Visualization works if you work hard. That’s the thing. You can’t just visualize and go eat a sandwich.
– Jim Carrey
I have learned the secret to getting rich in math and science. And now, for the first time ever, I am making these secrets available to you.
I can teach you everything you need to know to debunk Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and help put you on the fast track to validating your proofs.
With my program, you will literally rewrite the book on formal logic.
Looking to untangle the origins of the universe? No sweat. I will show you how, in just 30 minutes a day, using simple techniques that anyone can learn, you will discover how you can create revolutionary new approaches to thinking about the Big Bang, string theory, and even the nature of God itself. (Did you know, for example, that God is neither a man nor a woman, but made up, in fact, of a fairly inexpensive set of ingredients that can be bought at almost any Italian food store?)
But that’s not all. The normal price of this 24 CD, 2 volume course is $1,999. But if you order now, you will get the entire “MATHEMILLIONS” box set, that’s over 50 hours of groundbreaking material, a signed copy of my new book “Awaken the Giant Mathematician Within”, and I’ll throw in a coupon for 10% off my live, 3-day “1 + 1 = $1,000,000!!11!” bootcamp, a coupon worth over $3000, all for the incredibly low price of $119.95!!!
So don’t wait. This offer can only last a short time. Do me yourself a favour and CALL NOW.
Framed in the context of objective and rational pursuits, the above comes across as obvious drivel. But it’s amazing how much of the multi-billion dollar self-help industry is fueled by offers like these.
This mock sales letter may seem like an exaggeration, but in many ways it is not. If anything, I’ve gone conservative on the markup and punctuation. I only offer two bonus gifts, instead of the usual five or six. My discount may be a little exaggerated, but it is not that far from the truth. And, in the interests of time and space, I’ve kept the length of my sales letter to a mere fraction of the real spiel.
But the purpose of this article is not to rant about sales letters. I think most people can detect an infomercial when they see one. Instead, the purpose of this article is to declare war on the false premise that motivates people to write sales letters, the same belief that can undermine your efforts in the pursuit of happiness: The idea that there’s a secret to creating the life you want, and that some random person you’d never heard of until now can offer it to you at an unbeatable low price.
The Key(words) to Success
In no other realm of human endeavour are we so focussed on hugely unrealistic metrics as in the realm of personal growth. Here, for example, are the results of a keyword search I did in the self-help section of Amazon. The number in parentheses represents the number of matches as a percentage of the total number of items in that category:
- Secret: 21,287 matches (20.5%)
- Million: 18,223 matches (17.6%)
- Instant: 13,998 matches (13.5%)
- Unlimited: 7,727 matches (7.5%)
- Effortless: 3,620 matches (3.5%)
Compare that with, say, the Computer and Internet section. There are three times as many books in this section, so the most useful comparison is by percentages:
- Million: 30,939 matches (8.0%)
- Instant: 25,469 matches (6.6%)
- Secret: 23,602 matches (6.1%)
- Unlimited: 19,117 matches (4.9%)
- Effortless: 2,246 matches (0.6%)
In the vocabulary of false promises, self-help books dominate the competition. And while the statistical difference here is large, the cultural difference between these two worlds is even larger. Whereas books that offer instant results (”Learn Java in 24 Hours”) and “secrets” are generally laughed at in computer circles, they take center stage in the world of self-improvement.
In fact, one of the most popular self-help titles of all-time is called The Secret.
My favourite chess book ever is Jeremy Silman’s How to Reassess Your Chess. One of the insights that stuck with me most from that book was the use of “fantasy positions.”
The idea was that you learned a set of principles for evaluating a chess position, and then you used them to imagine the ideal position you wanted to create on the board. The key was to forget about what it took to get there at first, and focus exclusively on the desired outcome. From there, you looked for moves in the current position that brought you closer to the fantasy position. Lather, rinse, repeat until you found a feasible course of action.
This technique was a great way of approaching chess strategy for me. I’d never quite thought in terms of fantasy positions before, and doing so gave me a much clearer sense of what I was doing. Of course, the fantasy position is just another name for visualization applied to chess.
The fantasy position, in other words, is chess’s version of The Secret.
Ask, Believe, FAIL
In the chess world–and this is true of most fields of human knowledge–there are some manuals written to teach you some things, and other manuals written to teach you other things. While I was blown away by how useful it was to think in terms of fantasy positions, I didn’t for a second think that this was the key that could unlock my potential as a chess player. I knew there were still hundreds of volumes of chess wisdom out there for me to consume–so many nuances of opening, middlegame, and endgame theory–and thousands of games yet to be played and analyzed before I would have any hope of being really good.
Visualizing was a nice little tool, but only a tiny part of the overall arsenal I needed to win.
But in the self-help industry, visualization is presented as decisive, a “key to success.” In fact, a search for “visualize” in Amazon’s self-help section turns up 9,170 matches, which is 8.8% of everything in that category, or more than double the total number of chess items for sale.
The self-help form of visualization takes on an entirely new dimension, and an entirely new name: The Law of Attraction. And the Law states that all you need to do is place your order with the universe and the universe will respond.
Back to Reality
If you’re not careful, the vastly overstated claims of self-help literature can make you feel ripped off, and even downright cynical about personal change. After all, if you were one of the many people who spent hundreds of dollars on a course that claimed it would triple your reading speed, but it made no difference at all, how could you not feel let down?
In the case of someone trying to start a business, whose 30 minutes a day doesn’t *gasp* turn into a million dollar company, the worst that happens is they keep their day job. A tad unfortunate to see all that effort wasted, but not the end of the world. But the consequences of deception can get much worse than that. For someone trying to, say, quit drinking, following a trail of false hope can lead to disaster.
As the chess example shows, a good way to gain perspective on the strange and sometimes mystical advice of self-help authors is to frame those ideas, where possible, in terms of something concrete and familiar and see how they measure up. I’ve found this to be an effective way to manage my expectations.
The other thing I do is follow a simple rule of thumb: Don’t read stuff by people who got successful by telling other people how to be successful. This is especially true when I can find no other evidence of their past achievements in the real world. There are just too many insanely smart people out there, whose claims are supported by reasoned argument and scientific evidence to waste a single minute on stuff that isn’t.
I haven’t always followed this rule, but since I have I’ve been able to fully engage with what I read. No more having to ask myself why an author would include a well-known email chain letter at the end of his book and claim it was written to him by a dying young girl, or wondering why I can find no trace of their history on Google outside of their promotional campaign.
These ideas are both pretty common sense, but not always common practice. It’s so easy to start out with a genuine desire to live a better life, and end up confused and disappointed when met with the junk science (Law of Attraction, NLP, “Power of the Subconscious Mind”, etc.) and made-up anecdotes (Yale Goals Study, claims of winning some world championship somewhere that no one is able to verify) that are so painfully common to self-help literature.
If you want to improve the quality of your life, self-help is the wrong route to take. But the growth mindset itself is vital. Things like visualization, gratitude, early rising, and all those fuzzy things are truly wonderful ideas. They do work well. But even if you add them all together and multiply by 42, you still won’t find the key to success.
Oh, BTW, Hi
Speaking of personal growth, welcome to my blog. It’s been a while. You might not remember me. Brad?…Ring any bells?
My life has changed a lot in the last few months and, in case this article (and this article) hasn’t made it clear enough, so to has my take on the art of living. I am writing to you no longer from Montreal, but from Berlin. I will soon be on my way to Vancouver. And I recently became the world’s most eligible bachelor.
I’ve made a lot of useful mistakes since we we last spoke. But I’ll save those stories for future posts. In the meantime, it’s a pleasure to be writing to you again. It’s good to be home.
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