I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m kind of a nerd for personal development, but I realized the other day that I’ve really never taken the time to explain it.
The name doesn’t exactly sell it well; I much prefer self-improvement. (Both are better than self-help, though.) I say “nerd” because there’s nothing cool about it … “trying” isn’t looked upon so favorably by the masses who determine what’s cool. But I’d argue that reading or listening to something motivational, inspiring, or educational every single day is without a doubt the most important daily practice in my life.
My nerddom is to the point that more than once (in the past year alone) I’ve bought out-of-print cassette tape programs from the 1980’s on ebay, and either listened to them on a boombox in my car (really) or converted them to MP3’s. Which, I’m told by some new friends, is lame because not only do people not listen to cassettes anymore, they also don’t use ebay anymore.
But although I like to think the themes I learn from these books and tapes underlie my posts — those of taking responsibility, dancing with fear, thinking big, persisting, engineering habits — I’ve never written explicitly about personal development here. So that’s what I’m doing today.
A 30-Second Argument for Personal Development
For me, it’s religion for the non-religious. When so many other messages that reach us are negative (hey, that’s what gets our attention and holds it, hence what sells), I think I’d be hopeless without a source of daily influence in the opposite direction.
Some people will argue that it’s silly to strive for improvement and that we should instead strive to be content in the present moment, with the way we are. But in my experience, I’m happy only when I’m growing. And I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive: I love reading about Zen philosophy and I’m an on-again-off-again meditator. It provides a nice balance to the go-go-go mindset that personal development often promotes.
It’s been 10 years (almost exactly) that I’ve been into this stuff, and the other night I tried to put my finger on the key points I’ve taken from it in that time. Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, there really aren’t that many of them.
Certainly a quick list isn’t going to have the same effect that drilling these messages into to your head for years does — for me it’s mostly reading, but also by audio on the majority of my runs and every time I drive anywhere — but I hope this will at least serve as an introduction for someone who needs it.
What I’ve Learned from 10 Years of Personal Development
Apologies in advance for any corniness here. Like I said, it’s not exactly fashionable to try. But this stuff applies to diet, running, career, relationships … you name it.
Take responsibility. For everything you do, and even for everything that happens to you. It’s immesely freeing.
Don’t recoil from fear. Everyone who isn’t bored out of their mind is afraid; some people just acknowledge the fear (or similar discomfort), put it in a box in their mind, and move forward. Often, it’s a weathervane that tells you exactly what you need to do.
Think big and have written goals. It’s such a cliche, but by simply asking more of life, you very often get it. I firmly believe you’re more likely to achieve a big, scary stretch goal (that’s so exciting you become obsessed with it), than more modest, “realistic” goal that you’ll give up on at the first sign of adversity.
Small steps add up. We’ve all seen two or three years go by in a heartbeat, and if you commit just a few minutes a day to making some improvement, it doesn’t take long for it to accumulate. A lot of people object to starting small (or starting at all), because they say things like, “But by the time I go back to school / train for five years / change careers I’ll already be 50.” The answer is that you’re going to be that age in five years no matter what you do, so why not go for it?
Don’t overestimate other people’s capabilities while underestimating your own. The impostor syndrome is so widespread that it’s, well, a syndrome. Most other people, doing the things you want to do, started in the same place you’re starting. There’s this perception that everyone else “out there” is confident and fearless, and it’s completely false. The good news: since just about everyone thinks this way, it really pays off when you learn not to.
Commit. Nothing happens without commitment. We like to dabble in things, quitting once they get difficult. The trick is to recognize at the outset that there’s going to be a dip, and decide then (before you start) that you’re willing to push through it. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time. And, by the way, once you’ve made the decision that you’re not going to quit, it all gets easier. One of my favorite quotes comes from a Starbucks cup: “The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating.”
Have faith. Like I said, religion for non-religious people. I’m not sure that faith is the best word to describe the only halfway-rational sense of “This is going to work, and even if it doesn’t, somehow things will work out for the best” with every project you dive into. But it’s the best word I’ve got for it.
Where to Start
Here’s a list of a few of my favorites. To make this list, I just wrote down all the personal development books or audio programs I’ve read or listened to more than once. This doesn’t mean they’ll resonate with you the way they have with me, but it’ll give you a jumping off point. (I’ve only put in links to the free stuff.)
- Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins (a really long book, but the abridged audio version is perhaps the best place I know of to dive into this rabbit hole)
- Personal Power II (audio) by Tony Robbins
- Just about anything by Jim Rohn
- The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy
- The Slight Edge by Jeff Olsen (basically the same book as the Compound Effect with a different title and metaphor — you only need one of them)
- Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield (here’s a post I wrote inspired by this amazing, swift-kick-in-the-ass of a book that helped me pull out of a really rough time)
- The Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman (fiction, but I still consider it personal development)
- The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss (I have zero desire to work only four hours per week, and the business section in this book is more about building something you don’t care about than something you do, but I love the rest of it)
- Startup School by Seth Godin (free audio, and more business than personal development, but Seth’s style and message are so great that I had to include it)
- Linchpin by Seth Godin
- The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin
- How to Stay Motivated, Volume 1 by Zig Ziglar (very old and with some religious messages that I don’t particularly like, but a very good series for developing a strong self-image)
I realized as I was writing this list, as you probably did reading it, that there aren’t any women authors on it. This isn’t deliberate, and I’ve really enjoyed personal development material from Jen Sincero, Brene Brown, and Nicole Antoinette. (Marie Forleo and Danielle LaPorte are also superstars in the niche, but their stuff seems really aimed at women so I haven’t checked it out.) I’ve noticed that there’s an extreme imbalance in the number of men who write about these topics compared to women, but I also sense that this is changing, as the women I mentioned above are all modern, while a lot of my list is older material.
What’s Next for Me
I happen to be flying out tonight to a Tony Robbins seminar, the one where you walk across coals. I’ve been two times before, the first of which led to my going vegetarian and starting No Meat Athlete a few days later. Say what you want about Tony, but I’m an unabashed fan.
I have high expectations for the seminar, and I’m just as excited to have completed, after this, my busiest month (and three-month stretch) of travel since my book tour last year. But I’m not sure what’s next for me or where I’ll focus my energy when I get back. Certainly on writing far more than I have been (I mean, three weeks between posts?) but I’m itching to get back to serious running too.
I’ve thought a lot about doing another 100-miler over the winter, but my wife and I are thinking about a big change in the next few months that would preclude that (I’ll let you know what it is once it’s final). In the meantime, I’m thinking about returning to marathons for a bit — I’d still love to break 3 hours one day, but I know I’ve lost a lot of speed and that’s no small goal for me.
Which, of course, is where all this personal development stuff will come in handy.