Why Blocking Jon Westenberg, Benjamin Hardy, et al., Will Improve Your Life

Don’t make a habit of reading about personal improvement

Actually, they play us

About Playing the Slots

If you fly on Southwest Airlines from Oakland, CA, to Bradley International Airport in Connecticut (to visit friends and family back east, say, after moving to California, not that anyone does that), you may find yourself with some time to kill in the Las Vegas airport, waiting for a connecting flight.

If you’re me, your strategy for airport layovers is to try to find as quiet a place as you can within sight of the departure gate, preferably near a window to look out of, too. If you’re the Las Vegas airport, however, your strategy for hosting people with layovers is to ensure that there isn’t a single place they can go, short of the restrooms maybe, that doesn’t have at least one bank of slot machines they can hear beeping and dinging and chiming, and see flashing and strobing and pulsing.

So during a layover on one trip, I found myself with nowhere to wait but directly across from a bank of machines. I idly tried to figure out what the criteria for winning a pull were (I’ve never played one), but mostly I people-watched. In the 20 minutes I watched, there were about a dozen players, a couple of whom only played for a few minutes, but most of whom sat down and settled into what looked like a familiar rhythm, pushing buttons (this was clearly preferred over pulling levers, which for all I know did something different anyway), watching spins, reading readouts, and pushing buttons again. One 30-something woman seemed to win a decent payout (based on the vigor of the machine’s beeping and the flashing, at least). At the end of her session, she pushed a different button, and the machine gave her a receipt. She brought this to one of the two paid attendants, and left with whatever her winnings were.

From watching, the economics for Joe and Jane Gambler looked awfully, inescapably harsh. Presumably, whoever operated those machines was making money. What’s more, they were making money after they paid for the machines, their maintenance, electricity, wages for two hands-on, human attendants, the minor payouts, and however much the occasional lucky winner kept when they walked away. (And if it wasn’t the airport that operated the machines, then the operator would presumably be paying some kind of fee to the airport, too.) As a player, you might be that lucky winner. But for every winner, there are sure to be many, many more losers, collectively feeding their money in so fast that it covers the wages of those two attendants, and all those other costs, plus the operator’s profits.

Taking calculated risks can be fun even when doing so is, strictly speaking, irrational, but, watching that one bank of machines, it looked like the entire premise of playing them was either a delusion or a deceit. If you play, it’s because you entertain the notion that you might just win. But the reality is, the odds that you will walk away with more money than you started with are so negligible, there has to be something else going on to keep people playing.

Creating a Need We Didn’t Have

Most products we buy are pretty straightforward. We as consumers have certain problems and needs, and we have resources with which to acquire or purchase solutions that satisfy those needs. If we see products that provide solutions that we like, then we buy them.

Superficially, slot machines just fulfill our desire to be entertained. There’s nothing wrong with that. But all their feedback mechanisms — lights, sounds, the distribution of minor jackpots — are also carefully designed to keep people playing, regardless of what they intended. (There’s a lot of literature on this, but if you want to learn more, you can’t go wrong starting with this episode of 99% Invisible.) You might start out spending money on them to provide a momentary diversion, but you end up spending time and money to satisfy a craving the product itself created, artificially.

[By the way, if anyone knows about an existing vocabulary for describing products on this spectrum, from good-faith/supportive to manipulative and destructive, please post in the comments. I know it is also discussed with respect to the ethics of game design, for example, but it could use a broader analysis, and I’ve never seen one.]

At one point, two different articles using this same cheesy picture as their headline image were both on the Top Stories list at the same time.

The Seduction of Reading About Self-Improvement

You see where this is going. Many of the self-improvement and personal growth articles that go viral, or trend on Medium, aren’t actually helpful to the majority of their readers — or designed to be. Step back and watch them from 20 feet away, and what you see are things like inspirational, vaguely metaphorical pictures (mountains are my personal favorite), unrealistic implied promises (we, too, can be like a billionaire, or a trailblazer, or both), and carefully crafted lists and prose that give our upcoming evolution or ascendance an air of inevitability (with key concepts introduced, in bold and italic, at just the right intervals so our interest never flags). You will also notice that they routinely broaden their stories’ distribution by spamming Medium’s most popular tags, like Startup and Entrepreneurship, despite having only the most tangential connection to those topics. And what you will not see is any inspiration-torpedoing acknowledgement of how hard it is to apply those amazing, transformational suggestions to real life, with all its messy, complicating details. Even though the obligations of real life are exactly why most of us have not found a way, and are reluctant, to refactor our lives around new or different guiding principles.

This is not at all to say that every personal growth essay is bad. Some describe how someone has struggled and learned and grown, and are honest and true and good; and others offer specific tools and explain what kinds of situations to use them for, and how. And it is not to say that the too-vague, too-facile, inspirational essays are worthless, either: The successful ones almost always contain great, even inspired ideas.

But these essays’ main purpose isn’t actually helping us transform ourselves. After all, if we all actually became our own SuperSelves, then we wouldn’t need to read self-improvement articles anymore. No, their authors measure success by how many reads, likes/recommends, followers, clicks back to their personal websites, subscribers to their newsletters, buyers of their ebooks, and eventual book deals/seminar customers/paying clients they generate.

[Edit: Since I wrote this, Jon Westenberg published his own breakdown of how he exceeded his goals for readership, too.]

This is actually destructive to us, as readers, in the long run. I’ve learned new things from those articles, and if you’ve never read any, then I completely recommend browsing a few of them and seeing if something illuminates or resonates. But they also provide rapidly diminishing returns. And, if they work as designed and we keep reading them, then reading supplants doing. The net effect is that we have that much less time to study something that has actual depth to it, learn something truly new, or go out and, you know, live our lives. One thing none of those self-improvement articles recommend, as more than a few satirists on Medium have pointed out, is looking for more self-improvement articles to read.

So why do we keep reading them? Because the fiction they present gives us so much pleasure. Few things sound better than hearing that all we need is just to know five, or six, or however many easily counted, ever-so-doable key things, and then we’ll realize our greatest dreams.

It’s like playing the slots: an experience designed to keep us doing it even though it will almost never deliver on the result it pretends to. Of course, reading doesn’t cost us money. But if, when we do have the desire and time and energy to invest in improving the way we live our lives, we spend it seeking the easy gratification of reading more articles about it instead of doing something to improve our lives, then those articles can cost us something even more vital.

A Proposal: Only Recommend Honest Essays

I realize almost no one is actually going to block these writers. Maybe, though, more of us can choose not to recommend their stories.

Instead, we can choose to only recommend honest writing. Writing that confronts the challenges and addresses the possible and likely consequences of what it recommends or proposes. Writing that grapples with the relevant issues, instead of glossing over inconvenient details. Writing that doesn’t stop at saying what we can do, but helps us figure out the how and the when.

Change is almost always a struggle. Anyone who pretends otherwise is, as they say, probably selling something.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Matt Pfeffer’s story.