Two failings of the self-help industry and what to think instead
Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward the goal… requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
~ Martin Luther King Jr.
There are two things that drive me crazy about the self-help industry.
First, the idea that change can happen overnight.
Second, that inspiration is the tool that is going to get us where we want to be.
I’m so tired of hearing some “guru” excitedly talk about how their method of approaching life will have a profound and instantaneous impact on mine.
Yet, it seems that it’s in our very nature to be swept away by the idea that our lives can have a quick and dramatic turnaround.
We’ve been sold these lies for thousands of years. Today, the self-help industry is like the snake oil industry of old.
And look, I get it. We all want a quick, easy fix. But what if there is none? What if life doesn’t work like that?
What if we’re just hoping for a savior? Some superhero to come fix our problems so that we don’t have to?
And, what if, while we’re waiting, our lives simply pass us by?
I hope this doesn’t sound depressing. That’s not my intent.
My intent is simply to ask a new question.
What if our conception of self-help is broken?
What if we need another approach?
Change can’t happen overnight
It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done with your life up to this point — you cannot change what you think or how you behave quickly.
And no, this doesn’t have anything to do with some kind of failing on your part. This isn’t a lack of determination or grit or discipline.
This is biology.
To understand why change is never instantaneous, we need to understand a little about the brain.
It’s easy to forget that our conscious experience of reality is made possible by the brain. All our beliefs, emotions, and actions are caused by the activity of cells called neurons (numbering in the billions) interacting with each other in the brain.
Although consciousness is still very much a mystery to us, there is no question that our consciousness depends upon the state of the brain.
When the brain changes, like when we’re developing a new habit or ridding ourselves of an unwanted one, our conscious experience changes.
But, it’s not easy to change the brain.
While our brains are changeable, there is also a fixed-ness about them. This is because neurons need to physically rewire in order for us to change, and this physical rewiring takes time and repetition.
Aristotle famously expressed the idea, “we are what we repeatedly do,” and in doing so exposed a truth about our nature that would take thousands of years to prove.
That is, repetition deepens or strengthens the neural connections in our brains.
Joseph Goldstein expressed this perfectly when he said, “Whatever one frequently thinks about and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of the mind.”
Our habituated behaviors become ingrained in the mind.
A neural pathway is like a bicycle path through the forest: the more riders take the path, the deeper the tire groove becomes and the easier the ride becomes.
But, it also becomes harder to deviate from the path. The tires keep getting pulled back into the groove.
Just like you can’t get fit overnight, you can’t rewire the neurons in your brain overnight, either.
As a result, you need to be patient and you need to keep trying. Repetition of a thought or action is the only thing that will cause the change you’re looking for.
This is our reality.
So, we need to accept it.
We cannot change overnight. Ever.
Don’t wait for inspiration
Another things about the self-help industry that kills me is its reliance on inspiration for change.
Sure, part of this is a sales tactic. It’s easier to get people to impulse buy when they feel inspired.
But, inspiration never lasts. And if you’re constantly waiting to be inspired to act, you’re going to be doing much more waiting than acting.
We often think as inspiration as the first step in the process of acting. For example, you feel inspired to write, which gives you the motivation to write, which then causes you to write.
But, what if that’s not the whole picture?
When I decided to start writing daily, I had already read a couple books that talked about the resistance we feel whenever starting something new.
So, I already knew a little about what to expect.
But, man, was it hard, anyway.
Yes, those first couple days were great. I felt inspired to write. I was on top of the world.
Then, a niggling voice inside my head said things like, but what about Netflix? What about videogames? What about the gym? What about Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Tinder, or Bumble?
I suddenly felt drawn to those activities like I never had been before. They felt exciting and new, as if it had been 10 years since I’d swiped on Tinder and not 30 minutes.
In fact, I felt inspired to go use those apps, and writing started to feel like a drag.
After a couple more days of this, any inspiration I had to write was completely gone. Every time I sat down to write was a struggle.
And even though I knew this resistance was normal, that knowledge didn’t change how I felt. My mind seemed to be running through all the emotions and thoughts it could think of to cause me to stop writing.
I’m not going to lie, I was sometimes terrified of writing. So much so that just thinking about it would bring me to tears.
And it was in these moments, when inspiration and motivation had abandoned me, that all there was left for me to do was act.
And, despite so much telling me otherwise, I did.
And you know what I found?
In what felt like the unlikeliest of places — writing — I found what so many of us take to be the precursors to acting: inspiration.
This was a revelation to me.
I had never known that inspiration or motivation could be created from an action. I had always thought they were ephemeral, out of my control.
I never suspected that just by acting, in this case writing, that I could cause myself to become inspired to write.
It was the reverse of the process above — action caused motivation and inspiration.
The beauty of this is that we’re always in control of how we act, even if it’s hard. We don’t have to wait to be inspired to act. The inspiration will come, in time.
This is what the self-help industry either fails to communicate to us or doesn’t know: inspiration is not a sustainable source of action. It will not propel us to our goals.
Only action, in spite of fear, anxiety, distraction… in spite of all the thoughts and emotions are minds will throw in our way, gets to us where we want to go.
So, the next time your inspiration to change has run out, remember that if you can just keep going despite all the resistance you will feel, that inspiration will return and it will be caused by you — by your very actions.
And once you experience this shift for yourself, no change will ever be the same.
You can change, but it’s often not in the way we’re sold by the self-help industry.
Change is fucking hard. And no matter how much we might wish for reality to be otherwise, it’s not and never will be.
So, accept it. Accept that change takes time. Accept that change requires us to fail. Accept that change will cause our brain to give us a million reasons to give up.
In the end, telling yourself anything else is just to deny reality, and then when confronted with these challenges you will throw your hands up and curse the universe for being unfair.
But, the universe is not unfair. It just IS.
We are human, and as such must live within the constaints of being human.
And trust that, in time and through failure and overcoming your mind’s resistance, change will come.
And you will finally get what you want.