Take a look around. You will find plenty of self-improvement content all over. You watch a particular self-improvement video on YouTube or read about personal growth on Medium, and you will soon find yourself bombarded with “similar recommendations,” thanks to their algorithms. To make matters worse for us, some of these recommendations even come with a “1 million views” tag. Luring, isn’t it?
The truth is, as human beings we are inclined to grow and improve. There are areas in our lives we always want to advance. And, because of its omnipresence, self-improvement advice is often difficult to avoid. From comments about the best weight loss method to tips on how to handle relationships, these recommendations can be most liked and shared. Finally, at some point in our lives, this rat race makes us feel like we’re in an endless loop with no real improvement.
I have read and watched my fair share of self-improvement. I have learned one thing — for any consistent progress, you need a self-improvement framework. And self-improvement is no different. Without a framework, implementation becomes a challenge. Take two of my examples. First, I signed up for Mindvalley’s annual premium membership program a few years ago. It gave me immediate access to an overwhelming amount of self-improvement content from various renowned teachers and mentors around the world. Everything felt enticing, important, and immediate. I hopped onto four different courses only to realize that after two months, I did not finish a single course of what I started. The second example is about books. There are many times I end up buying more books than I can physically read. The guilt of not reading them slowly sneaks in. Audible is an apt example. Each month you get one credit and they keep coming as you continue to pay your monthly subscription to Amazon. Between reading physical books and listening to Audible, I often don’t complete one book a month. Yes, we have all heard of the idiom, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” haven’t we? The easy answer is to take a holiday from Audible from time to time. And, I do that. But there is a nagging fear that I’ll be left behind in my quest as I see my reading wishlist growing fast. See, Audible is a fantastic subscription-driven audiobook service and Mindvalley is a super community to be in, yet, inadvertently I fall into the guilt trap and don’t know how to climb out of it.
Like any other industry, the self-improvement industry is quite a very lucrative one. Don’t get me wrong on that one. I have studied some great material and I have also watched some shitty stuff. There is content that can truly expand your mind and open you up to new ideas. And, then there is information and advice around the mainstream society that might not be relevant to the stage you are currently in. A majority of self-improvement content is rooted in stirring up one’s pain. It starts by telling you how bad you suck at life and the pre-requisites you need to get to where you want to be. Look at most online self-improvement programs and you will notice that the predominant message is rooted in your pain. This can lead to a perpetual state of feeling like you are not good enough or incomplete in some way.
Motivational speaker, Tony Robbins rightly said, “You can help get a person to where he wants to be either by stirring up his (current) pain or by helping him imagine the pleasures of his new destination.” My question is why not choose the latter? Choosing to coach my one-on-one clients on imagining their mighty destinations rather than thriving on feelings of perceived scarcity is what I do as a leap ahead coach.
Coming back to the self-improvement arena, I have seen the 3 most popular messages out there, which can easily put you at risk of an unfulfilling and humdrum life.
Trap#1: You need natural confidence.
“I don’t have the confidence to walk upon the stage and talk,” “I don’t have the confidence to knock on my boss’s door and take about my promotion,” “I don’t have the confidence to approach that girl,” “I don’t have the confidence to speak up,” “I don’t have the confidence to contribute my opinion in a conversation,” “I don’t have the confidence to pursue my dreams.” I bet you’ve had one or more of these conversations with yourself in your life. In order to do or have something, you are mad to believe that you need confidence. The larger self-improvement industry has sold you that idea.
For a very long time, I believed in this too. I felt that confidence was a prerequisite for taking action. And, that kept me stuck. No, you don’t need confidence at the beginning. Look back over your life experiences and you’ll realize that you were never confident on day one. Confidence is a result of what you do.
Most people have their thinking about confidence the wrong way around. We want confidence in our decisions. We want confidence before we act on something. We want confidence about our future. Confidence rarely works that way. Personally, for me, there were two distinct moments that made me realize this. One was a sudden decision I had to make to pursue my Master’s degree in the United States during the global recession soon after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The second incident was in my first job at a call center and I had to speak to an American (stranger) on the other side of the phone line and walk her through some technical problem. In both these situations, I had zero confidence. I remember distinctly that I was trembling in my voice, so much so, that one of my seniors had to jump into that call to resolve the problem she was facing. A month later, talking to customers was a cakewalk. These incidents taught me that confidence is built on choices and taking imperfect actions. Confidence comes as a result of practice and is often seen in the rear-view mirror. So the next time you hear someone say you need the confidence to do something, turn around and review your past to remind yourself that confidence is a result of what you do.
Trap #2: You have to start believing in yourself.
How many times have you heard a motivational speaker or a self-improvement program talk about believing in yourself? Plenty of times, isn’t it? What thoughts run through your mind each time you hear that? I am sure it leaves you feeling fundamentally flawed with an unanswerable question of “How?” Self-improvement recommendations about staying positive and believing in oneself are abundant, but they aren’t always helpful. It’s not okay to ignore your feelings and pretend to be positive. Negativity doesn’t have to be embraced, but it also can’t be ignored.
Any advice that tells you to start believing in yourself right at the start is a poor thought. Just imagine yourself, with your current situation, you are probably deep in your mess, feeling neglected and low on self-worth being asked to do something that is a mountain of a task. What can you come up with at best? Poor thinking leads to poor decisions, creating more problems and more pressure that ultimately leads you to a downward spiral of misery.
The antidote to this is to have someone who believes in you and has faith that you will make it. We perform better when someone has high expectations of us. It’s called the Pygmalion Effect and it’s a powerful secret weapon that we can use to nudge others towards success.
Instead of trying to believe in yourself when the stakes are against you, find someone who believes in you.
Trap #3: You can be anything you want to be.
At its core, this self-improvement recommendation is trying to encourage people to do great things in life. But, it is flawed in the fundamental understanding of how our brain works. Our brain is innately attracted to sedentary behaviors. Take an example of buying a gym membership. Researchers call this “the physical activity paradox.” You’ve experienced it if you’ve ever found yourself attending the gym with less frequency each passing week. Conserving energy has been essential for humans’ survival over generations. As a result, our brains always look for shortcuts.
Repeatedly telling someone that they can be anything they want often leads to wishful thinking and subliminal efforts. And, those who take action often fall in the bucket of “This is not for me… or I am not cut out for this…” Self-improvement is not effortless. It requires a change that is much deeper than just using willpower and forcing actions. Motivational speaker and YouTuber Jay Shetty put it appropriately when he said, “You can’t be anything you want, but you can be everything you are.”
In his book, Rich Dad’s CASHFLOW Quadrant, author Robert Kiyosaki untangles this Jay Shetty quote through a formula “Be-Do-Have.” Taking a cue from the lie of “You can be anything you want to be,” most people play at the Have and Do levels of this 3-word formula. They set goals, which form the ‘have’ part: goals to make millions, to have a perfect relationship, or to be an entrepreneur. They then get to create their to-do lists, where they begin listing down what they have to do in order to achieve their goals. This is the ‘do’ part. They have their goals set and then begin doing. What they all forget is the ‘be’ part of the formula — the mindset and the identity of who you have to be in order to achieve your goals. Without this ‘be’ part, you often fall back to the levels of your current self. Every change begins at the ‘be’ level and goals then become a place to come from and not a place to get to.
Don’t get caught up in the subliminal efforts of this third recommendation. Instead, realize that improvement happens at a subliminal level and not through subliminal efforts.
Hey look, there’s a reason why self-improvement is called a journey. It’s okay to make mistakes along the path and take imperfect actions. The point of making mistakes is to learn from them. Don’t be too hard on yourself and steer clear of these three lies that popular self-improvement resources have sold to you.