Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Personal Development Reductionism

The human brain (or to be mor precise, the mind it constructs) is an incredibly complex system. It is self-referential in a lot of ways, it is practically made up of interdependent feedback loops, and it allows for virtually unlimited flexibility with some regards, while at the same time remaining steadfastly, stubbornly conservative in other areas.

That is why a purely mechanistic, reductionist approach to Personal Development must fail. That is why moralizing tantrums about "evil thoughts" are exactly as unproductive as any attempt at "taking full responsibility for your emotions". That is why NLP fails miserably and consistently when it comes to Personal Development. On the other hand, it works wonderfully as a marketing sham: It plays on our idea of being able to control ourselves, our notorious overestimation of our own ability to control our circumstance. (There is a nice psychological word for that, but I forget.)

The idea that "change happens fast" is utterly ridiculous. With linear systems, yes sure, you can produce any desired outcome within the bounds of the system. Throw that rock against that window, and it will predictably break. Throw it against that police car, and see what happens.

For good or for bad, the mind is not like that. It's more like a stage play performed by 1000 underage agents of ImprovEverywhere, where each one of those has committed to a different mission and some are blindfolded while others carry active flamethrowers around.

You throw a huge beach ball in there, and it'll bounce around for awhile, and then fall to the side where it is forgotten. Or, they'll use it to go on a tangent, speak to it as if it were prince Hamlet of Denmark, and create a whole new piece of drama out of it. Or pray to it. Or throw it at each other until they all run out of breath.

Now, I am a huge fan of the Human Potential movement and Personal Development in general. I daresay that, over the past five years, I have improved drastically in several regards. I am more energetic, more daring, hopefully more attractive than five years ago. I made more money over the past two years than in the ten years before that. Well, back then I was a lump of misery, depression and self-loathing, so it kinda figures. But anyway...

Next to none of all those changes were achieved by fixing on a goal, devising a method and then sticking with it (except for when I quit smoking - that one worked like a charm, incidentally, right from the start). Instead, it was trial and error, trial and error again. Rinse and repeat. Over and over and over.

Note that I'm not endorsing any vague, esoteric, touchy-feely concept of "holism" here. Instead, I'm advocating strict rationality, combined with empathy. All I'm saying is that, in a complex self-referential system, change can only happen incrementally, driven by frequent feedback.

Yes, I'm a fan of Agile. Did I mention that I'm a Certified Scrum Master(TM)?

You anchor that good state to a snap of your fingers. And then you forget to snap them. You practice your cleverly designed mantras, and they feel flat and listless after a while. You check out qi gong, just to find that you can't seem to manage to practice it regularly. You learn zen meditation, and the next thing you know, you're bogged down by a fixed idea of "enlightenment".

Well, duh. Maybe I just haven't found the golden bullet one cure to open all doors yet. Or I'm just a failure. But somehow, seeing how others struggle in much the same way I do, I highly doubt that. I think, if most applicants of a certain methodology never actually manage to reach their goals, it's time to stop blaming those applicants for "misapplying the methods". Instead, it's time to go back to Square One and revisit that underlying model of yours. Yes, I'm looking at you, Mr.s Bandler, Grinder, Rosenberg, Jeffries, von Markovik, Erickson! I'm silently judging you.

Of course, I still advocate tantra, breathing, meditation. I do that, simply, out of my own personal experience. All of these things have proved tremendously beneficial to me. Your esperience  may be different - if so, don't practice what I do!  To some degree I even recommend NLP. But - and that is a huge "but" here - should you decide to give it a try, do yourself a favour: Don't expect it to "work as advertised", just by doing the "right thing".

It's a dance. It's a play. It's pure and utter chaos. It's life.


  1. I just want to take the opportunity to say thank you for this blog! Not only this blog post, but for all 50 posts or so up to here. I'm a skeptic tantra-wannabe myself, an engineer but not a tantric. I'm searching for something, but I don't know what. Not religion or mumbo jumbo, anyway.

    It's a pity that you haven't got more feedback, your blog is worth it.

    1. Thanks for that!

      Well, there's a fraction of the general populace who are interested in tantra, and another fraction interested in skepticism. Multiply two fractions, and you get my potential target audience, i.e., not a lot of folks... :-)

      Feel free to share the link and spread the word, though! Hehe.

      Actually, I think that there are sound psychological and physiological reasons for why much of the "tantric" stuff works. You're basically giving yourself an internal prostate massage and a hypnosis session while making love to yourself - of course it feels good! :-) The esoteric "retaining your male energies" stuff though, on the other hand, just seems wildly crazy to me...