.
And more importantly; if the movie Candyman taught me anything – it’s that standing in front of a mirror repeating something over and over is never a good plan.
2. You can achieve anything you set your mind to
Put your hand up if you watch American Idol or X Factor (or any one of its many siblings).
That’s it, get out…
Nah I’m only joking – you can stay. I just won’t talk to you.
Every year we (not me, honest) all sit down in front of the TV and laugh hysterically when, in the early rounds of the auditions, wave after wave of talentless lunatics brave the ridicule of the nation for their one shot at greatness.
These people warble away – eyes closed – safe in the knowledge they are treating the audience to one of the greatest cover versions of Whitney Houston’s ‘I have nothing’ in recent memory.
That is until; the backing track mysteriously cuts out.
One eye slowly peels open… closely followed by the other. The glaring lights of the studio hide the horrified faces that lurk behind. Blinded by their own incompetence – it slowly dawns on them that shit may not be quite as it seems.
As the crowd boo and hiss – the judges deliver their final verdicts.
“Sorry, it’s a no.”
“Good God that I’d rather punch myself in the face with a fist made of rotting ham than subject my poor little ears to another second of this hell. “
With those final words from Simon Cowell reverberating around in their mind – they tearfully stumble backstage and into the waiting arms of their loving family of bullshitters.
So what happened?
People love being helpful. Everyone likes to think that deep down – there is a life coach waiting to burst out. We try our best to motivate and inspire our friends and family to achieve their own personal greatness.
“You can achieve anything you set your mind to.”
“You’re doing really well.”
“You’re going to be a star.”
These talent show hopefuls are fed lies from day one – repeatedly informed by their loved ones they sound fantastic and are primed for greatness. Their growing delusion only serves to push them on and it’s usually only when they stand face to face with an audience of millions, that reality finally kicks their ass.
It’s painful to watch. Ok, it’s funny as hell, but shh, I’m trying to make a point.
There is a slight paradox at work here. While you should be very careful in telling someone they can achieve anything – you should never, ever tell someone they cannot achieve something. On the surface it may appear as if I’m contradicting myself, but these two sentences are polar opposites.
The former can be dangerous if used in the wrong context or in the wrong situation, but the latter is truly disgusting behaviour.
Encourage, but never discourage. Offer advice, support and guidance where possible and most importantly; don’t make any promises another person can’t keep.
It’s ok to tell yourself you can achieve anything– but be careful who you are talking to.
I’ve also reached the end of this section without mentioning ‘The Secret’…
3. If you write down your goals you are more likely to succeed
If there is one thing the internet is great at, it’s telling big fat whopping lies.
By now, if you’ve been hanging out at the self-help party for long enough, you’ve probably read about the infamous Yale ‘experiment’ that took place in 1953 regarding goal setting and success.
If you haven’t, here is the summary;
In 1953, a team of researchers asked Yale’s graduating seniors if they had written down any specific long term goals relating to their future. Apparently only 3% had done this. Twenty years later, another team tracked down these graduates and were shocked to discover that these 3% had accumulated more wealth than the other 97% combined.
So there you go, right? Legit evidence (from a legit university) that proves writing down your goals will greatly enhance your chances of success in the future.
Except, this study never happened. Like the Boogeyman and Michael Jackson – a myth created to scare the kiddies.
Another ‘study’ appeared citing something similar happening at Havard in 1979. Again, 3% of graduates had written down their goals while 97% were presumably too busy getting laid or something.
Iffy results, I’m sure you’ll agree. It’s almost like they copy/pasted from the previous (bullshitting) study at Yale.
So what does this mean?
It means that writing down your goals is only useful to those people who have trouble remembering where they parked their car.
Having a clear goal in mind is what’s important. Whether you document it or not will make absolutely no difference in your ability to succeed in the future.
4. You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with
What a load of arbitrary nonsense.
Why 5? Why not 7, or 3?
No Jamie – the number isn’t important. Jim Rohn came up with the theory that you are the sum of the people closest to you.
Ahh I see…
What a load of bollocks.
Believing that we are the average of the people we spend the most time with is to also believe that we lack the individuality that comes with being a member of the human race. Sure, we are influenced by our peers. That is beyond doubt. But if you truly follow this piece of advice as gospel then it will only help you to blame others for your mistakes.
“Oh, it’s not my fault I’m lazy; I just hang with lazy people.”
No, you’re lazy because you’re lazy. There could be a million different reasons why this is the case; but nothing will change unless you take a little responsibility for your own actions. I know. I’m lazy.
Use common sense.
Let’s ask Captain Obvious what he thinks about this. Take it away Captain…
“If your closest friends are millionaires then there is a good chance their success will pull you along for the ride. On the flipside; if your closest friends are deranged meth addicts then it’s entirely possible that you may end up trying something you shouldn’t.
You can apply this logic to anything.
- If you only hang out with Playboy models then you will probably date Playboy models.
- If you only hang out with surfer dudes then you will probably start surfing.
- If you only hang out with Shaolin monks then you’ll probably start to enjoy being kicked in the balls.
People will influence you, but at the end of the day – it is still your choice. Only the weak are pulled in a direction that is the opposite of their core values.”
So there you go. If it’s good enough for the Captain, then it’s good enough for me.
You’re not the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. You’re an individual – and nothing should ever change that.
5. Feel the fear and do it anyway
This isn’t just a popular mantra; it’s the title of one of the most revered books in the self-help industry.
It’s also a ‘false friend’. A piece of advice that seems logical on the surface but doesn’t actually help in any possible way. It ranks up there with ‘cheer up’ and ‘just be yourself’ in the hierarchy of pointless phrases.
Think of it like this…
Many people are scared shitless of spiders, and understandably so. They are essentially alien life forms that roam our planet doing what they want, when they want and not giving two fucks about who or what they eat. Kim Kardashian’s ass cheeks spring to mind here.
I’m pretty certain if they had wings – life as we know it would cease to exist. There would be no point in going on – none. If you think wasps are scary; imagine an eight legged freak chasing you down the road as you wave your flailing limbs around like a lunatic.
Ok, enough of that.
Seriously, could you imagine picking up a spider to get over your fear? How about jumping out of a plane to conquer your hatred of heights or even walk up to a group of hot women to cure your crippling social anxiety?
It’s ludicrous is what it is.
If it’s possible to simply get over your fear by just doing it – we wouldn’t have any fears. They exist for a reason – an evolutionary response to a perceived danger that protects us from all of the nasty shit in the world.
What you can do is take baby steps and through a series of smaller, manageable goals; gain the confidence to eventually pick one of the furry critters up. Anyone that tells you to just ‘deal with it’ or ‘face your fears’ either doesn’t know what they are talking about or is a hypocrite. We all have fears. Every man, woman and beast that has ever existed is afraid of something.
Fear is normal. More importantly; it’s ok to experience it.
Never feel inadequate or less of a person because you’re still wary of the metaphorical monster lurking under your bed.
Overcoming fear is a skill itself – and like everything else; the more you work on it, the easier it will be to deal with similar feelings in the future.
You wouldn’t tell someone with depression to ‘snap out of it’ so you shouldn’t tell someone who is experiencing anxiety to do the same.
‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ is worthless without the ‘how’, and people who give out this advice tend to ignore this part.
So there we have it…
There is a lot of great advice out there hidden beneath the shit. If you look hard enough – you’ll probably find a decent sentence or two within this website.
Try it. Look.
Just be wary of what you read. Don’t take anything as the truth without using a little common sense and intuition. If something doesn’t seem to make sense then throw it away. If a famous personal development guru is suggesting you try something that is out of whack with your goals or values, then throw it away.
Gold exists; but when you find the treasure, you must also bear in mind that words alone will not change anything. Change starts from within and without true intrinsic desire to become the person you see in your mind’s eye – these words will forever remain a small part of the equation.
Self-help – the noble art of providing the answer without the solution.
For the rest of it – you have to look a little closer to home.
What do you think about the Self-help genre? Has it helped you change your life? Are you wary of anything? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below, thanks.
Also, if you enjoyed my words please consider sharing on social media using the little buttons below.
Awesome, awesome post Jamie!!! As someone who has an advanced degree in psychology, it drives me crazy to see all the self-help mumbo-jumbo that gets spread on the internet. #1 and #3 are definite pet peeves on mine. People just assume they must be true without bothering to check the evidence. I’m definitely sharing this post!!
Ed Herzog recently posted..Assume Nothing
Hey Ed, thanks for your kind words! People and assumptions are two things that shouldn’t be mixed. In my opinion, we as a species tend to make bad judgement calls when presented with something that appears to come from a higher authority. Be this bloggers, guru’s, doctors, teachers etc – if we only paused and asked ‘why’ then the chances of making a bad decision would fall dramatically.
Someone did an actual study about goal-setting, and I think writing it down either helped a little, or not at all. I think it was something marginal. The true difference maker was getting social accountability by writing about progress or lack of progress to friends close friends you’d told about your goal every week, as far as I remember.
The average of the 5 people thing might not work by itself, but I think it can be helpful to surround yourself with people who are a little further down the road than yourself (no matter what you’re trying to achieve.) Overstated and overestimated though, I should say.
But yeah you’re definitely onto something here. The cool thing about writing broad self-help books that sell millions, is that you will have plenty of success stories to cherry-pick from… simply because of the number of readers. (I like the analogy Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses about people playing russian roulette for money. Basically, if there’s enough of them, one will defeat the risk time and time again and get rich, and he can claim that it’s a legitimate path to wealth. Apply this principle to self-improvement, and the techniques advocated by some self-help books…. perhaps especially “The Secret” and that kind of crap. )
Ragnar recently posted..Becoming Better At Being Your Own Boss
Ragnar – one of the best comments I have read in ages – and it was to me 😉
That Russian Roulette story is fascinating. I suppose, if you take away the whole ‘blowing your head off’ aspect of it – risk will reward those who are willing to.. erm, risk it, (I wonder what failure brings. Loss of all earnings?). I will definitely read up on Nassim and find out more about the Russian Roulette/money game.
You’re right about self help for the masses. It’s such a huge genre of psychology (if you can call it that) that you can cover pretty much anything. With enough of a catchment area – you have so much room to play with. It would be almost rude NOT to cherry pick.
I respect the message but I do feel it’s missing a key ingredient.
The self-help tips on their own are useless – and that’s the part people miss. Of course, standing in front of a mirror chanting ‘I am confident. I am strong’ 50 times in the morning won’t make a difference to your life.
But if your goal is to lessen your nerves during presentations in the boardroom, then learning to craft convincing presentations, learning about the psychology of performance, and practice, practice, practice, makes a huge difference. Adding a bit of positive self-talk? Will enhance the process.
It’s the blind belief that these self help tips will create some overnight, magical epiphany that’s independent of the actions one takes, that makes self-help flawed.
razwana recently posted..Insecurities, requisite reunions … and tequila
Hey, that reminds me of Arnie’s preparation for the main debate in the run up to the Governor of California leadership. He believed in getting the reps down – covering all bases and making sure that he had the fundamentals mastered to allow him to focus on his personality and his ability to use his charm to gain the advantage. Get the reps in, and allow positivity to carry you through.
Positive talk will always trump negative talk – I do it from time to time, as we all do. As you say, it’s the people who believe it to be a magic pill that tend to suffer in the long run.
Thanks for your opinions, always appreciated 🙂
Hi Jamie, I get a lot from your posts I always have, in fact I recently quit my job!! I have now started retraining in a new direction as well as a new business on the side. Thank you for that.
However this post was probably my least fave if I’m honest. I went through a real bad spell of depression and I tried everything on hand. I changed the people I hung out with, I distanced myself from the negative hoovers that drain the energy from you. I wrote letters to my past, my future and the day I had. I wrote about my worries and positive moments.
Whilst I never talked to the mirror, well I tried, I did and still do talk aloud. I verbalised that I would find a job if I quit (I had two offers).
Maybe I’m a success story or maybe there is done truth to it, I don’t think they should be dismissed out of hand but I do agree that it doesn’t happen overnight and maybe it doesn’t work for everyone but I am a lot happier now. In fact your blog came to me through Facebook and whilst I didn’t read the posts and think yes I can do it, it planted a seed that grew. I think all info is like that, the knowledge is placed and the end results will depend on how it’s treated and nurtured.
Sorry for waffling.
Hi Karen. It seemed like you overcame your troubles because you found the courage and the desire to change. It’s like I said towards the end of the article – self help is only a tool – the rest comes from within, and you’ve achieved that.
Keep doing what you’re doing – it seems to be working. 🙂
I like the overall intention you have with this post Jamie, but from where I’m looking at it, I prefer moderation in everything. Too much “self-help” and blindly following these tips could be harmful. But same goes for the other extreme end also.
For example, I found the book on fear actually pretty good. It doesn’t have a lot of self-helpish fluff and proves a point with simple analogies and case studies.
Yet, to each his own! I agree with Karen Precious above — it depends on how you use and nurture your knowledge.
Thank you for a great effort!
Pooja recently posted..[Podcast] 5 Types of Cognitive Bias that Stop You from Being Rational
Hi, it’s not so much the book itself – it’s the phrase the book created, that is now used by many people out of context. ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ without the ‘how’ is useless advice. It needs the book behind it (or at least an in depth explanation) for those words to be effective.
Also, if you have moderation in everything – where is the fun in that? 😉
Thanks for your thoughts, Pooja.
Great post Jamie.
Going to what you said or what others have said, I always refer back to the truth that everything is perspective, and an interpretation. There are no absolute truths. I use self-help/ideas/psychology/methods an so on to point me in a direction. The rest is up to me, to go on that path.
Dragos bernat recently posted..Mentally Resetting And Redefining Your Personal Values
We all need to do what is right for us. Ignore what everyone else thinks and follow our own instincts. Words will always be words – open to change and interpretation. What we do with them is what counts.
Perfectly said 🙂
Couldn’t agree more, there’s a lot of nonsense and half-truths out there. Like visualisation – might work for golfers but will probably get you nowhere if you’re trying to build a business or write a book. I’m a fan of both Richard Wiseman and Oliver Burkeman – their books cut through the crap.
I recently read that visualising your success actually makes you lazier in the long run because as far as your brain is concerned, it’s the same as actually doing it. You become satisfied with the outcome, even though you haven’t yet achieved it for real. Thanks, Peter.
Interesting post! We should not reply or be founded on any one self-help advice/technique. I’ve found we have to find and adapt the aspects that are true from the self-help content that is out their.
I am a life coach and author of self-help books. I have also read and applied many of these books by others.
Your post offers an interesting perspective and I don’t necessarily disagree with what you’re saying.
I do however believe that the techniques you discount (such as writing down of goals) does have tremendous value and can bring huge benefits – I have seen it time and again.
It is however true that one size does not fit all and what works for one will not work for another.
The bottom line is that change is ultimately driven by an inner desire and the willingness to do whatever it takes.
Eddie de Jong recently posted..Is fear of unknown consequences paralyzing you?
Hi Eddie – writing things down is useful. I don’t think anyone can dispute that, but it’s more to do with the individual rather than the action. These people would probably still succeed even if they kept their plans in their heads. It’s easy to link cause and effect between anything which fits our belief.
I like the writing style but I am not very appreciative of the negative tone the article is practically wrapped in. I am a crazy about self-helps. My own way. I guess I believe that while others can share their wisdom, I still have to cook my own steak.
Joseph Dabon recently posted..7 Steps to Improve Your People Skills
Hi Joseph – I don’t think there is anything negative in the article. It’s merely pointing out how a lot of self-help information isn’t that helpful aside from making someone feel like they are doing something. Covering the cracks as it were. However you are right about cooking your own steak. We have to help ourselves regardless, or else we go hungry ;-). Thanks for your comment.
The article is good and I agree with some of the points but I think its not so much what the advice is, it depends what you take from them.
I don’t think this is bad advice, “You can achieve anything you set your mind to”. The problem with those singers is that they have never received good criticism. It is people telling them they are really good when they should instead give them some constructive criticism.
Also, “Face your fear and do it anyway” is an advice for doing the things you want to do or achieve. Holding a spider and jumping off a plane are not things in my to do list.
Anyways, I agree there is also a lot of BS in the self-help industry.