The Point Is to Stop

The Point Is to Stop

Years ago, I wrote an article that claimed the best way to judge the usefulness of self-help advice is by how many people eventually leave it behind. In it, I boldly claimed that if self-help advice actually worked, the industry would quickly go out of business. After all, if the advice delivered on its promises, then you wouldn’t feel the need to constantly read another book or attend another seminar.
Predictably, a lot of people hated that article. People nitpicked it to death. I eventually took the piece down because I don’t think my arguments were fully formed and my points were delivered about as delicately as a sledge hammer in a china shop. But I still believe I’m right. And I’d like to take another stab at it today.
Over the years, I have found that people who seek out self-help do so with two very different mindsets. The first group treats self-help like going to the doctor. Let’s call these the “Doctor People.” Maybe their marriage failed or they had an existential crisis or they’re struggling to deal with some sort of trauma. They’ve got this pain or confusion in their life and they want to solve it so they can move on and feel normal and healthy again. Much like a doctor eases your physical ails, they look to a book or website or seminar to cure their emotional ails. Their mindset is very much, “I paid you, now fix it!”
Other people approach this stuff like they’d approach learning a game, like basketball or chess. They want strategies. They want roadmaps. They want checklists. Most of all, they want a mentor or coach. Let’s call these the “Coach People.” Coach People want to know all the right moves. They want to understand the nature of the game on a deep level. Any new breakthrough of experience or emotion, they want to have it, to conquer it, and to be transformed by it.
There are pros and cons to these two different approaches. Doctor People are in a lot of pain so they’re likely very motivated and willing to listen to whatever it is you have to say. The problem is that Doctor People see personal growth as information that is to be learned rather than a skill that must be practiced. Self-awareness is a skill. Managing emotions is a skill. Empathy and vulnerability are skills. You start out horrible and eventually become somewhat good at them. But that can take years. A lot of Doctor People get really unhappy when they’re told this. Like, imagine going to the doctor with the flu and the doctor starts giving you a three-hour long lecture about nutrition and exercise. You’d fucking hate that guy.
Coach People, on the other hand, intuitively understand that these things are skill-based and they must be worked on over and over again for many years until you can do them unconsciously. The same way you perfect your golf swing or your free throw shot by steady, conscious practice, you develop self-awareness and emotional management through consistent, conscious practice. Coach People are in it for the long haul. They understand that you don’t just “solve” personal problems overnight. You have to commit to them. You have to commit to yourself.
But what the Coach People don’t get is that the whole point is to eventually stop. It’s to leave. Because unlike chess or basketball, there’s no world championship for anger management. Nobody is going to give you a trophy for mindfulness. No one gives a shit if you got control of your anxiety yesterday or not.
In fact, viewing personal growth in terms of achievement and optimization can eventually inhibit personal growth! At a certain point, trying to manage your anxiety perfectly will only lead to more anxiety. Trying to be perfectly vulnerable will cause you to be less vulnerable. Obsessing over self-awareness will ironically make you less self-aware.
In this way, the skillset of personal growth doesn’t exactly work like the skillsets of basketball or chess. The skill curves are inverted. In basketball or chess, the better you get, the more effort is required to further improve. Whereas, in personal growth, the better you get, the less effort is required to further improve. 
This is because personal growth skills have positive feedback loops baked into them. Self-awareness generates introspective questions that naturally lead to more self-awareness. Developing highly productive habits gives you time and energy to consider how to be even more productive. Better social skills manifest a social life that grants more chances to develop better social skills.
Personal growth skills are more like skiing downhill. It takes a lot of effort to get some speed going, but once you’re on your way, the most effective thing you can do to gain speed is nothing.
(Side note: “doing nothing” is itself a surprisingly difficult skill.)
I think what the Coach People miss is that the whole point of this stuff is to one day be free of consciously having to think about it. The way to “win” at relationships is to be completely comfortable in your relationships. The way to “win” at anxiety is to stop caring about your anxiety. The way to “win” at health and productivity is to integrate them into your life so completely that you stop thinking of them as health and productivity.
Ironically, this is what the Doctor People intuitively understand. You can’t stay in marathon therapy sessions and fancy seminars forever. At some point, you just have to live your damn life.
Instead, it’s the Coach People who struggle to accept this. That’s because Coach People do what everybody does when they obsessively work on something: they adopt it as their identity. And once they begin to identify as the “personal growth” person, not only do they get trapped by it, but they are also incredibly likely to bore you at dinner parties with stories about their ayahuasca retreats.
I think I sensed the importance of stopping a couple years ago when I tried to write that article. But it didn’t quite work. I was still too much “in it.” I still largely identified as a Coach Person. Not to mention, my fucking profession depended on me identifying as a Coach Person, so it was kind of hard to see through the haze of my own incentives.
But I think this past year, possibly with the clarity granted by a pandemic, it’s become abundantly clear to me: it’s time to stop. It’s time to stop thinking about these subjects. It’s time to go back to my life.

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