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Why Self-Help Can Become an Addictive Trap

I love personal development, but it kinda poisons our minds.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the biggest shifts and growth in my life happened because of a seminar attended, a book read or a coach consulted. That stuff really does work – if you work it.

Nevertheless, personal development will suck the happiness out of your life if you’re not careful. 

Getting hooked on growth makes you an addict

Growth in general is great, but when you have a few major breakthroughs with the help of one particular guru or philosophy you start to become an addict. Or even a zombie.

I call it “Devoted Acolyte Syndrome” and it happens when someone gets stuck in a particular brand of personal development.

The way it happens is simple: Initially the breakthroughs feel so great that you want to keep coming back for more. Again and again.

Soon, as a devoted acolyte, you start to find the pleasure and joy available in the wider world fading. Nothing in your life seems as exciting or interesting as the breakthroughs you’re making.

The only way you can get back those good fulfillment feelings is to take a hit of your preferred personal development brand. Or guru. Or community.

Personal development zombies forget that true growth happens through experiencing life itself.

The world offers all sorts of opportunities for growth. Zombie acolytes don’t see it – instead they become further buried in the world of artificial breakthroughs and epiphanies.

I’ve personally invested a ton of time in money in really high end personal development. I’m a bit of a connoisseur, but I’ve had to think extremely carefully about the choices I’ve made.

Instead of hooking onto one particular school of thought, guru or even book I always sample from a whole range. By keeping my commitments brief, I’m always expanding my skill set laterally – instead of going super crazy deep on the latest pop psychology trend, I’ll look into it while also looking at it’s antithesis.

Curious about affirmations? I’d also look for a school of personal development that offers a critique of affirmations and see what they have to say. The more paradoxical and contradictory information you can comfortably process, the richer your understanding becomes.

Brevity is also important for psychological insulation. The only long term commitments I’ve made have been peer-based masterminds or one-on-one coaching that’s about “holding up the mirror”. Myself and 7 other amazing male entrepreneurs have been meeting every Monday in New York for the last 2 years, to mutually coach each other at the intersection between life, business and relationships.

For me, this sort of thing creates a valuable opportunity for contradiction and constructive conflict. I’m not going to get walloped with dogma. Depth and variety is the basis of keeping things real in every psychological sense imaginable.

Whenever a guru offers a one-stop-shop for enlightenment or riches, always be suspicious – true growth is always messier than that.

You’re responsible for your personal growth.

You. You have to find opportunities to push your envelope and explore your edges.

Anyone who offers to take care of that for you, is robbing you of the opportunity to find incredible knowledge, growth and epiphany through reality itself. 

And that’s my ultimate problem with zombie devoted acolytes. Personal development junkies live a tragedy devoid of all beauty and meaning besides what their dear leader provides.

To the zombie, art offers nothing. Nature offers nothing. Connection and friendships? Nothing, unless they’re “me too” reflections of the same dogma.

The crazy thing we forget is that art IS the original personal development. And before art, our prehistoric ancestors gazed into the night sky and told each other tales to explain their worlds.

Art + Nature + Friends

Let these three be your seminar. Let these inspire you to grow.

My good friend Nicky blew me away when he wrote this post on why he doesn’t ask people for advice.

“I see every word someone says to me and every act they perform as advice. I benefit not from what the people around me explicitly offer but rather from what I observe them do.”

He goes on to say that asking for advice basically results in pre-packaged soundbites based on how the advisor thinks things ought to be – rather than how they are, or even really were

If you ask Nicky for advice about productivity, he might tell you about various strategies he’s tried.  But he admits that he’s likely to gloss over the fact that this is something he still struggles with. He’ll give you the shell, but hold back the nut.

Instead, Nicky’s philosophy is one of curiosity-in-action. He observes and deliberately considers the people around him.

My point is to almost take this one step further. There is definitely a ton we can learn from directly observing that charismatic friend or stylish relative – the opportunities for this kind of growth are limitless if you have a good social circle. Or even just geographic proximity to amazing people.

Beyond people, there’s personal development opportunities everywhere

Entrepreneurs with exercise habits will often find the solution to their stickiest strategy problems at the bottom of a swimming pool, or on the top of a mountain.

Lateral thinking theory suggests the source of creativity lies in synergistic application of totally unrelated ideas – by studying, playing and just living well in all different areas and fields you can pick up old ideas form one place and make them brand new (revolutionary) ideas somewhere else!

You might be the traveling entrepreneur who spends an hour observing a hawker in an open air market in Morocco, imprinting copywriting and marketing tactics onto your brain stem, while simply marveling at the guy’s ability to move his merchandise.

You might be the martial artist who realizes that the same principals you use to throw an opponent on the mat also apply to negotiation domination in the boardroom.

The classic example is of course Steve Jobs, who allowed himself to follow his nose into calligraphy classes after dropping out of college. When he connected those dots to the computing industry, he created the PC User Interface as we know it today.

If you’ve signed up for pre-packaged insight from a guru, just make sure you’re not missing out on what life has to offer you. It’s too easy to get lazy and allow one well marketed philosophy to develop a monopoly on your development.

Instead of treading the well worn path, go out into the long grass and lose yourself.

You might just find something no one has ever seen before.

“Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is.” – Mark Twain 


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  1. Absolutely, I agree. The one stop shop merchant has a vested interest in your repeat business, and this agenda is often subtly (or crudely) apparent in its teachings. I’m reminded of that phrase, “if you love someone, set them free” The true development mentor will encourage curiosity, promote searching questions, and not claim to know what is good for you but support you to find your own answers. Luckily, for the future of personal development, the Internet is providing easy access to all varieties making it easier for the thirsty student to pick and mix and not get trapped down anyone blind alley.

  2. The art of observing the nature, artistic work and activities of people and learning from it is really a great source for personal development. But walking on the success road people built and learning from what they have done is I guess important on it’s side always, because if you do take your own philosophy for making decisions, you can telly the equality of success probability from those proven paths. On the other hand if you won’t look at them and will keep on doing what you think is right, chances are that you gonna get yourself into a chaos.
    These are just my views, what you say about these Peter?
    I mean correct me if I am wrong about my philosophy of Personal Development.

    Waiting to learn from your answer.

    Regards: Talha Khurshid Siddiqui “Marketing, HR and Enterprising Person/Analyst”

    1. Hey Talha, I think you have some good points here but it’s also important to remember that if you only focus on doing what others have done, you’ll only ever produce results that have already been produced.

      1. I got your point, “If you will do what others done for getting success, get no doubt about that you won’t get anything different than they got”
        At least you have to change something about it, changing the style to do that also matters a lot. You can change that.
        Thanks for your point Peter!
        Stay blessed.

  3. Hi Peter,
    Thank you for writing such an excellent article on this topic. I am a recovering personal development development addict. For someone with the mindset that there us always more room for growth, it is very easy to slip out of life and onto some made up philosophy. I spent 6 years on the Landmark Education merry go round, I honestly could have left after year 2 . I am extremely grateful for the awareness I developed in their programs, however as a coach myself I always encourage my clients to explore and re-engage their curiosity , rather than looking to me for the answers. I have also fallen for many of the pre-packaged programs for entrepreneurs, but have luckily become aware of that trap before spending too much time and $. I currently look to my Sunday afternoon hikes, my time alone in meditation, my partner and friends for growth opportunities. I am also trying to begin a daily art practice again, which is something I intuitively did in my early 20s for peace of mind and enjoyment.

    1. Hey Alison,

      Your experience isn’t too unusual – there are tone of people who’ve gone through the same types of programs. I don’t think any of them are intrinsically BAD, but when anything like that becomes a one stop shop it’s time to start getting worried. Good job at avoiding that.

      1. Thanks Peter, & Thanks Allison.

        I too love attend seminars, and have found that the fun/action taken factor is better when you just tend no more than 2 programs of each leader, speaker, author, teacher.

        As I resonate with your brilliant emails, and this conversation I just wrote this small article about a thought that this has sparked;

        I would value any feedback.

        Logan Tottenham
        The 4 Balances

  4. Thank-you for this timely article. I attended a seminar last summer and am returning for the second level next month, and found myself being wary and resistant at the time to falling into the “worshipping of the guru” who put it all together that many of the participants were subscribing to. When able to step onto the balcony (as it were) and to look down at the well-marketed material, it was easier to recognize that none of what was being shared was new or particularly original. It was just relabelled in shiny new terminology. And yes, it’s far better to take your OWN responsibility for growth by, as you so eloquently said, losing yourself in the grass, and finding your own path back to who you truly are. Thank-you for this excellent reminder.

  5. Tall grass wandering…this is why I find riding to be such a powerful medium for growth. It’s all about learning to communicate without using words. You have to do it through doing rather than talking, often while moving quickly. Horses are a powerful mirror for what you’re feeling. Scared and tense? Your horse will likely act up. But stay calm, confident, and relaxed and suddenly it’s like you and your horse meld into one creature.

    Anyhow, what I meant to say was that this is a great post. I agree wholeheartedly.

    1. Right on Sukie! This is a perfect example of what I’m talking about – there is so much we can learn and grow from, by doing. It pains me to see people who just sit with their nose in a book (or TED talk) trying to find enlightenment.

  6. Peter,

    The part about observation is a HUGE part of where people go wrong.

    Unfortunately, we simply aren’t aware of many actions and attitudes that we display.

    As a result, this “unseen” action can make a HUGE difference to what actually happens.

    Two people can follow the SAME advice and come up with totally different results because of these little hidden actions.

    It could be the attitude that you take in approaching people, or it could be your wording in sending an email.

    Those nearly-intangibles are as important, or sometimes even MORE important, than the *actual* advice given.



    1. Hey Daryl,

      Yes, you’re right – this missing-of-small-things is actually what the field of NLP was founded on. It was developed as a behavioral modeling strategy to replicate human behavior *precisely*.

  7. These are excellent points, Robert. I completely agree that we are responsible for our own personal development and growth. Just reading self help books and not taking any action is pointless. That’s what I really like about author Susan Spira. She doesn’t just talk the talk. She walks it out. Her books, Happy Shorts, One-Liners For Life, and The Happy Tips Book, all focus on being uplifted, encouraged, and motivated without the “fluff.” I highly recommend her work and you can find her website here:

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