Your brain on self-help

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With the ubiquitous quantity of content for the single term “How to improve yourself”, it often wonders that why we find it hard to write the first line of the 1000-word-essay or do a few push-ups every other day. We’ve started bingeing on self-help seminars and motivational videos with little to no output to show for it. Is there a problem with us? Or is it the culture we live in?

BIRTH AND RISE OF SELF DEVELOPMENT CULTURE

Let’s dig through history to get a bird’s eye view on the issue. Don’t worry It’s not going to be a 7th-grade history lecture. Self-development surfaced back in the early 1800s and was dormant until the end of the 20th century. Books, articles, master-classes were fabricated out of thin air by this time and spread like a goddamn virus. This is how net-worth of the personal-development industry grew over the years,

  1. Start of 21st century – 2.48 billion Wikipedia: Check this wiki-page for details on the statistics
  2. 2006                         – Over 9 billion
  3. 2013                         – Over 13 billion

Self-help gurus started choking people with “life-changing” meditation retreats and books and you like every other poor unaware individual, you fell for it. With nothing to show other than a hole almost the size of Milky way in our wallets, the personal development industry is now far beyond containment. And this industry works on an interesting business model and multiplies like an urban legend, “Greater supply=Greater demand”. Just think about it, self-help industry profits only when we’re unhappy with our lives. This leads us to the question,

Is the self-help industry a successful billion-dollar scam?

“The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one”

Christopher Buckle

THE EMPTY SUPERHERO

Self-help targets unhappy individuals, people who’re dissatisfied with their lives and are looking for ways to become better. But what fuels this industry? Motivation. Empty Motivation. That’s what the self-help industry thrives on.

The moment when you flip to the last page of the book or when you walk out of a masterclass that claims to make you rich; You feel unstoppable, blood seething in your veins screaming to conquer the world only to slouch on your couch with a bucket of popcorn and watch GoT for 13 long hours that weekend. This is how the cycle goes

Buy a book/ Attend a seminar -> Surge in motivation -> Buy a book/ Attend a seminar -> Surge in motivation (Repeats)

self help
We’re gonna be rich! We’re gonna be rich! Yippee!

In an experiment, people were given random tapes (labelled as personal-improvement but not actually is) and were asked to listen to it. When they were done listening to the tapes their self-esteem levels went up. These tapes had no actual effect on them even when they believed that it did. This makes me wonder

Is self-help just another form of entertainment? Or is it really utilitarian?

WHY YOUR BRAIN AND SELF-HELP MIGHT BE A BAD COUPLE

1. ILLUSION OF PROGRESS

Remember those sleepless nights where you kept playing to reach townhall 9 so that you could unlock some goddamn character in Clash of Clans? That’s gamification. When we inspect we could conclude,

  1. We know where we are (level 8)
  2. We know what we have to do (play all-night until you lose those last bits of your self-respect)
  3. We know where we want to be (level 9)

As humans we’re attracted to solid visual progress and games are a good way in achieving that. What if our brains gamify life using self-development? It probably would look like

  1. We know where we are (Read 0 personal-development books)
  2. We know what we have to do (Read until your eyes fall off your sockets)
  3. We know where we want to be (Read as many books as possible)

And many online masterclasses do just this and you keep going back. Why? You feel good DOING NOTHING! Only months/ years later you realize that you were wasting your life.

2. HUSTLE CULTURE

This takes a different track than above. You assume hard-work=more-work=success. Your brain tunes to “God-mode” and you work the life out of you. You skip out meals and sleep. But in reality where does it get you? “Welcome to the gates of burnout”. You end up becoming a narcissistic ignorant zombie, changing your laptop wallpaper every 3 minutes and disillusioning yourself that you’re working.

Whether you’re action faking or working at the wrong thing, this gives a false sense of supremacy over others and gets you nowhere. It’s time to let go of the idea that hard-work = working all the time. Take a step back, work on your strategy, find what’s the right thing to do and work on it. And most importantly have a balance. By 60 you won’t be wishing that you worked more than what you actually did. Live a little bro.

3. EXCESSIVE INDIVIDUALIZATION FROM THE MODERN WORLD

This is the best spouse of hustle culture. People start devouring personal-improvement as if they’re gonna die and start individualizing from their social circles. (I did). You become egoistic, arrogant, selfish little brats living in our own unrealistic cosmos. You gain an inflated sense of self (sometimes at the expense of others). The way these people view the world is much different and very delusive than their surroundings.

Obsessive consumption of personal growth material disillusions them into thinking that everything beyond their social circle of concern is simply chaos and confusion. This impairs their connection with the outer world leaving them dissatisfied with their lives, forcing them to pursue more self-improvement stuff and cycle repeats until they wake up! And the wake-up call is quite painful! Be warned! 

4. THE ILLUSION OF DREAM LIFE

This is the biggest one of them all. We all wish to live our dream lives. Pretty babes, slick cars, fame, success, golden under-wears (Wait what?) and a lot more. But have we ever asked ourselves, will our dream lives mean “happily ever after”? That’s what self-help makes it sound like. We’re gonna be all happy and contented when we live our dreams-“The End”. Don’t get me wrong, chasing your dreams makes life worth living but is it actually “The end”? The movie Paterson explains this perfectly (I highly recommend you watch it)

Paterson(protagonist) is an average bus driver. Wakes up at 6, eats his breakfast and leaves for work. He takes his dog for a walk in the evening and ends the day with a cup of beer. He goes to the theatres at times and doesn’t own a smartphone or TV. Instead he is passionate about writing poetry just for himself in his secret notebook and does so to escape the mundanity of life and is totally happy with it. And he never complains.

The first behavioural change I notice when I started reading self-help is the idea of chasing this “Perfect/ Dreamlife”. I chased mine only to realize that there isn’t one and never will be. Not at least the way I imagined it to. Even if you do achieve your dreams you’re gonna need to wash your dishes, clean your laundry or wipe your bum every morning. Much of life is unglamorous, it’s mediocre. And it’s Okay. There’s nothing wrong in being mediocre or following your passion for the mere joy of doing it without earning a single penny. Don’t fall for the trap of chasing your dream life without living what you have.

5. INTERESTING BUT QUITE NOT USEFUL

The improvement self vs the lazy self, the dreamer vs the procrastinator, the mind vs the body. It’s interesting, NYMAG: The self in self-help: It’s philosophical by carving up the self at different joints: a mind and a brain …That makes them philosophically interesting—but, alas, it does not make them particularly useful, but not quite useful(at least most of the time). Almost all of us know what to do but very few of us actually do it. Self-help does a good work of teaching the former than the latter. The problem was never information but implementation.

Add in other stuff like positivity, positive affirmations, visualizations etc… It’s one hell of a ride that I warn you to be careful of. This led me thinking…

Is the primary aim of authors and self-help coaches is to earn money?

BEHIND THE BOOKS – INTENTION OF WRITERS

Let’s say you work in a 9-5 job and you love it so much. Will you be working 8 hours, 5 days per week free of cost? Do you? The same applies to writers too. No, I am not suggesting that writers are narcissistic attention-seeking jerks (though sometimes we are) writers have families to feed and bills to pay. They look forward to get recognized for their work like every creative person on this planet and aren’t goddamn Teresa’s.

I hope this book sells well, Oh God Please help!

Don’t get me wrong: writers are hard-working, passionate people trying to help people in their own unique ways but they do wish to earn money through their work. This kind of mindset that writers are just another bunch of people trying to earn money through their work makes you realize that it is not necessary to try to consume the entire world of self-development to be better which might put an end to your insatiable hunger for self-development.

WHAT’S THE SOLUTION THEN? SHOULD WE BOYCOTT SELF-HELP STUFF?

THE HARSH TRUTH ABOUT SELF HELP

If you’re planning to delve into the world of personal growth or already on it – Consume stuff mindfully. Always keep questioning the value of the stuff you consumed. Here are a few questions you could ask yourself

  1. Has it helped me progress in life on a significant level?
  2. If it doesn’t has this piece of work altered or made me aware of something I didn’t know about previously?
  3. Is this worth my time? What else can I do in its place?
  4. Is this another form of entertainment disguised as productivity and self-improvement?
  5. Have I consumed more than I what I have put into action?

Take a sheet of paper and write down answers for the above questions(Just 1 sentence each). Cut back if you find yourself consuming too much. Much of self-help isn’t inherently bad. It’s just that our brain plays sly tricks on us making it that way.

If you haven’t heard of personal-improvement and are willing to improve yourself here’s a great list of self-help books I recommend you start reading. I suggest you read only 1 self-help book every 6 months and act on the advice instead of consuming it mindlessly.

Be intentional, become better.


I too am guilty of this and this blog will undergo several iterations and more perspective-changing, funny and entertaining content is gonna come your way.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Wikipedia: Check this wiki-page for details on the statistics
  2. NYMAG: The self in self-help: It’s philosophical by carving up the self at different joints: a mind and a brain …That makes them philosophically interesting—but, alas, it does not make them particularly useful

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