The self development myth

A famous writer was once visiting an American campus and he asked his eager audience, “Who wants to be a writer?’

The vast majority of the audience put their hand up.

“Why aren’t you all at home writing then?” asked the speaker.

Exactly the same question could be levelled at the people who buy self development books.

If you want to climb mountains, you practice by climbing small hills and then work upwards to your ultimate goal. The only reading involved, is usually an acquisition of knowledge to prevent yourself from committing the most common mistakes made by novice climbers, although the most powerful lessons are always learned from real mistakes (if they don’t kill you).

When I had the ambition to perform stand up comedy, I wrote my jokes, performed them endlessly in the mirror until finally I went on stage and discovered that I had learnt precisely nothing about stand up comedy. You only begin to learn when you are actually performing in front of a live audience. That’s because making people laugh requires, well.. people. And it is they who teach you. Similarly, if you want to climb mountains, it is the mountain which teaches you, not books. It is only in this true experience where the development takes place.

The experienced comedians I spoke to knew this and they would always talk about ’stage time’ – the amount of time you had actually spent in front of a live audience – in the same way that pilots would talk about ‘flying hours’. It was the only statistic which mattered. The stuff in your front room was merely preparing something to say for when you are on stage.

If you are really interested in something, you will already be doing it, not endlessly researching it.

Let’s take a fairly simple (and probably common) self development goal; losing weight. This looks simple but when you start investigating all the factors involved it becomes a morass of influences and drivers.

The truth is, a diet is for life. There is no point in your weight see-sawing wildly throughout your life. It’s not good for your health and it points to psychological issues. Overeating is caused by many factors, principally, diet and lifestyle. Being overweight then, is a complex business, simply losing weight as a goal is not enough. If you manage to lose some weight through an unpleasant process of self denial and drugs, for example, what happens once the weight is lost? If the goal was simply to lose a certain amount of weight and then put it straight back on, what has that achieved in self development terms, other than demonstrating you have a certain amount of will power?

If the goal was to achieve an ideal weight and then maintain that weight for the rest of your life, then a regime of unpleasant self denial and drugs is not going to be a pleasant prospect. The fixation with food needs to be replaced with a genuine passion for something else which forces a change in lifestyle, something like mountain climbing for instance.

But of course, genuine passions can’t be manufactured; you’re either doing it or you’re not.

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