About five years ago, I feel in love with the personal development movement. I attended a few conferences, signed up for an intensive course, and entered the gateway to a new and better life. I read lots of books, listened to motivating speeches, created a vision board, recited affirmation statements, and wrote out my life vision statement that I would read out loud while listening to classical music. I wanted more. I reached out to one mentor to work with: $897 for a two hour session. I found a course I could join to help me reach my goals and build confidence: $4,900 for six weeks.
And then my love affair with personal development faded away. It wasn’t a messy break-up, we just drifted apart. It was never really clear to me why our relationship didn’t work when it seemed to be working great for others.
From the very beginning, at my first conference, I felt certain that my life was about to drastically change for the better, like I had just discovered the missing key to success. I was filled with hope and motivation believing that I held the all the power I needed to be more successful, make more money, improve my marriage, unleash my potential, and make all my dreams a reality. I had witnessed others who had risen up from the meager status of a normal human being doing normal things with their normal life making a normal income to the the aspiring level of Life Coach making lots of money and receiving hundreds of thousands of followers on their social media platforms, and making a difference in the world.
The thing is, there was a lot of good in all of those books, and conferences, and classes that I took, and life coaches, but there was one distorted false idea that caused me to become skeptical of this personal development culture, and it wasn’t until recently that I was able to identify it.
In a very simplistic definition, there are three types of board games: chance, chance and skill, and skill. Chutes and Ladders for example requires no skill whatsoever, it doesn’t matter if you are a 3-year old or a NASA rocket scientist, both are on equal playing grounds when they sit down together to play a game of Chutes and Ladders. The roll of the dice determines the outcome of the game. Your skills, knowledge, talents, gender, race, resume, previous experience, and economic status have no influence or benefit when playing Chutes and Ladders. Then there are games such as Chess where you ability to win depends on your skill. There’s no chance. Chess is about skill. And then there are games that depend upon skill and chance. Learning the game and developing strategy is important and valuable, but chance, not just skill, influences the outcome of the game. In a game that utilizes chance and skill, chance can turn the game around causing you to gain or lose progress regardless of your skills, talents, strategy, and knowledge.
The personal development culture typically promotes the idea that life is like a game of Chess. You are in full control. If you are successful it is because of you, if you are not, it is because of you. It’s a heavy burden to carry. There’s this personal arrogance that the personal development culture subtly promoted maybe even unknowingly. Michael Sandel refers to this arrogance as the tyranny of Merit. “Meritocratic hubris is the tendency of winners to inhale to deeply of their success. To forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way. It’s the smug conviction of those who land on top that they deserve their fate. And, by implication, that those on the bottom deserve their too…The notion that your fate is in your hands, that you can make it if your try is a doubled edge sword. Inspiring in one way but invidious in another.”
This culture suggests that your failure is your own doing, that you lack the talent or the drive to succeed, and, on the other end, it suggest that your success is your own doing. That you had enough talent and the drive to succeed. Though talent and drive may play a role in ones success or failure, it is not the only source influencing success or failure.
On the other side of the spectrum, you have the idea that we are just a vessel. Your greatness or failure has nothing to do with you, but everything to do with chance. The Romans had this idea that there was a disembodied creative spirit which they called a genius. Elizabeth Gilbert explains this idea best:
“The Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.”
“If your work was brilliant, you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.” (Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this in her TED talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius.)
I view life somewhere in between. Life is a mix of responsibility and chance, skill and luck, opportunity and work, grace and determination.
So I’m all for personal development, except for when it promote personal arrogance.