Ryan Holiday

The Problems with Personal Development

We can be better.

It's not that you're not good enough as it is, it's not that any of us can be perfect. It is the fact that there will always be problems and we need to deal with them. You can't wish away problems like you can't wish away the seasons, illness or death. They will happen. 

And because there is no magic bullet to your problems, there is only one way to handle them - be better. Personal development guru Jim Rohn used to recommend not wishing for less problems, but wishing for more skills. 

And yet there are some people in this world that ignore this reality. They might accept the endless problems but they constantly complain and point them out to the rest of the world without doing anything. Some, arguably worse, don't even see problems with solutions. They dream of a utopia where problems float away for no rhyme or reason. 

There is serious denial in believing that you don't need to work on yourself to better deal with the problems around you. The backlash is everywhere. There are people in this world that pull back from personal development. They discourage you from writing out your goals. They question your adventures. They shake their heads in disbelief.

And I know, I've done it myself. To myself. 

Writing notes from a podcast while on the subway I could feel the eyes of the person sitting next to me, staring down at my phone with the folds of skin on his forehead crunching together. "What is he doing," I can feel him asking himself, almost annoyed and aggravated that I would stand to make myself better, making notes like "Meditation is as deep and as powerful a tool as any I can possibly describe" from Josh Waitzkin, the chess world champion and inspiration for the book and film Searching for Bobby Fischer.

What is the big deal? What is the backlash? Why is there such a stigma with wanting to improve yourself? I have some ideas.

Success is easy and it's not. 

It's simple to see why it's not. The models of success we're given are beyond our grasp - Bill Gates, Michael Phelps, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan. They appear larger than life, talented from birth. But if we take an extra second to ponder it, we know it's not true. We just know they put in enormous amounts of work to craft their genius.

And yet, success is easy. Why? For exactly the same reason. We dress it up with tips and tricks, but the truth can't be said more clearly than through the words of Jim Rohn: "Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practiced every day." That's some boring shit right there. Most of us are successful brushing our teeth every morning and eating some kind of dinner every night. Big deal. The real success is preparing yourself for the challenges down the road and meeting them with everything you have and have practiced for. You don't arrive crowned champion, it is a test. Or as Ryan Holiday, former Director of Marketing for American Apparel and author of The Obstacle is The Way, has this to say: "Make it happen. Nobody cares what it will take, what problems this causes for you, what personal stuff you have going on. Just get it done.

White Guys in Suits

The Eighties were a weird time. And the story we seem to still tell ourselves is personal development is white guys in suits doing workshops. You can envision the over-excited, high-volume figurehead on the stage, shouting down to businesspeople mantras and acronyms while they drank it in, dreaming of their salaries jumping each year. 

Cliches abound and we need to get past it. Personal development is not a white man in a power suit. Personal development is not just about numbers - bonuses, salaries, or sales figures. It doesn't mean you have to step on people to get anywhere. You're competing with no one but yourself. This is the truth.

You're Scared

When it comes down to you, why not be better? You're scared. It is never as simple as self-help authors say it is. You need to act. It's easy and it's not. And if you do manage to reach the top of the mountain, you'll find yourself oddly alone. Or so you think.

George Bernard Shaw wrote, "There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it." We stay in our bubble because we're afraid of what's outside. We prefer safety to the amazing wonders we can find pushing ourselves to become someone we don't even recognize - a powerhouse of potential.

Where does that leave us? Was there ever a leg to stand on against making yourself into someone better? You know it's not easy and you know it's not hard. It is whatever you make it. 

There is no denying there will always be problems, so why not swallow that painfully simple truth and enjoy working on the solutions? After all, we're in this together, for better or worse.

Bored of Being Overwhelmed

New York is a wonderful and awful place. There is such an abundance here no one wonders why it's called The City That Never Sleeps. I don't have to tell you there is always something to do. There are books written about it. And even then there is more. 

Boredom is unacceptable. Until you find boredom in being overwhelmed. There is so much it's too much. The glitz fades away and you're just left existing, in your little bubble. 

A number of open letters about New York have crossed my path recently, some disillusioned by New York and others praising it in unique ways. I took pleasure in reading them myself, if only because it is my current home. And, yes, New York is unique and it has style. It is unforgiving and memorable for an endless list of reasons. And just about anything you could say about it could be true. 

And somehow there is pressure just in existing here. It only started making sense when I went far enough away for long enough to appreciate other ways to live. 

It can't only be wild parties and drunken one-night stands. Sometimes we need to sleep. Or run home after work to attempt cooking dinner and reading for a bit. I like to crack my window so the breeze comes in while I write something like this.

The challenge is that New York tends to throw so many wrenches in the works. You have dreams, New York has plans. And parties. And events. There is so much that you need to stop and think for a minute. For yourself. What do you want from your surroundings? What are you willing to do?

After all, the late author David Foster Wallace said it beautifully - "[Learning how to think] means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to, and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

Just because there is loads to offer doesn't mean you have to accept. You need to make some tough decisions that really aren't all that tough. Don't be fooled. You can strip away the bullshit for what really matters to you. 

I took a knife to some habits this week, thanks to an excellent Zenhabits article. I easily unsubscribed from a dozen mailing lists and social network updates. I started sending everything I really wanted to read to Pocket, a brilliant app, so I can binge on them when I had time to sit and absorb them completely. I've been training myself not to worry about the updates on my phone  as many thousands of times per day and training myself for my first 5K race. And, in the end, if you're not constantly distracted, what are you doing?

In Trust Me, I'm Lying, Ryan Holiday exposes the broken system of blogging today. And in wrapping up his long-view of the media landscape, he said this of modern reading diets: "When intelligent people read, they ask themselves a simple question: What do I plan to do with this information? Most readers have abandoned even pretending to consider this. I imagine it's because they're afraid of the answer: There isn't a thing we can do with it."

We're devouring a ton of information and experience and we're not quite sure why or if it's even good for us. New York is a test. The Internet is a test. Everything matters because of everything that does not. Only you can decide for yourself what you value of your spot right now.