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Why Self-Improvement is Failing You

It’s not the content. It’s you.


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Zachary Minott

2 years ago | 5 min read

Perhaps you just finished James Clear’s Atomic Habits and are amped to build 5 new habits that you’ve always believed would surely transform your life.

Maybe you just read Cal Newport’s Deep Work and feel like you’re fully prepared to work 4 hours straight immersed entirely in a flow state..no problem.

Or you just gobbled up as many of 

Tim Denning’s or Ayodeji Awosika’s work as you possibly could — topped off with some motivational YouTube videos.

You’ve never felt more motivated, inspired, and energized to completely transform the trajectory of your life into a more positive direction.

Then….you wake up tomorrow morning. Then a week passes by. And another month or so speeds passed you. Turns out, you didn’t really improve all that much. Your life is pretty much the same.

In fact, your head is filled with so much self-improvement jargon that you A) have become desensitized to it and skim past every quote you see on Instagram, B) have become overtly addicted to self-improvement and motivation that you’ve done nothing more than prep yourself to become a motivational speaker, C) are now depressed because you aren’t living up to the expectations embedded into your head by all the content you consumed, or D) have tricked your mind into thinking that you’re more productive than you really are when in reality you’re just consuming a ton of content.

That’s alright. Many of us have been there. I’ve been there. Let’s call it, self-improvement purgatory.

Now, you can sit here and point fingers at self-improvement content creators and tell yourself, “IT’S ALL A SCAM!” When in reality, you know the content is good. You know the content is helpful, insightful, and illuminating. You know that the content of these works is unique and of high quality.

No, the problem is not with the content. The problem is you.

Yes, you might think a bit differently.

Yes, you might feel like your altered perspective has caused your life to be nudged in a slightly more positive direction.

Even so, you haven’t improved all that much, mentally, physically, or situationally.

This raises the question as to what the problem might be with your approach. Why does self-improvement fail so many of us?

The Fatal Flaw in Your Approach

There is nothing inherently wrong with self-improvement. It’s the way you’re looking at it. Your approach is a little off base.

You pick up these critically acclaimed books, listen to motivational speeches, and are very receptive to the inspirational advice of people more successful than you and think: “This is going to change my life.” No, it’s not.

You rely too much on external advice. Really, you love the feeling it gives you. You love the ideas that sprout in your mind as you consume the content. You love the sudden belief in yourself that it gives you. That’s powerful! It really is. But, it’s not enough. You’re not making the most of what you consume.

You’re trying to think your way into a new life. You’re trying to let ideas in your mind be the guiding force to a better life. That’s backward.

If you really want to change your life, heed the truths of what Richard Rohr says here:

We do not think ourselves into new ways of livingwe live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”

There is great wisdom in this quote. Maybe Andy Mort says it best:

I read and I think. I know what I want to be and do. But then I read something else, and then something else. And reading ABOUT how I want to live my life becomes a more important task than actually living it.

Don’t you see? You’re thinking of a better life. You believe that you want a better life. You know what you want. You know what your goals are. You know where you want to be. You know what you have to do. It’s as clear as day.

Yet, all you are doing is thinking. So, you consume more content to get more insight into how to get where you ultimately want to be. And you feel like you’re making progress when in reality you’ve made no progress at all.

How to Really Improve Yourself

Think back to the most transformative events in your life. Were any of the catalysts to these events a product of pure thought? Most likely not. The likely chance is, an experience, event, or action catalyzed your transformation.

Self-improvement, or any book for that matter, introduces ideas and beliefs that have the potential to become embedded into your own personal beliefs. The keyword here is potential. You need to cultivate an experience that is powerful enough to etch these ideas deeply into your psyche.

The simplest way to cultivate powerful experiences? Bring intention to your actions. Intentionally apply everything you learn. Regurgitate everything you learn. Feel everything you learn. Constantly take action and be deliberate with that action.

This is why I write. It allows me to reflect on what I learn, connect the ideas to my life and the life of others, and teach/share that information in a digestible way. This way I better remember and internalize the ideas I have. It’s a powerful form of reflection.

Another thing is to not wait until you finish a book to start applying its ideas. I know sometimes you want to get the whole picture before you take the leap, but every single chapter of a good non-fiction book has a main idea that you can immediately start applying. Go out there, get uncomfortable, and try something new with these ideas in mind. Don’t wait. Don’t hesitate.

The point is to not rely on thought alone to change your life. You need to rely on the way you live, the experiences you have, and the actions you take to change your life and the way you think. This requires a reliance on the self.

Good thing is that life offers many opportunities to apply what you learn. Not everything has to be cultivated or forced. Most of the time it can simply be the way you react to the outward events and randomness of daily life. Point is that you have control.

Break your routine. Rattle your equilibrium. Shake things up!

If that means jumping in an ice-cold river to make you feel more alive, escaping into the calmness of the wilderness, staying calm instead of yelling at the guy who cut you off on the road or setting aside an extra 10 minutes a day to start building the company you always dreamed of, just take that leap. I trust that it’ll be worth it.

“Why is it that we spend so much of our time preparing for when we can do what we want, instead of just doing what we want right now?”― John P. Strelecky, The Why Cafe

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