“If you’re looking for self-help, why would you buy a book written by somebody else? That’s not self-help. That’s just help.” — George Carlin
Perhaps you follow Tony Robbins or Tai Lopez. Or maybe your taste is more alternative, and you prefer people like Matt D’Avella, or Nathaniel Drew. In any case, however, if you follow self-help, then you are part of a world which I once embraced but have since moved away from.
Before I say anything negative about self-help, I would like to first say that I don’t think it’s all bad. For certain people at certain stages of life, I think that self-help is probably necessary to teach them certain techniques for improving certain aspects of their lives. I just think that self-help is also limited in some important ways.
(Important note: when I talk about self-help in a negative way, keep in mind that I am not talking about all self-help.)
The way I see it, there are three main problems with the self-help world:
Problem 1: Unrealistic Expectations
The first issue with the self-help world is that it promotes unrealistic expectations. It peddles to us a specific image of what a human being is supposed to be — someone who wakes up at 5am every day, someone who has their entire life figured out by their 20’s, someone who is a multimillionaire by their 30’s, someone who has a big mansion and a perfect marriage and a flashy sportscar and a guitar-shaped swimming pool. This image has the power to inspire us, but it also has the power to devalue us. Since 99% of us are not going to measure up to this image, self-help can make us feel like we’re not good enough. It can make us feel like we’re supposed to have our lives figured out in our 20’s and be a multimillionaire in our 30’s, and when we see that we aren’t what we’re supposed to be, it can make us feel like there’s something wrong with us.
The truth is, life is complicated. No one will have their lives completely figured out by their 20’s, and it’s very unlikely you’ll ever have a big mansion and a perfect marriage and a flashy sportscar and a guitar-shaped swimming pool, all at once. But this doesn’t mean that you’re somehow not what you’re supposed to be, it doesn’t mean that you’re not good enough, and it certainly doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. It just means that you’re human.
And are the unrealistic expectations of self-help even worth aspiring too? Self-help assumes that we all want the same things, and then gives us strategies to acquire these things. But what if you don’t want a guitar-shaped swimming pool? What if you want to enjoy time with your friends and family, instead of grinding away your 20’s working? In this respect, mainstream self-help has nothing to offer you. There is an alternative strand of self-help that is more focused on cultivating balance and enjoying your experiences (think Matt D’Avella, Nathaniel Drew, Lana Blakely, Cole Hastings, etc.), but it has issues as well, particularly with regards to the the next two issues that I discuss in this post.
Problem 2: Lack of Balance
The second issue with the self-help world is that it promotes work at the expense of the other things that bring fulfillment in life. It does this by conflating two completely different things: how “productive” you are, and how valuable you are as a person. In this way, just as self-help undermines people’s sense of self-worth through unrealistic expectations, it also undermines their sense of self-worth through the way that it fetishizes productivity.
Just like the capitalist society that it is rooted in, self-help idolizes work and demonizes play. But both work and play are necessary for a fulfilling life. Self-help hurts us by leading us to consider anything enjoyable and relaxing (except 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation every morning at 5am before your cold shower) to be a waste of time. It’s a terrible thing when someone comes to consider chilling with their friends to be an “unproductive” activity that they should be guilty about.
We are told stories about how Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos works for 16 hours a day, and we are expected to hail their lifestyles as the most healthy, fulfilling options possible. But the truth is that most people are not going to be fulfilled by working for 16 hours a day. Most people are going to be fulfilled by many different things, all working together in symphony with one another. And while work is one of these things, it is certainly not the only one. So while self-help peddles work as some magical source of infinite fulfillment, if only you would just grind harder, it is in truth just one of the many ingredients needed for a fulfilling life.
You’re not a failure just because you don’t work 16 hours a day like Elon Musk. Working for 16 hours a day is clearly not healthy anyways. Not only will it burn you out, but it will also lead you to miss out on many of the joys in life that come from things other than productivity. Yes, if you’re not working enough, then maybe working more would make you more fulfilled. But you’re still a worthwhile person, no matter how productive or unproductive you are.
Problem 3: Failure to Take Into Account the Backwards Law
The third issue that I have with the self-help world is that it fails to take into account what the philosopher Alan Watts called “the backwards law” — the idea that sometimes the harder you try at something, the more difficult it is to succeed at it. Imagine, for example, that someone is suffering from social anxiety. In the best case scenario, the person is able to get out of their head and talk to people anyways, despite the anxiety they feel in their body. However, imagine that this person takes a “self-help” approach to their anxiety. In this case, they are likely to watch many motivational videos about how to get rid of social anxiety, memorize many techniques for getting rid of it, and generally obsess over their anxiety. And as anyone with social anxiety knows, obsessing over it will only make it worse.
In this way, self-help can be a way of avoiding your problems. Oh, you have social anxiety? Don’t worry about actually talking to people, just stay isolated in your room and watch 7 videos about how to get rid of social anxiety, and then read 4 books about how to get rid of social anxiety, and then buy 3 courses about how to get rid of social anxiety.
What’s true of social anxiety is also true of self-improvement in general. Just as trying too hard to force your social anxiety to disappear can actually make it worse, trying too hard to force your self-improvement can actually stop you from improving. Forcing yourself to go to the gym every single day and workout your hardest, for example, will probably not be sustainable, and you will probably revert back to your old self. You are putting too much pressure on yourself. On the other hand, gently coaxing yourself into enjoying the feeling of expressing energy through your body, for no other reason then that it’s satisfying to do, is a much more sustainable approach.
Alan Watts takes this idea maybe a little too far, but I still find his ideas surrounding it interesting. For example, he says that:
Human beings are largely engaged in wasting enormous amounts of psychic energy in attempting to do things that are quite impossible. You are not going to improve the world, and you are not going to improve yourself. The part of you that is supposed to improve you is exactly the same as the part of you which needs to be improved. You are just what you are. Once you have accepted that situation, you have an enormous amount of energy available to do things that can be done. And everybody else looking at you from an external point of view will say “my god, look how much so-and-so has improved!”
At first glance, the quote appears ridiculous. Of course it’s possible to improve the world and to improve yourself. People do it all the time, in large ways and in small. However, despite being ridiculous, the quote also gets at something important: some things cannot be pursued directly, but can only arise as byproducts.
For example: happiness. Victor Frankl once said that “Happiness cannot be attained by wanting to be happy — it must come as the unintended consequence of working for a goal greater than oneself.” The philosopher Iain McGilchrist also said something similar: “Happiness cannot in any case successfully be pursued, since it comes as a byproduct of forgetting oneself; and the attempt tends to lead, not to fulfillment, but to the pursuit of languid pleasure, in a process of diminishing returns known as the hedonic treadmill.” The more you constantly and obsessively try to force yourself to feel better, the worse you will feel, but the more that you accept the fact that you won’t always feel great, the better you’ll feel.
When we read a great work of fiction, we are engrossed and fulfilled by it. However, a great story is not necessarily a story where the main character is productive all the time and has their whole life figured out by their 20’s, taking a clear path straight to their goals. Instead, a great story paints a beautiful tapestry of twisting and turning meaningful experiences. And not all of these experiences have to be “productive.”
In the end, self-help and productivity are not going to fulfill you. Experiences are. Self-help and productivity are useful, but only as tools for having better experiences. Not as weird ploys for a sense of self-worth, based in the belief that the only good human being is a human being that is being productive.
Life is a flow of experiences. The point is to experience them.