Years ago, I wrote an article that claimed the best way to judge the usefulness of self-help advice is by how many people eventually leave it behind. In it, I boldly claimed that if self-help advice actually worked, the industry would quickly go out of business. After all, if the advice delivered on its promises, then you wouldn’t feel the need to constantly read another book or attend another seminar.
Predictably, a lot of people hated that article. People nitpicked it to death. I eventually took the piece down because I don’t think my arguments were fully formed and my points were delivered about as delicately as a sledge hammer in a china shop. But I still believe I’m right. And I’d like to take another stab at it today.
Over the years, I have found that people who seek out self-help do so with two very different mindsets. The first group treats self-help like going to the doctor. Let’s call these the “Doctor People.” Maybe their marriage failed or they had an existential crisis or they’re struggling to deal with some sort of trauma. They’ve got this pain or confusion in their life and they want to solve it so they can move on and feel normal and healthy again. Much like a doctor eases your physical ails, they look to a book or website or seminar to cure their emotional ails. Their mindset is very much, “I paid you, now fix it!”
Other people approach this stuff like they’d approach learning a game, like basketball or chess. They want strategies. They want roadmaps. They want checklists. Most of all, they want a mentor or coach. Let’s call these the “Coach People.” Coach People want to know all the right moves. They want to understand the nature of the game on a deep level. Any new breakthrough of experience or emotion, they want to have it, to conquer it, and to be transformed by it.
There are pros and cons to these two different approaches. Doctor People are in a lot of pain so they’re likely very motivated and willing to listen to whatever it is you have to say. The problem is that Doctor People see personal growth as information that is to be learned rather than a skill that must be practiced. Self-awareness is a skill. Managing emotions is a skill. Empathy and vulnerability are skills. You start out horrible and eventually become somewhat good at them. But that can take years. A lot of Doctor People get really unhappy when they’re told this. Like, imagine going to the doctor with the flu and the doctor starts giving you a three-hour long lecture about nutrition and exercise. You’d fucking hate that guy.
Coach People, on the other hand, intuitively understand that these things are skill-based and they must be worked on over and over again for many years until you can do them unconsciously. The same way you perfect your golf swing or your free throw shot by steady, conscious practice, you develop self-awareness and emotional management through consistent, conscious practice. Coach People are in it for the long haul. They understand that you don’t just “solve” personal problems overnight. You have to commit to them. You have to commit to yourself.
But what the Coach People don’t get is that the whole point is to eventually stop. It’s to leave. Because unlike chess or basketball, there’s no world championship for anger management. Nobody is going to give you a trophy for mindfulness. No one gives a shit if you got control of your anxiety yesterday or not.
In fact, viewing personal growth in terms of achievement and optimization can eventually inhibit personal growth! At a certain point, trying to manage your anxiety perfectly will only lead to more anxiety. Trying to be perfectly vulnerable will cause you to be less vulnerable. Obsessing over self-awareness will ironically make you less self-aware.
In this way, the skillset of personal growth doesn’t exactly work like the skillsets of basketball or chess. The skill curves are inverted. In basketball or chess, the better you get, the more effort is required to further improve. Whereas, in personal growth, the better you get, the less effort is required to further improve.
This is because personal growth skills have positive feedback loops baked into them. Self-awareness generates introspective questions that naturally lead to more self-awareness. Developing highly productive habits gives you time and energy to consider how to be even more productive. Better social skills manifest a social life that grants more chances to develop better social skills.
Personal growth skills are more like skiing downhill. It takes a lot of effort to get some speed going, but once you’re on your way, the most effective thing you can do to gain speed is nothing.
(Side note: “doing nothing” is itself a surprisingly difficult skill.)
I think what the Coach People miss is that the whole point of this stuff is to one day be free of consciously having to think about it. The way to “win” at relationships is to be completely comfortable in your relationships. The way to “win” at anxiety is to stop caring about your anxiety. The way to “win” at health and productivity is to integrate them into your life so completely that you stop thinking of them as health and productivity.
Ironically, this is what the Doctor People intuitively understand. You can’t stay in marathon therapy sessions and fancy seminars forever. At some point, you just have to live your damn life.
Instead, it’s the Coach People who struggle to accept this. That’s because Coach People do what everybody does when they obsessively work on something: they adopt it as their identity. And once they begin to identify as the “personal growth” person, not only do they get trapped by it, but they are also incredibly likely to bore you at dinner parties with stories about their ayahuasca retreats.
I think I sensed the importance of stopping a couple years ago when I tried to write that article. But it didn’t quite work. I was still too much “in it.” I still largely identified as a Coach Person. Not to mention, my fucking profession depended on me identifying as a Coach Person, so it was kind of hard to see through the haze of my own incentives.
But I think this past year, possibly with the clarity granted by a pandemic, it’s become abundantly clear to me: it’s time to stop. It’s time to stop thinking about these subjects. It’s time to go back to my life.
I started blogging about these topics in 2008. At the time, I was a fucking mess. My relationships were toxic and codependent. I was incredibly unhealthy and desperately insecure. I was often entitled and kind of an asshole. My blog became my therapy as I tried to sort through my own shit. The fact that other people came along for the ride was welcome and unexpected. I had no shortage of fucked up shit to inspire me.
But today, I feel good. I have great relationships. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, both mentally and physically. I’m largely at peace with my flaws and lingering insecurities. I’ve experienced more success than I deserve. I still have problems but I’m really happy with those problems.
I’m no longer the guy at the top of the ski hill struggling to get going. I feel like the guy flying down, full speed ahead. But to continue writing about these topics feels like unnecessarily planting my poles into the snow.
In other words, it’s time for me to move on from the self-help world. The standard roadmap for self-help authors when they produce a hit book is to spend the next 20-30 years regurgitating the same ideas over and over again in various formats, on various stages, cashing the checks as they go. To me that sounds about as interesting as sticking my dick in a light socket.
Instead, over the past six months, I have been busy creating a series of courses that encapsulate my personal growth philosophy with hours of video, dozens of lessons, and written and real-life exercises. They will cover everything from resilience to managing one’s emotions to relationship skills to developing self-awareness and challenging one’s own beliefs. The courses will build on the ideas of my books and offer practical real-world exercises and tools for study so that people can apply the ideas in their own lives.
I’m creating this because I want to leave behind a repository of everything I’ve worked so hard to learn the past ten years. It’s my swan song. I want to leave behind any instruction I would give, any advice on how to develop these skills, in a way that’s easily accessible and affordable for all.
The courses will launch the first week of 2022. It will be a monthly/yearly subscription and will be part of the markmanson.net membership. All current members will immediately gain full access and stay subscribed at their current price. So if you’re already a site member, you don’t have to do anything.
Once the courses are live next month, I will probably stop posting on my site for the foreseeable future.
Don’t get me wrong, I will still be around. I will continue to write the newsletter each week and will still post stuff on social media. The shift away from self-help and personal development content will be gradual. I will need time to figure out what exactly I want to do next. But like everything else in my adult life, I will write my way into it.
I’m not sure where things will go. It might get funny. It might get weird. Some of it might be downright bad at times. But that exploration is part of the fun.
Obviously, I might lose some of you along the way. That’s fine. The same way I can’t bring myself to write something I’m not excited about, I don’t expect any of you to read something you’re not excited about. I’ve spent a lot of the past few years anxious and insecure that I would “lose my audience,” by stepping away from self-help content. It’s taken me way too long to listen to my own advice and just not give a fuck.
But even if you never read another word I write, I have nothing but love and appreciation for you. All of you have already given me so much, I can be nothing but grateful. The run I have had in this industry in the past ten years has been beyond my wildest dreams. I truly hope that I’m leaving it better than I found it.