May 20

The Problem With Self-Help



If you are anything like me, chances are at some point your life was a mess. You may have turned to the self-help-industrial-complex for answers. It certainly makes a lot of promises. Lifestyle gurus tell us to just do “X” and our life will be wonderful. So many promises are made, but like diets and gym memberships they seem to rarely succeed in their stated purpose.


Why is this?


The short answer is, it’s complicated. Untangling from your anxieties, neuroses and negative emotions is harder than it sounds. It will take longer than you think if you are a normal person, which you probably are. I learned this the hard way, and by that I mean I had to figure it out myself. No one told me this little inconvenient truth.


It is frustrating to read a bunch of blogposts like 10 Simple Things you can do to Live a Better Life Now! that promise to solve all of your problems.


  • Just meditate a few minutes a day and deliver you to a Zen-like state of constant bliss!
  • Keep a gratitude journal!
  • Keep quoting Rumi and Seneca and the new you will be bursting with wisdom by the weekend!


Twitter and Facebook keep vomiting endless supply of thesehelpful posts, memes and inspirational stories that promise to turn your life around. Some of them may have even been mine.


There is nothing inherently wrong with articles like this, in fact they can be helpful (especially mine), but they do not tell the whole story. They can even be counterproductive at times. They are tools to be used properly.


Real Life

…is more like this:

Let me explain in stream of consciousness mode.


We are a basket of fucked up, uncontrollable emotions with an unbalanced personality. This personality is actually a defense mechanism trying to compensate for our weaknesses. We engage in useless self-talk by an ego that just won’t shut up.  We have mostly good but ultimately selfish intentions, and are trying to navigate through a world with a festering pile of distractions like: a job we hate, an occasional health or financial crisis, pain, suffering, heartache and loss. If we are lucky we have a few solid relationships swimming in a sea of dysfunctional ones. Advertisers, business and politicians are conducting psychological warfare on us to extract as much money, time and energy out of us as they can without actually killing us or rendering us useless. We are chronically stressed out about the future and think about the past wondering if we made correct decisions.


Does this sound a little familiar?


True self-improvement is for the well-adjusted one-percenter, right?


OK, maybe it is not quite that bad, but it’s not all rainbows and ponies either.

obligitory horse and rainbow picture


We go on diets, we half-heartedly try a few things we read in blogs or self-help books but they don’t work right away and we get discouraged. It seems that everything negative in our life happens right away, all at once while all the good things in our life take constant energy and time.


We are battling entropy and losing. It is hopeless. It doesn’t seem like a fair fight, and to be honest it isn’t. But remember, life is not about fairness. The universe doesn’t work this way.


We seldom outrun our hopes and expectations. Better to temper them; there is less disappointment that way. Easier to read about self-improvement and imagine our future self in that new shinny self-improved world. Just hide from the problems. Turn on the TV. Have a few drinks.


Ahhhh. Much better.


Slow and Uneven Path


This line of reasoning is obviously destructive, but I think many of us have been there. Some of us still are. Many of us are on the path to somewhere; we just don’t really know where we are going. Many of us are living a life of quiet desperation and we can’t seem to change course.


One reason we don’t change is that we can’t actually see the change. It’s too slow to perceive. Our culture and cognitive biases have conditioned us to favor immediate results. Enter the era of The Tweet and The Meme. Cause and effect must be obvious to be effective even if it is not true. We give up too quickly.


I can tell you from personal experience that none of the things I write about here are going to magically change you from a dysfunctional psychological mess to a superhero overnight, even the high yield Pareto-approved activities.

It all takes time outside of the lab. The real world is messy. It’s not the shiny polished internet or the sterile operating room.


Progress is not linear. It is more like a sine wave. With improvement there are times of worsening. Everything cycles and everything constantly changes.


There are times when your fitness gets worse in spite of training. Occasionally your meditation will suck and make you feel less enlightened. There will be financial setbacks in spite of saving aggressively for retirement.


Injuries, illness and other unforeseen complications will occur while you follow the perfect script on paper. There will be bumps and bruises and much of the progress will only be seen in retrospect.


My Experience


When I was going through massive burnout several years ago I just didn’t turn a switch and watch my life get slowly and steadily better until I was a big glowing ball of joyous energy. Life doesn’t work that way.


I had breakthroughs, massive shifts in my thinking, and incredible progress. I also had times of doubt, depression and massive setbacks.


My life was a massive tangle of complicated emotions, obligations and problems that each had to be worked through. It was like untangling a 400 meter long string of Christmas lights someone threw in a giant dumpster. It was a big smelly intertwined mess.


Real Life is Not a Blog-post.


Real life is messy.


The amplitude of my sine wave was large (I’m sure there is an inappropriate but funny joke in there somewhere) so there were times it seemed like I was going in the wrong direction, and in the short term I was. But I always knew the vector of the wave was positive. I always had a vision of where I wanted to go, and knew areas I wanted to improve upon.  I made sure I was vaguely pointed in the right direction.




OK, I’m not sure if this was 100% true, but sometimes we have to believe something even if we are not sure it’s true or not, because believing the opposite will hinder us. If this seems like a contradiction – it’s because it is one.


Perfect is Not Possible

Stop trying to be perfect because that does not exist. There is only good and better, and sometimes they are enemies.


None of my actions guaranteed my success. Some setbacks are just too much to overcome, but I kept trying. I had to try. Life is an infinite cascade of probabilities. There is only one certainty and that is death. All else is chance. We can influence it, but it is still chance.


People that give up don’t believe they have influence. They have no agency. They believe in fate.

There is no fate.


Fate is our flawed brain trying to make sense of the world using the only problem solving and heuristic tools it has.


Life is a Mess, Like This Blog Post

You may have noticed this post is a messy, disjointed jumble. This is intentional. It was the way it came out of my brain. It is a reminder of the fact that life is, well, messy and disjointed. If you think this writing is bad, you should see the truly unedited crap that comes out of my keyboard.


Remember, everything you read is a carefully edited finished product. Your thoughts and your life are raw and unedited. This is not a fair comparison.


Comparison with self-help literature will make you feel inadequate at some level. Recognize this and power through it. I wish this wasn’t true. I wish you could just read a couple of my articles and make your life better by 42.7% in a few days or your money back, but it is impossible.* There is no escaping the natural cycles of your life. The sine wave is here to stay. Embrace it.


The problem with these well-meaning self-help/improvement articles is they are the finished product. They are so alluring and seductive, like a shiny new car coming off the assembly line.  Like a delicious dinner delivered to you by a waiter who is just a little too good looking and a little too nice to be a normal human being.


You are comparing this to the imperfect messy assembly line or back kitchen that is your life. The brain likes the finished product but can’t figure out how to get from point A to point B.

You have to fight through this stuff just like I did. There are no unicorns, leprechauns or magic shortcuts. Your life is not a Disney movie. When you read a cute little 1500 word article on having more gratitude what you don’t see is the 10 years of self-pity that lead to the realization that gratitude was necessary in the first place. You don’t see the 1,000 pages the author read to get there.


You may get a story or anecdote of the lightbulb moment, but likely the author doesn’t even really know why he changed. Why that moment and not some other?


Often we attach meaning to things that have no meaning. We are very good at this. It is how we make sense of the world. Often it is the unseen and unfelt events that lead to the ‘aha’ moment that made it ‘aha’ in the first place.


You Don’t Often See the Failures.

I’m not talking about the cute failures that lend a teachable moment or some kind of tear jerking inspiration (the ones that make good blog posts). I’m talking about the real failures that had no point: The dead ends. The skinned knees, malunited fractures and ugly scars. The broken relationships and broken lives.


There is survivorship bias in what you consume.


After people emerge from their personal darkness and personality disorders, they tend to forget the struggle. Intellectually they know, but emotionally they have already started disengaging. You can’t heal and simultaneously stay in the painful place you are healing from.


Someone can stay stuck living the same trauma over and over (PTSD), but then this person can’t really know what it’s like to emerge. It is rare writing that successfully captures both sides equally. Usually you get one or the other.

Reading again and again about the pain others are experiencing is not a long-tern solution; it is a trap. Often we need this to understand ourselves in the short term, but it is not the path to redemption and healing. It provides comfort and it can sooth us, but is this what we want?


To emerge and grow we actually need someone who made it to the other side. Comfort sooths the acute injuries, but for true healing we need a guide.


Why Does This Matter?

Articles, blogs and self-help books are a tool, and you need to know how to use them. Even when you don’t see the struggle, know it is there. Know that the advice will be 10x or 100x more difficult to implement than to just read it and understand.


I don’t write this stuff to discourage and depress you, but rather to give you hope. Change is slow and unpredictable in the short term. It may not work. You may die of cancer while eating the perfect diet. You may have a complete nervous breakdown while meditating daily. But if you are not satisfied with something in your life you need to take action and change it, because no one else will.


Go read one of my older posts and find a small thing to change in your life. Find a pain point of yours and lean into it a bit. Know that messiness and frustration will result, but do it anyways.


It doesn’t matter if you fail, because you tried. Get into the ring and take a few punches rather than watching from the sideline. Eventually you will find your unique path and emerge stronger than ever before.

*I guess this is not entirely accurate. Since this blog is free I could offer a money back guarantee with impunity.


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  1. I sometimes feel that reading self-help advice can actually make you feel helpless. They make it seem so simple and straightforward and in a neat little box. But life is is not simple, not straightforward and not in a neat little box. I’ve learned to take away the most important nuggets and integrate so it works within my life. Otherwise, I’ll feel overwhelmed with stuff I should be doing. I just try to do a few small things that will have a big impact, rather than address everything that I want to chance all at once.

    1. I have found it often difficult to change too much at once. Like you I take small pieces from many sources and try and implement the best ones.

    • RR on May 20, 2017 at 9:01 pm
    • Reply

    Thank you for this post. The sine wave analogy is very illuminating to me. One other way I think of it is like a random walk.

    1. I see a lot of people give up when the vector turns negative. We simply have to fight through the setbacks when this happens.

  2. I find myself disagreeing with more and more of your posts as time goes by. 🙂

    It’d be fun sometime to sit down in person and flip through them and talk through some of the disagreements to reach the mutual understanding I’m sure we would.

    (The short summary of my main disagreement with this post isn’t that it’s wrong, it’s that it’s the sub-optimal way to live. I think most people live this way, but I don’t think you have to. In other words, I think you CAN just jump there. Cut the Gordian-knot of Tangled Christmas Tree Lights, as it were. You’re telling people to take the long, windy, painful road to happiness, and I don’t think they have to. Worse, in this post, you’re telling them it HAS to be that way, that life is inherently messy, painful, and one must struggle through it. I’d politely disagree. It was a well written post though, and I think you’ll get a lot of people who it really resonates with, and who really like it.)

    Bummed I won’t see you this upcoming weekend at Camp Mustache 4. Hopefully FinCon! 🙂

    1. I actually don’t think you disagree with me completely, as I agree with your observations. So I disagree with your disagreement 🙂

      I think we should jump into life and always try and improve. I think it is possible to be insanely happy in a short period of time, but it is messy. I don’t want people to take any longer path to happiness than they have to, and certainly some find that path much easier than others. It’s not about the optimal or sub-optimal way to live as much as me trying to explain why things happen. This is a ‘why’ not a ‘how to’ post.

      My point is most self-help articles make it seem easier than it actually is. Change is usually simple, but seldom easy for most people. People either write about something they are good at (and assume everyone else can be good at it by replicating what they did), or they minimize the struggle it took to actually make that change in themselves. Then when people try and implement it and it doesn’t work as advertised, they get discouraged and feel like they are flawed for some reason. I’ve seen this pattern so many times in others and it is destructive. This is not to say we can’t learn from it and follow the advise of others though, after all we have to learn from somewhere.

      This post was about hope (although a bit scattered). It was about not giving up when things get hard because life is not always easy. Sometimes we will do everything by the book and still fail, and that’s OK. We still have to grab those lights and untangle them.

      PS: Disagreements are awesome because they provide further discussion and they make me think, so keep them coming when you have them.Thank you! Say hi to the CM4 crew for me my friend.

      1. I like all of this. Well said. 🙂

  3. So, are you opposed to the whole self-help genre? I’m not sure I’m smart enough to understand some of your posts. HaHa I do think most books oversimplify and over-promise. On the other hand, I can’t imagine where I would be without the knowledge and inspiration from Jim Rohn, Brian Tracy, Tony Robbins, Russ Harris, etc.

    1. Lol, usually when my posts are not understood by readers (see Joe’s comment above) it is my fault for not articulating my point clearly. This is one of those times as I am sure you are entirely smart enough, just perhaps not crazy enough to understand what is going on in my brain 🙂

      This was an experiment, as I just kinda wrote this as it poured out of my brain. I actually think self-help is awesome and that point did not come out in my article. I have grown tremendously as an individual from self-help gurus, but I also think it often doesn’t work as advertised because of the reasons above. I’ve seen so many people fail at applying simple concepts because they sound easy. Self-help makes self-improvement sound easy, whereas I believe it is often quite nonlinear and messy.

      I need to write a post on simple and easy, which sounds so simple, but because I am feeling a bit lazy will not be easy…


  4. I occasionally will find self-help literature useful when it is able to articulate something I am feeling or thinking in a different way, such that it changes my perspective—sometimes a permanent change in mindset for the better.

    “People that give up don’t believe they have influence. They have no agency. They believe in fate.”

    In recent years I have been convinced, mostly by Sam Harris, that free will is an illusion. For me, denying free will is a little different from believing in fate. I think that our decisions still matter and we should be held responsible for them but, from moment to moment, our choices are (mentally) predetermined. We couldn’t have chosen otherwise given the circumstances.

    I guess this realization helps me to forgive myself more easily when I have a milkshake at 9pm after work; it was my destiny!

    1. I’ve struggled with the concept of free will as well. I blame Sam Harris for breaking my brain as I just can’t completely come around to his point of view in spite of the fact his arguments are compelling. Free will may be an illusion, but it is a very useful one, and I think we are best served by pretending it exists. And free will or not, no one should feel bad about a milkshake if they are working until 9pm!


    • The Rhino on May 22, 2017 at 8:03 am
    • Reply

    a stoic who doesn’t believe in the fates! great scott man! Pour yourself a chamomile tea and get a grip of yourself.
    the spinner, the measurer and the cutter – a more romantic classical notion I have yet to come across..

    1. Lol! I shall drink my tea and ponder the Fates.

  5. Yes we should have hope. Yes we should not expect it to come easy. Change can come. Change takes work. The work is worth it. And often in the midst of change, we will fall down and need to make up some ground. That is okay.

    I was recently trying to rescue a horse. I was on one of my runs so I called the local authorities who said I needed to call these people. And they said, oh you need to call these people. It was very frustrating. Finally, I was able to leave a message for the right person and I left my cell phone. I offered to meet them at the head of the trail if they called. Sadly, I didn’t think they would. All I could do was go on my way. I had no training. Other horses were protectively surrounding the down one.

    Well, they did call. So I turned around and started running as fast as I could towards the trail head. And bam. I tripped and face planted. I had banged my knee and scraped my hands. I was quite mad with God at that point. I was just trying to do a good deed here. But, the horse was depending on me. This was not the time to give up.

    I got up. Brushed myself off. Started a little slowly and allowed some adrenaline to kick back in. And away I went. I did find the ranger. We walked back to the horse and I left. I had done what I could. Two days later, I received a call. My efforts saved the horse. My cuts and bruises were worth it. If I had given up, at any point, the horse would be dead.

    Life is a battlefield. You can not escape unscathed, but you can decide whether or not you let the wounds define you. Put in the work and change will come. Just don’t give up.

    1. I am relieved the horse made it 🙂

      Unfortunately I think our wounds define us more than we think.

      1. Yes, our wounds are part of our story, but we don’t have to let them be the final chapter. My wife suffered abuse as a child. She could have been a sad statistic, actually almost was, but she decided to rise above and instead of “defined by” let’s say, she is not ruled by the suffering. Affected, of course. Still battling at times, yes. But she has made a difference in countless lives by being a survivor and a fighter.

        cd :O)

  6. Interesting post. I would agree that self-help books and other similar advice aren’t that helpful if people don’t first take the time to slow down and figure out what really matters in their own lives. For example, I have always struggled with just living in the moment. So keeping a gratitude journal has made me happier because if forces me to sit down for 1 minute at the end of each day and come up with three things that I’m grateful for. While this might sound cheesy, because one of my problems is not slowing down and enjoying each day (because I’m so focused on what comes next), this works for me.

    I also think that doing self exploration without a predefined end point is helpful. It doesn’t require buying any books from self proclaimed gurus, but too often we want to glaze over the ugly or uncomfortable aspects of who we are and what we value. Instead we follow social norms and go with the flow, which may cause us to spend our money or time in ways that aren’t meaningful to us.

    I agree with you 100% that life is messy and nothing is going to change overnight (or by reading a single book). Finding meaning in our lives is worth going through uncomfortable periods and will look different for everyone. And for some people it might start with a self help book! Even if you think 99% of what they discuss is crap, you’ll still probably learn something that will eventually be helpful in your own life.

    1. Good points. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  1. […] I like to write when my life is going great, because who doesn’t want to share all the awesome things they are doing. However, maybe what is really more useful to you, the reader of this blog, is to hear about my struggles. Reading a manicured and heavily edited reality is deceiving in a way, and when we watch someone else’s life we should keep in mind we are watching the movie that they want us to see. There is a lot going on which is unseen. […]

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