Why self-help (usually) doesn’t work

A woman practicing self help by running

After hitting rock bottom at 23, I converted to a religion practiced by millions of ambitious individuals around the globe: Self improvement.

Classic books. YouTube videos. Podcasts.

I was consuming hours of content a day in the hopes it would inspire me to build a better life…and it did.

Kind of. Let me explain.

Studies show that when you imagine yourself doing something in the future—exercising, being super productive, writing for hours—the same parts of your brain light up as when you’re imagining someone else entirely.

This is why we’re so confident that we can make a change or build a habit before we actually start (i.e. New Years resolutions). Then we sit down to write that first paragraph or run that first mile and our brain goes, Wait, what the fuck? You mean I actually have to do this?

And thus is the problem with self-help content.

It’s not that it’s all woo-woo BS (though much of it is). The issue is that it’s really good at making you feel energized and motivated. But energy and motivation don’t get things done; taking action does…Typically, it’s consistent, difficult, boring action.

You can read How to Win Friends and Influence People as many times as you want. You can internalize Dale’s lessons, laugh at the sexist 1930s language, and picture yourself at a bar striking up conversations with everyone you meet. That’s all great.

But nothing actually happens until you put yourself out there in social settings and apply what you’ve learned.

In other words: Anything you get out of self-help content is just wasted time or money if you don’t put it into action to make a change.

For two years, I read about 10 books on entrepreneurship. They inspired me to start my own business. They helped me think about how to be productive. Gary Vee yelled at me until I could imagine myself grinding away.

You can probably see what’s coming here.

“…inspired me…”

“…helped me think…”

“…I could imagine myself…”

Nothing got done. No businesses were started.

Every time I sat down to try, I was overwhelmed by how intimidating and uncertain the tasks were. In my mind I was thinking, This isn’t nearly as glamorous as my imagination made it seem, Gary.

Of course, it’s important to get inspired. We all need to think. You have to be able to imagine yourself doing the things you want to do.

I’m not telling you to avoid personal development content. I just want you to avoid the mistake that millions of consumers—myself included—have made, and recognize that none of that content will do the job for you.

If you want to make a change, getting pumped up is 5% of the battle. The other 95 is you stepping out of your comfort zone and putting in the often uncomfortable work.

Eventually, I started my own freelancing business. But it wasn’t because I read the perfect book. It was because I stopped dipping my toes in the freezing cold water and just dove in. It was absolutely terrifying, but something was actually happening.

Action → Motivation → Results → Repeat

TL;DR

Whenever you feel inspired by something—a blog, a conversation, a book…don’t just stop there. Write down specifically how you’re going to use that inspiration or lesson in your life going forward.

That’s where real results and changes occur.

Knowledge isn’t power until you do something with it.

So do something with it.