I’m appalled with some of the bullshit I see spouted by self-help speakers online.
Admittedly, I’m probably more irritated than the average person.
You see, it’s my full-time job to research the latest happenings in self-improvement and write about them.
I’m not complaining. It’s fulfilling work.
But I can’t lie when I say it comes with a major drawback.
For every great, well-researched idea I find, I have to first sift through fifty that are at best ineffective… and at worst… psychologically dangerous.
This article is my attempt to put things straight and alert you to some of negative sides of the so-called “positivity movement.”
Trigger warning: Many of the myths I dispel in this article may be a hard pill to swallow for those who are diehard fans of mainstream self-help. If you are one of these, my goal is not to upset you. Instead, I would like you to suspend your preconceptions about living the good life so you can soak in a refreshing perspective that may prove extremely useful and serve as a compliment to the ideas you already follow.
We need to make the distinction between “getting better” and “feeling better.” Most of the personal development information online is designed to make us feel better, to inflate our ego, but the problem is it rarely works the way it’s intended.
One has only so much time and energy, and to live a fulfilling life—free from regret—it’s vital that we spend our precious resources in the areas that will benefit us the most. And likewise, it’s bad enough that we punish ourselves for making mistakes, but far worse when we punish ourselves when the mistake was not even a mistake.
7 Popular “Self-Help Tips” That Are Fking Up Your Life
1) Learn how to become successful by listening to successful people.
The majority of self-help advice you hear today arrives to us through this two-step process:
1) A person achieves success in some area
2) That person then explains how they achieved that success
Our faith in the power of this formula has helped Tim Ferriss generate over a 100 million downloads1 for his podcast which aims to “deconstruct world-class performers” by interviewing them. Not to mention, hundreds of millions of books sales have resulted from the same intuition.
This idea seems so obvious as to be common sense.
If someone achieved success then of course they would be worth listening to, right?
Yep, I said it.
Let me illustrate my point. To do this, I will use none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Arnie was the best bodybuilder in the world for many years, made millions in real estate before he was an actor, became the highest earning Hollywood actor, and then changed careers to become the Governor of California. He’s also appeared on The Tim Ferriss Podcast twice. By most definitions of success, he measures up.
All of this makes his Six Rules for Success speech utterly compelling.
Here is the short version:
- Trust yourself
- Break the rules
- Don’t be afraid of failure
- Ignore the naysayers
- Work your butt off
- Give back
Upon first read through, these rules for success sound exciting, inspirational, and reasonable.
So what’s the catch?
Well, those Six Rules for Success may just as well be titled Six Rules for Failure…
Because they’re also a wonderful recipe to help you fail.
Think about it.
How many well-meaning entrepreneurs trusted in themselves, broke the rules, and ignored the naysayers only to fail for exactly these reasons?
How many artists, intent on breaking the rules and ignoring criticism, suffered their entire lives in obscurity and poverty?
Derren Brown in his incredible book Happy writes that these types of self-improvement tips:
…are overwhelmingly the self-serving rationalizations of people who, upon becoming successful, now wish to feel that they have rightfully earned their status and the respect of others. So they look back over their journey and filter through it for evidence of their deservedness. The perpetual and overwhelming play of random chance is glossed over, and in its place a hero’s journey is invented. And very often that story is one of adhering to a vision, no matter what, and having no time for those who would get in the way or did not share the hero’s Herculean self-belief.
Before you were born, you won a sperm race to an egg. You won this race against roughly 250 million other sperms. Because you were the sperm that made it, and eventually ended up being born, do you think you could give good advice to other sperms who want to increase their chances of making it?
It’s a ridiculous question and a ridiculous scenario, but the point is not.
This question captures what psychologists call survivor bias. Simply put, survivor bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. This is also the bias we engage in when we listen to the advice of successful people.
From now on, whenever you look at “principles for success,” always ask the following three questions:
- How many people followed this advice and failed?
- How many people did not follow this advice and still succeeded?
- Is there a hidden variable behind the success principles that may be at work?
Did Arnold Schwarzenegger’s muscle building genetics, high extraversion and IQ, low neuroticism, and lucky breaks make him successful? Or was it simply a matter of following those six principles?
We will explore later in the article what kind of sensible strategies you can use to achieve success.