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The Problem with Self-Improvement

Method and Method Abuse

Hi, my name is I’m Philip Dhingra, and I’m a recovering self-help addict. I’ve read hundreds of self-help books since I was 14, from authors like Tony Robbins, Dale Carnegie, and Steven Covey. When I was 30, I wrote a book about my obsession with self-help called Dear Hannah. I knew I had to write this book when my pitches got so much attention. I’d simply tell people I was writing “a cautionary tale about self-improvement,” and eyes would light up. Everybody feels there’s something wrong with self-help.

In self-help books, the one recurring theme is something I call “method and method abuse,” which is similar to method acting, wherein you tap into some thought or image to become a character. The best explanation is by example:

It’s the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, and you step up to the plate. You’re nervous, and so you whisper to yourself, “You’re the man, Phil, you can do this. You’ve been practicing for this moment all your life.” You clench the bat tighter, everything quiets around you, and when the pitcher winds up, time slows down. Studies show you actually perform better in these moments, and so you put everything you’ve got into that swing, knocking the ball out of the park.

The question I’ve always had is, “Why can’t we do this all the time?” Why can’t you tell yourself, “You’re the man,” every time you step up to the plate? Perhaps you try to whisper to yourself the next time, and the words fall flat, actually distracting you, and you perform worse.

Self-help books work in the same way. You’re in a vulnerable spot and so you meander into Barnes & Noble, finding a book whose words speak to you. Here’s an example from Tony Robbins, writing in Awaken the Giant:

My answer is simple: I learned to harness the principle I now call concentration of power. Most people have no idea of the giant capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives. Controlled focus is like a laser beam that can cut through anything that seems to be stopping you. When we focus consistently on improvement in any area, we develop unique distinctions on how to make that area better.

Maybe the paragraph affects you, maybe it doesn’t, but for Tony’s teeming fans, such statements move them, much like that baseball player. His fans hear his words and then clear their fridges of junk food. Perhaps they sign up for a gym membership. Perhaps they summon the nerve to ask for a promotion or ask their neighbor on a date. For two weeks, while reading more and more encouraging words from Tony’s book, the reader feels that at last, their life is changing. They are glowing with energy, and so they easily spread the book to friends, getting everybody to sign up for a conference, and herein lies the seeds of a movement.

But after two weeks, for most people, the words stop working. You can’t remind yourself you are a magnifying glass at every moment of every day. Eventually the words lose steam and no longer move you, and all that momentum is potentially lost.

This method, of invoking text to get a desired reaction, becomes method abuse when you keep going back to the text, expecting the same response, without receiving it. A common abusive symptom is neurosis, which lasts depending on how desperate you are. But probably the worst symptom is an abuse of assumption. The practitioner may think their life is actually changing and so they reorganize everything around that assumption. When the illusion is shattered, though, it can be devastating. I know, because I’ve committed method abuse hundreds of times over twenty years.

In my experience, nine out of ten self-help books provide no reliable, sustaining conclusion. Do they move me yes? Do I glean interesting ideas that I re-use later? Absolutely. But oftentimes, the words are just that: words. That’s not to say there aren’t any methods that work — I’ve found a handful of them that have changed my life — but it’s time we lifted the veil on this industry of Hype.

The crime of self-help isn’t so much the money it makes — although the $4,995 fee to attend Tony Robbins’s Date with Destiny is obscene — the real crime is in how much time and energy we waste on it. Self-help is a mainstay of every bookstore, getting a dedicated section everywhere you look. For many, it’s the only type of reading they do after graduating from school. And yet, self-help, when applied correctly, can change your life. My purpose is to begin a conversation on method abuse and lay the foundation for a healthy skepticism towards self-improvement, which is why I wrote Dear Hannah, and which is why I wrote this essay.

For Philip’s 14th birthday, Hannah gave him Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which kicked off a life-long obsession with self-improvement. Over 16 years, Philip wrote 82 letters to Hannah describing every book, pop psych article, and method that he used — or abused. Dear Hannah is either a cautionary tale about self-improvement, or it is a filter for the 10% of self-help that may actually change your life.

PHILIP DHINGRA is a President’s Scholar from Stanford University, where he received his B.A. in Mathematical and Computational Sciences. In addition to authoring books on life change, he develops best-selling iOS apps including Nebulous Notes and The Creative Whack Pack (a collaboration with creativity pioneer Roger von Oech). Philip divides his time between Austin, Texas, and San Francisco, California.