In a magical land of fairies and rainbows (pictured above) I could end my post there, having tremendously improved my readers’ lives in every possible way (except perhaps romantically, but I think there’s a book for that too). But alas, here in reality-land millions of people have bought these books and yet failed to produce a society of superhumans who achieve everything they desire. There are two possible reasons for this: 1) the methods described in the books don’t work, or 2) we are doing it wrong.
To gauge #1 we can start by asking whether the authors have accomplished what they describe? Is Robert Kiyosaki a millionaire? (Yup). Does Tim Ferriss work four hours per week? (Well…). This is a good start, but even if the author ‘made it’ there’s no guarantee that these methods are the cause. Another argument could be convergence of independent, distinguished sources: If Stephen Covey, Theodore Roosevelt and Benjamin Franklin are all telling you to be proactive, there might be something to it (but note that a parade of life coaches echoing Covey is neither distingushed nor independent). But in the end I’m going to settle for gut feeling and assume that many of the lessons you can read in the superior self-improvement books can lead you to the promised result. If you strongly disagree… Well, then you probably aren’t reading this in the first place.
Which leaves the option that we are doing something wrong in our quest for personal transformation. The top level explanation is of course that we’re not doing exactly what the books tell us to, and the top level cause for that must be that we don’t want the outcome badly enough to do so. But it’s probably useful to look in greater detail at what it is that makes us stray from the program. It’s possible that we don’t want anything badly enough for action, which would leave the books quite helpless to help us. But let’s assume that we do want the things mentioned in the first paragraph, or at least some of them. In that case I’ll propose the following hypothesis: We fail to follow the prescribed program for wealth, charisma, organization etc. precisely because we are promised everything (in no humble terms either, they have to sell books after all), but can’t have it all. Most of these guaranteed plans for success (and I don’t mean that sarcastically) say or imply that you have to care so much that you’re willing to make sacrifices. So we nod and go “Yeah sure, I’ll give up stuff”. Imagining maybe Facebook or sleep, not the other fantastic self-improvement idea we read about last month. But the thing is that you have to follow each plan single-mindedly, and you can’t be single-minded about multiple things. Paul Graham wrote an essay about it that rings true. So it isn’t that we don’t want what they promise, but that we want all of them (roughly) equally. There isn’t one thing that we want more than everything else, but pursuing more than one thing kills your chances of getting anything.