The Real Reason Why Self-Help Does Not Help

Most of us know what we should do to have a better life.

We know we ought to exercise, eat healthy, think positive, work hard etc, etc.

We might not know some details, like which specific exercise would be the best for our bodies. But the big picture, the cliched advice that is cliche for a reason…we know those.

The problem is not in the KNOWING, the problem is in the DOING.

People usually know what to do. We often even know how to do it…We just can’t bring ourselves to do it.

But why?

Is there such a thing as talent?

Geoff Colvin, author of Talent is Overrated, argues that deliberate practice overwhelms natural talent (if natural talent even exists, which Colvin rather doubts) every time, hands down.

In other words, if you practice smart enough and hard enough, you can accomplish as much as stars like Tiger Woods, Mozart, or Jerry Rice.

Colvin pointed out, however, that people like Tiger Woods, Mozart, and Jerry Rice stand out because deliberate practice is hard, and few do it.

He just didn’t say why.

Why don’t people do hard things?

Why are some people optimistic and industrious, and others depressed and lazy?

Why are some people optimistic and industrious on some days, and depressed and lazy on others?

Why do some people run toward a challenge while others run away?

Is it choice? Is it fate? Is it luck? Is it genetics?

Photo by Mike Szczepanski on Unsplash

Misunderstanding motivation

I confess I used to look down on people with certain mental/mood issues (largely because I lived with one such person, and suffered from it).

I didn’t understand why people allowed themselves to deteriorate and didn’t (seem to) try (hard enough) to get out of their slump.

I thought that they could, if they chose to, conquer themselves. That they were just choosing not to do so, for reasons I could not understand.

I was right about the last bit…at least, partially.

There once was a promising young lawyer who stopped working.

His friends and family couldn’t understand his sudden apathy. They nagged and scolded him, blaming him for throwing his life away.

Then he died.

Eventually the doctors discovered that he had a massive, inoperable brain tumor. It was this tumor that had killed his motivation…and him.

His family had thought he had just grown lazy. They were wrong.

There was nothing they could have done. No amount of nagging or scolding, no self help book would have helped the young man recover his will to live and work.

No one knew the root of his problem, and even if they had, they would have been helpless to treat it.

Some things we can control, and some things we cannot.

Sometimes it is a matter of not knowing the real root behind the apparent problem, sometimes it doesn’t matter whether or not you know the root problem or not — you still can’t change it. In the case of the young lawyer with the brain tumor, it was both.

Why we need faith in more than ourselves

Some people ridicule those who trust in God, saying they are weak and need a crutch.

Know what?

They’re right.

But there’s more to it: we all need a crutch.

None of us are omnipotent. In certain times and situations, we are all weak and helpless. It’s the way we start and end life, and it happens often in between as well.

We all have limitations. We all need help — from other people (but they are limited too), and from God.

We probably do have more potential than we realize (as most self-help gurus say), but one thing is for sure, even if we did reach our full potential, it would still not be enough.

Death, sickness, and bad luck happen to all. No human can predict, prevent, or put an end to this terrible trifecta.

We will inevitably disappoint ourselves if we expect too much. You can’t rely entirely on any human being, not even yourself. Because all humans have their limits.

We need faith in something else because we always, inevitably, let ourselves down.

We are not gods. That’s why we need God.

So What’s the point of self-help?

Self-help is bad or useless.

Sometimes hearing the right thing at the right time in the right style by the right person can kick-start a legitimate transformation.

But this transformation relies not JUST on the information and effort, but on other factors that are outside of human control — timing, fit, serendipity, God.

In other words, we can, and should, take responsibility for our lives. We can, and should, push ourselves to be better.

We often let ourselves off the hook too early. We can learn a lot from the likes of hard working successful people and self-help teachers (maybe not all of them, but certainly some of them).

But just a note of caution: self-help is not everything.

Give yourself a break now and then, be compassionate if your life does not currently look like the picture the confident self-help writers and speakers paint for you.

And most importantly: Don’t be quick to condemn others — you do not know what that person may be going through, what limitations they have that you do not.

More than likely, if you were in their position, you would be and do the same.

Between self-confidence and humility

It’s always a struggle to find a balance between self-confidence and humility, without falling into hubris on one side or hopelessness on the other.

This article, I’m afraid, is not a self-help piece written to help you figure out that balance in your own life. Each of us must determine that on our own.

So if you are about to launch into your next self-improvement project, don’t be discouraged too soon. The harder you work and the more you believe, the more likely you are to make it.

And if you are suffering from your last failed self-improvement project, take some time, rest and recover — but don’t give up. Chances are, you’ll get it right one of these days.

In either case, I’m here if you need a sympathetic ear.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

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