The self-help explosion
Every time I log in to a platform with user generated content, be it videos, articles, podcasts or anything in between, I find myself almost immediately bombarded by a ton of cleverly-titled self-help material. I’m sure that’s the case for most of you as well just because it’s become a lot more ubiquitous than ever before- whether it’s a blogging platform you’re subscribed to, or Spotify podcasts or, of course, YouTube videos- it’s really everywhere, even social media. (The image above may not be the best representation since I plan to focus on content on the internet, but this is as close as it gets!)
More often than not, you will find at least some of them to be catchy enough to grab your attention and buy your time. By the time you finish, you’re usually in awe of the creator’s ability to connect with you and generally understand humanity so well. And to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with this. There is nothing wrong with the content and it’s creator either- at least at this point. In no way I intend to demean the creators or the consumers of the content, and for all practical purposes, this does seem to be working for the most part. But my concern begins at the stage before such content comes out in the first place, at the same time I absolutely don’t wish to generalize all of the content out there.
So let me talk about what I’ve observed as an average Joe. Also, in no way I intend to make this a self help article (hah!).
- The lack of clarity between facts, opinions and experiences: There is absolutely nothing wrong with sharing your learnings and your opinions on any topic in the world. There is also nothing wrong with sharing facts as long as they come from reliable sources. However, there is absolutely everything wrong when opinions or your own experiences are guised as facts- whether deliberately or unknowingly- and this is where creators often keep mixing up. Firstly, transparency is of paramount importance. Secondly, we are all unique and extremely complex beings so what might have worked for the author might not always work for the one or hundreds or thousands reading it. Verified facts can help avoid such ambiguity since they are more likely to be based on studies that take extreme care to address such biases or have scientific reasons to support their claims.
- Most of the time, you already know that stuff: In my experience, a major chunk of these articles or videos do not tell you anything you wouldn’t already know. Exercising every day will make you fit- I mean c’mon, is this really something you did not know until that one fine day in your mid-30s when you logged into Medium? I hope not! Moreover, the contents are often reworded and repeated way too many times, so it’s likely you end up consuming the same or similar content packaged in different boxes multiple times.
- A lot of times, you don’t even need it: We all want to be better versions of ourselves and this is a never ending race. So as soon as you spot something that shows you the carrot of making you successful, healthy, rich or better in any of the gazillion ways possible, you’re almost always drawn towards it. And why not? Except, you’d often read it and get done with it. In my experience, unless you are really looking for help on something specific, spending time on consuming such content that’s just there in front of you isn’t all that useful, and you are likely not in a mindset to internalize it anyway and there isn’t stuff that’s drastically new to get you to think about it much. Like I said, if you are looking for help on something in particular, then it might be a good idea to spend time on exploring focused content. But no matter what, do ask yourself if you really need to be reading or watching this. The only exceptions in my experience are probably articles that offer some insightful novelty or spark general introspection, which are somewhat fewer in numbers though.
- Where is all of this content coming from?: A rather uncomfortable trend I’ve been observing for the last few months is that a lot of the content seems to be coming from the same creators. There are quite a few bloggers that publish more than one post each day, with most aimed at self-help. At the same time, even some of the most well-known researcher-authors in these areas, the established stalwarts of their fields, don’t get anywhere near that frequency, be it Kahneman, Thaler, Levitt or Duhigg. This begs the question of how authentic and well-researched is all this content (I find books to be a lot more credible in this regard). Or is it that there are some people in this world who have outlived everyone else, experienced everything there is and have learnt all there could ever be? Reminds me of this episode from the legal drama Suits where Harvey comments on his Legal Ethics professor at Harvard Law School (Season 3 Episode 12)- “The guy [Professor Gerard] never practiced [law] a day in his life, and thinks he can write the book on real world ethics.” Familiar much?
- Role of content platforms: Nearly all popular content platforms have become much smarter in recommending what to consume. So once you see a video on YouTube, for example, the same video and a whole bunch of similar videos will find their abode on your YouTube homepage, always increasing the chances of viewing the same or similar videos. The same is the case with Medium, Facebook (Videos), Instagram (Discover, Reels) and nearly every other platform. This isn’t just the case with self-help content but pretty much all kinds of content out there, but the fact of the matter is you will be exposed to a lot of the same stuff over and over again.
- Execution can help break the loop: Looking at all the points called out above, it would be fair to conclude that such content is intended to help, just that you need to be a little mindful while consuming it. More important, at least in my experience, is actioning on what you deem appropriate for you. As long as this execution doesn’t happen, recommendation engines would keep popping up the same content in one form or the other and you would keep falling for it in an endless cycle. And it’s absolutely pointless reading about stuff and not doing anything about it. However, once you have gained enough confidence in the area that you were once drawn towards, you will definitely find it easier to not just break free but actually have accomplished what you wanted and be comfortable with yourself.
To sum it up, would suggest (and what seems to be working for me) evaluating if you need to read on what’s shown in your feed and assess the quality of content. Is there something new? Are these experiences or facts and are they transparently called out? How credible is the creator? Is it something you can take action on? If followed through, would the end result be something you would be happy with? Of course these don’t apply if you’re just reading for fun or as pastime. :)
Self help by itself isn’t anything new at all. Some of the most popular books in recent history have been around improving ourselves and our abilities (Dale Carnegie is perhaps the most obvious example, and his books aren’t even that recent), and the intent is definitely not to be doubted. However, the amount of self help content now seems to have overtaken most other kinds. Hence this post, to reflect on its importance and effectiveness in the current context. And to realize that not all of it out there is the same quality. As difficult as it may sound, the aim should always be to be content with who we are, and if not, how can we get there without sweating over it. Being comfortable in your own skin is important, but as I understand, it’s easier said than done.