Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal development, or entrepreneurship book.
If you’ve ever read much about personal development online, you’ve probably bumped into something written by Steve Pavlina. He’s the person behind an enormously popular personal development blog and discussion forum on the topic.
I’ve corresponded with Steve a few times and mentioned some of his writing on here, usually in agreement but on occasion not so much. In general, I find his writings spot-on, though he sometimes tends to go pretty far down the road of New Age philosophy and the power of positive thinking – much further than I do, at least.
Unsurprisingly, then, I was quite eager to read his book on the topic of personal development, with its title (Personal Development for Smart People) taken from the slogan from his long-time web site. I looked forward to reading some longer, more in-depth pieces from him on specific areas of personal development – but I also expected to cast a wary eye if he got too far into Secret-esque thinking, with the good of the book far outweighing the bad and thus making it a worthwhile read.
Did I get what I expected? Is this a really worthwhile book on personal development, or is it more over-the-top positive thinking mumbo jumbo? Let’s take a deeper look.
Part I: Fundamental Principles
The first half of the book focuses on the basic principles of personal growth that can be applied to any aspect of our lives.
Pavlina opens the book with the clear statement that seeking truth is a fundamental part of personal growth. One must strive to be honest with themselves as well as honest with everyone around them. This includes things like confronting addictions, seeing through the false visage of advertisements, not making statements about things you don’t know (at least not without making it clear that you don’t know), and being up front about personal relationships. How can you achieve this? Pavlina offers several tactics, but strongly encourages people to take up journaling and to use that journal to tackle all of it – any area in your life where you’re unclear, whether it’s personal politics or how you feel about another person or your lack of information about Ethiopian economics.
You have the potential to build a strong, loving bond with every person you interact with in a significant way, and those bonds can help you through life’s struggles and be there to celebrate with you when life hands you success. Yet building such bonds is difficult – there is no simple recipe for building deep bonds with the people around you. Pavlina argues that the key to building such bonds is to communicate – speak with honesty and candor and respect to the other person, and listen to what they have to say. Another key part: check your self-consciousness and hesitation at the door. Realize that sometimes you’re going to succeed and sometimes you’re going to fail and just go with it.
Pavlina defines power as the ability to take control of the situation around you instead of letting the situation control you, and that power itself isn’t a bad thing, it just tends to be used in cruel ways by cruel people. What is power made of? Responsibility. Self-determination. Confidence. A willingness to make hard decisions. You can get there by taking on bigger and bigger challenges until, eventually, you realize that others have come to rely on you.
Oneness is the area in which truth and love overlap. It’s the ability to empathize with and even experience the feelings that others have through deep honesty and a loving bond. Oneness is a sense of comfort with oneself, both alone and in the company of others. How do you find it? The biggest piece of the puzzle is to make a conscious effort to engage in meaningful moments with the people around you that you love. Hold your children close. Hold your spouse close. Tell people that you love them.
Authority is the area where truth and power overlap – it comes when you make consistent, logical, and correct actions over and over again in your life. Establishing this as a pattern causes others to look to you as an authority on the subject, someone who provides correct answers and correct actions as a matter of course. You can get there by constantly seeking answers to your own questions and freely sharing the answers you do have with others.
Courage is the area where love and power overlap. Courage allows you to take on difficult challenges, ones that might seem beyond your means at the moment. It requires not being afraid of failure and knowing that you do have the abilities needed for the job, plus you have the loving support of those you have built relationships with. Again, you get there by pushing yourself, trying progressively harder things, and not regressing when you fail.
How are these six principles connected? They’re all pieces of intelligence – of understanding ourselves and the world around us. We seek out truth in the form of new knowledge, share that truth with others in the form of love, and utilize knowledge through power. What does this really mean, though? It means that life is a learning experience, with every moment and every subject teaching us something new and worthwhile.
Part II: Practical Application
So how do these principles apply to the areas of our lives? The second half of the book focuses on some specific applications.
Most people have a large number of habits in their life, some good and some bad. Well-rounded people should seek to identify their bad habits and eliminate them, often replacing them with good habits. Pavlina mentions several techniques for this, but I found his discussion of a “thirty day trial” to be particularly powerful. A “thirty day trial” is just that – you adopt a new habit for thirty days to see if it works for you (or, alternately, discard a old habit for thirty days to see how things go without it). For example, one might give up television for a month and replace it with an hour of reading in the evenings. If, after a month, you find the habit doesn’t work for you, you can feel free to revert, knowing you gave it an honest try.
To find the best career for you, you must be honest and open with yourself. A true, careful evaluation of your real talents is in order, and that often requires some brutal honesty. Don’t believe that you have talents that you do not; similarly, don’t ignore the talents that you have. Instead, let the truth be your guide – listen to what your heart tells you as well as what loved ones tell you.
I strongly agreed with this chapter. There’s a deep connection between money and oneness. If you have a strong sense of who you are, a strong sense of authority and responsibility, and are willing to look at the messages you receive from others with a discerning eye, the natural outcome is financial responsibility. That means not only having money for the things you need in the here and now, but recognizing that you must save for the future as well as contribute money to worthwhile causes.
Much like with money, one’s health is intimately connected to a deep understanding of self. Understand not only your responsibility to yourself, but also your responsibility to others, and have the intelligence to see that maintaining your health is vital to fulfilling both. For example, in my shoes, I’m not being a good father if I allow myself to fall into ill health. This means not only eating well and keeping an eye on medical conditions, but also exercising and doing other preventive things to minimize the chances that ill health will befall me.
Relationships require work. They don’t just magically happen. To build strong relationships with others, you need to realize that you yourself are not perfect and are flawed, as is the other person in the relationship. In order for the relationship to be truly successful, you need to work at minimizing your own flaws and seeing beyond the flaws of the other person, and that requires communication and a strong sense of self. Pavlina’s right here – communication is the key.
Pavlina closes with some thoughts on how these tactics affect our spirituality – our individual understanding of how the world works and whether there is a higher power. Pavlina seems to find both prayer and meditation to be useful tactics for getting in touch for one’s spiritual side, even if one is uncertain as to anything beyond what is physically observable.
Concrete, actionable advice is my favorite kind of advice. Personal Development for Smart People is loaded with it, and that’s not something I entirely expected given some of the writings on the author’s website. Each of the chapters has several specific activities to promote growth in that area.
The book is sometimes prone to spiritual discussions that you may or may not agree with, however. Several times, Pavlina goes down the path of discussing his faith or observations about other faiths (not just in the final chapter). If you are an ardent follower of a specific religion, the discussions might get under your skin. I’ve always found the best approach for reading about other’s beliefs is not to argue with them, but to figure out what I can learn from them and apply to my own spirituality. Take that tactic here and you’ll be fine.
Pavlina almost entirely avoids The Secret problem. The stuff here is actionable – it’s based on stepping up and taking action in your own life to bring about change. Positive thinking helps, but it’s only part of the solution – Pavlina sticks to that idea here to his own benefit.
Is Personal Development for Smart People Worth Reading?
I’ve always taken a personal interest in personal development. Ever since I was young, I’ve had a strong desire to be a better person and to find new ways to push and challenge myself, and along the way, I’ve read a lot of personal development books.
This one just might be the best of the lot.
The problem with most personal development books, from my perspective, is that they focus in one of two places, both of which are bad. Either they stick to “the power of positive thinking” (a la The Secret) or they talk so abstractly that you can’t get any sort of coherent action out of it (a la Born to Win). Pavlina deftly avoids both traps, laying out basic principles and connecting them to coherent, reasonable, and actionable ideas, many of which I’ve already done in my own life and which have almost all worked for me to some degree.
If you have any interest in the area of personal development (and I believe that personal development is inherently connected to being a good steward of your money), this one’s definitely worth reading.