Closing the Book on Personal Development

I already had one metaphorical foot out of the self-help section when I heard about Svend Brinkmann. The Danish psychology professor promised a breath of fresh air with his book Stand Firm - Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze.

On face value, it feels wrong, right? I’ve been reading personal development books for about ten years now, and writing about them for only a few less, and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to say they’ve helped me achieve some great things. But it doesn’t eliminate the idea for me that personal development started to feel more like the strategy of spinning plates efficiently than sharing memorable lessons for creating the good life. 

In Stand Firm, Brinkmann argues that because our world is unfolding at a rapidly accelerating pace, our obsession with change keeps us so mobile and fickle that we have no roots to stand firm on. We’re spinning our wheels. Brinkmann explains, “In an accelerating culture, we are supposed to do more, do it better and do it for longer, with scant regard for the content or the meaning of what we are doing. Self-development has become an end in itself.

Luckily, I found Stand Firm at an important time in my life. After spending nearly two years living in California, I’m certain I want to return to the East Coast. It took moving three thousand miles away to realize the strength of my roots. California had just been the latest chapter in the relentlessly mobile lifestyle of a self-help fan.

And while I have plans to move back in July, I had the chance to go back home recently for a visit. Swamini, one of my best friends in the whole world, was getting married. Now I’m not a big fan of dancing or dressing up or weddings in general, but there was no way I’d miss being there for my friend. 

And I’m glad I can say the rest of the trip was reaffirming too. Instead of trying to juggle plans and optimize my time to see every single person I know, I made time for an essential few.

I could have easily said it was too warm or the trek was too long, but when my brother said he never walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, it felt like something he thought would be fun, so we up and went. 

Spending a little bit of money to get a ride to my sister’s house didn’t stop me from seeing her baby, my niece. 

Devouring a bowl of cereal didn’t mean I couldn’t make room in my stomach to get breakfast when my mom called me up two minutes later and asked to go out.

And setting aside our dedication to be men of few visible emotions, I offered my dad help any way I could because I have to guess it can’t be easy to watch your mother slowly lose her mind.

I’ve found this to be the limitation of personal development - getting so caught up in trying to improve yourself that you don’t take a second to look around at everyone else in your life. It’s too easy for personal development to become an individual pursuit where we trick ourselves into thinking there is an award for the most plates spinning. 

Using the framework of the Stoic philosophy in Stand Firm, Brinkmann notes the difference:

The Stoics see nothing wrong with positive experiences per se, but don't see pursuing as many of them as possible as an end in itself. In fact, such a pursuit […] might stop you [from] achieving peace of mind, the virtue that the Stoics cherish most.

I don’t plan on burning up my entire library, I’ve learned plenty. But personal development is not an end in itself. It’s all been part of an amazing journey and now I’m more glad than ever to keep on experiencing it, standing firm.