Studies of Life

Learning by doing.

Shocker: Why Self-Improvement is Ineffective

29 July 2012 by Jim

Regularly thinking about self-improvement and “life-hacks”, as many of us web-savvy people do nowadays, I can’t help but wonder why humanity is not yet perfect, if there is such a wealth of good advice to be had everywhere. This leads me to two possible hypotheses: either the communication works fine and the advice in itself is not sound, or the communication does not work even though the advice itself is not that bad. The communication is in this context defined as both the sending, transmission and the efficient reception of the information in order to put the advice into practice. Even though it is fallacious to think that the advice would always be useful, it does not generally hold up to assume that no sound advice has ever been passed on. Since so many people spend time writing books or making videos or blog posts about tips to live a better life, there has to be something to it, even if the essential truths are a lot simpler than they may appear.

So, if the advice itself is sometimes sound, I have to assume that the major problem with the improvement of humanity is the lack of good communication. Since sending out a simple message through a book, for example, certainly gives enough detail and explanation to make the advice understood, and there are enough resources available to create a signal that’s strong enough, as the size of self-improvement sections in libraries shows, the problem has to lie in a different part of the communication part. Since sending and transmission seem to work fine or at least sufficiently well, it has to be the reception that does not work.

How is the reception of advice affected? 

Efficiently receiving advice means that the information achieves what it was intended to achieve. In the case of advice, the purpose of giving it is to change the behaviour of the receiver in a way as to benefit him. Why does advice then not fulfil its purpose, why does advice not positively influence our behaviour? The reason is that, though information is in the platonic sense perfect and pertains to the world of ideas, we humans are clearly not perfect, and we do not have the capability to implement advice in the way that a computer program can implement a new command, perfectly, precisely and failsafe.

We suck at implementing advice. 

The fact that we are not very good at changing our behaviour is the number one reason that we fail on our way to perfecting our behaviour. We are not very good at changing behaviour, because behaviour belongs to our instincts, and in order to change our subconscious patterns of reflection we need to call upon our conscious self, our rational part, to effect these changes. Our conscious is not very strong compared to our subconscious, because our psychology is biologic and we are not inherently guided by rationality.

How can we counter this?

No advice sticks better than advice learnt by ourselves instead of being given to us by others. We need to make the mistakes ourselves before we can learn the lessons. Furthermore, many people are spreading themselves too thin, trying to improve in five different areas at the same time, which is too broad to make any significant and long-lasting changes.

We need to focus on few changes at a time and implement them with discipline, diligence and understanding for our nature.

I have found a possible answer to the problem myself, but everybody needs to cook up his own recipe for dealing with this. The main ingredient in my recipe is unfaltering optimism, which works like the fuel that keeps me going. I marvel at everything. Maybe that’s my greatest treasure. Soft creatures like humans cannot stick to rigid lines. We need to implement changes in the way that we would modify the course of a river.

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