• Eve Arnold

The Future of Self-help is Personalisation

You and self-help. Who you are affects the advice you need.

I love self-help. I love the genre, I love the ethos, I love the idea of trying to fundamentally improve who you are for the sole reason of being better. I’ve read about self-help in some form or another for the last 10 years. I’m 25, so that either makes me passionate or a weird kid.

Self-help gets a bad wrap — I happen to think it’s cool to be uncool. The prospect of being able to help just one person with their perspective of life is incredibly fulfilling to me. The fact that someone could read something and that changes the trajectory of their life is well, huge. The sheer power of it is something to be marvelled at.

However, there is one theme that runs true through everything I’ve read and everything I’ve written. Self-help is a broad brush approach to a personal problem. How do you know if you need help with building habits, a new morning routine, better sleep?

Self-help is generic — not personal.

Self-help is Generic

The self-help genre tends to talk about a defined set of core principles. The key things you need to improve your life mostly from the key things that we observe in successful people:

  1. habit building

  2. eating the frog

  3. creating systems

  4. constructing structures

  5. daily practices

  6. morning routines

Which are all brilliant. However, the same themes keep coming through; not being able to commit to conquering these practices. It’s the reason why you keep on reading the same stuff. You have the ambition to wake up at 5:30am but the last 10 mornings you’ve hit snooze. You try and build good habits but even after reading Atomic Habits 15 times you still can’t master them.

Other themes include:

  1. reading consistently

  2. visualising your goals

  3. x10 your ambitions

  4. sleeping better

Typically we are told (and I write about them often) that the answer is to do more, to work harder at your goals, to switch mindsets, to think about the person you want to become rather than the person you are now.

Benjamin Hardy states that personality isn’t permanent and we have the power to change it — so we have the power to become whoever we desire. James Clear states that to build good habits you need to work on your habit loops and hack your bad habits by breaking them down — so we have the option to create habits that reflect who we want to be. Gary Vee says we just need to work harder, more consistently and practice patience — so we need to crack on and keep our head down for the next 6 years.

But yet we continue to read, searching for the answer. We continue to ask questions, seek better answers, try different medicines for the same problem.

It wasn’t until Mark Manson on the Rich Roll podcast said something different that made me think we need to reframe this a little. Mason argues that if you can’t motivate yourself to workout every day, you don’t need a new workout routine or to figure out your habits, you have an emotional problem. You don’t do it because it doesn’t feel good.

Your answer is understanding how you make something that’s hard feel good.

There is an argument to take this a step further. We don’t do things because they don’t feel good. That much we know. However, there is a specific combination of events that would allow us to reframe the experience to make it feel good. What I’m trying to say is that things that would make me enjoy a workout wouldn’t be the same things that make you enjoy the workout. What you need to find is the thing that works for you.

For some people, they need a workout partner. Being held to account by someone else is the switch they need. They would get x10 the results if they had someone on their back every morning making sure they were going to turn up.

For other people that would be their worst nightmare. For some people they need to create a habit that rewards them with the things they love the most. Maybe for some people the perfect recipe for sustaining a workout routine is a run at 7am followed by their favourite brand of coffee as a reward. For them, they don’t thrive off of extrinsic motivation (of a workout partner)—they do though, have a love of coffee.

As our parents always told us growing, everyone is different.

The Problem isn’t the Lack of Information, It’s Lack of Personalisation

The problem isn’t information. If you want to know how to build a habit — google it. If you want to know how to go for a run, go for a run. The problem isn’t information and therefore the solution isn’t in the depths of a self-help novel about habits. You know how to build a good habit if you want to.

The problem is that you can’t work out which advice and more importantly, which methods, work for you.

Increasingly, I’ve started to see the self-help world through a scientific and almost medicinal lense.

If lack of life purpose is the disease, we are doing the equivalent of prescribing the same medicine, in the same dosage, regardless of age, gender, genetics — regardless of anything.

The result is some people (the lucky few) read an article and it transforms their life. It’s the exact message they needed to hear to throw their life into the direction they’ve always wanted. Their happiness goes through the roof and they are on the path to fulfilling their dreams. That is the exception, not the rule. The rule is that for the vast majority the medicine has no effect. We read several self-help articles, we now know the ins and outs of building a habit, yet 4 weeks later, we’re reading the same article. Wondering why we can’t crack this habit thing. We go back to the doctor (or the self-help library) and try something else.

We don’t take the time to understand your circumstances, to really understand your background and your story so far, to get a view of your hopes and ambitions, your dreams. We don’t delve deep. All we write is something like:

“5 Steps to Building a Better Morning Routine”

And in some respects that’s great, people should be able to self-select. By clicking on the things that appeal to us we self-medicate. However, we’re not actually that self-aware, according to the organisational psychologist Tasha Eurich, only 15% of people are actually self-aware whilst ironically, 95% said they were.

So what happens when we have a problem and we self-medicate the wrong things.

This problem requires personalised self-help.

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Photo by Halacious on Unsplash

Understanding Personalised Medicine

Tamoxifen is a drug that is used to fight breast cancer, specifically ER+ breast cancer. Once prescribed, it was found that 65% of people taking this drug developed a resistance, in 65% of cases this drug simply wasn’t working. A clever chap called David Flockhart’s discovered that women who had the CYP2D8 gene mutated, which is a gene that encodes for a metabolising enzyme, were not able to break down the Tamoxifen. This inability to metabolise the drug meant that those patients couldn’t reap the benefits of the drug, making it ineffective.

Essentially, what Flockhart proved was that different people respond differently to the same drug. Which is fairly pivotal.

For a long time there was this idea that a drug will work the same for anyone taking it. Regardless of genetics. Although personalised medicine isn’t a new concept, it’s hard to implement. Essentially personalised medicine is the selection of appropriate medicine that should (based on individual analysis) optimise results. In simple terms, it’s understanding who someone is (genetically) and applying the medicine that optimises their outcome.

That concept could apply in the exact same manner in self-help.

In a medicine genome sequencing is used to understand the DNA, RNA and protein makeup of an individual. That is then used to understand the likelihood of disease. If we know that, then we know what mitigation factors to put in place to stop said disease.

This allows us to understand who is at risk of certain disease and who would benefit most from certain types of medicine. Essentially what it means is that we’ve got this library of medicine (and we’ve always had it) but now the combination becomes critical. Picking the right medicine for the right person is the skill. One size doesn’t fit all. One size fits one type of person.

Application of Personalised Self-Help for the Future

With that in mind, how do we apply this to the world of self-help? How do we sequence our brains wants, desires, ambitions, personality etc. to understand what are risk factors of falling off the wagon are and what would optimise our chances of a successful life?

Well we start with the problem and (perhaps more importantly) the individual.

An example:

Let’s say someone who has just entered the world of work, this person has high expectations of reaching the c-suite in a year, although they have no prior experience of work. They’ve managed to get themselves on a prestigious graduate scheme, they bought the fancy suits and have updated their LinkedIn profile to reflect their success. I know (from experience) that this person is likely to suffer from reality shock and a severe pain commonly known as ‘not adding any value’. Depending on how high their expectations are, they are at risk of falling deep into thinking they’ve failed at life and probably will want to quit their fancy job.

Taking what we’d just learnt about personalised medicine, we know you can’t just look at the disease, you need to look at the person too. You need to look at the disease present within the context of the individual. Let’s break it down:

Disease: feeling as though you are stuck, not adding any value in your current work situation.

Person (this is the important bit): highly motivated, high expectations, impatient, lack of experience.

Prescription: Some data on how long (on average) it takes people to succeed in work (how many years does it take to get to the c-suite), a mentor who is in the c-suite that had similar attributions this twenty-something. Take for 1 year, making sure to embed habits that focus on leverage talent but also practicing patience.

This might work for this individual. However, this same disease for a different person, warrants a different prescription. The medicine or rather, the self-help, is personalised.

The Case for Deploying Deep Self-Awareness

The truth is, you can self-medicate self-help but you need a deep understanding of who you are first. Otherwise you’ll spend too much time going over the same ground and getting the same results.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” — not Albert Einstein.

What is needed is a deep, honest understanding of who you are. Not who you think you are or who you want to be but who you are right now.

The best place to start with that, so I’ve found, is asking yourself questions and trying things with no expectations.

Self-help is great. I hope to write about it for the rest of my life however what I don’t want is for you to keep reading the same thing and never really moving in the direction you want to be. You can be anything you want to be — I truly believe that, but you need to start with who you are right now.

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