I recently got a chance to browse the nearby bookstore. Aside from further affirming why I prefer amazon to brick and mortar bookshops, there was one other thing I noticed. Getting a chance to walk down the self-help aisle, I couldn’t help but feel my inner cynic trying to claw out.
I think one of the most damaging and pervasive myths of self-help is that of the epiphany. It is the myth that keeps self-help books outrageously popular and simultaneously keeps a lot of people from really making improvements in their lives. This is the myth that says all you need is just that one key idea, understanding or technique to overcome your problems.
What I noticed when I walked down that self-help aisle is that there is an increasing amount of books that seem to purport that all you need is their one great idea to make radical improvements in many areas of your life. The answer, it seems to be, is a better quality of ideas.
Now I can’t blame the self-help authors. They are just selling what people want to buy. But it does reveal an important problem. That problem is that many people are waiting for that sudden flash of insight that will quickly turn their fortunes and allow them to make rapid improvements in their entire life.
Epiphanies Aren’t The Answer
The problem with most people’s quest for an epiphany isn’t just that they are rare, but that even when you do have an epiphany, it doesn’t fix your problems. Just because you suddenly hit that flash of understanding and insight doesn’t mean you suddenly now have more motivation, willpower or discipline. It doesn’t mean you can suddenly overcome your procrastination and fix your life.
I have experienced many ‘epiphany’ moments of various intensities in my pursuit of personal growth. In research and experience, there have been countless times when I discovered a new, powerful idea. These flashes of insight always felt great and the ideas that they contained often did help.
But here’s the thing I realized. In looking back over my life, my improvements didn’t easily correlate to when I had those flashes of insight. Improvement in every area of my life has been a slow and steadily increasing process with sudden bumps in improvement from time to time.
At first this doesn’t seem to make sense. Why wouldn’t achieving a great idea correlate clearly with a marked improvement in your life? If the idea itself was practical, powerful and profound, why didn’t it translate to better productivity, better health or a greater quality of life?
Being Rich and Being Sexy
One of my favorite bloggers is Ramit Sethi. Being young, a student and currently jobless doesn’t leave a lot of application for personal finance, but I greatly appreciate the way he describes many personal development problems. A frequent comparison, Ramit makes is the difference between being rich and being sexy.
What he means by this is that it becoming rich is usually a dull and less exciting process of steady investments that pay off over a number of years. Being sexy with stock day-trading and fancy schemes rarely has the financial payoff then being dull but rational. Ramit’s basic advice is to stop trying to be sexy and be rich instead.
This analogy applies equally well to all aspects of personal development. Many people browse the self-help section for that sexy new idea that will dramatically improve their life. Just as there is a difference between being sexy and being rich, there is a difference between being sexy and personal development.
Epiphany seeking behavior doesn’t work because an idea on it’s own is worthless. Only through successive implementation over a long period of time does it make any difference. An idea is like an acorn and what you want is an oak. Getting new and better acorns, however, won’t help you grow the tree. Only continuous and constant effort can.
How Personal Development Really Happens
Most people have this fantasy in there head that once they find that fabulous idea, it will charge and motivate them to take all the action necessary to succeed. That once they read that magic dieting book, they will take up the diet, create the willpower and lose the weight. Once they read that personal finance book, they will immediately organize their finances, stick to a budget and invest properly to make millions.
Here is how it personal development actually works. You try to start a diet, but you make it a week because you lack willpower. Then you refine the diet to be more suitable, and you try it again, this time lasting a week and a half. Then you figure out what went wrong, remove the obstacles and try it again, this time lasting for a month.
Personal development isn’t about finding that one idea and then suddenly gaining the courage, willpower, emotional control, personality or motivation to make it happen. It is a slow process of refinement and improvement. And yeah, you will fail a lot and it will suck.
As an example of this epiphany phenomenon, I’ll discuss my own history with one of these moments. Upon stumbling across a great idea for changing habits, called a thirty day trial, I immediately went to work trying to implement it. In the first few trials, I failed at least half of them. Later my success rate would slowly improve until I began to refine and introduce more ideas to the concept of changing habits.
Just because an idea is great doesn’t mean it is immediately usable, nor does it take the burden off yourself for steady improvement and adoption of the idea. When you build a sufficient amount of discipline and willpower, ideas become easier to implement, but that still doesn’t mean they happen automatically.
Why are Epiphanies So Common?
Just about every major life change I’ve heard from individuals includes the ‘epiphany moment’. This is the moment of truth when their life finally changed. I believe that it is these stories of flashes of insight creating a windfall of change that heightened the epiphany seeking myth.
I don’t believe these stories. Not because I believe that the people telling them are lying. I think they certainly believe the stuff they are telling. The problem is simply that in hindsight what was a slow gradual turning of beliefs and ideology, gets remembered as a rapid change. Some of these people even reduce what was certainly weeks and months of changes in thinking down to a single moment.
Certainly some epiphanies do happen and they do create change. But I am far more inclined to say that it is far easier to remember an epiphany as being the cause of that change than it is to have the epiphany actually cause it.
Looking down my own life I can identify early moments that were critical in turning me onto the path towards personal development. In my memories, some of these moments even appear to be epiphanies, such as when I read one of my first personal development articles or started setting goals.
The reason I know that they weren’t epiphanies but just one of many small ideas that, when implemented, contributed to who I am today, is simple. In looking over my journal over those periods I can see that the progress from who I was to who I am has always been gradual. Discipline, motivation, character, beliefs and ideology never change in a moment.
Telling people you had a sudden flash of inspiration as your reason for who you are is a very exciting and dramatic way to retell your life. I’m sure if I ever made a memoire I’d probably unwittingly add a few of these moments just because it makes the story sound more interesting. All I’m saying is that the chance that these changes actually occurred in a single moment are highly unlikely.
I’m bound to get some comment refuting my epiphany hypothesis from someone telling me that they had an epiphany that changed his or her life. I want to point out to these readers that our memories are not perfect copies of actual experiences, but recreations based on key facts. What you remember as an epiphany was probably just a particularly memorable idea that stuck out at the beginning of a longer period of self-improvement. Epiphanies make good stories, but they are a sure way to keep you from improving if you are waiting for one.
What Small Step Can I Take Today?
Finding ideas is important. But people spend far too much time looking for ideas and far too little time on the relatively boring and sometimes painful aspect of implementation. You don’t need a glossy self-help book to change your life, you just need to continually ask yourself the question above. What small step can I take today?
I want to stress the above points once more. No area of my life improved spontaneously because of an idea. Reading books on time management and productivity, never made me immediately more productive. They might have created a temporary boost as the emotional motivation from the book lasted, but permanent increases in performance take time.
If you feel you lack self-discipline, willpower, motivation, happiness, wealth, fitness or any other attribute, don’t expect a self-help book to give you the permanent answer. Instead, focus on making small contributions every single day. Work a little bit harder, face down some of your fears, clarify your purpose, save a bit more money, exercise a little bit more.
Spontaneous improvements are rare almost to the point of being dismissed entirely. Focus your efforts on gathering ideas for inspiration but investing in the little steps that ultimately add up to the long journey. Growth is a process, not a destination so stop waiting for an epiphany.