Is Self-Help Really For Everyone?
think before you choose your guru
Make the most of yourself….for that is all there is of you.
Self-improvement is everywhere. It’s a multi-billion dollar business and popular non-fiction niche on Amazon. There’s no shortage of people telling you how to achieve success in life, just like they did.
Picture person A, your typical guru. He’s young and healthy, with a bright smile and muscular arms peeking out of his short-sleeved tee-shirt. He wakes very early, meditates, then writes in his gratitude journal before exercising. One cold shower later he’s ready to crush it! He has a blog, a book, and a course you can buy.
He has daily, weekly, monthly and life goals, and reviews them every week. He reads. A lot. Business books, biographies of the famous, maybe a little light philosophy like Marcus Aurelius or Seneca.
Does this sound like you?
Or are you more like person B? You drag yourself out of bed, rushing around to get children and pets organized as well as yourself, before fighting with a million other commuters on your way to do something soul-crushing that pays the bills.
You haven’t read more than a headline in months and evenings are a chance to collapse in front of the TV before you do it all again. If you do read, you want light relief from all the stuff that weighs on you, not long words and tough concepts.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be more like the guru. The real question is, are self-help gurus the right guides for people like person B?
The Past Is A Different Country
He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.
Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
Memory is a tricky beast.
Rather than fixed rail tracks, memories are more like paths worn through grass that are slightly different each time. Memory is approximate, and the passage of time makes it more so.
This means that when people look back to see how they arrived where they stand, it’s difficult to see the exact route. There are mileposts where something significant happened, and those memories are stronger. But there are also many days without particular events, and those are harder to recall.
Recall isn’t the same as a recording. We tend to over emphasise some points and downplay others. Some memories fade with time, making others look brighter, and often we tend to rose-tint the past.
So when someone tells you how he got from there to here, his account is likely to be distorted by emotion and time. Also, he might downplay the difficulties or lucky breaks he had to make the journey seem more achievable.
Person A is an unreliable guide to his own history. We all are.
All Things Being Unequal
You can’t get there from here.
There are assumptions baked into most self-improvement schedules. Person A tells you that he reached his current position by following specific rules and behaviors, and you can do it too.
But can you?
Maybe your 5 o’clock morning is dark and cold for most of the year, and/or you’re up most nights with a child so need all the sleep you can get.
Maybe you’re not blessed with a mesomorph build and fast metabolism that responds easily and predictably to diet and exercise.
Maybe you have medical or physical challenges that make yoga a huge challenge.
Maybe you don’t have the temperament for introspection and you’ve never kept a journal in your life.
We all have different handicaps and starting points. There’s no level playing field in life.
The question is…what do you do about that?
Before You Climb, Sit Down
Never ask advice of someone with whom you wouldn’t want to trade places.
You can and should challenge yourself to be better in pursuit of personal growth. But your journey isn’t exactly the same as mine, and there’s no single route to the goal.
Even more important, you need to be sure you’re climbing the right mountain for the right reasons. Only then should you pick a guide.
Your peak might be Everest or Kilimanjaro. You might aim for the very top or be satisfied to reach the foothills. Each requires different techniques.
Are you looking for inner strength, resilience, or a specific skill?
Get clear about what you want. Try the following, and if one doesn’t work try another.
1. Journaling is a reliable route into your innermost thoughts. It doesn’t have to be done first thing though. After dinner or before bed are good times to jot down a few thoughts about the day and what’s currently missing from your life.
If the idea of keeping a diary is a turn-off, try this; once a week, write a list of the things that would make your life better. After six or eight weeks, see what comes up repeatedly. That’s a clue.
You could also try the future you exercise. Think about a future where you have everything you want. What does it look like? What are you doing, and with whom? Where are you living and how? Write it all down, in detail. This helps to crystallize the targets you’re aiming at.
2. Meditation is popular for stress reduction, improved mental health, and gaining insight. But you don’t have to do it in one specific way. The aim of meditation is a single point of focus to clear the mind. You can gain benefits from as little as ten minutes, as long as you practice regularly.
Apps are good for getting you started, but you can reach the meditative state through exercise (walking, swimming, running), prayer, or simple repetitive actions like washing or sweeping. Even focusing on the water raining down in the shower might work.
Or you can chant and focus on a candle flame. Do whatever works for you. The insights come not during your session, but later when your subconscious has had time to work out answers to the questions of what you want or need.
3. Talking might appeal more than endless navel-gazing. Choose your listener with care. You want someone who knows you well, but with less baggage and expectations than your mother or childhood friend.
A pet can be the best listener. They don’t interrupt and stroking them lowers your stress level as a bonus.
However, you do it, form a picture of where you want to be. The question is, who will get you there?
Are You Gonna Go Their Way?
People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.
Once you know what you want specifically, look around at the people offering guidance. Are they where you want to be? Did they share some of your challenges at the start of their journey?
If you can, look inside the range of books on offer. Is the writing easy to read? You might prefer an upbeat can-do style or something more measured.
Don’t automatically buy the best seller at the moment. Of the top twenty best sellers in self-help on Amazon UK, only five are by female authors and one of those is about tidying up. Different authors have values, insights, and goals that might not align with yours at all.
This can make the difference between success and failure. You must adapt the method to your unique circumstances and problem solve ahead of time.
If you have primary childcare responsibilities, pay attention to what the guru says about their family. If childcare doesn’t factor into their morning routine, ask yourself who is going to handle that in your life. Either someone else has to do it, or you’ll have to work around it.
If you’re not a lark, or you already rise at five to commute, the morning routine could shift into an evening routine. Try listening to books or podcasts while travelling. You could give up an hour a day of mindless TV in favour of working on your development.
Exercise is good for everyone, as long as it fits with your routine and current level of fitness. Don’t think of it as an all or nothing game. Simply walking has benefits if you do it regularly, and over time you can move on to more intense exercise in a gym or at home.
If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.
Martin Luther King
Start at the lowest comfortable level and set yourself up for success. Consistency is more important than intensity. Don’t overload yourself with too many changes at once. It’s still worth improving just one aspect of your current status quo, and the next change will be easier.
Choose Your Piece of the Pie
To achieve greatness, start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
We can all be better versions of ourselves, but we have to be real about the process. Self-help is a crowded arena and every guru promises success with their methods. But you’re an individual and one size never fits all.
Remember caveat emptor — buyer beware. You don’t have to take on every suggestion — and you don’t have to do it all on day one.
- Get clear about what you want.
- Survey the options on offer.
- Seek guidance from someone who’s overcome challenges similar to yours.
- Make sure the guru stands where you want to be.
- Adjust the route to fit your own needs and preferences.
There are many ways up the mountain — go find your best path.