3 subtle ways “personal development” misguides us
From a young age, I’ve immersed myself in hundreds of books from great personal development leaders like Og Mandino, Napoleon Hill, Norman Vincent Peale, Tony Robbins, Jack Canfield, John Maxwell, Brian Tracy, Brendon Burchard, and many, many others. I’ve learned a lot from all of them.
Over the years I’ve spent over $150,000 on seminars, programs, coaching, and mentoring. I’ve gained a ton of value from them all.
I like personal development. However, in my journey I’ve also identified the following subtle (and usually subconscious) ways in which the personal development industry in general can misguide us:
1. The underlying premise is that you’re not good enough as you are.
This premise is self-evident in the term “personal development” itself. The idea is that you are fundamentally lacking in some way, and you have to develop yourself to gain what you are lacking.
The truth is that becoming your best self is not about developing, but about coming home to who you always have been. It’s not about learning what you don’t know, but rather unlearning what you think you know.
The lilies of the field, said Christ, don’t toil or spin. They don’t strive or drive. And yet you won’t find a single person, no matter how rich, famous, or successful, more beautiful or perfect than a flower.
The Sermon on the Mount is the greatest treatise ever recorded on how to become our best selves.
A flower is beautiful not because it tries to be so, but rather because it lives from its true nature. Likewise, you become the best, most beautiful version of yourself by living from your true nature — being who you already are.
Your greatest mission in life is not to gain what you are lacking, but to see what has always been inside you all along.
2. It can be a form of resistance and/or clinging.
In another article I detailed the three forms of absentmindedness, meaning ways in which we attempt to escape any form or degree of pain or discomfort in the present moment.
Some of the most attractive teachings of personal development are so cleverly disguised in promises of fortune and fame that they are not seen for what they are: subtle forms of escape.
We don’t like something about our current life — our income, our job, personality traits, etc. — and so we turn to the promises of personal development to make us feel better.
By so doing, instead of staying with the discomfort and looking at it mindfully, we resist reality and crave for things to be different.
It’s like the ancient Buddhist story of a pampered princess who was walking barefoot in her father’s kingdom when she stepped on a thorn. In pain, she demanded of her father’s advisers that the entire kingdom be carpeted. One adviser made her a pair of sandals and kindly encouraged her to wear them instead of carpeting the kingdom.
Any attempt to “carpet” our reality versus “put on sandals” is an escape from reality. We put on sandals through the teachings and practices of mindfulness — by seeing things as they are and staying with what is.
When we do so, we discover that much of personal development is about creating a more clever and functional version of the ego, versus seeing the ego for what it is and seeing our true selves.
3. It’s largely based on “guru culture.”
As an avid proponent of mentoring and a coach myself, this may seem strange for me to say. But there’s a fundamental difference between a “sage on the stage” and a “guide on the side.”
We all need mentors to point out our blind spots and take us to the next level. What we don’t need, however, is the typical personal development culture posturing of “I’ve got life figured out and I have it all. All you have to do is be like me and do what I did and you can have it all, too.”
Between you and me, I’ve been backstage and intimate with far too many such “sages” to buy into that façade. Every one of the gurus we put on a pedestal have aspects of their lives that are less than exemplary. And far too many of them are more sizzle than steak.
Find and engage with the right mentors who shine a light on your greatness versus on themselves. But throughout the process, always keep in mind the truth spoken by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his classic, Self-Reliance:
“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his.”
Emerson was echoing the Buddha who taught to “be a lamp unto yourself.” The Buddha further explained,
“Do not believe in something because it is reported.
“Do not believe in something because it has been practiced by generations or becomes a tradition or part of a culture.
“Do not believe in something because a scripture says it is so.
“Do not believe in something believing a god has inspired it.
“Do not believe in something a teacher tells you to.
“Do not believe in something because the authorities say it is so.
“Do not believe in hearsay, rumor, speculative opinion, public opinion, or mere acceptance to logic and inference alone.
“Help yourself, accept as completely true only that which is praised by the wise and which you test for yourself and know to be good for yourself and others.”
The personal development industry can be useful, but never forget that everything you need to progress has always been inside you.
Learn from personal development, but always remember that the best place to look for breakthrough insights isn’t up on stages or pedestals, but rather inside yourself.