How I Learned To Cut Through The Bullshit Of “Personal Development” & Actually Better Myself
I don’t know who I am.
I mean, I sort of do. I’m a 27-year-old woman, sitting on her living room couch, wearing a pair of jean shorts even though it’s January in Toronto. I’m also patiently waiting for the vegan homemade pho my girlfriend is making me to finish cooking, so I can take care of the cold that I’ve been battling for the past couple weeks. Still, I wear a t-shirt and shorts. I don’t care.
Like everyone else who’s interested in becoming “better,” I’ve read my fair share of diatribes about how we’re all mindlessly numb, and whatever they’re selling is the answer to the problems that we didn’t know we had. For me, I’ve found three particular “ideologies” that I’ve adhered to the most: (a) stoicism, (b) minimalism, and (c) existentialism.
Stoicism has been modernized, simplified, and repackaged into cool coins and art prints by Ryan Holiday, marketing guru and self-proclaimed growth hacker. I’m not so sure when I first read Holiday’s writing but, as it seems to be the case for me, I admired his writing style more than his content. I despised his article on cultural appropriation, and even (politely) e-mailed him to tell him so (which he responded to and we respectfully agreed to disagree and to “keep in touch”), but I couldn’t hide my view that he was a brilliant strategic author, writer and…media manipulator. I also appreciated that, despite his fame, he lives on a farm and owns cows, donkeys, and a plethora of other animals. While I was being sold Ryan Holiday, I was also being sold what he was selling.
I was familiar with Stoicism long before I had heard of Ryan Holiday. When I was in high school, I distinctly remember heading to Chapters and purchasing a book that summarized the history of all the major philosophical movements to exist. At the time, I found the notion that everything and every circumstance is inherently impartial — whether they’re “good” or “bad” is something we ascribe to them through our own interpretation. I found the parallel to Buddhism striking.
Over time, though, I quickly forgot about Stoicism, until Ryan Holiday popped up on my radar. Again, while I found his writing style engaging, I found the stories that he chose to write about only moderately inspirational. While I can objectively agree that Seneca the Younger had a fascinating life, I just don’t find his problems (and how he overcame them) a page-turner.
But it’s not just my disinterest in how some dude in AD 54 grappled with waking up on the wrong side of the bed (did they have beds back then?). In my view, the main problem with Stoicism is not the idea that you can — but should — choose whether to be offended by something that exists in the world. You choose to be offended by ignorant, bigoted, and sexist people. Don’t let them ruin your day — It’s within your control! While theoretically, this seems like a great proposition, it perpetuates a simple message: What someone says to you should not concern you because it’s only the value that you ascribe to the comment that matters — which you can change. If someone shouts a racist comment to me, it’s not inherently good or bad, it just “is.”
The concern that I have with this is that it ultimately removes the burden of responsibility from that person on to me. And, why the fuck do I have to take it with a grain of salt? Stoicism is essentially teaching you to be more detached from outcomes — which is good — by indirectly encouraging us to do nothing about terrible things that occur in the world — which is bad. What makes this even more confusing is that Stoicism encourages us to commit to virtuous actions that are “in accordance with nature.” Yet, for centuries, scholars still haven’t come to a consensus with what “in accordance with nature” actually means. Does that mean we should be instating a nation-wide carbon tax policy? Or does that mean no same-sex marriage? The call to action remains vague.
As my journey through personal development continued, I stumbled upon minimalism. At first, I was completely wrong when it came to its premise. I assumed that it meant setting fire to all your belongings, voluntarily sleeping on a yoga mat on the floor, and becoming a recluse (I recognize the last one doesn’t make any sense). But, after seeing my girlfriend go through her own journey with minimalism (thanks to borrowing a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up), I grew curious and started learning about The Minimalists. Their documentary was very good. And quite honestly, I believe a lot in their message. But still — a whiff of privilege permeated through their message that didn’t sit well with me, and so I am cautious to self-label as a “minimalist.” However, upon reflection, it seems to be the “philosophy’ that most accurately describes me.
But let’s rewind back six months. Somewhere around June 2017, I thought I figured myself out. A minimalist! Yes, that’s what I am. The lens through which I observed life became clearer. The colors a little brighter. The edges a little more sharpened. The quality of the moving picture improved.
I reconnected with my first love: existentialism. An old flame that I had forgotten, until I saw Violet — an excellent film about Violet Leduc, Simone de Beauvoir’s protégé. It opened the floodgate of my nostalgia. A 17-year-old kid, holed up in her first-year dorm, eating up every essay by Jean-Paul Sartre freely accessible on the internet. For years, existentialism ran through my bones. It all started after I attended my first funeral when, thereafter, I clicked and dragged whatever faith I had in institutional religion to the recycling bin. I was searching for a new meaning. Existentialism hit me like a punch to the gut.
Existentialism is the belief that a combination of awareness, free will, and personal responsibility, one can construct their own meaning within a world that intrinsically has none of its own. At first read, it bears a hint of similarity to Stoicism — you construct your own interpretation of what’s around you. But existentialism appears to be, at least to me, a more malleable philosophy by the sheer fact that historically the theorists who have defined existentialism were all radically different. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre and — to a certain extent — Camus all came to vastly different conclusions.
Unbeknownst to me, I was developing a problem, and it was three-fold: (1) I was attempting to fit my views into preexisting schools of thought, (2) As a result, I was not forming my own philosophy, and (3) The search for meaning says more about me than the message itself.
The internet is the new TV.
QVC is now ‘Thought Leaders” that have managed to capture a wide array of readers. When you watch QVC, you are being sold the idea that purchasing a product will make you happier, better, and more beautiful. But with the internet, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of “Thought Leaders” that sell slightly different products on how to fix yourself in ten easy steps. We no longer just purchase products to improve our identity; We now purchase ideas in an attempt to define our identity.
And that, ultimately, was the hole I fell into: I was shopping for an identity (shame on me). To use the aphorism, I was jamming a square peg (me) into a round hole (preexisting philosophy). It was exhausting. Finally, I exclaimed “enough!” as I sat alone, in front of my computer.
This led me to another question: If I am actively consuming information on how to be myself from other sources, does that diminish my ability to learn more about myself independently? Is this mutually exclusive? Does an increase of consumption of articles persuading me to adopt a certain mindset decrease my ability to practice mindful evaluation? Does technology help us self-identify? Or does it just help us self-identify with whatever identity is trending at the moment? And if so, is that good or bad? My point is that hyper-consumption is not limited to physical products. Clothes. Shoes. Smartphones. Hyper-consumption, can, and should, apply to things that we consume for free in exchange for the loss of our unique thought processes. Is this more dangerous than the overt advertising tactics of Forever 21 and H&M? I would argue that it is.
The main answer, I suppose, is to take everything at face value: stoicism, minimalism, existentialism, whatever-ism. As Paul Jarvis once stated, “Labels are for jars.” And I think that’s right. This isn’t to state that we can’t take pieces of philosophies that we find agreeable, but at the heart,t it should do just that — fit into our lives, not the other way around. I know no other strategy that would get the most effective, and satisfying, results.
My feelings on this are mixed. I know I believe that the study of philosophy (a term used broadly) provides an immeasurable contribution to my life. I also know that the more I learn about different subjects, the more I am able to make sound, well-reasoned decisions (*notice I did not say “rational”). But, I also know that deep self-reflection is mandatory. Thus, a balance between the two is obviously required to develop a unique sense of identity. But I’m pretty sure that identity is irrelevant to meaning. Will my life have meaning once my identity has been formed? I’m not so sure.
I suspect that my thoughts can be summed up as this: identity is only tangentially linked to meaning. I identify as queer, but my sense of meaning — or purpose — does not necessarily involve being a queer activist. While rationally, my identity should affect my sense of purpose, and I’m sure it mostly does, it’s not a fluid process.
Self-growth is a booming industry. In 2008, Americans spent 8 billion dollars on self-help products: books, coaching, seminars, stress-management tools. Americans are, quite simply, not as happy as they once were. In 2007, the US ranked 3rd amongst the OECD countries in terms of “happiest countries,” in 2016 the US ranked 19th. According to Jeffrey Sachs, Director of The Centre for Sustainable Development at The Earth Institute, “The central paradox of the modern American economy, as identified by Richard Easterlin, is this: income per person has increased roughly three times since 1960, but measured happiness has not risen.”
While philosophy has been used a tool for centuries to help us make sense of the world, it’s only in the modern era that the commodification of philosophy has taken off. As I mentioned earlier, Ryan Holiday has become “that Stoicism guy,” the Minimalists have become “those minimalists guys,” and I’m sure soon enough there will be, “that absurdism guy,” and, “that existentialist girl.”
The point that I’m trying to make is that shopping around for identities is no different than going to the nearest mall and buying a pair of jeans from your favorite store, regardless of whether there’s another pair of jeans at a different store that’s cheaper and fits you better. We stick with what we know and use that brand to develop our sense of self. Just look at all the insane iPhone vs. Android debates that occur on Youtube whenever a tech vlogger uploads a new video.
There is something for everyone. And that’s simultaneously great and terrible. It’s never been easier to capitalize on a preexisting idea, repackage it, and reinvent yourself as a Thought Leader. Consequently, it’s never been harder to learn how to develop yourself, free from the barrage of self-help articles that flood your social media feed.
And so, I have to remind myself to be mindful. About the attractive Influencers who try to peddle you their life philosophy that works for them. About the carefully curated photos on Instagram that suggest that person has life figured out. About the 400-word article on Medium that promises to tell you how to be happy in four easy steps. Appreciate this content for what it is, but ultimately take it with a grain of salt. It’s all bullshit. Put in the work to figure yourself out. You’re an individual. Treat yourself as such.
Jennifer Chan is a lawyer and blogger. You can find her at jennifertchan.net where she focuses on connecting the dots between work, money, and happiness. She resides in Toronto, Canada with her girlfriend, full-figured rabbit, and deaf & blind cockapoo.
Image via Unsplash