Self Improvement Is Like Poison
Poison (noun): A substance that inhibits the activity of another substance or the course of a reaction or process
I am attempting to become a better version of myself when chasing self-improvement. I’ve found that a selective intake of information regarding the obstacle I’m trying to overcome can be a major boost.
At least in my experience, there is rarely a “selective intake” of information when it comes to self-improvement content. Instead, I’ve hoarded several related resources on a topic I’m trying to improve on out of fear of “not knowing enough.”
In this way, what promised to be the path to a new, brighter future has now become a hindrance to the path I want to take.
I also have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not alone. Part of that may be my neurosis, but I also believe how the self-improvement industry operates contributes to this problem.
The Industry Thrives on Negative Emotion
A key part of self-improvement is that the industry has to convince you that you’re inadequate. In small doses (a point we’ll discuss more in just a moment), this belief may even drive you to make beneficial changes. Unfortunately, many people are prone to taking this belief too far, where the cure becomes poisonous.
In fact, people who make their living in the self-help or self-improvement industry rely upon this fact. Take an excerpt from a course about how to break into the self-development industry:
But people keep signing up for more and more self-improvement blogs because they’re afraid of missing out on the one perfect person or product that could, this time, really change their lives.
It’s almost like an addiction.
As this excerpt makes clear, people are often after a quick fix. Not only do they often jump from object to object, but they do so with the belief that just “one more” course can be what makes the difference in their life.
I’m certainly no exception. I openly admit that the hedonic treadmill is strong, and FOMO is real. After all, I’ve got almost 300 courses to my name, so I’m certainly aware of the glass house I’m in.
I also believe my struggle with the self-improvement industry and myself let me speak from a place of empathy.
Buying a new course feels good.
Getting that first “quick win” is a rush.
Seeing incremental change IS addictive.
I feel inadequate until a (sometimes) well-meaning self-improvement coach tells me I can be more. Of course, this doesn’t help me because their claims help fuel a cycle between feelings of despair and unearned confidence.
While the course or book promises to be a salve and the coach a savior, there is much more to the change I want to accomplish than simply information.
The Mechanics of Change and Stakes
Unfortunately, true change often lies far beyond the quick wins I’m exposed to, designed to maximize the dopamine response.
True change often lies far beyond the well-crafted marketing messages reminding me of the ways I have fallen short, followed by promises that this course will be the “only course you need” to change your life.
The most insidious part is that these marketers and coaches have no stake in my success. They rarely stake their reputation on your outcome or care about whether or not you succeed — unless it’ll help them get testimonials and sell more courses.
Sure, they try to avoid a negative reviews but know a small percentage of people ever complete online courses.
Also, after getting thousands of students, the occasional negative review is inevitable and something they’re not concerned with, as the statistics will work out in their favor anyways.
In some ways, a failure on your part potentially makes you a prime future customer that they can target with messaging to leverage your failure to help tip you into buying another course.
In short, their product may provide information but often isn’t congruent with the processes required to drive change — and they know it.
They also rarely stake anything (such as reputation) or time as they designed everything to be as automated as possible to maximize their “passive income” potential.
All self-improvement courses or classes may claim they want you to succeed, but many don’t fully arm you with all the tools to succeed, and some even secretly wish you’ll fail to fuel their pipelines, thus serving as a poison to your progress.
The Dose Makes the Poison
There’s a famous saying that “The Dose Makes the Poison” What this alludes to is that poison by itself isn’t harmful unless it’s present in the correct dosage. It also implies that too much of anything can be toxic.
A typical example of this is Botox.
Botox is a poison, but in small doses can be used for cosmetics and improve the recipient’s ego. The problem is that if you were to increase the dose of Botox, the recipient would have a very rapid and painful death.
Self-improvement content works the same way. It can be beneficial in small doses and with a specific purpose in mind.
Unfortunately, I know I had a bit of a shaky hand when self-administering self-improvement content, and a little became a lot very quickly.
Now, I’m left with far too much information and not enough concrete action steps. I’ve also got conflicting voices and have to work out which strategy is “right” and which will lead to a dead-end.
Does that mean I should pack up my bags, renounce my worldly possessions, claim self-improvement content as the devil, and move to some isolated part of the world?
It’s Not All Bad
Before you take up your pitchforks, I am not someone who blindly says that people have nothing to improve upon. After all, we’ve all met that one jerk who could stand to gain a little more empathy or learn to read a room.
In general, I believe the idea of improving yourself is something admirable. We should all strive to improve ourselves in alignment with our goals, desires, and obligations.
I am also guilty of consuming too many Jocko, David Goggins, or Tom Bilyeu videos. The motivation and message to be more than myself is compelling.
Despite that, I believe there needs to be a more extensive discussion around the industry and when the help may turn into hurt.
I also believe that as the opportunity to make money from this industry has increased, so has the number of people not interested in helping others but simply making a quick buck off selling dreams.
In short, it’s certainly an environment of buyer beware. I now treat self-improvement content similar to how some people have to treat chocolate — strictly rationed and out of sight until requested.
Am I saying we should exile all the self-improvement gurus to an island, burn their boats, and forget this ever existed?
I am advocating for a more balanced view of self-improvement. When setting out on a quest to improve myself, I’ve found three questions helpful in balancing the marketing messages I’m exposed to:
- What would happen if I waited six months to purchase this book/course?
- Do I already have something similar, and have I gone through at least 40% of that resource?
- Which emotional levers have this course/book author used?
These three questions take me out of the more emotionally driven buying response and back into a more logically driven buying response. After these questions, I rarely purchase a course (although my insane catalog probably helps with that.)
Please don’t take my word for it though. I am just one guy on the internet who has purchased far too many courses and is now trying to help someone else be more selective in their self-improvement journey.
Either way, I hope I have given you something to think about.
I’ve learned to be careful with how much self-improvement material I consume. I’m now trying to ration my content so that the information is in limited, selective doses and fuels my progress instead of impedes it.