Is self-improvement a total fraud?
I saw this Geico commercial the other night that made me laugh. It also pointed out a brutal truth about the self-improvement industry.
“Can Geico save you 15 per cent or more on car insurance?”
“Is Pinocchio a terrible motivational speaker?”
It cuts to Pinocchio giving a seminar. Each time he says a cliche self-help phrase “I can see the untapped potential in each one of you” his nose keeps growing longer and longer.
I always try to tell whatever I believe to be the truth. So here’s my truth about becoming successful. And by successful, I mean you doing the things you really want to do with your life deep down.
Odds are, you won’t do those things. Odds are, you won’t even get close.
You’ll probably end up working a job that ranges from a job you hate to a job you really might enjoy, but it isn’t your true dream. You won’t become a millionaire. You’ll never experience a “four-hour work week” and have passive income rolling into your account while you sit on a beach. Your bucket list will remain mostly intact.
Let’s even take away the idea of earth-shattering success.
If you just take a look at statistics — from median household income to polls on job satisfaction to the percentages of businesses that succeed — the rule says you’ll be…average.
Is there anything wrong with being average? Nope.
Do you have to chase big dreams? Not at all.
Can you ignore self-help for the rest of your life, go about your business, and do just fine? Hell yeah.
If, however, you do want to go on this ludicrous journey that is trying to live outside of the normal path, understand this important truth.
The Mental Combination You Need to Stay the Course
You need equal parts delusion and pragmatism.
On the one hand, delusional confidence keeps you on the course. It is a little arrogant to think that you’re going to live in a way most people don’t live. It comes down to having this “Why not me?” attitude. I looked at all the people I looked up to and tried to see what the hell was so different about them from me. Nothing. Someone has to start the businesses, write the books, be the stars, and live that abnormal life. Might as well be you, right?
Again, just make sure this is something you want. It’s okay if it’s not. Don’t let the Lamborghini ads get you all riled up. I admire and respect people who just know how to be content. If I had the ability, I wouldn’t have chased a dream. Being content is the ideal because inherently, none of this matters. But, if you’re like me and you just have that itch to do something great, either you’ll scratch it or it’ll annoy and bother you for the rest of your life.
I never wanted to live a normal life and I knew that from a young age. You’re probably like me, a dreamer, but being a dreamer is a prerequisite.
Two things have to become real for you at some point — your vision of the future and your vision of the potential pain down the road if you don’t decide to act. I didn’t have some grand vision for my life when I started writing, but I made a commitment to it pretty early on. That’s where pragmatism comes in.
You need to learn new skills. You need to get a better understanding of the path you’re on. Most people get too ahead of themselves. Getting excited about a dream is great, but it makes no sense to get upset when everything doesn’t come together right away. I see all these writers who have been writing for all of five minutes and they’re complaining!
Where does that entitlement come from? It comes from growing up in a society where everything had an immediate payoff. You study, take the test, get the degree. You work for an hour and get the same dollar amount each time. The check comes at the same interval.
Delayed gratification isn’t a good enough word to describe what you have to do. You have to do what equates to slave labor — little to no money, working for exposure, doing freebies, the exact opposite of the way the normal world works.
That’s the cost of entry. Remove your delusions about it being any other way.
Be patient. Everything will come to you on the back end. Your little plot will work out eventually.
The Right Way to Think About “Chasing Your Dreams”
That’s the attitude to take when you’re working on a dream. It’s an evil and somewhat delusional little plot or plan that you’re mostly keeping to yourself. Just keep your mouth shut and work.
The moment I see someone on social media talking about what they’re going to do, I know they’re done before they even started. They’re seeking validation, which means they don’t have the inner motivation to do the thing, they just wanted to be seen as ambition.
You’ll have to get that validation from within. It won’t come from the world. In many ways, I envy people who get validation from the world, people who “do the right things,” those who follow the path from society.
On the one hand, people will admire what you’re doing, don’t get me wrong. People will be impressed by the fact that you forged your own path. But, you’ll never be “one of them.” You’ll never fit in with them. You have to be okay with that.
One of the main reasons people don’t deviate from societal norms is the social penalty you experience for doing it. No, the over-simplified caricature of crabs in a bucket doesn’t really apply. Nobody cares all that much about you to devote their lives to tearing you down for trying to be successful. But there’s a hint of it. I’m sure many other writers can attest to being either hinted at or straight up told that writing “isn’t a real career.”
Those little barbs do hurt. The fear of those barbs is more enough to keep people boxed in because that social penalty hits deep parts of the brain.
The social milieu is constructed to maintain conformity. If you want to become a non-conformist you’ll have to, you know, not conform.
And then, on top of the mental aspect of everything, you’ll have to overcome one last obstacle.
Why You Should Do Things “The Hard Way”
I always stress the idea of finding your unique talents and strengths plus sticking to a lane you can see yourself in for a long time.
Because it’s going to take a long time. If you try to take short cuts, it will just take longer. Or you will quite. We all start at zero. You have to fall in love with zero, celebrate your little wins as they come, and ignore all the shiny objects.
I see advertisements for business courses from people who did legitimately build a six-figure business out in something like 6–12 months, but it seems disingenuous to turn around and promote the idea that someone else can do it.
I prefer the sort of timelines I’ve heard from my mentors like Jon Morrow. Jon runs Smart Blogger, which is dedicated to teaching you how to become a world-class blogger.
He makes the same point over and over again “It’ll take four to six years to build a blog that helps you make wealth.” He talks about the fact that becoming a successful blogger is just like any other business — rife with failure and requires abnormal time and effort.
In the first video of his blogging course, he flat out says that 95 percent of people quit. I loved that.
He didn’t just pour cold water on your dreams, though, he also talked about what’s on the other side of putting in all that work. I made the commitment to do the work back then, and everything is turning out pretty much exactly the way he said it would.
If you spend five years genuinely working on living a better life, starting a side business, becoming a creator, whatever, it’ll work.
But …you gotta do it.
You will want to quit all the time. You will bang your head against a metaphorical, or maybe even literal, wall out of pure frustrations. Some days, you’ll wonder why the hell you even started.
But, if you manage to follow through, you’ll experience what’s on the other side.
Is Success All It’s Cracked Up to be?
So what is on the other side?
Honestly, it’s not terribly different. “Success” doesn’t make your life dramatically better. Neither does money. Neither does freedom over your time.
The state of your actual life doesn’t make the difference, your attitude and mindset do.
The person you become in the process of self-improvement is the prize. The funny thing? You could just be this person right now without doing anything. It’s just hard to cultivate that mindset without doing the work.
So why even try to cultivate this mindset?
There’s only one reason. Because deep down, you really want to.
If it sounds like I’m actively trying to discourage you, I sort of am. It might not be worth the effort and struggle. You should only give it a shot if it feels right in your bones.
It reminds me of this story about a real estate agent who was giving a talk. Someone asked him “What’s your number one piece of advice?” He said, “Don’t get into real estate.”
His reasoning? He was trying to weed out the people who didn’t really want it. Someone who wants in the business won’t be discouraged by what he said.
If you want to win in this life, you won’t get discouraged by what other people say. Other people are right when they say self-help doesn’t work because it doesn’t work…for them.
If you want it to work, you have to make it work for you.
Ayodeji is the author of Real Help: An Honest Guide to Self-Improvement