5 Damaging Lies Being Told in the Self-Improvement Industry
Find the diamonds in the rough
Make no mistake about it, self-improvement can be harmful.
Take the wrong advice from the wrong person and your life can get worse. You’re right to be skeptical about any claims anyone makes about helping you improve your life.
A few reasons why:
- All humans are fallible and their interpretation of the world is a small piece of all actual experiences
- The road to hell is paved with good intentions
- Some self-improvement writers are knowingly lying to you
- Others are unknowingly lying to you because they skip crucial parts of their story
- Context matters. What works for some might not work for you because of your temperament, experiences, worldview, etc
I try to be careful. I try to make sure to provide suggestions instead of concrete demands. And I try not to lie.
I write because I know that you can improve your life. I have pretty good hunches about what might work, what tends to work, and what definitely won’t work.
But I’m not you.
Never outsource your thinking entirely to someone else. Take the pieces of advice that work for you and discard the things that don’t work.
Also, though, don’t be one of these paranoid types who think everyone is a scammer either because that’s just as harmful. You understand that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Find it and use it.
Over the past half-decade, I’ve spent a ton of time learning about self-improvement and getting to understand the industry. Based on my experiences, here are some of the biggest ‘lies’ — bald-faced lies, unintentional lies, misleading statements, and everything in between.
Lie # 1 — Talent Doesn’t Matter
Intuitively you know this is wrong. You can see the effects of talent gaps everywhere you look.
I was reading a book that talked about Bill Gates’ early years as a middle school student at a school that just happened to have a top-notch computer lab (also speaks to his luck). The school requested him and a friend to build an algorithm that assigned students to classes. No normal 12 year old nods their head and says “sure, I can do that.”
People with that level of technical aptitude and few and far between. The same can be said for people with freakish athletic talent. So step one involves removing the idea of being an extreme outlier altogether.
Stop reading articles about Elon Musk’s morning routine because the most important thing you need to know about Elon Musk is that he’s Elon Musk.
Next, understand there are ranges of talent in life, period. Find a game you can play. I worked hard to write as well as I do now, but I took to writing quickly. I had an edge.
Even so, I’m nowhere near close to the best writer in the world or most naturally gifted. I settled in on a game I can play — being a pretty good writer who makes a career from it is enough for me.
You can accomplish something similar. You have a set of skills and strengths you can use to build a life that suits your wants and needs. But you’ll never reach that life if you’re always focused on the things you wish you had an aptitude for instead of the things you do have an aptitude for.
The good news? You have a wide range of things you could be good at if you tried. But you have to try. And you have to understand that you will have to try harder than others or less hard than others depending on what that thing is.
Lie # 2 — Circumstances Don’t Matter
I get it. You see some good looking 6 foot 3 millennial white man who grew up in the suburbs telling you how to be successful and it pisses you off a little bit because you know circumstances played a role in his success.
Circumstances play a role in everyone’s success. If you grow up in poverty, you’re statistically less likely to live a life of material success. If you’re born to a single parent, the same rings true. Speaking of parents, the way you were raised, the environment you grew up in, the people you came into contact with, and all the little moments those variables entail shape part of your story.
But only part of it.
I’m letting you off the hook and making you feel better by telling you the truth that part of your story is not your fault. But I’m also telling you that game can be played up, down, left, right, and sideways.
Maybe you didn’t grow up like our fictional middle-class guru, but if you grew up in America you’re privileged compared to many other parts of the world. I’m black in America, which makes me a part of one of the most successful groups of black people in the world.
It’s easy to look up, compare, and complain. Hard to look down, compare, and be grateful. Understand both your advantages and disadvantages.
There are too many variables in the world for you to walk this path to success in a vacuum. I’m sorry that this is the way things are, but this is the way things are.
So maybe the guru telling you that you should lift yourself by the bootstraps ignores the context and circumstances of your life, but so what?
Doesn’t change the fact that you’re currently in whatever situation you’re in, does it?
So, yes, let’s get this part of the conversation out of the way so you can move on. Unfairness, discrimination, pure chance, and a bunch of other factors can most certainly get in your way of success.
The question is, what are you going to do about it?
Lie # 3 — What Worked for Me Will Work For You
You can take the same steps as someone else and get wildly different results. This is why I make sure to give no guarantees of success with any of my programs and courses. I give anyone a refund who wants one at any time, no questions asked.
You can learn valuable lessons from my story and the story of other successful people, but anybody who guarantees you something will happen in a specific way is lying to you.
That being said, there are many reliable and more or less predictable steps to becoming successful given the crucial factor of time. I saw so many writers accelerate their careers faster than me. But I kept writing.
Even today, I think I’m better than many writers with a bigger audience than me. But I keep writing. First, their success has nothing to do with mine. Second, I’m patient because I’m going to be writing for the rest of my life and I know the tortoise wins the race.
The closest thing I can come to a guarantee is telling you that consistent effort at something you have an aptitude for will eventually yield pretty damn good results. That’s why I write articles with titles like The 5 Year Rule instead of The 5 Week Rule.
Again, I’m mainly listing out these ‘lies’ to get the same point across. I get it, there are exaggerated promises in the self-help industry and some of the strategies might not work, try them anyway.
What other option do you have?
What worked for one specific person may not work for you, but what has worked for many people over a long period will likely work for you.
Almost all the things I write about are pieces of borrowed wisdom passed down for thousands of years. This type of anecdotal data will help you. Plus, you pretty much know all of this stuff anyway.
Beware of the ‘one little trick I used to do x’ and focus instead on the unsexy proven advice you know you need to implement but keep putting off.
Lie # 4 — You Can Get Rich Quick
I put screenshots of my earnings on a sales page of one of my online courses. I don’t like doing it, but I do it anyway because you want me to do it.
I’ll also add caveats on that page describing how my results aren’t typical and how it took me time to reach that point, but deep down, you love the gimmicks and need some ‘cheese on top of the broccoli’ to take action.
The get rich quick lie is a lie gurus tell in varying degrees and it’s a lie you tell yourself. You buy these products because you’re hoping there is some magical answer in there.
You’re wired to want everything to be easy. You have to fight that wiring and do the work it takes to make money, be successful, and build real long-term wealth.
I remember buying a blogging course that had one of those persuasive sales pages, too. The first lesson, however, talked about how difficult it would be and openly talked about the fact that most people quit. I finished the course because I believed in the persuasion of that sales page, but I knew it would take some time.
It’s a strange phenomenon, these online courses. Some of them are good and really will help you make a lot of money. Some of them suck. In my case, the vast majority of the money I’ve spent has helped me make more money.
The moral of the story, you have to find the balance between skepticism and paranoia that I talked about earlier. Don’t miss out on value because you’re scared of charlatans. Trust your gut.
And remember that scammers are everywhere, anyway. It fascinates me that some people are afraid to drop $497 on a course but spent $50,000 getting an art history degree that landed them a job at The Cheesecake Factory.
Lie # 5 — Any Singular Definition of Success
I always say that I try to help people define their version of success and give them the insights and tools they need to achieve it.
You don’t need to become an online entrepreneur or a content creator to be successful. You don’t need to make a lot of money.
There are successful people who work 9 to 5 jobs and miserable people who work 9 to 5 jobs. The same can be said for rich people and people who make a modest living.
It’s weird. On the one hand, I push people in that direction often because it just appears that people seem to be the most unhappy with things like their jobs, finances, freedom, etc. On the other hand, I never want anyone to feel guilty if they’re not living up to those standards, especially if that’s not what they want.
We all have different levels of ambition. I have a goal to run a 7 figure business, but no real need for 8 or 9. You might just want to make a healthy living doing what you love without stressing about your bills. I’m there now and that’s a perfect place to stop.
Morgan Housel put it well:
“The hardest but most important financial skill is getting the goalpost to stop moving.”
Societal standards of success are both right and wrong at the same time. They’re deeply woven into you and you can’t become completely independent of them unless you move to a cave and meditate all day.
I don’t have the perfect answer here, but it’s something along the lines of not selling yourself short and also not letting your ambition get the best of you.
Only you know, deep down. And I just want you to reach that point, wherever that point is.
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