Self-help Vs Shelf-help: How To Make Personal Development Stick
"It must be humbling to suck on so many levels." — Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory)
As you'd expect from a coach, I work my way through a lot of self-help content.
Books, videos, courses, podcasts – you name it, I'm on it.
The self-help industry has boomed in the past decade, with an estimated 15,000 books published each year and more than 200,000 podcasts on Apple alone.
At the bottom of that huge pile, you'll find some entertainingly ridiculous stuff – kitchen psychology mixed with pseudo-science and enough quantum physics to confuse Stephen Hawking, all designed to help you 'manifest' your dreams.
What's genius about those books is that you only get to blame yourself whenever their advice doesn't work.
You just have to 'attract' a little harder next time. The Universe felt you didn't want that Liam Hemsworth look-a-like on your vision board quite badly enough.
Next from the bottom of that pile is a large section of self-help that believes the solution for ALL your problems is simply to journal daily or be more present and self-accepting.
A little further up, you'll find books with great ideas that get lost in a sea of endless anecdotes and examples – usually because the poor author was pressured by their publisher to write a 180-page book.
But at the very top, you'll find the books and content creators that rock your world as they introduce you to new ideas or they synthesise old ones in ways that genuinely shift your perspective.
That's the kind of self-help I'll be talking about in this article, as it deserves more than being consumed – it deserves to be studied.
What follows next are some practical tips below on becoming better learners and truly integrating some of this wonderful self-help content into your daily life.
The student vs the consumer
Many times, I've made the classic mistake of believing that reading or viewing equals learning.
However, in the words of my overly-excited Peloton instructor this morning: "You grow through what you go through!"
Indeed, true learning doesn’t come from simply listening to audiobooks or watching a TED talk.
Learning happens only through deliberate practice, for which there is a simple formula:
Action x Reflection = Learning
In this equation, ‘action’ relates to acquiring and applying behaviours in new ways and situations.
‘Reflection’ means opening a second track in your brain where you consciously test the impact of whichever new behaviour or learning you’re trying to adopt.
Reflecting also involves spending a few minutes afterwards to assess whether this new behaviour is working or what you’d do differently next time.
Deliberate practice requires you to repeat that sequence over and over – performing a particular course action, followed by a self-evaluation – and repeating that often.
Without that feedback loop, you simply won’t learn.
And that is the difference between passive and active learning.
Say you’re working on developing your leadership skills, like being a more emotionally resonant manager.
No matter how many Brene Brown books, School of Life videos or Chris Voss Masterclass courses you take on vulnerability, emotional intelligence or negotiation, you won’t magically become a ‘badass’ leader.
UNLESS you actively engage with the fresh insights you’ve gained, test out some new ways of being around your staff, reflect on what went well and what didn’t, AND then go through the same loop again and again, your team members will simply think you’re the same asshole – except that you sound a little more like Oprah.
Tips for making self-help stick
In case my earlier sarcasm made you wonder, I do genuinely love the self-help genre.
And even lousy content often still has some nuggets worth exploring and internalising.
Besides, the type of content I like may not speak to you at all, and vice versa. It all depends on where you’re at and on your belief systems.
Hence why I decided not to include any suggested reading in this article. Besides, given the topic, I figured you can… help yourself.
I do encourage you to approach personal development content a little differently from now on by focusing on integration rather than consumption.
Here are six tips for helping you better integrate your learnings.
Tip #1: Switch to short-form reading
Many self-help books are far too long. They focus on two or three good ideas, which get spun out across dozens of tedious anecdotes, examples and digressions.
For that reason, my preferred way to read most non-fiction books is through Shortform. It’s a paid service that summarises a book into readable summaries of say ten pages with outlines, key ideas and learning, which you can either listen to or print out.
It’s an excellent way to distil the essentials.
Blinkist does something similar but is a little more basic. I often also don’t like their editorial choices regarding what they highlight as key insights.
And yes, there is indeed some irony to using a 1,700-word article to criticise authors for being too wordy.
Tip #2: Take notes and summarise
Turn your reading time into study time and keep track of any key points, quotes and insights that resonate.
Pause a video or podcast and write down whichever interesting concept or insight speaks to you. If you're using a Kindle, highlight relevant passages and then export them. I often use Evernote to keep track of anything exciting I've read or sometimes even a simple Google Docs page.
Whenever you finish a chapter, section or the entire book, spend some time summarising what some of the key learnings and takeaways were for you. By actively engaging with the content, you're more likely to reinforce and retain its information.
I have a dear friend who does all of this in a beautifully analogue way by condensing all the learnings from the books he's read and his therapy sessions into notepads.
They give him a lovely snapshot of where he's at in life and a valuable timeline for his growth. I'm sharing a picture here with permission.
Tip #3: Set specific goals
Put some boundaries around the amount of self-help content you consume. Instead of clicking on any suggested YouTube video or buying every attractive cover in the airport bookstore, become more strategic around your intake.
Decide where to focus you personal or professional development. Then carefully curate a section of videos, books, articles and content you feel will help you the most.
For example, if you want to get better at being organised and disciplined, research the most popular books/podcasts/courses around that topic and spend a season learning from the best in the industry.
Then use deliberate practice and active learning to ensure all your new insights translate into positive behavioural change.
Tip #4: Pick your favourite three learnings and integrate them
You'll have noticed that all these tips revolve around integration, and this tip should be the most useful of them all.
Identify the three insights or learnings that resonated with you the most for each book you read.
Then spend the next couple of weeks finding opportunities to put each of these three learnings into practice.
Don't put pressure on yourself to implement everything all at once. Just pick out those three and then practise the hell out of them in real life.
Say you've read James Clear's Atomic Habits. Find the three bits you feel speak to you the most and then actively decide how you will be integrating those into your daily activities. Then reflect each day on what you've learned and practice this learning cycle as often as possible.
Only once you feel you've integrated these concepts or practices into your daily life should you move on to your next book or set of ideas.
Tip #5: Read more novels
The underlying message in personal development is that there's always something we ought to improve or get better at. Ironically, this reinforces a belief that we're never quite good enough.
There's a parallel here with what is known in the medical world as the health paradox – the more help patients receive, the more they self-diagnose and the worse they often feel.
I like the advice of Danish professor of psychology Svend Brinkmann. A self-help critic, he suggests we should stop all that navel-gazing and turn more towards poetry and fiction again for advice.
As Brinkmann says: "They take you away from yourself rather than make you focus even more on yourself. They do not present life as linear progress towards happiness, but present human existence with all its real ups and downs."
Time to dust off Bridget Jones again.
Tip #6: Be critical
Speaking of James Clear, here's a timely quote from his latest newsletter: "One sign you haven't done enough reading is if you find yourself agreeing with whatever book you read last. At first, it's easy to be swayed by any reasonable argument. Once you've read a lot, you can see that even the best arguments have limitations."
Don't limit yourself to reading just one book or one author. Be critical and combine learnings from multiple sources. That way, you can form your own opinion on the value of each piece of content you consume or study.
Doing so will give you a more rounded overview, and you can choose where to direct your deliberate practice.
Besides, it's not because a book has sold millions of copies that it isn't utter rubbish. If you've ever read The Secret or The Celestine Prophecy, you'll know what I mean.
The Power of How
Compared to a decade or two ago, we've made considerable strides in speaking more openly about mental health, spirituality, emotional intelligence and personal/professional development.
What were once considered woo-woo topics you wouldn't be seen dead reading in public have become part of the general discourse, and we owe a great deal to the self-help industry for that.
Just remember that simply consuming self-help content is like throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.
That is not how behavioural change works.
Instead, choose your content carefully, study it, and integrate it through deliberate practice.
Only then will the Universe be convinced you've earned your keep, and will that vision board finally become a reality.
Even if it delivers you one of the lesser Hemsworth brothers.
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