Personal Development and Self Help are Our New Religions

They are hugely popular, often seen at TED-Talk events, and revered by armies of fans on social media: personal development gurus. Some famous names are Amy Cuddy (presence), Angela Duckworth (grit), Tony Robbins, and Jordan Peterson. Their ideas have become the new religions. They are given far more attention by the public than serious psychological research, which is often far less exciting (see internet meme above). One book about Peterson is even titled Savage Messiah How Dr. Jordan Peterson Is Saving Western Civilization (just to hammer home my point).

It’s not that I am completely against personal development and self-help, but the analogy to religion holds up. I am an atheist, but I do see beauty and truth in pretty much all religions (just not in the concept of a god or gods). After all, religions, like self-help, were meant to provide guidance for people. Like religions, they are located somewhere between reality and the complete esoteric. What’s more, they often convey the wrong impression that it’s a certain something, be it grit, presence, or 12 rules for life that it takes to immensely improve your success. The relationship between science and self-help gurus is akin to that between economics and politicians who will try to sell you a vastly simplified version of economic reality.

I have been both interested in and appalled by different self-help movements in the past 30 years or so. And I have seen many come and go. The Secret by Rhonda Byrne is probably the worst I can recall. I was horrified when I learned about this utter bullshit and even more horrified when I learned that several of my friends were really into this kind of nonsense. Fortunately, their interest has puffed away over the years. Let’s face it, you’re just not going to get what you want by thinking about how much you want it. Bad advice, I guess people should get sued for propagating nonsense like that, it’s more dangerous than selling hot coffee. Needless to say, none of my Secret-fan-friends’ lives has changed much in any way.

After the esoteric, comes that stuff that is under the guise of solid (pseudo)science. Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) is a fine example of that. I have met people who were totally convinced that they had been enlightened by NLP, but really looked like they were only one step removed from being admitted to a mental health clinic. And even a lot of the stuff that sounds fairly convincing and plausible turns out to be much less exciting than when presented by a great TED speaker. The Power Posing Exercise proposed by Amy Cuddy, for example, has been shown to have little effect in psychological studies and yet hers is still one of the most frequently watched. The Grit concept researched by Angela Duckworth (I have a secret crush on her) has turned out to be little less than the old-fashioned Big Five factor of Conscientiousness. Researchers knew long before Duckworth that high conscientiousness is the most important personality factor in achieving academic and financial success. Grit just sounds so much more exciting, though. And, I have to admit that as a teacher I have shown this TED Talk to pretty much all of my students, hoping to be able to motivate them.

I have had many interesting experiences with self-help. I once took part in a seminar on non-violent communication (Marshall Rosenberg). After the seminar the speaker invited everyone to provide feedback. One of the participants explained (in a very friendly way) that the seminar had been interesting but there had been way too much blah blah blah. The speaker exploded in a rage upon this kind of criticism. So far for non-violent communication. It’s not always clear that self-help gurus follow their own advice. Abandon ideology is one of the 12 rules Jordan Peterson promoted. If only he had followed his own rule rather than spreading conservative ideology recently, he wouldn’t have fallen out of favour with so many of his followers. And I am pretty sure, those who consider him a messiah are conservatives in the first place.

Self-help and personal development usually come in two forms:

  • Discover yourself (the ancient Greek know thyself type)

Even so, the second type sounds way more tempting than the first one, I have always been more attracted to the first type. Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) is a great example that I would recommend to all introverts. There is no talk about 10 rules to turn you, wallflower that you are — into an extrovert. It’s a book that explains why introverts struggle in a world that values extroverts more (East Asians mostly don’t) and where introverts have strengths. It’s one of the few self-help books that has personally helped me.

Then there are those books that tell me how to become a better version of myself. I love the idea and I try, every day, but reading about the 7 habits of highly effective people does very little for me. Let’s see, what a google search brings up:

Here we go: I am not very organised, I have struggled with organisation my whole life, partly due to my ADHD and I have actually become a happier person since I have given up being too organised (yep, I don’t care how messy my desk is anymore). I have never been good at networking (I am an inhibited introvert, after all). And while I am quite frugal, I have never been an early riser. Getting up early only causes me a lot of brain fog and uneasiness. In brief, I will hardly ever be a highly efficient or successful person.

The core idea behind most self-help and personal development is expanding your comfort zone. It’s a great idea and something kids already get bottle-fed nowadays. However, on closer inspection, it’s an idea that is pretty odd from the point of view of evolutionary psychology. When in our human history did parents and teachers start to tell their kids that they have to get out of their comfort zone in order to be successful??? It’s weird, because the comfort zone is there for evolutionary reasons, it helped our ancestors survive and procreate better. It’s not up to us to expand it at our own good will. The idea of stretching our comfort zone implies that we are not good enough the way we are. However, evolution always made sure that we are good enough the way we are. Why the heck do I have to be more or something better than I am? It’s because of the way society works, not the way nature works.

Over the years I have noticed that there is a certain type of person who will be far more eager to consume self-help and personal development books than other people. These people are intuitives (Jung), that make up about 20% of the population. In a similar vein, Elaine Aron noticed that most patients in psychotherapy are HSPs (highly sensitive people), even though HSPs only make up about 20% of the population. Also, psychologists have noticed that neurodiverse people (ASD, ADHD) suffer frequently from mental health problems typical for people in therapy: anxiety, depression, low self-esteem.

The following passage is from The Code of the Extraordinary Mind (2016) by Vishen Lakhiani, CEO of Mindvalley, self-help author and motivational speaker:

When I turned thirteen, my father enrolled me in a private school for expat children. Surrounded by diversity, with kids from some fifteen countries in my class, I felt somewhat normal. But adolescence had other challenges. I developed severe chronic acne that landed me in dermatologists’ offices, and I was on frequent acne medication by age sixteen. That earned me yet another name at school: Pimple Face. It got worse. By my teen years, my eyes had deteriorated to the point where I had to wear glasses with superthick lenses. They broke frequently, and I’d patch them with tape, making me a walking stereotype of the nerd with tape on his glasses. As you can imagine, teenage life for me was not particularly easy. My negative beliefs about my appearance wrecked my confidence for the first decades of my life. I was socially awkward. I hardly went out with friends. I had crushes on girls but never had the guts to ask anyone out.

The very same passage could describe me as a teenager (including the pimples and low self-esteem). I am also pretty sure that Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk could identify with that description to some extent. In contrast to them, I have never become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I like Lakhiani’s book because I resonate with his mindset, however, I doubt I will ever become a millionaire like him. And I am not even trying (I think it’s pretty pointless and I have no growth mindset in this respect)

One thing I do try though, is find out where this “I am not good enough” comes from. A pattern that emerges is that self-help books are written by people who struggled themselves, like Lakhiani and Susan Cain, which is a good thing, because otherwise they wouldn’t know what they were talking about. They arrived at their conclusions exactly because they felt like outsiders and because they struggled and analysed (and overanalyzed) their problems.

The most useful tool I can offer for analysing the “I am not good enough” phenomenon is the forager-farmer framework. Most people are like evolutionary farmer types, they are mostly content with their lives and they do the hard work they have to do. Others struggle with such 9–5 routine jobs, they are evolutionary nomad types, herder and foragers. Forager types (HSPs/intuitives/neurodiverse) struggle most with living in a mostly farmer world. They dislike authority, repetitive tasks and chores, value freedom over material wealth and status and word much rather work, learn, and live on their own terms, which is very often next to impossible (unless you become the CEO of a highly successful company). This framework also provides me with the intuitive justification for the dislike of self-help advice that tells you how to be successful in a farmer world. And that’s why I am especially wary of self-help advice that starts with the words “rules” or “laws”, like the 12 rules for life, or the law of attraction.

In order to complete my analogy with religions: it has always been forager types who have first adopted new religions: early Christianity, reformed Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. They all contained ideas that appealed to forager types, just like self-help and personal growth ideas appeal to forager types.

For more on the forager-farmer framework check out my :

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0836LW5QV

Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on October 28, 2022.

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