Following my own advice for once

A retrospective on my journey with self-help so far

I live to learn things from people smarter than I am, but I largely ignore my own intuition and advice. This is why I have been so attracted to the self-help scene.

You should spend less time engaging with social media.

You should create intention to cultivate focus on your work.

You should think more carefully about what you spend your money on.

I feel like a lot of ideas in the self-help world are pretty self-evident. In my experience, they work to communicate ideas that make sense when you say them out loud but are rarely put into practice. Writing down my thoughts about the clarity of these ideas is something I’ve thought about more as I learn more and more about the self help world, and part of a wider scope of introspection that I hope to achieve with this piece.

I’m starting by disclaiming some of what I’m about to say with the fact that I am deeply engrossed in the world of self-help, and so these ideas might seem simple and obvious to me. I wanted to bring up this point, though, because it fits in to wider thought that I am having about reforming my relationship with self-help and personal development content and publications.

I like to break down the question about the clarity of ideas into two explanations. One, the successful and well-known authors and content creators in this field are so practiced at their craft of writing that they can communicate their new ideas in a way that the vast majority of people fail to see in a way that makes it seem like they are intuitive and obvious. They are really good at introducing new concepts that make you think, Why didn’t I do/think of this so much sooner?”

The other explanation (which I am more preferential to) is one that says that self-help and personal development content creators are really good at clarifying and iterating on existing ideas to the point where they seem new and exciting. Their valuable skill is not necessarily coming up with the ideas or preaching them to the masses, but synthesizing and then subsequently using writing to communicate the epiphanies that they reach from connecting the dots.

Regardless of how I thought the ideas were well communicated, my relationship with personal development begins like many new behaviors and habits do– with a significant, life changing event. As the world went into pandemonium because of the pandemic, my journey with self help started with this video about minimalism, and quickly took off into productivity tips, study hacks, and the benefits of intentional living and introspection.

At the time, I liked learning about these ideas and was appreciative of the fact that this was all out there, completely for free. As I got deeper and deeper into the world (or bubble) that personal development created for me, there was a time where I was waking up at 5am, running a few miles, working for hours at a time, and achieving everything I had ever aspired to as part of my daily routine. I spent all of my free time watching these kinds of videos and reading the books recommended from them, but felt stressed out because while my productivity skyrocketed, I felt emotionally drained as if nothing had changed at all.

Looking back on it, the self-help kick which (one can argue I’m still on) was/is definitely a coping mechanism for the stressors of the pandemic, an overcorrection of my natural response to stress. I was suppressing a lot of negative thinking with forced positivity, and not allowing myself to be naturally upset about the world around me. These were strongly narcissistic behaviors that made me feel better about myself because I was the hard worker waking up at 5am making me superior to the person who woke up at 8am on a normal sleep schedule (what a loser, am I right?). The ongoing isolation that the pandemic brought only amplified this attitude. I added new behaviors and habits as they showed up in books or in my YouTube subscription feed, clinging to any additional benefit they brought me, however minuscule or silly they seemed. Case in point, I slept on the floor without a pillow for a few weeks because I thought my posture would dramatically improve so I could stay focused for longer hours– it didn’t work. (I’ve written about my strange relationships with productivity apps here.

The takeaways that I’ve come away with from the past year of near constant consumption of self-help and personal development are threefold:

  1. Ideas that come from the self-help scene are tools with which you carve your own path in today’s world. They seem novel and revolutionary because they are reuniting you with simple and powerful principles that have been long forgotten in the superficiality and complexity of today’s world.

  2. Before you adopt or share a single idea from a single self-help book, video, podcast, set intentions about what exactly you want to change in your life. Not doing so and trying to change everything all at once will make you feel like you are incompetent everywhere and further amplify insecurity.

  3. Self help has to be the means to an end, not an end within itself. The former results in a more conscious and mindful life, the latter results in a narcissistic attitude that goes nowhere.

Maybe following my own advice for once might be the most effective form of self help.

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July 31, 2021