I spend a lot of time on self-improvement related things. For example, I listen to a lot of podcasts like Lex Friedman, Peter Attia and Andrew Huberman. In fact, I just finished listening to Lex's episode with expert negotiator Chris Voss.

Why do I do this? Well, it feels good. Why does it feel good? Because it feels productive. I learn new things.

For example, in the episode with Chris Voss I learned that it is good to get the other side in a negotiation to say "that's right". It means that they feel listened to. Understood. You've passed the intellectual turing test. Once they reach this point, they'll be more flexible. And it goes beyond negotiating. Voss mentioned that when Trump speaks, he evokes a very strong sense of "that's right" from his supporters.

Learning about this concept made me feel pretty good. It gave me that dopamine hit. But I am a little skeptical that it, for lack of a better term, should have.

Basically, I don't actually think that it will help me achieve better outcomes. Maybe it will prove useful a few times[1], but I just don't think it'll do that much for me. And yet it generates a pretty strong feeling of satisfaction.

Why is this feeling of satisfaction stronger than what my prediction of the concepts usefulness would imply? I can think of a few reasons that apply, to varying degrees, to both myself and others.

  1. Status-seeking. Self-improvement is high-status. Both the process and the results. Being the type of person who spends time on self-improvement is high-status. And being the type of person who has, err, improved, is also high-status. I think this a pretty big one.[2]
  2. Terminal value. Self-improvement is actually a terminal value (or something close to one). Both the process and the results.
  3. Lost purposes. Self-improvement isn't actually a terminal value but you lose sight of that fact. You don't realize that it is connected to achieving better outcomes and start to treat it as a terminal value. Or maybe "you" don't but the part of you that regulates your emotions does.
  4. Habitual productivity. As Nate Soares describes in his post on the topic, this is what happens when your brain, for whatever reason, just loses the ability to be satisfied with things that don't bring you closer to the goals you're working towards. Which is probably some mix of 1, 2 and 3.

For myself, 4 screams out as being the dominant factor. It seems to be composed mostly of 3, some 1 and a small amount of 2. For others, the sense I get is that 1 > 2 > 3 > 4 but I don't feel too strongly about it.

  1. It goes beyond just using it in a negotiation of course. It improves my model of the world and this improved model may prove useful in some other context. Still, I'm skeptical. ↩︎

  2. To the extent that this is true, self-improvement should probably be viewed more conspicuously. ↩︎

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I used to really be into self-improvement, self-help, positive psychology, etc. Now not so much. What changed?

My model is that I learned all I could from the genre. There's a lot of great stuff in there to learn, and I still pick up little bits from folks all the time. But there's a broad set of skills self-improvement stuff is trying to teach you, and you have to see a lot of it before the big deep insights really seep into your bones.

I was on a self-help kick for something like 12 years before I was really done with it, and probably the last 4 of those years were the most intense. Started because my life was a bit of a mess and GTD offered some solutions. It helped, and then I kept doing things that helped more until I discovered that the literature was out of stuff it hadn't already taught me, and I had to go look elsewhere to continue down whatever path I was on (this is what ultimately led me to zen).

I'm not so sure you need to worry so much about self-help being a trap. It can be for some people, but the very act of questioning whether you're in some kind of local maxima is itself evidence of doing the work needed to find your way off the current peak and onto a higher one.

Thanks for the thoughts, that all makes sense.

I especially like the point about it being a sort of genre with overarching, big-picture ideas that starts to become less useful once you've picked up those big-picture ideas. In that Chris Voss episode of the Lex Friedman podcast some of the big-picture ideas I was hearing were the power of empathy, paraphrasing, and the idea that people are the hero of their own story.

It's a little hard to remember and pick out which things I got from self-help vs. other places, but here's a quick guess at what some of the big ideas are:

  • we make sense of the world through stories
    • this is especially how we make sense of our own lives
    • we can change our lives by changing the story
  • we're systems that can be influenced/controlled by mundane means
    • problems usually can be solved by changing our conditions
    • if something is wrong in our lives, it's never a characteristic failing
    • it's a failure to create the conditions for success
  • co-dependency is the default state
    • our minds evolved to have strong expectations about others
    • this was adaptive thousands and even hundreds of years ago
    • now we need to be secure in our ability to live our own lives and let others in in healthy ways
  • self-esteem comes from self-trust
    • you can do surface-level things to feel better about yourself
    • but until you learn to trust yourself you'll always be missing out
  • there's a self-improvement cycle
    • you notice something is wrong
    • things get worse for a while as you deconstruct things
    • then you have an insight
    • things get better as your reintegrate and add in the things you observed during deconstruction
    • you enter a new stable plateau that's better than before
    • you stay there until you notice something that drives the next round of the cycle

There's probably more stuff. I wrote a lot about it on my blog and Facebook as I was going through it. That's all here now on Less Wrong. It's probably not everything but I've got some stuff I left behind for folks.

Thank you, this is an amazing summary!