Updated on 11.23.08

Review: Personal Development for Smart People

Trent Hamm

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal development, or entrepreneurship book.

pdfspIf 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.

1: Truth
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.

2: Love
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.

3: Power
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.

4: Oneness
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.

5: Authority
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.

6: Courage
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.

7: Intelligence
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.

8: Habits
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.

9: Career
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.

10: Money
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.

11: Health
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.

12: Relationships
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.

13: Spirituality
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.

Some Thoughts on Personal Development for Smart People
Here are three things I think I think about Personal Development for Smart People.

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.

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  1. juliemarg says:

    What a great book review. You gave enough info to be illuminating, but not so much to be boring.

    I’m at a crossroads (taking an early retirement buy-out) so am right in the mood for a little self-improvement

  2. wren says:

    I think I’ll have to see about getting this book. From your review and the brief look I gave both his site and that of his wife’s, it seems that it would be both interesting to read and useful for continuing the endless construction project that is me. :D Thank you for a good, comprehensive, objective review.

  3. anna says:

    Thanks for the review! I’ve read his site before, but wasn’t sure if I would invest in the book or not. I really appreciate the book review section, it’s super helpful. I was wondering, would you consider making the books category visible by book title or author, rather than just chronological?

    Thanks again!

  4. s says:

    Hi Trent,
    I also am very interested in Personal Development. These are almost the only books I will read besides career growth continuing education books. I read a book in 1 day. I like
    this book especially if it is easy to understand.
    I do like the habit subject. I have been trying this. If there is someone I don’t like too much,
    I will be courteous and pleasant. I feel more integrity this way so far. I am not trying to be fake but personable instead. I don’t want to carry the bad feelings. This I feel is being peaceful. Peace of course is so important. I have
    really working hard on this. I like it so far…

  5. Trent, I agree that Steve’s book is quite good and has lots of practical suggestions for personal development. Personally, I think many of the exercises can be found on Steve’s blog, but I’ve been a reader of his site for well over two years. I found the first portion of the book, which is more theoretical to be more valuable. If anyone is interested, I expanded on those thoughts in my review.

  6. Thanks for the review…this could make for a great stocking stuffer!

  7. Ishtar says:

    Wait, Pavlina is religious/spiritual? I thought he isn’t?

  8. Moneyblogga says:

    The author is right on the money regarding being truthful to yourself. You really do have to force yourself to face the demons sometimes. It’s either that or keep on doing the same old non-working stuff.

  9. SomeoneOutThere says:

    Honestly, I don’t like Steve Pavelina’s material that much anymore. I was one of his early readers when his blog was more practical. Then like you said, he now goes deep into New Agey stuff. I don’t mind a little bit, but too much of what he writes on his blog is just plain looney. I also don’t like the large number of groupies he has on his forum. It’s really weird. Virtually all of his ideas are from other people’s works anyway, but his book could be a good introduction, perhaps.

  10. Jess says:

    I’m actually in the middle of reading it now. I’ve been following his blog for about the last year (plus) and I really like what he has to say most of the time.

    One thing I found is that the book is a little bit too linear and point by point. It feels like the first part of the book goes like this:

    Chapter subject
    Sub subject x6
    Trials/exercises you can do

  11. Nick says:

    The title seems to be a little at odds with the spirituality section of the book. More intelligent people are increasingly less likely to believe in a ‘higher power.’

  12. Dana says:

    I don’t know, I think I’m fairly intelligent and while as far as I’m concerned the jury’s out about whether there’s a God, some of the arguments for His existence (being polite here with the capitalization) can be compelling even if you approach them from a scientific or philosophical point of view. For instance, if there really is a Person who created the universe and everything in it, wow, that’d have to be a pretty powerful Person–so of course we’re all submitted to Him simply by nature, although some of us recognize it and some don’t (see also Islam, which is almost entirely based on this premise). I don’t even have a problem with the idea that a God would let bad things happen. I mean, ultimately, you have power over all the cells in your body–you could eat the gun tomorrow and it’d all come to a screeching halt. But do you obsess over what every cell in your body is doing? Most people don’t–and we’re supposed to be made in God’s image.

    End tangent. Suffice to say I don’t buy that I’m supposed to be an atheist just because I’m smart, as another commenter has suggested. The most I could ever be is agnostic.

    As for the book, one of my biggest problems with Pavlina is his preaching about veganism. If I ate the way he says we should all eat my skin would be cracked and bleeding, I would remain overweight, I would have mood swings from hell and I’d probably be diabetic by the time I turn forty. If I avoided the foods most likely to trigger it (just about every grain there is), I’d be listless every day from starvation. People can’t live on vegetables alone, they have to get energy somewhere, and the fats you find in the plant kingdom are not at the proper essential fatty acid ratio to keep us healthy.

    I watched his thirty-day raw vegan experiment and was just amazed at his insistence that feeling high and experiencing his hands cracking and oozing was somehow a sign of good health. He claimed he was detoxing. Your body detoxes *all the time.* That’s what the liver is for. It doesn’t call for experiencing almost textbook symptoms of fat deprivation. If he doesn’t watch it he’s not going to live to see his grandkids grow up.

    I hate factory farm abuses too, but I don’t see how going against my basic biology is going to help them. And if he’s as accurate about personal development as he is about nutrition, I think I’ll wait until (if) his book shows up at the library. I mean, we can’t be right about everything, so this is probably an unfair thing to say–maybe he’s brilliant about it. I just feel like a lot of what he says sounds awfully contrived. Like, do people really need to be told that love is an important part of life? And is it really that difficult to understand that you form bonds with other people by establishing trust–that is to say, being honest and keeping your word and being someone to rely upon to a reasonable degree?

    Ah well. It can’t be any worse than some of the other stuff out there. If it’s really good, I hope people take it to heart and act on it rather than do what most of us do with personal development books, which is to read the book and go “Yeah! What the author said!” and then change absolutely nothing at all in our lives. *blush*

  13. Thanks for the review. I read his blog and I am reading his book right now. I can’t wait to finish the book and I can compare it with your review.

    Thank You,
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  14. michael says:

    Well, thanks to this post and your book review I started checking out his blog, and I liked some of it, till I dug deeper, and his latest blog post about Polyamory and leaving his kids and wife to fulfill himself like it’s perfectly normal have made me consider taking this book off my to read list, and throwing it directly into the trash bin, along with other new age wackos.

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