A while ago, I finished reading The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson. The Slight Edge is a typical personal development book, providing the reader with the (so-called ‘simple’) key to success, well-being and happiness. While these books aren’t for everyone, I quite like them and generally get some value out of reading about (and pursuing) personal development.
That also applies to The Slight Edge. It’s a good read, and the author makes a fair point on how you can (try to) be more successful in certain aspects of your life. Specifically, he says you should 1) implement daily habits, such as ‘read 10 pages of a good book every day’; and 2) consistently take the ‘right’ choices (and resulting actions), such as opting for a salad instead of a hamburger or going for a run versus sitting on the couch. This is evidently an oversimplification, so if you want a more thorough summary if this book, take a look here.
The point of this article, however, is that though The Slight Edge provides good advice, when I closed the book, I was left with a bitter aftertaste. Interestingly, I noticed I had this experience before after reading several different books in the self-help/personal development category. And that’s when I realized that there are issues with personal development books, that I hadn’t seen before.
The Problem with Self-Help
If we line up The Slight Edge with other self-help books such as the 4-Hour Work Week (Tim Ferriss) or the Miracle Morning (Hal Elrod), it becomes apparent they have one thing in common. Consider these examples:
“Your entire life changes the day that you decide you will no longer accept mediocrity for yourself.” (Miracle Morning, Hal Elrod)
“But you are the average of the five people you associate with most, so do not underestimate the effects of your pessimistic, unambitious, or disorganized friends. If someone isn’t making you stronger, they’re making you weaker.” (4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss)
“You are either going for your dreams or giving up your dreams. Stretching for what you could be, or settling for what you are.” (The Slight Edge, Jeff Olson)
“As long as you’re working for someone else you will never be living entirely true to yourself and your passion.” (Crush It!: Why Now Is the Time to Cash In on Your Passion, Gary Vaynerchuk)
Looking at these quotes, what do you see? What I see is an all-or-nothing story; a story that’s incredibly black and white. This becomes even more apparent when you simplify these quotes. Doing so leaves us with the following statements that, according to the relative author, apply to your life:
- You’re either accepting or rejecting mediocrity,
- Your friends make you stronger or weaker,
- You’re going for your dreams or giving them up, and
- You’ll live true to yourself or not.
In other words, if we put our faith in these books and authors, and believe in what they’re saying, then there’s no grey area in life. There is no in-between. It’s either: follow these steps and live the life of your dreams. Or: reject them, and be doomed forever.
Evidently, I’m simplifying things here, and picking specific quotes out of specific books. But I do think these quotes and books are representative of a wider phenomenon in the self-help world. And that is the issue of a majority of these books. They offer a picture that is incredibly black and white. However, as I’m sure you agree, life is not black and white. There is an in-between; better yet, life is full of grey areas and isn’t a story of ‘all or nothing’.
Black or white is impossible
It isn’t a story of all or nothing because when it comes to our lives and the decisions we make, ‘all or nothing’, or ‘black or white’, is impossible. Your life is such a big culmination of thoughts, actions, dreams, relations and so much more, that choices or results like ‘rejecting or accepting mediocrity’ cannot exist.
That’s because for every choice you make in life, there’s an opportunity cost. If you choose to go to football practice, you can’t go to dinner with friends. If you choose to travel the world, you can’t be a stay-at-home mom. If you choose to write a blog article, you can’t read a new self-help book. Whatever the subject, making a choice means not choosing for a broad spectrum of other things. And considering that you can hope, want or dream two things at the same time (e.g. traveling the world and be a stay-at-home mom), it’s never a choice between following your dreams and not doing so. Or between accepting or rejecting mediocrity.
The overarching choice of ‘accepting or rejecting mediocrity’ in our entire lives, then, does not exist. And if the choice doesn’t exist, how could we ever make it?
A call for accepting mediocrity
But even if we accept that a choice for ‘all or nothing’ is inherently impossible, it’s not a choice that anyone should want to make. Such self-help books are written in a way that the status quo, or the situation of ‘not acting’ has a largely negative connotation. According to these books, the status quo of the reader’s life equals ‘rejecting mediocrity’, or ‘giving up their dreams’.
But that’s one of the issues with personal development; I would argue that you can be very content in being mediocre or average. You can be content having average friends, an average relationship or average success in your career. While mediocrity or ‘average-ness’ doesn’t sound great (after all, this implies we’re not unique or any better or more successful than the next guy), depending on what mediocrity entails, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
So in that vein, I would say, let’s accept mediocrity. Let’s accept that we’re happy with being in the place we are in now, living the lives we’re currently living. Sure, if you’re actually discontent, then do something about it. But if you’re not, even though you’re not incredibly successful in a specific area of your life (career, romance, finances, friends, etc.), then why not accept the way things are?
Taking personal development with a grain of salt
Now I won’t advise you to cross off all self-help books on your list, and I won’t either, simply because I do think there’s still value to be had from such books. However, let me make the following suggestion, both to myself and others: Let’s should take personal development with a grain of salt.
Yes, personal development books may help you to improve specific areas of your life. Yes, they may help you to eat healthier, be a better partner, grow in your career or be a better friend. But this doesn’t mean that we cannot be content with the way things are now. And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be content with the way things are now.
That’s what I’d say. But let’s ‘go meta’ and take this grain of salt with a grain of salt. After all, maybe this whole post is just a defence mechanism, rather than an actual conviction, and I’m simply legitimising my mediocrity. Let’s hope it isn’t, but who knows — it might just be. 😉