The Ancient Wisdom Papers (name inspired by the Federalist Papers shortly after seeing the hit Broadway musical Hamilton) is a series of posts I’m writing to make the case that ancient wisdom should be a primary source of advice and counsel as you navigate the tricky, the ambiguous, the painful, and even the happy parts of your life. For my first Paper, I argue that the modern personal development genre has serious flaws that make it unsuitable as a primary source of advice. Subsequent Papers will explore the virtues of ancient wisdom and how you can apply ancient lessons to your own life.
The first personal development (PD) book I read was after college, soon after I abandoned my goal of becoming a Navy SEAL. The book was Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Workweek, and it promised that with the right lifestyle design techniques, you could live the dream life you’ve always wanted. This book, released in 2007 right around the start of the Great Recession, became a best-seller and inspired a generation of (mostly) Millennials to figure out how to optimize their life for happiness.
Though Tim Ferriss created this subset of personal development advice, the genre in its modern form likely started in the early 20th century. Dale Carnegie published his book How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936 and was an immediate best-seller and continues to sell today. The book outlines a number of strategies, techniques, and principals for establishing positive human relationships to achieve success. Napoleon Hill in his book Think and Grow Rich in 1937 advocated adopting correct mental habits and mindsets to achieve business success.
After I read Tim Ferriss’ book I became addicted to the personal development genre. Without any clear career paths or goals, I read the books and blogs of lifestyle design gurus and PD “experts” in order to get the false feeling of making progress. It offered a sense of comfort, knowing that if I just followed their advice, I too could become happier, more successfully, and cooler than my contemporaries who seemed content to work their 9-5 jobs. Indeed, it seemed like every few months I was trying a newly discovered blogger’s advice, thinking that they were smarter than the last guy I read and that this time would be different. “Yes Tim Ferriss was smart about managing productivity but he never did the scientific research on habit forming that Charles Duhigg did so I’m going to focus on a habit-based success system now.” Personal development cycling was a common pattern among the personal development junkies I met. They loved starting new systems but never seemed to see any one system through to actual success.
This isn’t to say that all the advice found in these books and blogs are completely useless. In fact, the reason they are so appealing is some of the content is quite insightful or contrarian. For example, in the Four-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss introduces the concept of the 80-20 rule which says that in many situations, 80% of an output can be determined by 20% of the input. 20% of a teacher’s students can be responsible of 80% of the disruption in her class. 80% of a company’s profit is determined by 20% of their products. This concept is quite smart and once you are exposed to it, you start seeing it everywhere and applying it to your life.
But there are serious flaws with the personal development literature that make them harmful to people who are trying to improve themselves. The occasional useful nugget of information does not outweigh the negative impact of the distraction of trying to follow their advice for an extended period of time. Once you understand what these flaws are, you’ll become far more skeptical about the PD industry and learn to (mostly) avoid them.
Note: The PD genre is distinct from other self-help instructional books (say, Computer Programming for Dummies) because their emphasis is disproportionately on the “spiritual” outcome of following their system, a sort of self-actualization. A computer programming book won’t spend an inordinate amount of time telling you about how computer programming will allow you to become your best self and live the life you already dreamed. 95% of the content will be about computer programming. A PD book will spend 95% of the book talking about general principles and how a former lawyer now can live her dream of being a full time surfer in Costa Rica. There is also a subset of PD that tries to draw on scientific research as the backbone of the PD system. While the cited research may be science, the book overall is PD “scientism.” Like porn, the PD system is hard to define but you know it when you see it.
PD relies on a sample of one
Typically, PD writers begin by telling a story about how they themselves were having problems with money, unhappiness, boredom, etc. Then, something happens and they become inspired to try a new approach that ultimately leads to their form of actualization. They are so pleased with the results that they have decided to share the good word with us in the form of a book or blog or online course. If we do exactly as they did, we too can achieve the same results!
“You are the master of your destiny. You can influence, direct and control your own environment. You can make your life what you want it to be.”
― Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich
While I would never begrudge someone for improving their lives, improving your own life and then turning that into a teachable, (and sellable) universal system requires more rigor. People and their lives are complicated. What works for one may not work for another. In addition, people are notoriously bad at assessing their own path to success. For a long time many PD gurus advocated following your “passion” as a career strategy. By doing so, they suggested that you will become happy, take setbacks gracefully, and probably make a lot of money. However, they only became passionate about their professional lives after they achieved a level of success. That level of success was achieved by hard work and luck. The PD guru glosses over those parts of his or her success system either because he or she honestly can’t remember and their brains have ignored the effort they put in, or because those elements would make their PD system less attractive to customers.
You may object on the grounds that PD books and literature usually include a number of a case studies of others who have followed the PD system and succeeded. Many of these case studies are selected after the fact because they contain elements of the PD system. For example, some say Steve Jobs was successful because of his creativity and design skills, others will say it’s because of his business acumen, and others will say it was because he was uncompromising. All those characteristics mattered but the PDGs will choose the one that fits their PD system, making it appear to the reader that they should prioritize creativity or design or business skills over all else. It’s okay to emphasize certain traits to make a point, but this can be dangerous to you as someone looking to improve their lives.
The personal experiences of a PD guru and the subjects of their case studies, while inspiring and sometimes useful, is still unproven. And like any unproven system, following it is risky. It is okay to take risks with the goal of improving yourself. Indeed, it is a pre-requisite. But, there are ways to take smarter risks that will yield better results.
PD is not time-tested
The PD genre in its modern form seems to have started about 80 years ago. Out of the body of literature, only a handful that were released at that time are still read today. Most of the PD books/blogs read today were only published within the past 20 years and most of those don’t last very long. While there are a few mega-sellers like the 4-Hour Work Week, there are many more books that never sell more than a few copies. As I write this, the NYT best-seller list in the “advice” genre includes such gems as the “The Kim Kardashian Principle,” “How to be a Bawse,” and “You are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life.” I’ll be surprised if those are still selling any significant number of copies next year, let alone in a few hundred years.
Out of the best-sellers in the genre, it is unclear how many of them will have staying power for a significant amount of time. Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile describes a counter-intuitive phenomenon called the Lindy effect, which states that life expectancy of a non-perishable good (book, technology, etc.) is proportional to their current age. If a book has been in print for 5 years, it will be in print for another 5 years. If it has been in print for 50 years, it will be be in print for another 50 years. What this tells us is that the latest and greatest self-help or PD book/philosophy/blogger has the lowest likelihood of being read in a few years.
So within the PD category, to increase the odds of finding a robust and useful self-improvement system, you should be biased towards the older systems that are still in print. Choose Dale Carnegie over Tim Ferriss.
However, this begs the questions, because the PD genre is fairly new in modern history, why bother spending time with it at all if there are better alternatives?
Most consumers of the PD literature generally don’t know that there is an alternative to the genre, or rather, the alternatives seem unacceptable. There is a PD book for every type of customer (men, women, parents, college students, single people, etc.). You can get a book that gets you. However, you will find higher quality and time-tested insights if you move outside of the category.
There is a reason people still read epics like the Odyssey and the Iliad. They contain important insights about human nature and the different ways people handle unforeseen challenges. There is no self-help system, only observations of human nature that will help you better navigate your own life. We now have books about channeling your ambition and dialing it down to reduce stress levels backed by “sciency” research. While some of the new material and research may be interesting, it is more likely the story of Achilles trying to immortalize himself in history by becoming the fiercest warrior in the world could teach you the same lessons more effectively. You’ll really feel the fire of ambition as you read it and learn the true cost of the pursuit of immortality. The lessons aren’t neatly packed into a 7-step system to create work-life balance, but the story will likely leave a greater impression on you than any PD book.
Let me not then die ingloriously and without a struggle, but let me first do some great thing that shall be told among men hereafter.”
― Homer, The Iliad
Pursue the old and be skeptical of the new.
PD trades complexity for coherence
Most self-help books are incredibly coherent on the surface. Their systems are based on a small number of principles that presumably, if followed, will yield incredible results. In an incredibly complicated world, the PD authors have miraculously found a way to distill the path to success to 180 pages.
Bottom line: If you want to be an entrepreneur, don’t just talk about doing it; do it. If you want more out of this life, fight for it. If you crave freedom and fulfillment, chase after it with your full mind and body. If you yearn to snub the antiquated social norm, get off your ass and make it happen!
This is very suspicious. Of course, all book-writers must simplify and condense where they can. No publisher will put out a 10,000 page self-help book. What is dangerous is that PD writers successfully condensed their book into 180 pages while supposedly not leaving any important information out. Instead of selecting say, a handful of context-specific pieces of advice that will yield specific results, the writers produce a book that they will claim is a “framework for success.” These success frameworks necessarily leave out relevant and nuanced information, but the author won’t tell you this.
Our brains like neat stories. We don’t handle ambiguity very well. Humans have an incredibly ability to stitch details and facts together to produce a story. The downside of this is we are prone to leaving out details and facts that are important and relevant but don’t fit the story.
Here are the principles of a book I just found on Amazon called “Unf*ck Yourself: Get out of your head and into your life” that I pulled from the description on the web page.
In Unfu*k Yourself, Bishop leads you through a series of seven assertions:
I am willing.
I am wired to win.
I got this.
I embrace the uncertainty.
I am not my thoughts; I am what I do.
I am relentless.
I expect nothing and accept everything.
Lead the life you were meant to have—Unfu*k Yourself.
You probably don’t even need to read the book if you read the synopsis. The message of the book is that life is uncertain, no one owes you anything, and you need to be resilient in the face of obstacles to get what you want.
This an empowering message and seems nominally true. I expect that by the time you finished the book you will feel temporarily motivated and inspired. What’s harder to detect is what this book is missing. Does it teach you what desires and goals are worth pursuing? Does it discuss when a person should sacrifice his or her own goals for the goals of someone else? Are you always expected to be self-reliant? Are you a failure if you accept someone’s help?
Because self-help books try to be broad in their scope their authors must rely on platitudes and catchy motivational phrases. The simplified systems are pitched as a sort of cure-all to get you out of your rut, whatever the nature of that rut is. But we know first hand that while some problems are simple, many problems are complex and require nuanced solutions and wisdom that only comes from experience. It would be impossible for any single person to address this complexity, so PD gurus will just ignore it. They trade complexity for coherence in order to give many people the feeling they received great wisdom instead of giving a much smaller number of people complex advice that could actually help.
PD values profits over good advice
I work in the government consulting/contracting industry and one thing I’ve learned from my few years of experience is that the “advice” consultants tell you will always be what they can sell you, particularly in soft fields like “management consulting” and “organizational development.” There are fads in business literature (a parallel genre to PD) that clients will be happy to pay for (Lean Six Sigma anyone?), so long as they can claim they are using the latest and greatest “best practices.” Consultants will follow the money and happily sell those services. Fortunately for the consultants, these concepts are so devoid of any real intellectual content that they could probably read a few business books over the weekend and be ready to start an engagement by Monday.
Unfortunately for clients, consultants will not tell you what you need to hear when it conflicts with their ability to sell you a service. This is not solely the consultant’s fault. Clients often don’t want to hear what they need to hear. It’s much harder to sell an uncomfortable truth than a feel-good lie.
The same conflict-of-interest exists in the PD industry. The very fact that it is an “industry” reveals the priorities of the authors, motivational speakers, and life coaches: to make money.
Again, this is not to say an advice giver who makes money off of the advice that the advice is bad per se, but rather, if there is ever a conflict between giving good advice and making money, money will win. If the priorities were reversed, I’d expect to see many more PD gurus publishing corrections to their advice fairly periodically, if not giving refunds.
Be wary of anyone who sells advice, especially the kind found in PD books. If there is a conflict between giving advice that sells and giving advice that works, the former will win. People often won’t pay for the advice they need. Compare two hypothetical books. One is titled Think positively for financial success and the other is called Work really hard to achieve financial success. Which book do you think will sell more?
With the Think Positively book, the author might pay tribute to hard work, saying something like “of course you need hard work, but having a positive attitude will make the hard work seem easy.” Then all the case studies of successful people he includes will gloss over those periods in their lives where they had to work hard.
“You’re already a financial trader. You might not think of it in just this way, but if you work for a living, you’re trading your time for money. Frankly, it’s just about the worst trade you can make. Why? You can always get more money, but you can’t get more time.”
– Tony Robbins (Net Worth: $480 Million), MONEY: Master the Game
It’s not that these PD gurus are outright lying to you, but they will exclude information that is inconvenient to their narrative, especially if it hurts the likelihood of people buying their product.
I would also be especially suspicious of PD gurus that were not particularly successful before they the entered the advice industry. If their past life was spent in an office as a middle-manager and all of a sudden they discovered their passion was to “help other achieve their full potential” (for a fee), it’s likely a scam. Give more weight to those authors who were successful in at least one other (real) field and only if they are giving advice related to that field. A successful actor’s book about acting techniques and navigating Hollywood will probably yield useful insights. That same actor’s book about becoming successful in life in general via positive thinking will be less useful.
PD is too self-oriented
PD and self-help is attractive because it plays to our desire to be independent, to control our own destiny. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is a canonical theme in American culture and speaks to our can-do, meritocratic attitude.
While I love the idea of being independent and making things happen for yourself, the reality is you don’t exist in a vacuum. Certainly you can do many things on your own. Starting a healthy exercise or diet regimen is up to you. Developing certain career skills is within your control. Saying a kind word to your spouse requires only a desire to do so.
But, any significant change will be somewhat dependent on people and circumstances external to you. You can’t give yourself a promotion at work. That requires the support of your boss. You are not the decision-maker. If you want to quit your job to travel the world and are married, you better believe you need to get your husband or wife on board with your plan.
In addition, the overall “self” orientation doesn’t give enough credit to those who help you along your path to improve yourself. If you try to improve some aspect of your life, others will try to support you and you will sometimes need their help. While it’s okay to be proud of you own efforts, cultivating the humility required to recognize and accept help from other is critical to ensuring you don’t get an inaccurate view of your own powers.
That’s when it clicked. When everything changed. When I realized that nobody else was going to do it for me. If I was going to thrive, to survive, I had to choose myself. In every way. The stakes have risen too high not to.
-James Altucher, Choose Yourself
Conversely, your efforts to improve yourself may fail, and PD gurus will almost always blame you for the lack of results even if there are legitimate reasons why, despite your efforts, you did not succeed. This blame game simply doesn’t mesh with the complexity of the interactions between your actions and your environment. Just like your success is never completely due to your own efforts, often, neither are your failures. An infinite number of variables can influence your success or failure in a given endeavor. “Mindset,” a favorite topic of PD gurus, while important, is just one of those variables.
“If you’re the kind of person who has no guts, you just give up every time life pushes you. If you’re that kind of person, you’ll live all your life playing it safe, doing the right things, saving yourself for something that never happens. Then, you die a boring old man.”
― Robert T. Kiyosaki,
There is a middle ground between empowerment and victimization and the PD genre does not do a good job of helping you find that middle ground.
PD can hurt you
The primary misconception about PD books is that they are mostly silly, and that the worst case scenario is you’ll waste a few bucks and a few hours reading the book.
While this is true for some, the potential for harm is far greater. If you truly adopt these PD systems, you might
- Become more selfish (the focus of your life is 100% oriented towards yourself)
- Isolate you from others who are not interested in PD
- Become depressed when the systems don’t work and you blame yourself
- Have a misconstrued vision of how things should be (if I’m not rich/good looking/having sex 10 times per week I’m a failure)
- Waste lots of time and money (think seminars and merchandise)
- Never pursue more rigorous solutions to self improvement leading to perpetual mediocrity
For a more detailed analysis of what is wrong with the PD and self-help industry, read the book SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made American Helpless [SHAM stands for Self Help ad Actualization Movement]. It was published in 2005 so does not fully cover the latest generation of the PD literature i.e. lifestyle design bloggers but Steve Salerno does an excellent job of pointing out how predatory, non-sensical, and consequential the industry is.
Failure and stagnation are central to all of SHAM. The self-help guru has a compelling interest in not helping people. Put bluntly, he has a potent incentive to play his most loyal customers for suckers.
-Salerno, Steve, Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless
I wrote this piece not because I think all self-help books are completely terrible, I wrote it because most self-help books aren’t obviously terrible. In fact, many have unique insights that confirm what ancient wisdom says. However, this is where the risk lies. The sum of of many partial truths in the PD world can give you a fully inaccurate and harmful view of the world and an incorrect prescription for how to conduct yourself.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve your life and there is nothing wrong with seeking out advice that could help you. But there are far better sources for this advice than Tim Ferriss and Tony Robbins. In my next article I will detail criteria that can help you improve your odds of filtering out bad advice.