6 Findings After Researching 1,000 Self-Help Articles the Last 6 Months
by Abeer Iqbal — 8 min read
Self Help Research
Previously, I have been the editor of Intelligent Tuesday, a weekly email that curates five self-help resources from articles, to videos, to apps, to books, and more.
To get five quality resources, I have to wade through at least 10 resources to find one that makes the cut. Multiplied by six months, I have researched 1,000s of resources on productivity, happiness, mindfulness, motivation, and every other self-help topic imaginable. Mindful dishwashing anyone?
Here is what I learned:
1. The Project Based Mindset is the Savior to your FOMO
The world is an endless buffet of improvement options.
You could choose to focus on improving everything, from your finances, relationships, and fitness to honing your skills at learning new languages. Whatever your heart desires and things your heart had no idea it wanted.
Having this many choices is overwhelming.
What if I choose a direction and I do not enjoy it, fail, or another choice could have been cooler/better/more effective?
This causes analysis paralysis. By having too many options, the default is to not make any desired change in your life, as your dreams continue sitting on the backburner. Think of yourself, hungry after a long day, and the menu at the restaurant has multiple pages. You just become overwhelmed.
The problem is acting like a shy Tindr’er - always swiping left and right, but never going on actual dates.
How do you know which self-improvement option will be best? Admit, you have NO clue. The goal is not to get married on the first date.
Instead, deliberately unfocus, for a period of time.
Best selling author Tim Ferriss treats new directions as two week experiments. If something sticks, he’ll commit to it as a six month project or longer. When he first began his now 100 million+ downloaded podcast, he first committed himself to only a few episodes. He enjoyed it so much that he continued.
After retiring from the genre of Fratire, best-selling author Tucker Max did not know what his next move would be. Instead of the typical advice to focus on one new direction, he intentionally set out to have a basing period over a few years - a period of time where he would try out different “projects” from angel investing to writing a book on relationships and more, to see what stuck. The point was to unfocus so he could eventually focus.
What stuck was Book in a Box, which began because an entrepreneur told him to solve her problem of wanting to publish a book without having to actually write it. This was not something meticulously planned in advance to focus upon, but came as a result of this experimentation period.
Seth Godin has treated his entire career as a set of experimental projects. He has not viewed his career as a job, but rather specific projects with clear end dates.
Once you subtract sleeping, eating, showering, work, commuting, and a few other non-negotiable activities :), maybe you are left with 5 hours of free time each week. Maybe even 20? That’s the canvas you have to work with to explore getting chiseled abs, making a million dollars, or learning Spanish.
Choose your time period (2 weeks, 1 month, etc.), run your experiment, and evaluate.
2. There are million ways and gurus to reach your goal. Pick your flavor
“Opinions are like a##holes, everyone has one.” -Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry
If #1 was about the what you choose, #2 is about the how/who who you choose to get there.
Should you follow Tony Robbins or Oprah?
Should you start your day doing the most important task first or lead with a bunch of small routine jobs (dishes, email, etc), and then your most important task?
There are multiple ways to reach the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There is not the best way rather than simply, a way. Despite the “experts” trying to convince otherwise.
I can handle Tony Robbins in small doses. Others have erected shrines to the man. I learn best from books. Others love video courses. I usually get my best work done early in the morning. Others at night. Know yourself and how you learn best….auditory, visual, etc.
“Once you find a story that speaks to you and a medium that makes it easy to digest the advice, you want to keep eating up that advice. It should come pretty naturally. When you actually enjoy what you’re reading (or listening to), you’ll actually look forward to new blog posts, chapters, or episodes.”
Pick your flavor, pick your medium, and dive in.
3. Productivity is ultimately about your grand strategy
Most productivity advice fails to answer a fundamental question, “Why are you trying to become more productive in the first place?”
Why are you trying to get a raise when you dislike your job in the first place?
Why are you trying to become a master networker when there are only a few people that really matter to you?
Why are you trying to read faster when you do not even enjoy the books you are reading?
While you may not know your purpose on day 1 (more on this on the next point), you can start with the broad outlines.
How much control of your schedule do you want?
How much of a social life do you want?
Do you need a creative career?
Minimalism or a live of mansions and Lamborghinis?
Macro change or micro change?
These questions are your north star, what truly guides you.
VaynerMedia founder Gary Vaynerchuk’s goal is to buy the New York Jets. The decisions he makes to become “more productive” flows from this goal.
Ego is the Enemy author Ryan Holiday’s motivator is: “Time to be creative. Time to read. Cool experiences. Freedom to make my own schedule. The ability to live where I want. To not be told what to do.”
Whether they use this app or that app. This scheduling tool or that one. Attend this conference or that one flows from these outlines.
To get micro, go macro first. Remember, fuzzy targets don’t get hit.
4. Purpose comes ONCE you are on your journey, rarely before
Motivational speaker Simon Sinek has popularized starting with your why - identifying why you do what you do, and all your actions will flow from that deeper purpose.
While you get get broad outlines, rarely can you get the specifics such as I want to be an entrepreneur, cure the world of cancer, or revolutionize the taco game in your town.
Often you will not know your “purpose” until you learn the map and terrain of the field you are going into.
So Good They Can’t Ignore You author Cal Newport explains:
“If your goal is to love what you do, you must first build up “career capital” by mastering rare and valuable skills, and then cash in this capital for the traits that define great work. Mission is one of these desirable traits, and like any such desirable trait, it too requires that you first build career capital—a mission launched without this expertise is likely doomed to sputter and die.
A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough—it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field.”
I love the original mission behind TOMS Shoes. For every shoe bought, they donate a pair to someone in need. They are the original poster child for social entrepreneurship and 1-to-1 initiatives that many companies have used as inspiration. But let’s rewind the clock.
TOMS shoes founder Blake Mycoskie,fresh out of college, started a successful outdoor billboard company, then founded a cable network, created an online driver’s education service, and spent time in Argentina learning about the problem of barefoot children BEFORE starting TOMS Shoes
In other words, he built up the “capital” skills of entrepreneurship to execute and identify his mission of TOMS Shoes.
Colonel Sanders ran a ferry boat company, a Shell Oil service station serving chicken dishes, a motel, cafeterias, and more BEFORE his devotion to Kentucky Fried Chicken. He was also flat broke at the time, after many of his ventures did not get off the ground.
Julia Child studied cooking for a decade before becoming a media personality teaching the culinary arts to the masses. Bon Appetit!
There will always be those prodigies that knew, since the age of 5 that they wanted to light the world on fire with their tap dancing. Then there will be the rest of us trying out different fields, stumbling, and developing deep bases of knowledge BEFORE our purpose even comes to light.
And even then, your purpose will continually evolve.
5. I’m Ok, You’re OK
The slippery slope of wanting to become a more awesome human being is that you believe you are not already an awesome human.
The people listed in this article are the 1%ers, most likely the 1% of the 1%ers in terms of fame, money, and having a deep purpose, and so forth.
Read enough self-help advice and you get the impression that if you are not scaling Mt. Everest and making one million dollars before noon, you are doomed to a life of loserdom while the elite sip champagne in their chateaus before heading back to conquering the world and turning everything they touch into gold.
We only get 24-hours day, which means we can only pick a handful or so of things in which we can gain deep, profound knowledge. For all other fields, we will fall into the majority of people who never make a million dollars, have perfect bodies, or rid the world of cancer. We will be average at most things as Mark Manson articulates.
And that’s ok!
That other 99.9% of people are your best friend, neighbors, family, and pretty much everyone you know. The majority of them probably don’t even read self-improvement books. The horror! Yet they are loving, compassionate, kind, have our backs, and give meaning to our life, just the same.
“In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.” -Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
Maybe you don’t “find your purpose”, but raise good kids. That’s enough.
Maybe you don’t make a million dollars, but help people laugh and destress with your easy approach to life. That’s enough.
Maybe you don’t land a trending article on Buzzfeed, but you run a people walking business giving people a feeling of connection. That’s enough.
Self-improvement is not about getting to some imagined future where it is all sunshine and rainbows. It’s about saying, “I’m cool now, hmm, what if I tried doing this too? What if I subtracted that?” A place of curiosity versus complacency or feeling like you do not measure up. It is like being in a yoga class and feeling like a failure because the person next to you can balance on one toe with ease. Know yourself and what you can do, try to improve and look within and stop comparing yourself to everyone.
No one has life that figured out, no matter how convincing they sound or how impressive things look on their Instagram feed. It may make for a confident sales pitch, but we are all trying to do our best as we make our way through this thing called life.
6. In the end, it’s all about relationships and experiences.
Self-help can quickly turn into narcissism.
What begins as a noble quest to better yourself can turn into an obsessive need to “get to the next level” from happiness, to your career, to fitness….focusing on yourself above all else.
Productivity over presence. Personal happiness over the well-being of communities. Career advancement over creating deeper friendships.