Some of you know of my obsession with personal development culture, and in particular Tony Robbins in my early life.
I’ve long wanted to write about some of my experiences in hardcore personal development, and how I’ve come to see it all as questionably helpful and at times even harmful.
This post is a first step along that path. It focuses specifically on this one, very popular, rarely contested, “success hack”.
“The only way to expand our lives is to model the lives of those people who are already succeeding”
Nowadays it’s personal development cliché. It’s hard to find any “life coach”, “success teacher”, “personal development guru” who would find anything out of place in it.
But in everything I learned from Tony Robbins, it’s one of the ideas I’ve come to believe most untrue and worse, most damaging.
“The Only Way?”
To be fair to Tony, I think with a gun to his head, even he wouldn’t believe this to be literally true. More likely just compelling language for the sake of better copy.
But I submit it here for brief dissection because I believe it’s symptomatic of a much broader problem with the language and style of personal development teaching: The tendency to minimize, to simplify, to remove nuance, and to dictate knowledge rather than inspire a personal search for and interaction with it.
Let’s take the quote literally for a moment.
Why would this be “the only way” to expand our lives?
Why would anything be “the only way” to expand our lives?
You would have to believe that the living of a human life is a fairly simple business, to agree that there is only one singular way it might be “expanded”.
So why reduce human experience in such a way?
The answer is because to do so gives comfort, even if that comfort is short lived.
And because if there’s “one way”, no one should look for answers anywhere else, except with you. It’s not psychology or philosophy or science or any pursuit that honestly aims at increasing knowledge and wisdom. It’s marketing speak. It aims at selling.
If you’re having a down day… or a down year, there’s nothing more consoling than to hear someone say “Don’t worry. There’s no confusion. There is one way to fix it; one way only. And I know what that way is”.
There’s also no kind of language more likely to get an average person to give their email address or take out their credit card.
Who Is “Already Succeeding”?
When Tony says “the people who are already succeeding”, another set of assumptions is made that are never discussed.
The assumptions are
- There is one definition of success and Tony knows what it is. He actually assumes you know too, and that your definition is the same as his.
- Some people are successful and some aren’t. You want to be the former.
In other arts like philosophy, literature, poetry, as well as the sciences, there are endless discussions about what it might mean to live a meaningful, rewarding life; What it might mean to have your life be “a success” (a term that no other discipline outside of sport and business is very comfortable using).
But for personal development gurus, those discussions are not needed. The vision of success is pre-established and then decreed. Sure, there’s some talk about working out your values, and setting up a life that’s aligned to what you consider important, but only within pre-defined boundaries.
So what’s Tony’s definition of success?
Tony – and you can insert all the other personal development teachers who have parroted him – believes that too many people “major in minor things” in life, and that if we are to be successful, we should focus the most of our attention on “the majors” of life.
It’s important to understand that if you follow a personal development guru like Tony, you don’t choose your own majors, no matter what your previously stated “values” were. The majors are:
and you can add or subtract something like “meaning”, “purpose”, or “self” depending on which guru you’re listening to.
A successful life is one where you “optimize” these areas; Where you score as highly as possible across the 5 criteria.
So when Tony says “some one who is already succeeding”, he means someone who has a great relationship, or someone who is already wealthy, or someone who is already healthy etc.
On the surface of it, this idea isn’t controversial.
Perhaps too many people do spend too much time watching Netflix, and perhaps they could benefit by putting a little more time into enhancing their relationship with their spouse?
But who decides what’s too much Netflix? What if Netflix IS time with your partner and IS enhancing a relationship?
You can insert your own additional shades of grey here if you like, as my point is raised again that personal development culture habitually reduces the spectrum of and complexity in human experience for the sake of convenience and shallow consolations. And for the sake of better marketing and higher profits.
But back to the “successful people”.
If you’re out of shape, Tony suggests that the best thing you can do is model the life (or at least the fitness regime) of someone who is in shape.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You don’t have to dig through nutrition science to learn what’s empirically proven and what’s not, because scientists are constantly arguing with each other anyway… and besides, the scientists are probably out of shape themselves!
Instead, listen to someone who’s really living it. Listen and then “model” them.
Here’s the problem with that: And it’s a huge problem.
You can model that fit person, sure. You can copy their diet and their exercise and chances are before long, you’ll end up looking more like them and less like you do now.
But for what?
This practice of picking someone successful and modeling them takes no account of what that fit person’s life is really like; no account of whether you’re experience of being human will truly be enhanced by your fitness regime or your body looking any more like theirs.
What if that person runs for 2 hours every day to avoid conflicts with his wife?
What if that person keeps such an obsessive diet because they were teased as a child, so they live daily with the anxiety of ever being their childhood self again?
What if that person sacrifices their pleasure in food – something that to you is highly valuable – in order to maintain their shape?
Also, none of these may be true.
This person you model may have the perfect balance in their lives, and they might keep in great shape for the most noble and uplifting of reasons too.
But the point is when you choose them to “model” based on their success in this one “major” of life, you may have absolutely no idea which if any of the above are true.
“Worst of all, you have no idea whether your health being more like theirs will actually “expand your life” or whether it will remove from it some crucial feature, without which you’ll be left even less fulfilled (albeit less fat) than when you started.”
You have no idea, and personal development doesn’t care. It doesn’t care because it’s not interested in possibilities, or nuances, or the very many different ways a person might accomplish the same specific thing.
Or not accomplish it, and that be totally fine.
What Would You Model?
I give Tony a pass on the fitness example, because it’s one human pursuit that isn’t very complicated. Adjust what you eat, and adjust how much you move, and your body must start to change.
But what about relationships? Let’s say you want a better relationship, so you identify someone who you believe to have a great relationship, and you start to “model”.
Never mind the difficulty in picking the “successful relationship” to model, based on no criteria other than the couple’s own reporting, known to be fraught with difficulty, or your own observation of their relationship (confined only to public settings).
What about what they do could you actually “model”?
Stephen Briers, in his book Psychobabble, points to research suggesting that the more successful people become at a particular skill, the less conscious they are of how they’re achieving that success.
Parts of their processes become habitual, even subconscious. They develop a narrative about their methods and their success with them that serves their sense of identity, rather than being faithful to reality. And the parts of the skill they focus on as experts may not be accessible, even intelligible to the novice at that skill.
So chances are, whatever this person tells you is their key to a great relationship, isn’t actually the key. It’s not even likely to be THEIR key. Copy that and there’s no reason to think your relationship will end up any better than it is right now.
Second, let’s say their stated key to success is a 30 second kiss every morning. They’ve been doing it 20 years and it guarantees that no matter what else happened in the day, they always started with intimacy, and connection and love.
You try doing the same.
Maybe it works and your relationship goes swimmingly every day after.
But what if it doesn’t?
Human brains are very complex. Scientists don’t even understand how complex they are.
Put two of them together under one roof, and the number of possible interactions that could take place approach infinity. And the number of different dynamics that are the product of these near infinite reactions are even more astounding, particularly when you factor in adjustments over time.
What if the forced intimacy every morning makes one member feel bored?
What if the couple comes to rely on their designated form of affection and other more spontaneous forms suffer?
We could brainstorm together and come up with another 100 “what ifs” in this scenario, and that range of possible experience is exactly the point.
The Worst Thing About Modeling
Whether it’s health, wealth, finance, or any other sufficiently complicated human endeavour; Modeling someone else prevents you from creating your own model.
When life itself is the endeavour, there are so many variables that to imagine a rudimentary “modeling” of someone else’s life could “expand” your existence in a meaningful and lasting way is naïve, and dangerous.
Modeling limits the exploration of a life. It discourages thinking and experimentation. It denies the infinitesimal differences that comprise each human’s psyche, and the varying effects that different actions might have on their emotions and how they experience reality.
Not One Solution But Many
There are countless ways to have a great relationship.
There are countless ways to be fit and healthy.
And there are certainly countless ways to live a meaningful and rewarding life.
Picking “someone already succeeding” and “modeling” them will only to lead to success until you realize that something fundamental about who you are has been glossed over while you were busy setting up your life to look like someone elses’. That part of you isn’t going to be happy about it.
Being able to work out the details; Taking in lots of information; Picking different ideas from different places; Living and learning and making mistakes; flat out doing it wrong most of the time…
These things aren’t a burden on life; something to be overcome with a clever shortcut.
They might even be the very point of life; Half the fun of the thing; The very fruits to be savoured.