How Self-Help Really Works

    At the beginning of last year, I inadvertently found myself listening to an interview with self-help guru Tony Robbins. That interview made me curious, and pretty soon I had listened to several interviews, a 20-hour full-length audiobook, and a course or two that this particular person had created.

    I rolled my eyes a lot. The ideas seemed jumbled and questionable.

    I was also on my guard about being conned. The self-help industry, after all, makes its money by selling courses and personal appearances for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

    But the more I listened to this stuff, the more I realized it was working for me. It actually was making me feel more productive, more positive, more determined. And then I realized that even if it was kind of a rip-off, the value of being more productive and determined might actually be worth it. Even if the effect was just coming from listening to an audiobook read in a certain voice or in a certain way, it might make sense to do that.

    So I kept listening. And I came to two conclusions:

    1. There are some solid ideas underneath all the fluff.
    2. They are being presented in a very mixed-up way.

    I think this makes sense. For one thing, a lot of the value that a “guru” delivers is their particular personality and charisma. The longer they talk, the more you are drawn into the vision and feeling they have about the world. So if they were to short-circuit that by being too obvious about their point, you might not actually walk away feeling inspired and uplifted.

    I also imagine that mixing up the ideas in this way has a sort of hypnotic effect, as your brain tries to follow all the different spiraling trails of thought.

    But it’s also possible that the gurus may not actually understand the ideas themselves. This wouldn’t be surprising — someone who finds themselves possessed with a powerful charisma and the ability to motivate people will naturally start talking about big ideas. Over time, the ideas that seem most effective will tend to float to the top, and the guru might end up talking about significant and transformative concepts without even having a theory of why they are significant, or understanding where they came from.

    Most likely this gap in understanding is why we typically hear language in the self-help industry that sounds a lot like magic. The Secret is only the most obvious example of this, but it’s widespread in more subtle forms, and seems to reflect a sense of confusion around why something actually works.

    “If you can conceive it, and believe it, you can achieve it”

    That confusion is dangerous, because it hides the pitfalls and costs someone will take on. By pumping a person up, and then sending them out into the world, the self-help process may lead someone to great success — or send them careening into a wall.

    It’s easy to see why this is an industry that can lead to incredibly positive experiences for some people, and also lead to a lot of shadiness and abuse.

    But I’m not just writing this to critique the self-help world. I want to talk about the core ideas that seem to actually work, and explore why they do. My suspicion is that all self-help boils down to these three things:

    1. The Absolute Limits

    We are very much limited by our context, our environment, our resources. We aren’t omnipotent. Everything is not achievable. To start with, the laws of physics put absolute upper bounds on what is possible.

    For example, you can’t spontaneously be on the other side of the galaxy in the next few minutes. The speed of light dictates that it would take you hundreds of thousands of years to get there.

    Indeed, the laws of physics dictate that the only places you could get to in the next few minutes are inside the orbit of Saturn.

    Which is to say, that within the next few minutes, you could have reached the Moon, the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, or the Asteroid belt.

    As far as the laws of physics are concerned.

    Of course, there are other limiting factors. We need fuel to leave the Earth. You can’t just jump from the Earth to the Moon, because the amount of calories contained in the mass of your body isn’t enough energy to reach escape velocity, even if it were all burned in one giant leap. You’d need some other fuel to get you off the ground.

    So the laws of physics limit us, but thermodynamics limit us even more. It takes fuel to do things, and it takes time to gather fuel.

    Nevertheless, we humans are good at gathering fuel. We’ve gathered enough fuel to send untold numbers of objects into space. We’ve gathered enough fuel to send thousands upon thousands of airplanes into the sky, year after year. We’ve gathered enough fuel to put millions of cars on the roads — and to build the roads they’re on. We’ve gathered enough fuel to build the pyramids, and skyscrapers, and undersea tunnels, and to move the mountains.

    Everything that humans have already done is possible. We know that — that’s a given. But we also know that everything humans have done is just a small fraction of what humans could have done.

    In other words, we are nowhere near our absolute limits. In other words, almost anything we can think of is actually doable. In other words, the possibility space is unimaginable.

    The point is not to get hyped up on all the imaginative possibilities. The point is to realize that when we tell ourselves something is unattainable because of our circumstances or resources — we’re fooling ourselves.

    Is it within the realm of possibility that I could be the President of the United States, or the CEO of Apple, Inc. next year?

    Absolutely. If it happened, we wouldn’t say that the laws of physics had been violated. We would say that something improbable had happened, that the unlikely had occurred.

    On the bell curve of different events that might happen in the next year, me becoming President is pretty far out along the probability line. Nevertheless, it is possible. It wouldn’t violate the speed of light. It wouldn’t violate the conservation of energy. It wouldn’t even take that much fuel.

    Similarly, just about everything that people dream of is something humans have already done, or have proven ourselves capable of doing. We know it’s possible. We know it’s not completely out of reach.

    I try to remind myself of this. Sometimes, when something seems unattainable, I ask myself:

    “Is it thermodynamically possible?”

    If the answer is yes, then we know there is a way. It’s just a matter of finding the path. It’s just a matter of making the improbable probable.

    And fortunately, we have a tool that does that.

    2. The Human Brain

    Every one of us has a three pound supercomputer sitting inside our skulls. Its job is to out-think the environment around us. Its reason for existence is to make all kinds of crazy improbable things actually happen.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if all the delicious plants grew in one place, instead of spread throughout a forest?

    Wouldn’t it be nice if when we walked, there weren’t rocks and holes underneath our feet, but only smooth ground?

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the power of lightning was less of a natural disaster, and more a matter of simple convenience — only showing up when we needed it to help cook our food, or light our homes?

    All of these things were possibilities in the natural world — but possibilities so remote that we would never expect them to occur.

    The human brain, however, figured out ways to snatch at these extremely remote possibilities, and move them to center stage.

    That is what a brain is for.

    Because of this, although the brain is very definitely limited by the laws of physics, it is the most significant force in the universe. It is the factor that changes every other factor in an equation. No other force, whether gravity or magnetism or radiation, can create such dramatic and unpredictable changes in a physical system.

    As scientist David Deutsch points out, if we wanted to know the future of a supernova, the most important question we have to ask ourselves is whether there are any brains in the vicinity.

    I think this is why self-help gurus say things like: “If you can conceive it, and believe it, you can achieve it”.

    That’s hyperbole — it’s not the literal truth. Nevertheless, it’s close to the truth. Brains can work wonders. Brains can do things nothing else can do. Brains can quite literally create things that didn’t exist anywhere else in the universe, and would never have existed otherwise.

    Now consider that 99% of the things humans dream of doing are things that have already been done — that have already been proven, demonstrated, and worked out strategically — and suddenly it becomes apparent that our brain can accomplish almost anything we imagine.

    It’s just a matter of putting it to use.

    3. The Inner War

    Which brings us to the real issue: our brains are full of internal conflict. We’re constantly at war with ourselves. We are overcome with fear, we can’t focus, we sabotage our own efforts.

    This is because our minds are divided. Part of us wants one thing, part of us wants another. As Paul said: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

    This is the nature of minds: they’re filled with different voices. And those voices are a good thing. Those voices help remind us to take care of all the different — sometimes conflicting — important things in our lives.

    But unless those voices can learn to cooperate, nothing significant will happen.

    We really only need to do two things:

    1. Come up with new ideas.
    2. Execute on ideas we already have.

    If we need to accomplish something that’s never been done before, we need a new idea. If we need to accomplish something that’s already been done, we need to follow a plan. Either way, we just need to point ourselves in the right direction, and get to work.

    But our minds are constant insurrectionists. They are always plotting mutiny of some sort.

    So how do we overcome this, establish a common cause, and make something happen?

    I think this is where self-help gurus tend to diverge. They all seem to have different strategies for whipping our minds into shape.

    But realize that this is what it all comes down to. There are no universal strategies for success other than this; there can’t be. Becoming a CEO is a lot different than becoming a scuba diver or a Nobel prize winner. They require different strategies, techniques, etc. But the one thing they all share is that they require the powerful application of the human mind.

    I think if we recognize this, it gives us a few clues. A few guidelines for constructing our own self-help plans, if you will.

    1. We can’t rely on beating ourselves up. We can’t live by willpower alone. Trying to make things happen by sheer willpower is just letting one part of our minds launch an attack on another part of our minds. That’s sure to backfire, creating even more internal conflict. A conflicted mind is not a creative mind.
    2. A happy mind is a creative mind. I don’t think this means that we need to pursue “happiness” as that’s sometimes conceived. I think this means that we need to fill ourselves with things like gratitude, joy, peace, etc. I think this is the nugget of truth behind a lot of mysticism.
    3. The mind wants to be led, not forced. Which probably means we need to be inspired by a vision. And actually, this is how consciousness works: we imagine something, bringing it “on-stage” in our minds, allowing it to captivate the attention of all our diverse voices. This is why a lot of people talk so much about things like visualizing, affirmations, etc. These are all ways of gently leading the mind in a particular direction.
    4. All of this is in pursuit of focus, passion, love, etc. These are ways of describing a mind in sync with itself, in pursuit of a common goal.
    5. Don’t underestimate the physical. Listening to music has a powerful effect on your brain. So does exercise. So does improving health, in general.

    Some of this is going to sound pretty woo-woo. That’s almost inevitable when we’re talking about the human mind, simply because we’re talking about something that we don’t have precise, clinical language for yet. So we have to talk about things like passion, gratitude, focus, meaning — and those things can easily become keywords for things like The Secret.

    Don’t let that obscure what we’re really talking about. Although there are physical limits, we’re nowhere near them. The main things holding us back are our ability to execute on our plans, and our ability to come up with new ideas. Both of these things are struggles within the human mind, and that means that any self-help plan worth its salt will ultimately be about the care and feeding of that human mind, preparing it to unleash its amazing force.


    1. The limits we have aren’t that restrictive. They allow us incredible possibilities, including almost anything we might actually imagine.
    2. The most powerful thing in the universe is the supercomputer between our ears. We just need to turn it on.
    3. If we can get our minds in order, we can create the new ideas we need, and execute the strategies we already know.
    4. Some proven ways to achieve this focus are through gratitude, vision, and exercise.

    This is essay was originally shared on Medium. Thanks to Chad Grills for his feedback.