I am the worst self-helper in the world. Jack Canfield was the first. He told me in his Success Principles that I could make a billion dollars as easily as I could make a hundred of them. I didn’t want to be greedy so I settled for $100 million. It seemed fair. I was 15, by the time I was 20 it would be in the bag. I was learning how to trade the markets and now I had the secret ingredient – the simple act of making myself believe I already had $100 million.
Then I found Rhonda and her Secret. They were all just yelling about how I needed to have positive thoughts. If you see the castle you can have it. If you can visualize your ideal partner they are already there. A single negative thought and your whole world is over. Toast.
I am not against self-help or positive thinking or anything that makes your life better. I am against things that make your life worse – especially when they parade around as our savior. Life is more pleasant with a positive outlook. However, if you run from negative thoughts then they will ruin you.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article titled “The Power of Negative Thinking” – a sign that people are noticing that there are still surprises in their lives after extensive visualization. We are realizing that our negative emotions can provide us with valuable information about our lives and what we’re doing in them.
Wow I’m starting to sound like a downer, huh?
WELL I’M NOT! NOW WAY NO HOW! I saw some nasty lies and funny ideas come out of self help that messed me up. We need to be aware of bad ideas. Bad ideas become bad actions which make for bad lives. Good ideas! Those are the ones I want. The ones that are in reality. Reality is a good place – and we shouldn’t run from it by lying to ourselves. Even if we’re lying positively.
It’s dangerous for me to hate on the Self-Help Industry – Will and I ride dangerously close to the thing. Some people have even told me that I am a self-help “guru” (GURU!? I cried…). There are some key differences, though. My goal isn’t to be needed more – it’s to pass the lesson on and then be unneeded. I don’t assume I know who you should be – I assume you should be exactly who you are. I don’t try to make hard things sound easy. I try to aim at real, permanent, change. I’m not concerned so much with a temporarily feel-good read that will lose any effect after a couple of hours. Self-reliance is the goal. We need tools that we can remember and keep using – not a constant IV drip of Self-Help.
The idol of an ideal crushing some lady by the looks of it (From “The 10 Commandments”)
1. Creates an ideal. Ideals help give us something to aim at. However, we need to be sure that our ideals are our own. For a long time I was a hardcore Objectivist (Ayn Rand worshipper) and so I assumed ideals. I took somebody’s else ideas of the perfect human as my own. When you do this you’ve already lost. You can only do yourself perfectly – and even that’s impossible. If you chase somebody else’s idea of what you should be you will hit a point that you realize you’ve been robbed of your own life. When I was finding myself an “unhappy Objectivist” I had a crisis of meaning until I realized that my ideals must be my own. The self-help industry will tell you what kind of person is the most happy and “successful” and then tell you exactly how to be that person. They teach you that you can be the best person in the world! That’s awesome! WOO! Except for the insinuation that you are pretty much a zero right now – you aren’t a “successful people” whatever one of those is.
-List your goals. For each one answer these questions: Why do I want this? Is this making more happy? Am I making any progress towards it?
-List your shoulds. Make a list of everything you think you should be. Happier? More fit? Cleaner? More successful (make sure it’s defined)? Wealthier? Where did these shoulds come from? “Should” they even be there to torment you? If no, then kill them. If yes, then make a commitment to them – ACT ON THEM.
this happens too much
2. Teaches you to lie to yourself. A common self-help technique is to pretend bad things don’t happen. If they do happen then you brought them into your life with negative thoughts you had earlier. It’s kind of like racking up bad karma for an accident. Like many other mistakes of the self-help movement this started with good ideas: “control your thoughts or your thoughts will control you” and “thoughts are things”. Both of these are true. If you aren’t aware of the thought-creations of your monkey brain then you will surely be a slave to them.
There IS a positive side to just about anything that happens to you. Silver linings save us every time. There’s also suffering, though. Things will happen that suck and you shouldn’t feel scared to say, “This sucks.” Loudly and honestly proclaim the suck of the situation – but then force yourself to see the good. There is good.
A negative mind will lie about how terrible the world is. A negative mind becomes nihilistic very quickly. A negative mind that you try to lie to will only build up until there are noticeable lumps under the rug of thoughts you tried to ignore. Then you start tripping on the lumps. Then it all explodes and you go buy a motorcycle or leave your family or whatever else happens in a midlife crisis. You’ve got to be brave enough to be honest about the thoughts in your head and strong enough to see that you can change the conditions that they come from.
-List the most terrible things that have happened to you. Then for each write at least five good things that came out of that experience.
-What are the things that scare you most? Being broke? Unemployed? Made fun of? Friendless? Write each one of them and then write ten ideas to achieve their opposites. If you’re scared of being broke then list ten ways you can make money on the side. If you’re afraid of being alone then list ten ways you can spend time with others.
Make your own – not theirs
3. Ignorant to reality. “It’s as easy to manifest $1 billion as it is to manifest $1” is exciting. If I can just believe that I’m a billionaire, I’ll be one. When I look around me I zero billionaires who didn’t work extremely hard and smart and usually dirty to get their billion bucks. It’s going to be harder to get anywhere you don’t think you can be, yes, but just that belief doesn’t make it happen. If you want to be a billionaire you need to find a way to erect a value-creating organization that provides an absurd amount of value to people. That takes amazing focus and drive.
I’m not promoting a pessimistic version of “reality”. Steve Jobs is famous for his “reality distortion field” (basically something he believed could happen or happened and other people didn’t). Because Jobs stepped outside of what most people consider possible he accomplished -or made them accomplish – what was previously considered impossible. Reality is mostly perception anyway so you can make it what you want. Stretch what you think is possible and expand what you believe is possible. But don’t pretend to believe what you don’t.
It’s easy to create a dream life for yourself and not take any steps towards achieving it. A lot of people create their dream job or ideal situation in life just so they can report it to other people. Once asked about their dream life it quickly becomes apparent that they have zero intention of trying to make it a reality. If it’s not your dream, then don’t chase it. If it is, then you got to move towards it.
-Look at your dream. Do you think you can get it? Why? Are you taking action toward it every day? Every week?
-Every day list the things you did. Begin to notice the patterns. Install RescueTime on your computer to force yourself into seeing where your time is going online. Be honest about how you’re spending your life.
This guy yelled at me that I needed him desperately
4. They need to up-sell you. “Gurus” have a vested interest in you needing more and more information from them. They need you to need them. “You might be a little happier and little more successful reading this book, but if you REALLY want to take it to the next level – IF YOU’RE SUPERSERIOUS! – you need to come to my seminar retreat.” And these programs help some people a whole lot. Mostly they just drain already small bank accounts.
I went to a free James Arthur Ray seminar once and I learned everything I needed to about these guys. He gave some good information, carefully buttoning and unbuttoning his coat jacket. Then after some strategic hand motions he began screaming at us. He told us that we were all unsuccessful or we wouldn’t be there. He yelled that we had all the potential in the world but only he could unlock it. To unlock it he needed us to pay him $15,000.00 for his special success retreat. But because he loves us and was a kind ruler he would let us in for $1,500. But if we acted in the next five minutes he would save our souls for just $1,200. He demonstrated the value of this by yelling and crossing numbers off with a red marker. He continued to yell at us for the next 10 minutes until people got tired and left – or signed up. I felt bad for the people signing up. Would he continue to make them feel worthless at the retreat?
A couple months I saw a news piece about a couple of those people signing up dying. From what I remember, James dressed up like some kind of shaman and went in a hot-room tepee and they were doing chants. I think he was playing some kind of god-figure. I wasn’t there, but those people that I watch signed up might have been the ones that died.
-Be aware when you’re being sold to. You can still get the information you need but if you realize they’re selling you something then you can be less swayed. Maybe the up-sell is actually worth it. Probably not if they’re being sneaky shits about it though.
Reading about lifting isn’t quite the same as lifting
5. Takes focus away from the work. Because gurus need to up-sell you and because they need you to love them they will try to make everything sound way easier than it its. They will pretend that they can give you a life of no pain or suffering and that after you take their course you will be able to fly to Mars if you wish it. You will have the bank account of a Saudi Sheik.
There is important mental work to do. Meditation, visualization, and list-making are some of the best strategies I know of to create a better mind. There is good science that shows how visualization creates neural connections that make going into a situation similar to the visualized one easier. Anybody who has meditated seriously has experienced the benefits – scientists see them too. These things are beneficial but they aren’t going to manifest a castle for you out of nothing.
A lot of self-helpers think they just need to put more effort into their self-help practice when they should actually be putting more work into their work! Viktor Frankl, the creator of Logotherapy and Holocaust survivor, found that work is one of three major activities that we can derive meaning from in our life.
We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. – Viktor Frankl
Sometimes we aren’t enjoying our work because we don’t respect it. Get good at your craft and you’ll find that you don’t feel the need for self-helpy exercises. Again, I’m presenting the other side here. Affirmations, visualization, whatever you do that actually helps is awesome. Let’s just not forget the basics – good work for a good life.
-Respect your work. Practice diligently to work towards mastery in your craft.
…just different forms
6. “No new ideas under the sun.” There aren’t a whole lot of ideas James Arthur Ray had that Aristotle didn’t. In fact, Aristotle outlines a much better version of virtue in his Nichomachean Ethics. Something about dying in battle – much better than dying in a sweat-room with James yelling at you.
“But we have quantum physics!” Bullocks, quantum physics doesn’t change how you experience life. It’s fascinating and it can give us even more convincing stories about the importance of our mind and the vast possibilities of life but it doesn’t change anything. The laws of nature now are the same they’ve been forever.
Most self-help folks are just rewording other people who did much better work before them. Science can even get in the way when it robs us of our trust in ourselves. Happiness research might tell you that watching Family Guy is, according to statistics, the most happy show to watch. Maybe you’re a South Park guy though, maybe that’s where you find Happiness hiding.
-Find at least one study that doesn’t apply to you. Or find two contradicting studies.
-Read an old philosophy book. I love Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance, Seneca’s Letters From A Stoic, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, or Krishnamurti’s You Are The World.
do the harder thing – stop circles
7. Tricking your brain into thinking you’ve actually done something. When we tell somebody our plans or goals our brain triggers some chemical release (dopamine, methinks…) that makes us feel good – a little bit like we’ve already accomplished our goal. So it is with reading self-help. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve sat and read self-help, felt like a more successful person because of it, and continued to do nothing about it.
We like to feel like we’re making progress – even when we aren’t. That’s why people fill up their day with busywork. It feels good to be busy doing things but they aren’t usually effective. When we read self-help books we feel like we’re doing something important. And maybe we are – reading is great. It’s when you’re reading about the importance of taking action while still not taking action that you run into trouble.
-Notice why you’re reading something? Are you really gaining any useful knowledge from your fifth Lifehacker article?
Don’t look too long!
8. Happiness doesn’t come from asking yourself if you’re happy. Nassim Taleb made the observation, while at a happiness conference, that happiness researchers didn’t look very happy. Happiness is not often found by reading books on “How to Be Happy”. It’s found by maintaining a healthy body and mind and doing things that make you happy.
Happiness is found when you forget to look for it. It slips in while your doing things that naturally please you.
Gurus will say they know how to make you happy but they don’t know you. They know an average of people they gathered statistics about. They know what the average needs to be happy. You’re not an average though and you won’t find happiness in somebody else’s book. You need to write your own in one way or another.
Try This: Stop asking yourself if you’re happy and focus on doing good work, eating healthy, and surrounding yourself with good people. Happiness is the simplest thing in the world if you trust yourself.
The self-help industry has helped a bunch of people. It’s important, though, to remember what it’s there for. It’s there to help you get somewhere you’re trying to be or get through something you need to get through. It’s not there to define what your dream in life. It’s not there to replace actual action. And it’s certainly not there to keep you addicted.
Find the good guys, the ones that are honest and generous. And then use what they have to teach.