Inner Space

Self-help content comes in different flavors - some are annoyingly positive, some offer decent advice, some are just a waste of our time. I think you've encountered them all. As someone who also writes on Medium, it's impossible not to get recommended articles that fall into this category. And some may argue that I've contributed to it myself.

When you think about it, it's natural that the content is varied and diverse. As a $10 billion industry, it needs to change and adapt so that it moves with the zeitgeist. So the hot topic of the day gets incorporated into the self-help literature. Habits, productivity, mindfulness. Over the years, it has borrowed from disciplines like positive psychology, philosophy and even neuroscience, backing up life advice with scientific data, or appealing to the wisdom of antiquity.

Speaking of which, stoicism has become a household name in self-help circles in recent years. Marcus Aurelius, the name most associated with Stoicism, grew into everyone's favorite guru and people make it seem like we can conquer all our battles with some good old stoic principles. I'm not against Stoicism in any way, in fact I consider it full of valuable insights. What I take issue with is the ways in which it's "sold" to us.

One of the blind spots of this kind of literature, apart from reinforcing the idea that we're inherently flawed or contributing to our "self" obsession, is that it can convince us there's such a thing as universal advice, globally applicable to anyone. It can be easy to take it at face value and not peer into its roots.

We must take a step back and evaluate the situation more critically. We should ask where this advice is coming from, what underpins it: values, beliefs, worldviews. How is it shaped by the culture and the larger societal frameworks it is part of? Why do we need to adhere to it in the first place?

It seems to me that self-help is flattening us as people, reducing us to subjects that need to be optimized, whose dials need to be turned "just so" and who are in need of the same qualities: productive, confident, extroverted.

Call me a cynic, but I find it incredibly ignorant to assume that everyone's life problems can be solved with a listicle (list article) or by spending less time on their phones. It also rests on the premise that consuming information is enough to catalyze a behavior change, altering our way of life. The difference between who you are and who you want to be isn't buried in the pages of a book. But that's a subject for another day.

Self-help can become a crutch we use to fool ourselves into thinking we're "making progress." It can also suck us into other people's worldviews, making us blindly internalizing their values. My intention isn't to convince you to give up this genre - after all, we all need a boost sometimes, but to get you to recognize the bigger picture surrounding it.

Timeless Content

The Top Idea in Your Mind
by Paul Graham | 5 minute read

Here, Graham argues that in order to solve difficult problems or get to the bottom of an issue, we must allow that thing to bounce around in our head even when we're not trying to actively find an answer. This kind of thinking is known as "diffuse mode thinking," characterized by being more relaxed, giving thoughts space to unfold naturally, allowing for unexpected connections. I've talked more about this in my 12 favorite problems article, which is nicely related to Graham's essay in a way, because it explores the benefits of keeping not one matter top of mind, but a dozen of your favorite ones in the back of your mind, always testing them against new solutions you come across.

Picture of the Week

Photo of a building with the text on it that reads: "The dream fills the room and there isn't enough oxygen for both of us, I try not to move and not to breathe"
This was taken somewhere in Prague. I found interesting the idea that sometimes you need to tread carefully as not to crush a fragile dream. The lack of oxygen suggests the person's willingness to let the dream live on, even if it means their death.

Quote I'm reflecting on

Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something. (Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without A Country)

Question for you to ponder

What advice have you taken for granted as "common sense" that you could look more critically at?

Thank you for reading.

Until next time,
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