Personal development is a field aimed to help people improve. The personal development speakers and authors promote the idea that we can change our personalities, develop new traits, new skills and become better people. We can learn to let go of fear, negativity and overcome problems to live better lives. And even though I believe in this too, there’s something about personal development that nobody properly addresses. So I’ll do my best to bring this topic into the spotlight now.
I have been reading, using and studying personal development materials for about 3-4 years now. And as time went by and I learned more, I started questioning the core message of this field. The more I learned, the more I realized that something was missing. Let me explain!
First of all, I honestly believe that people can rise above their limiting beliefs and conditioning and improve themselves and their lives. However, many speakers sell this idea without actually understanding something about how it works and how it worked for them. Because even though we can change, there are some things that are impossible or extremely difficult to change. And that is something no personal speaker or guru will tell you. At least, as far as I know it. And if you know of a personal speaker that talks about this topic a lot, please let me know who they are because I would love to learn from them.
Take a look at the motivational quotes below.
“You have infinite potential within you.” Bob Proctor
“We can change our lives. We can do, have, and be exactly what we wish.” Tony Robbins
“When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe then you will be successful.” Eric Thomas
“What you lack in talent can be made up with desire, hustle and giving 110% all the time.” Don Zimmer
“There are no limits to what you can accomplish, except the limits you place on your own thinking.” Brian Tracy
You have probably heard or seen quotes like these times and times again. And, depending on your experience with personal development, your reaction was one of these:
Scenario #1: You are relatively new to the personal development field and you like these quotes. They make you feel positive, empowered and motivated. You often search for quotes like these to keep yourself motivated.
Scenario#2: You either never believed in personal development or you have become a bit skeptical of it. Whenever you see quotes like these, you tend to roll your eyes and look down on the people who believe them. You think that such quotes are just fluff with no real substance.
I am not going to say which one of you is right. Frankly, I have no idea what approach is best. But there are a few things I have learned along the years. And that knowledge made me go from scenario #1 to a point closer to scenario #2. It made me shift my perspective on personal development.
Let me tell you a bit about my personal experience. This will help you understand what I am talking about. A few years ago, when I first started listening to motivational speeches and personal development material, I used to believe that anything was possible. Honestly. I blindly thought that if I believe in myself and keep working, I would achieve everything I wanted. I thought that I could earn a million dollars in a few years. And I felt like I was destined for success. After all, there are no limits to what I can do, right?
Perhaps. But I had no skills I could use to earn 1 million dollars. And the problem is that no matter how much you believe in yourself and how much personal development information you consume, this will never be enough to achieve success. Motivation is not enough. You also have to develop your skills and put in the work long enough to get where you want.
The formula for success
If I were to sum up the message of most personal development material out there, I would say that the formula goes like this:
Success = Confidence + Goal + Work
But this formula is incomplete and misleading. Here’s how I came to realize this. At the beginning of 2016, I started going out with my boyfriend, Radu. On our first date we discovered that we were both passionate about personal development and goals. This was one of the things I loved about him.
However, he had studied personal development more time than I have. He had also achieved more and was working for himself, earning enough money to support himself. At the moment, I was studying conference interpreting and preparing for a career in this field. Since the beginning, I got the feeling that he got a head-start somehow. I assumed that it was become he had been working on a single goal for longer than I had. And he had studied personal development for longer.
But the more time we spent together, the more I realized how different we were. Here are a few examples:
- He had a definite goal he was working on, while I struggled to set one for myself. I had no idea what I wanted to do or what I could do.
- He was certain of his path and confident, while I struggled with confusion and self-doubt.
- He had no doubt that he would achieve anything he decides – in time and with enough work. I was not sure what I could achieve and I doubted I could do as much as I wanted to.
- He would wake up happy and excited for the day. I would wake up tired after not sleeping well, feeling sad and low on energy.
- He could easily stick to anything he decided to do and complete his tasks. I was not disciplined and I would struggle to finish what I started. Sometimes I would simply give up and decide to do something else.
- In the face of adversity, he would persevere and I would want to give up.
I could carry on, but you get the point. Now, I am not saying that I never got anything done and I wasted time every day. I am not saying that he was perfect either. But, in most cases, he would successfully work on his goals while I struggled to find a goal and make myself believe in it enough to stick to it.
Of course, there was also a difference in experience. He had already been working for himself for about 2 years, while I decided to give up on interpreting and start doing something else. I was trying to replicate what Radu was doing, but in my own way. And I have struggled for a long time. After a while, I got the feeling that no matter what I do, he may always be better than me and achieve more than me. I couldn’t tell why…I could not understand how easy it was for him and he could not understand how hard it was for me.
A few months later, I was negative and depressed and I still had no plan for my future. You probably know that I shared this on social media last year. I think that what triggered my depression was the fact that many things in my life were changing at the same time and I could not control them or cope with them very well. A big part of the problem was that I had no clear goal to follow, no path for myself. And, at the same time, I would often compare myself to Radu. This comparison was not fair in any way, especially since he was living chapter 10 of the story, while I was still stuck at chapter 2…
But after a while, I decided to work on myself to overcome my depression and get better. So I started how I knew best – by learning about this. While I knew that personal development can usually help a lot, I thought that I would need more at that moment.
So I turned to positive psychology. I wanted to understand what makes us negative, depressed and how we can be happier. I started learning about the science of happiness. I fell in love with this field and I started to understand more and more. I eventually recovered from my depression. And that process of real change was so overwhelming and impressive for me that I wanted to tell more people about it. That’s how and why I came to write my first book, “Happy by Choice”.
But this process I just described in 2 paragraphs took me months and a lot of effort. Here’s what has changed over the last year or so:
- I became less negative
- I overcame my depression
- I found a goal I want to pursue
- I am more emotionally stable
- I am more grateful, more optimistic and more hopeful about the future
- I believe in myself more
- I became more aware of my thoughts and habits
- I can better understand other people and the world we live in
- I am a bit wiser
I have changed in this direction. But I want to emphasize that I developed some skills or traits more than others. And I have done so gradually and through hard work. I struggled to challenge some of my negative thoughts time and time again until it worked. I still struggle sometimes, but not nearly as often and as badly as before. I learned more about myself and grew thanks to the conflicts in my mind and many talks and arguments with my boyfriend.
Some of these changes are probably not even noticeable by others. But some of the things I learned may have changed me forever. And my work is not done yet. But the things that helped me the most were understanding and awareness. And these two things are not really emphasized in personal development enough.
Here is a very important point I want to make:
Key idea #1 Yes, I have changed myself. But I have done that through learning, understanding, awareness and hard work. No personal development book, video or training can substitute that.
Many people seem to believe that what they need to do to become better is to study personal development more. Maybe if you go to a Tony Robbins event…or maybe if you read and listen to Bob Proctor…or maybe if you listen to a compilation of motivational speeches every morning, then you will change and you will be successful, right? Nooo. All these things can definitely help, but I believe they are not enough.
I am telling you this based on my personal experience, observations AND the science of positive psychology. Every book I have read that is science-based and that teaches you how to become happier mentions this: “It takes real work and it takes time.” Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology and Sonja Lyuobomisky, one of the leading figures in this field both share the same message.1,2 Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard University also warns us that we are bad at predicting what will make us happy in the future, while also overestimating how much happiness a single event can bring.3
Most personal development gurus will tell you that a good life means a life of abundance. While I do get the appeal, I am here to tell that money will NOT make you happier. 1, 2 On the contrary, it may contribute to your misery and have a negative impact on your mental health. 2 And I’m saying this based on research and statistics, not my personal perspective alone.
And while studying, I also discovered scientific proof for something I intuited all along: we are not equal!
Key point #2 We do not start out as equals. No matter what you are told, no amount of personal development can make up for that.
Here is a simple explanation for that. Have you heard of the happiness set point theory? This theory is promoted by many experts on positive psychology such as Sonja Lyubomirsky, Daniel Gilbert and Martin Seligman, to name a few. According to this theory, each of us has a natural happiness set point – a level of happiness we always find ourselves at. Any new and exciting event can make us a bit happier and any painful experience can make us sadder, but we will bounce back to our set points in little time.
That’s why no amount of money will bring you happiness. This happiness set point is mainly determined by your genetic makeup. So if both your parents are normally happier and more optimistic, you will have a higher set point. If you parents are negative, critical and miserable, you will have a lower set point. If we measure the happiness set point on a scale from 1 to 10, some people will normally be at 5, others at 7 and others at 9.
Why does this matter? Well, keep in mind that happiness is not just about happiness. The people who are normally happier are also healthier, more optimistic, they bounce back from adversity faster, they persevere even when things get hard, they are more friendly and rely on other people more. In other words, happier people usually achieve more than the rest.
Here’s another fact that will show how much our genes matter. It turns out that some people have a genetic predisposition to depression. According to Lyubomirsky, depression is connected to the gene 5-HTTLPR. This gene comes in 2 variations: the long form or the short form. The people that have the short allele type of this gene are more likely to experience depression.2
When people are faced with adversity, some are able to persevere and move on while others succumb to depression. Unfortunately, the people who have the short version of the gene are the ones who become depressed after stressful events. However, the people with the long version of the gene do not become depressed and overcome adversity more easily. 2
If you have any knowledge about depression, you already know that it can affect everything about a person: what they think, what they feel and what they do. Symptoms of depression include persistent sadness, loss of appetite, insomnia, difficulty thinking and concentrating, lack of energy, guilt and so on.1
In other words, the people who are depressed do not function like healthy, happy people do. Sometimes they struggle even with simple and easy tasks such as waking up, eating, taking a shower and getting to work. Although you can never understand what it is like if you have never experienced it, I am sure that you can imagine how hard it must be to achieve success while you are depressed. Most people that have depression cannot imagine living a normal life, let alone dream of achieving great things.
Your chance of being successful depends, to a certain level, on your genetic makeup.
Therefore, your genes have a really big impact on your life. Now, I am not saying that those who did not win the “genetic lottery” have no chance. Even though you have the tendency to be more negative, pessimistic and to think about giving up, you can learn how to act in spite of that.
However, keep in mind that fighting your natural instinct will take a lot of work and effort. And even though you can act in spite of your genetic programming and habits, you may never work for your success as easily as happier people do.
Let’s imagine that your mental energy is like a battery that starts at 100% every morning. Maybe in a regular day, you will have to use 50% of your mental energy and willpower just to force yourself to keep working instead of giving up. And you can use the rest of the energy to actually focus on your tasks: to create something, to work out, to build your business, to write your book and so on.
But even so, the people who are already happy, confident and persistent can devote 100% of their resources just to goal-achieving activities. Maybe they will only take advantage of 70% of their mental energy to do actual work and use the rest to procrastinate, but they still have an upper hand.
I have noticed this difference in my case as well. Sometimes I would feel down and need to spend time on building myself up just to get to work. I would read a self-help book, spend time thinking about what task I could tackle more easily, drink a cup of coffee and only then would I feel like I can take on the day. And by that time Radu already put in 2 hours of work. So it often feels like I am dealing with a deck of cards that is stacked against me.
Here are some of the things I discovered that can have an impact on your chances of being successful:
- Genes. I have no doubt that having “good genes” helps you develop more “positive” personality traits and therefore achieve more.
- Your parents. If you parents have good genes, you inherit them. More than that, if you are raised by parents who are happy, confident, skilled, educated, you will grow up in a similar way. But if your parents are sad, poor and always worry about making ends meet, that’s the way you expect your life to go.
- Your relationship with your parents. If your parents are loving, supportive and reliable while you are growing up, as an adult, you will be fairly confident. But if your parents are preoccupied, neglectful or intrusive, you will probably be insecure and doubt yourself.
- Education. If your parents, teachers and other adults help you develop a good understanding of the world and a good life philosophy, you are more likely to succeed. If they tell you that honesty, hard work and confidence help you create a good life for yourself, that is what you will believe. If they teach you that you can get anything you want by working for it, you will feel in charge of your life.
But if they teach you that you can get anything you want just by asking for it because you are special, they are setting you up for failure.
Self-awareness. Being self-aware means knowing yourself – understanding how you think and behave and why, knowing what your strength and weaknesses are and correctly analyzing how much you can do. If you are not self-aware, it is easy to believe that you are more talented or skilled than you really are only to be disappointed by how little you can do. But if you are self-aware, you know what you are capable of and how much you can achieve. Therefore, you set realistic goals and plan accordingly.
Remember the success formula we talked about in the beginning?
Success = Confidence + Goal + Work
Yes, that’s the one that seems to be promoted by many personal development speakers. However, based on what I have learned so far, I am going to say that it is much more complicated than that. Here is the formula I would like to suggest. It is not necessarily complete or perfect, but this one seems closer to the truth.
Success = Good genes + Loving Parents + Good education + Good life philosophy + Being exposed to good information + Goals + Determination + Self-confidence + Optimism + Awareness + Perseverance + Work + Adaptability
I honestly believe that all these factors matter when it comes to personal development. Of course, confidence, goals and work are very important. But they are enough to make you successful only if you are “success-ready”.
The problem with success stories
Many successful speakers tell us about how they started their journey. The story is more or less the following:
I was broke, but I found a book/mentor and I changed my life. In a few years, I turned my life around and I thrived – personally and financially. And you can do that too!
And I am sure that they believe this is their story. But it is not the full story. And as much as I look up to these people for the knowledge they share and the positive impact they have, I have to question their stories.
Let’s take the example of Bob Proctor since he is one of the most successful personal development teachers. He says that he was 26 years old and he owed a lot of money. Then, he started reading “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill. A few years later, we earned a million dollars. Over the years, he learned more about personal development and started teaching it, continuing to earn millions of dollars. He continues to teach the principles of achievement through coaching and trainings around the world.
Or let’s think of Napoleon Hill, a great speaker and author. His book, “Think and Grow Rich” is one of the best-selling books of all time. His success story starts when Andrew Carnegie, a wealthy business magnate offered him the chance to study why he and other successful people are successful. Napoleon Hill accepted this task and went on to study the principles of success and to teach them in seminars and through his books. His book “Think and Grow Rich” sold 70 million copies before 1970, when he passed away. And people are buying his books even today!
Both of them are very successful people so learning from them seems an obvious thing to do. After all, you should learn from the people who already did what you want to do, right? But let me ask you this: How come a single book made such a big difference in Bob Proctor’s life? And how come the book was read by millions of other people whose lives stayed the same? He does say that he continues to read this book over and over again, but the fact that he saw the value in it, studied and applied it while others don’t only proves that he is not a regular guy.
And how come Napoleon Hill was picked by a very wealthy and influential man to do such a great task? Why did the great Carnegie trust him to study and share the principles of becoming rich and achieving success? Surely he must have seen some potential in Hill to trust him to do this job.
So my point is this: people like Napoleon Hill and Bob Proctor are no ordinary men. If they were and if we could all do what they do, why doesn’t this happen to you and me? How come we watch several motivational videos and read several books and stay the same? How come we may struggle for months only to see that little or nothing changed? How come there are 7 billion people in the world and only 16 million of them are millionaires?
Well, that’s because success is not achieved as we are told. It is strange to hear successful people tell their own success stories. They will tell you that the thing that turned their lives around was the moment they started reading a certain book or met a certain person who inspired and educated them. They claim their success was caused by a singular event.
But I disagree. I am sure they believe that story, but that is not the truth. And that’s because their success stories did not begin with that book or that one talk with a mentor. Their success stories began even before they were born. Their stories begin with the right genes, continue with the right upbringing, the right education and so on. And when that singular moment comes, they are already prepared for success. That moment is simply what pushed them forward, but they were already on the right path moving forward.
Extraordinary people sell their stories to us and we buy them because they seem ordinary people.
And this is the thing that is missing from the personal development field. All speakers focus on the fact that we can achieve our dreams, become millionaires, without telling us that only some of us can actually do it – or some of us can do it much easier than others since they already got a head-start.
Key idea #3: No success story really begins with a good book, the right advice or a benevolent mentor. Every success story begins with the right genes and the right childhood. It begins with the right circumstances.
I know that all these ideas may seem controversial and hard to digest. And I want to make sure that you understand my point. I am not saying that personal development speakers are lying to us. I am not saying that what they teach is not true or useful to us. I actually think that Bob Proctor and Napoleon Hill shared valuable information that can really help us become more aware of ourselves and realize that we have the power to change our lives.
Many of the theories shared by Proctor seem to be valid and accurate, even though they are not presented as scientific. For example, the ideas of conscious vs subconscious mind, self-image, terror barrier and goal card can also be understood and confirmed through science. And I do believe that they work. Also, I was lucky enough to attend one of his seminars and meet him in person in 2016!
As for Napoleon Hill, I want to say that his work is indeed unique and valuable. Just recently I realized that most (if not all) of the 17 principles of success he described can be backed by science. I sometimes listen to the recordings of his trainings on these principles. And last year I read one of his famous books “Outwitting the Devil”. Besides the fact that the idea of the book is unique and intriguing, it helped me learn new things about myself and it reminded me, once again, how important it is to have a goal in life.
So no, I’m not here to tell you that Bob Proctor and Napoleon Hill have nothing good to teach you. I am not saying that all the personal development information is limited, useless or false. On the contrary, such ideas and speakers can help us learn a lot. They can help us improve and live better lives. But more often than not, such speakers are unconsciously sharing only part of their success stories.
It seems to me that all speakers and teachers in the field believe they are telling us how anyone can achieve success. But actually, what they are teaching us is how the right people can achieve success.
They are probably unaware that they are trying to teach us something they did not learn. You cannot really teach a depressed person how to become happier if you have never been depressed. You cannot teach an insecure person how to become confident if you were confident since 2 years old. You cannot teach a homeless person how to become financially independent if you have not done it.
Personal development speakers are trying to teach us something that cannot be taught – how to have the right circumstances and achieve success…but what if we don’t have the right circumstances?
To be honest, I felt really sad when I realized this. Given my circumstances, I would have loved to learn how to be successful from someone who started with nothing. You see, most people do start when they are poor and simple employees, but if they are intelligent, self-aware, confident and disciplined, they do not start from scratch.
I would love to hear the success story of someone who was depressed or anxious. Someone who struggled with self-doubt and self-limiting beliefs every single day for years. I’d love to learn from someone who once felt life was unbearable and managed to build a successful, meaningful and happy life for himself/herself. Now that’s the success story I would love to read!
Because most speakers already had a head-start, they often minimize the effort and the time it takes to change and achieve financial freedom, success and happiness. The best way I can illustrate this is, ironically, with another motivational quote:
I started feeling that almost all personal development teachers only talk about the dream. The sell us the dreams we want: success, money, achievement, happiness and everything else. They tell us that we can have it all.
But most of them fail to talk about the hustle as they should. Most of them fail to understand or properly talk about the struggle. They rarely talk about confusion, pain, self-doubt, conflict and adversity in various forms. Most often they just gloss over it as if the only struggle we will experience would be one nasty comment from a bully that we can bounce back from in 5 minutes. And that’s probably because most of them never really struggled.
However, I had to add that some people do talk about how hard it is to change and pursue success. Napoleon Hill and Bob Proctor both talk about this. However, even them don’t talk about it enough. It is as if they expect our process to be part understanding, part effort and part magic.
I still believe in the power of personal development. I do think that the information shared by good speakers through seminars, books, videos and social media posts can help people feel motivated and inspired to live better lives.
But, at the same time, I believe that much of the information in the personal development field is based on fluff, hearsay and personal theories. It is not based on science, experiments or studies. I also think that many speakers talk about subjects that they do not completely understand or have never studied or experienced themselves.
If you want to change your personality, improve your skills, develop a good life philosophy, become more aware and ultimately live a better life, I am certain that you can do that. And personal development can definitely help you get started. However, keep in mind that you will need to put in a lot of time and effort to change. And you may never be able to change some things.
If you were lucky enough to have good genes, be raised by great parents and be exposed to the right information, your personal development journey will be more like a walk in the park.
But if you don’t have the “right” genes and your upbringing and education were not good enough, your journey will be more like a hike. It will be more difficult and it will take more time. But you will also learn more, understand more and grow more. You will be able to help others who start in the same spot climb the high mountains.
There’s a quote that seems fitting for people like this. I’ve heard it in the TV series “Scandal” and it seems to be a popular one in African-American families. If you did not have the right circumstances from the beginning keep in mind that:
“You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.”
However, no matter where you start, you still have to put in the work. No book or seminar can compensate for that. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that you need to read 50 good books before you start aiming for success because you don’t. Yes, books can indeed help you learn more. But they do not help you achieve more if you do not work on yourself and on your goals.
I personally learned a lot from personal development. But I also think I learned a lot by studying positive psychology and by introspection. And, of course, I learned and changed because I put in the effort and the work to do so. And I am still working on myself.
So dear friend, let me tell you this: I do believe in you. I am not saying that you will get everything and become a millionaire by the age of 30. Maybe you will. Maybe you won't. But I do believe that you can change. If you are willing to learn more, to study yourself, to discover the intricate webs of your mind and soul, you can also change. You can stop hurting yourself through negativity. You can learn new skills and develop your talents. You are allowed to dream. And you can live a better life – if you are willing to build it!
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- Martin Seligman – “Learned optimism”
- Sonja Lyubomirsky – “The How of Happiness”
- Daniel Gilbert – “Stumbling on Happiness”
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