Why Self-Help courses often fail to produce lasting results

If you’re a regular consumer of self-help books and courses, here are eight questions for you to answer.   Honestly now.

Despite all those courses and books you’ve consumed on making your life better:

  1. Are you still stuck in the same circumstances of your life?
  2. Do you still do work that you have no passion for, or continue doing a job you hate?
  3. Have your relationships stopped growing, or even fallen back to where they were before you did those courses?
  4. Do you still gossip?
  5. Are you no closer to realizing your dreams? (Honestly now.)
  6. Are you still passionless and unfulfilled
  7. Are you resigned to living an unremarkable life?
  8. Do you blame other people and circumstance for your disappointments & failures?

If you can honestly say no to most of these questions congratulations!  The fact is that for many people the promised benefits (implicit or explicit) of many self-help/personal growth courses and products are either not achieved, or have no lasting impact in the lives of the people that consume them.

People remain stuck in the circumstances of their lives even if they say they feel better about those circumstances, often becoming dependent or even subservient to a particular self-help organization or teacher and never leveraging all that they’ve been taught into living a life that is truly their own design.

Their failure to radically improve their lives is often what turns other people off of taking the very same courses the “self-helpers” rave about.

Are these courses and books today’s equivalent of “snake oil?”

No.  Most of the authors and teachers out there are not selling the modern day equivalent of snake oil.  On the contrary, there are many remarkable technologies, philosophies and techniques that are quite effective.  Why they often aren’t effective is because of two mutually re-enforcing forces (1) the drive to over promise or over-sell  i.e. to make exaggerated promises of what can be achieved and how fast results can be obtained, and (2) people’s belief in the quick fix, the miracle that will magically remove all of their problems.   It is the latter point to which this article is directed.

Six reasons why self-help courses don’t make a lasting difference

I can think of six reasons self-help courses fail to make a lasting difference in people’s lives.

1. People don’t like to work – Work is a Four Letter Word

This is perhaps the most fundamental reason: People just don’t do the work required.  It’s very much like going to the gym once, or having one healthy meal and expecting that you’re going to have a great body and good health for the rest of your life.

Whether its because of the legacy of slavery, Hollywood fantasies, corporate America or some other reason, most people don’t want or like to work.  People do not want to be told that anything worth achieving requires dedication and continual effort, even though they know that this is true.

For many people, the whole concept of work is negative and this is perpetuated by their self-imposed imprisonment, and the imprisonment of their friends and families in jobs or careers that they hate or tolerate.

They are submerged in conversations about work as burden, toil and labor with only limited financial reward and certainly no reward of passion, fulfillment and increased capacities to take care of their concerns and adapt to change.

2. People live the illusion of the Quick Fix, Magic Bullet, and Happily Ever After

America is the land where dreams come true, and not only do dreams come true, they can come true overnight.  In an instant all of your problems can go away; with the winning of the lottery, the starting of your own business, the taking of this course, the reading of this book etc., etc.  Someday your ship will come in, your knight in shining armor will come and take you away from all this, and you’ll ride off and live happily ever after (apparently this works for guys as well … at least in New York and San Francisco).

The phenomenon of the “overnight success” is perceived to be very real.  The marketing phenomenon that is corporate America is based on selling this dream.  The solution to your medical condition whether it be insomnia, depression or obesity is a pill, or a lottery ticket, not in the thoughts, words and actions you choose every day.

3. People do not understand how to learn

Understanding and learning are not the same.  You may sit in a course for a few days to a few weeks, read the assignments and even pass the test at the end, and this has nothing to do with your learning what has been taught; at least not if by learning we mean being able to incorporate the material such that you can produce actual results in your life.   True learning produces knowledge which can be verified by the results said knowledge produces.

4. People do not understand the role of structure or environment in producing results

Human beings for whatever reason do not think of themselves as biological organisms the way the amoeba is or the way a wild animal, say the mountain gorilla is.  Yet we most definitely are biological organisms and just like the animals on the nature channel we are intimately connected with our environment.

Our environment calls forth behavior.

To the extent that this is not understood people will temporarily place themselves in new environments, new structures that produce different thoughts, feelings and results and then return to their old environments that are structured to produce old, familiar and unwanted results.

Not only do they inevitably fail, but worse, they reinforce negative self-beliefs of weakness, stupidity, unworthiness etc. because they cannot see the role their environment plays (their jobs, friends, families, TV shows etc.) in producing their failures.

5. People do not understand the role of community

The “Lone Ranger” is a powerful American tradition. Everyone is so gripped by the cultural conversation of the lone ranger, being an individual, and “I don’t need help” that they don’t get that they need help: we all do.

Every human being needs the help and support of other human beings yet many people continue to resist seeking help and resist it when it’s offered because they’ve been taught to think it means something negative about them e.g. being weak, unintelligent, unworthy etc.

People are taught to go against a basic truth i.e. that human beings are social animals and we need other human beings to survive, or more importantly, to live a great life. Indeed, the quality of those other human beings we include in our communities (directly and indirectly) give us the quality of our lives.

For self-help or personal-growth courses to have a lasting impact, their teachings must live in your communities (see point #4 above). Because the importance of this is not clear, most people make very feeble attempts to build communities to practice and learn the teachings of these courses.

Instead they either completely submerge themselves back in their old communities in which case almost all the value of these courses are lost, or they submerge themselves within the community of their teacher or educational institution where they at least get to keep the teachings alive, but often sub-ordinate their requirements to transform their own lives to the needs of the their teacher or educational organization.   This is where absurd claims of belonging to cults or being “converted” often come from.

6. People do not understand the role of a coach

It’s no coincidence that great players have coaches: Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Michael Phelps, etc.  A coach stands for your commitment and is trained to have you take massive and powerful actions repeatedly to speed you on your journey.   A coach is  the mirror reflecting your stand for your declarations in life and your best bet that you will live in integrity to produce the results you intend.  Not having a coach or mentor is perhaps the most reliable indicator that a person will not make the radical changes to structure and community necessary to transform their lives.

Then why do people keep doing more self-help?

So if despite inherent value in many of these self-help courses, (for the reasons above) they fail to produce lasting results for many people; why then do so many “students” (consumers might be a better term) keep taking more?

  1. Because they enjoy doing so.  They are a form of entertainment very much like going to the movies.  And there is nothing wrong with that.
  2. People do get results – to varying degrees. They see possibilities they did not see before, they’re able to have conversations that they could not have had before (and had miraculous results with people in their lives), and many take actions they could not have taken otherwise.  Many of the repeat customers in the self-help, personal growth business have had significant to major victories because of taking these courses.  People do get value.  What’s missing is the ability to sustain or repeat those victories; people then fall back into old patterns of behavior that generate familiar and unwanted results.

What Should I do if I want to improve my life? Should I take any of these Self-Help/Personal-Growth courses then?

That’s a gigantic YES!   Overall, people are always better off for consuming the teachings in most of the self-help/personal growth courses and books because they get to see what’s possible in their lives, they get to see and experience new perspectives new ways of being, even if it’s for a short time.  Just remember two things:

1-You need coaching and community to implement and sustain new behavior:

Without the structures, communities and coaching necessary to practice what’s available from these courses in your daily lives, you will be unable to live the life of your dreams – unless of course you have small dreams. (smile)

Big achievements, and the ability to cause positive change in your life are the result of daily practice; daily practice that is custom designed and evolved to grow with you.  It’s a given that new practices you design from the courses you take will involve giving up much of your current structures (people, conversations, habits, thoughts etc.) and replacing them with new ones.  You cannot do this on your own.   Look for articles and posts from me about how to do this.

2-Look to the recommendations of people you trust:

When choosing courses and coaches, look to the recommendations of people you trust and people who have achieved the results you want.  Not all the courses out there are appropriate for you, and of those some are better than others.

Look to the recommendations of people that you trust to help you choose what’s right for YOU. Look to them also for help in building your own communities to practice to get what you want in life.  Ask them what groups and forums they participate in and to share their practices.  Morevidareviews.com (shameless plug) is a great place to find and share the best courses and coaches that help and support people in getting more out of life.

Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.