Beware of “Magic Bullet” Thinking

I used to believe a lot of the flaws in the personal development industry came from overselling. Everyone claims you can find instant wealth, health or happiness by giving them some money. People, gullible to these messages of immediate improvement, are duped into believing their exists a “magic bullet” for all their problems.

While this certainly is a problem, I’m now beginning to see that it actually works both ways.

People get duped into buying magic bullets. But many people actually implicitly demand magic bullets and so hallucinate that they can get results without any effort even if they’re told this won’t work.

I recently had this experience offering a career-development course with Cal Newport. Like anyone selling anything, I have to walk a tricky line. I want to confidently communicate what I believe to be the potential value, without exaggerating or creating inflated promises.

Believe it or not, this is a lot more difficult than it sounds. Most people believe salespeople instinctively know the true value of their offers, but disingenuously inflate them to make more money. I’ve actually found it’s typically the opposite—that the salesperson believes in the product more than anyone and it takes mental effort to restrain that enthusiasm.

In our last offer, I feel we did a fairly good job of meeting those contrasting goals when describing the course. We even included multiple sections explaining that what we were offering was a structured approach, that there was no magic bullet, it requires long-term focus and applied effort, etc.

Despite this, it was to my dismay, that I still got a couple emails from people stating that it sounded like we had a magic solution to their problems or that we had “cracked the code” to success. I cringed reading this.

The Instinct to Search for Effortless Solutions

On the surface, it’s difficult to explain these responses. Cal and I spend years pulling together a course that, explicitly required 40+ of hours of work and explicitly rejected the idea that this would guarantee immediate promotions, riches or success, and yet we still got email conversations where people were surprised that the course actually required effort.

Sometimes marketers are the ones to blame for unrealistic expectations and false promises. But sometimes we can only blame ourselves.

I buy books and courses all the time for business or personal development. Yes, sometimes the product is a dud—it was overhyped, claiming solutions for problems it doesn’t know how to fix. But often it is decent, and I learn some important insights or new techniques that more than make up for the cost.

I sometimes take for granted that other people also view investments in personal growth the same way. That any improvements take continued, sustained effort. That when they do happen suddenly, there is usually months or years of unrecognized effort behind them. That books, blogs, courses and mentors can be a source of ideas and structure, but ultimately, you have to do the work.

This perspective is completely in contrast to magic bullet thinking, where gaining access to a few “secrets” that “crack the code” allow for almost instantaneous improvements with no effort.

The Promise of Instant Happiness

It’s easy to make fun of “magic bullet” thinking. If I hadn’t encountered these people myself, I might even be tempted to say it’s a straw man argument.

I’d guess most rational people hold views similar to my own—that growth takes always takes work (but there are more efficient paths), that there are no “magic secrets” (but there are good methods and bad ones), and that nobody can give you instant success (but there are people worth learning from).

But there’s another type of magic bullet thinking that’s more deceptive. It’s the kind that doesn’t say you’ll instantly achieve business success, social magnetism or perfect health, but that when you do, after all the work, you’ll instantly and permanently be happy.

Many people who scoff at the first type of magic bullet thinking, fall for this second type. They don’t believe success can be achieved without any work, but they somehow think that accomplishing some particular life goal will make them perpetually fulfilled.

In some ways this is a worse delusion, because the difficulty of achieving all your goals can hide it from you for a long time. The person who believes in get-rich-quick schemes will be disappointed quickly and be forced to rethink within a few days. The person who believes that all they need to do to be perpetually happy is to accomplish some goal may go a lifetime without figuring out the mistake.

I don’t believe the solution to the fact that many people believe in magic bullets (or that marketers often exploit this misunderstanding) is to never read a book or take a course which might help you. Instead, the solution is to change your expectations. To see what legitimate value can be provided and recognize what investment must come from yourself to realize it.

Similarly, I don’t think the pervasive belief that accomplishing particular life goals will bring sustained happiness doesn’t mean you should get out of the business of trying to improve things. Once again, the solution is to change your expectations. Don’t expect external accomplishments to change your inner experience of life.