Monday, July 26, 2010

Self-Help

We’re constantly bombarded with advice written as sweeping generalizations. Motivation to make broad philosophical changes can be extremely valuable, but while self-help authors provide plenty of inspiration, they're usually light on implementation (Ben Casnocha has an excellent post about that here).

The practical implications of advice might seem crystal clear while reading it in a vacuum but out in the real world things get really messy really quickly. Situations are more complex than the smoothed-out version of the world that self-help books imply (although I do believe that there are in fact patterns and general rules that apply - just not as often and consistently as we might think).  The right course of action isn't found by simply repeating the mantra, it requires an appreciation of the nuances and subtleties of the situation and comes after proper consideration of a complex mix of variables. Instead of just doing X like the book says, it's more like: if A, B and C, but depending on what happens if M does X, then do Y and Z to make X happen.

When I read other peoples' blogs, I often ask, "to what extent does this advice apply to me?"  An author's advice is colored by and drawn from the author's unique experiences. The author is probably writing for themselves but generalizing that advice to extend to others, which makes their advice most applicable to people similar to the author. I often think about an anonymous blog reader reading my advice and how they interpret and make decisions based on that advice. I wonder how my recommendations might change if I knew all the details of their situation.

The paradox of this post is that although it might be very true, me saying that things are more complex than they're made out to be doesn't help you with the implementation. It's more something to keep in mind (and definitely shouldn't be used as an excuse to write off advice you don't like without proper consideration). The key is to be able to judge how advice applies to you in your situation - and the best way to do that is to really know yourself inside out, to be self-aware, to constantly examine your thoughts and actions and motivations. Embrace those meta-thoughts that I would never want to turn off.

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