Would you like to improve your relationships with people? How about adopting better work-life balance? Of course we’d all like to improve some aspect of our lives, but the answer to all of your life’s woes may not lie in a single self-help book.
Personal development is big business. There are plenty of books and workshops that promise to change your life in five quick and easy steps. But before investing your time, money, and energy in programs that promise to give your life a new start, John Vespasian, author of On Becoming Unbreakable: How Normal People Become Extraordinarily Self-Confident, says we need to be aware of the myths and misconceptions about personal development if we want to make real change in our lives.
There are plenty of quick-fix plans for personal development; from “The top 5 things successful people eat for breakfast” to “The 10 best ways to overcome a bad mood.” “Mind hacks are the equivalent of phrase books when you are learning a new language,” says Vespasian.
You may memorize a few sentences, but you won’t become fluent in the language. Mind hacks may bring some small improvement to your life, but they’re unlikely to lead to major improvements. Just like adopting a language requires learning the structure of the language, the key to long-term personal improvement is about learning better principles.
When The Secret came out, it flew off the shelf and skyrocketed to best-seller status. The promise that you could improve your life simply by thinking positively is enticing, but Vespasian says the truth is that rationality is the only workable approach to personal development.
“Optimism is a healthy, wonderful philosophy as long as you keep your common sense,” he says. Subjectivist phrases such as, “If you think it, you can do it,” and “Everything is possible if you just go for it,” are common among those who tout the powers of positive thinking.
While Vespasian says ambitions are great, he notes that not everyone has the skills to be an opera singer or ballet dancer. “You have to look at your resources and your personal situation and at the market to see if you can really move in the direction you want,” he says. Rationality, he says, allows people to maintain a balance between dreams and reality.
“Two-day seminars are great for learning specific skills, but not for learning wide-ranging principles,” says Vespasian. Personal development, he argues, is about improving essential thinking patterns. “You cannot learn a better philosophy in two days because the human mind is highly resilient to changing its essential patterns.”
A two-day seminar on how to increase your self-esteem isn’t going to mean you’ll instantly be awash in confidence. “Personal development cannot be achieved overnight,” says Vespasian. For most people, these important changes take several months, if not longer.
Many authors and speakers claim to have the answer to all of your personal woes. While Vespasian says reading different viewpoints and ideas is how we learn and grow as a society, he warns that there’s no one formula for personal success.
“You have to assess what people tell you and see if it makes sense in your personal circumstances,” he says. No one formula is a fit for every circumstance. “You can learn good ideas and examples from other people, but your path to personal development is going to be unique.”
True personal development is likely to disrupt your life and won’t be a smooth transition. If you boost your self-esteem substantially, for example, the increase in confidence may lead you to apply for a job in another city, or quit your job altogether and start your own business.
True personal development, says Vespasian, often results in grand life changes. While mind hacks may give you some small improvements in your life, they keep your life pretty much as it is. True personal development, however, enables you to identify your lifelong dreams and pursue them. That’s a huge shift that is anything but smooth.