I hate writing long articles. Which is funny, because a lot of the articles on this site are long. So, I guess it would be more accurate to say that I hate setting out write long articles (in fact, faced with the prospect of a long article, I’m liable to not write anything at all), and that my articles grow long organically. That, and I only ever prune them for logic (no, I really do — Don’t laugh! Don’t make that face! Wot iz tha’ face?), grammar and spelling, not for length. It’s not like there’s a page limit…
“Too many pages, dawg”.
In Part 1 of this open-ended, multi-part series, I’d like to discuss with you, in my signature casual, opinionated, poorly-sourced and screw-you-if-you-disagree-with-me-because-I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong-mofo way…what the deal is with personal development. So…
What is the deal with personal development anyway?
Aren’t they all a bunch of hacks?
Is it worth your time?
No, really, though, aren’t they all a bunch of hacks?
Isn’t it stuff we all know already, anyhow?
Isn’t it “unscientific”?
Aren’t they just making money telling us what we want to hear?
Aren’t they just trying to sell us stuff?
And, perhaps most constructively:
How does a sane, “open-minded” person (just as an aside: “open-minded”, to me, means “people who agree with me, or are open to agreeing with me, or say things that I agree with, or am open to agreeing with”; I told you this was going to be hard-hitting stuff, man….I’m pointing a long, thick, juicy central digit in the general direction of feigned objectivity) navigate the treacherous waters of what is, admittedly, a comically B.S.-filled field.
If personal development is fugu, that poisonous, Japanese seafood delicacy, how do you get at the tasty meat without (sometimes literally) dying? That perhaps is the core question that this series will seek to answer. Along the way, in future posts, I may share some of my own guidelines, recommendations and disrecommendations.
I’ll tell you right now. I’m just one person. I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I don’t have the answers, period. I’m not saying this to be humble. I’m saying this because it makes me look good. I’m saying this so that even if I turn out to be wrong I can be like: “yeah, dude, I totally saw that coming”; I can act like I anticipated the whole deal and it was all part of the contingency plan.
Maybe I should start some of that editing…Anyway, without further ado:
Since this is all anecdotal anyway, perhaps it makes sense to share with you, the story of my journey towards rather carefully and selectively “embracing” personal development.
I grew up watching Blackadder, Animaniacs and Tiny Toons. We’re not just reminiscing about old TV shows here; this is important information. You see, what I’m trying to demonstrate is that I grew up soaked in irony. Indeed, I grew up so soaked in irony, that I didn’t even know what I was being ironic about: my exposure to irony tended to precede my exposure to the actual phenomenon in question. Think about it — Animaniacs and Tiny Toons had all those sarcastic references to Don Knotts. Yet but…how many kids growing up in the early 1990s actually knew who Don Knotts even was, really (perhaps that was part of the joke…I dunno)? Yet but ([I’m liking this new word]) we all yucked it up.
Bottom line; I used to think that personal development was all a bunch of crap. Grade A B.S. I had never really read any. I had never been exposed to any — not in a meaningful quantity. But I knew it was a bunch of crap. I ate blasé for breakfast, sarcasm for lunch and whatever passed for acerbic wit for dinner. Personal development, good or bad, is an inherently….naïve, innocent, hopeful field. There was no room for that in my life.
Let me be clear, though: personal development mostly is a bunch of crap. But the teeny, tiny little bit of good that is there is, arguably, too good to ignore. Too. Good. To. Ignore. Kind of like how air is mostly not oxygen, or how it’s the micronutrients (rather than macro-) in our food that really swing our health one way or another. Not quite the same level of importance to life, but you get the idea — value can sometimes be inversely proportional to size.
So, one day when I was about 14, I was watching televisory pictomatograms (yes, TV) with one of my sisters. Upon the tele-vision, Oprah Winfrey was interviewing Arnold Schwarzenegger. Don’t worry, I already knew Oprah was lame. I’m hip.
At one point, Oprah asks Arnold if he, an unknown young man from a small country in central Europe, had ever imagined himself being a Hollywood movie star. Arnold replies that he had always known he was going to be a star; he had always pictured himself being in Hollywood, being the dude. And you know he was being frank, because he’s Austrian. Sarcasm isn’t big in Austria (Austrians: “yeah it is!”).
My 14 year old self let out a triumphant: “yeeeeah, right”. To which my sister retorted: “No, [Khatzumoto], some people do have a clear vision of themselves”.
Women are stupid. Even the president of Harvard said so. And you can’t argue with Harvard — it’s a top-tier university. So screw you.
Knowing that all the schooling, suffrage and Steinem was going to her head, I paid my sister’s remarks no serious attention (“Ha, women…better get a Y chromosome before you start running that mouth!”). But, somehow, the memory of her gentle, feminine words remained with me. I am, after all, half woman on my mother’s side.
By the way, last time I made jokes about women here, someone took it seriously. So I’m going to make things clear right here and now: I am not joking; I am actually a misogynist. Women reading this: Why are you even online? Is there no kitchen where you are? Does your husband/father know you’re reading unsupervised?
Now that we have that out of the way…
My sister’s words stayed with me…blah blah…To this day yaddah yaddah…But it’s not like I had acted on them.
Fast forward to college, and I started collecting inspiring quotes. Tons and tons of them. I became a magnet for pithy aphorisms encouraging diligence, perseverance, and general pursuit of ownage. As time has gone on, I’ve developed my own “lazy” style of goal achievement, that renders a lot of the stuff I used to read quite quaintly obsolete, but those things served their purpose when they did.
College in the US was the first time I had to actually study on a regular basis; my earlier, British-style school experience had all been about end-of-term exams, so you could goof around until the eleventh hour, at which point you would invariably pull a Frosted Flakes-fueled feat of short-term memory (“this is grrrrrrreat!” No? Not funny? No? Anyone? No?). Also, your parents would suddenly become incredibly religious. I kid you not — one time, when I was 13, my mother drove me to a convent (a massive facility full of women, so far so good), and there were these Maltese nuns and they started touching me (but they’re women, so it’s okay) and my Mum’s all: “pray upon this child by the laying upon of hands”, and I’m like “mother, ok, (1) you don’t believe in freaking anything — you’re so cynical you don’t even believe in cynicism — and (2) you are not and have never at any point in your life been Catholic — you don’t even like these people; you’ve been slagging off the Catholic church my entire life, always calling them mafiosi and…” and she’s like: “(shrug)”.
The requirements of my new American environment led me to seek and find gems like Adam Robinson’s What Smart Students Know. I read many other books about studying, and they all had their moments, but WSSK definitely stood out the most. WSSK silently and wordlessly impressed upon me this most wonderful idea: that I could independently read a book about how to get something done, and use it to get that thing done better.
Meta-learning — learning about learning — was a huge revelation for me. They don’t teach meta-learning at schools. Not even at the handsomely-priced ones that I was sent to. Everything’s either “hard work” or “talent”. It’s either struggle or innate ability. WSSK showed me a third way. WSSK is, for all intents and purposes, a personal development book.
AJATT the process, as I executed it while at college, was not directly inspired by ideas in the personal development/human performance/self-help/whatever the heck we’re calling it movement; it was just a childish game I played and got amazing, socially-significant results with (“look, Mom! I watched all this TV and now I can speak Japanese!”). But, of course, as I have come to write AJATT the site, it’s become clear to me that there were a lot of ideas that I used or otherwise independently arrived at, that the personal development people have been talking about for years.
Somewhere in there, it occurred to me that (1) success with Japanese could perhaps be generalized, not just to other languages but to other areas of life, and (2) a lot of those people with the inspiring quotes had written entire books filled with their ideas. And this is what led me down the slippery path of collecting and applying ideas to increase happiness and productivity. Coz, gosh, heaven forbid one should actually make a direct, intelligent, conscious effort to improve one’s life.
What has personal development done for me, really? Apart from “just” help me get stuff done and feel better about myself? Well, I think it can actually be hard to clearly quantify what good personal development does. Because, at the end of the day, it is your actions that make the change — books, videos and seminars are just inert ink, bits and air vibrations. We all love a clear, unambiguous: “Tony Robbins saved me two million dollars” type testimonial, but real-life causality is a bit murkier; maybe a lot of contributing factors form a web, rather than a simple, linear, hopscotch-like A-then-B chain; you’re smart enough to know that.
So action takes the day in the end. Having said that, it is the ideas in personal development books that can encourage thoughts that encourage those actions in the first place. (Also, sometimes you have ideas that are “in-process”, and you don’t want to share them before they’ve reached maturity, because people’s idle comments can be unnecessarily distracting, and threaten the open-mindedness and patience that is necessary in experiments on one’s life — a good deal of what I’m doing falls into this category).
In any case, suffice it to say that PD’s done a lot for me, does a lot for me, and will continue to do a lot for me. I’d definitely say that personal development is why you have an AJATT site to enjoy — assuming you enjoy it, that is 😉 . Many adults have learned Japanese before me (in fact, I’ve met some of them), faster than me, funner than me, further than me, better than me. But few have had the confidence, consistency or follow-through to record and present their ideas and experiences to the world. And that’s a darn shame. The world always has room for another success story. In fact, there’s a neverending shortage. I love a good role model; I love a narrative I can aspire to: I was desperate for such a narrative back in the day. Hopefully, I can be a shining, well-lotioned example for you.
Where were we? Oh yeah…
The PD industry is full of crap. But you know what? So is the food service industry. Many children die of food-poisoning in the US because it is apparently acceptable to feed them crap, as in actual fecal matter. And not just any children — blond, white children — you know, the valuable kind, that actually contribute to society and make the world a better place to live. So, should we not abolish food? Right now? Today? I mean, it’s killing people. We can all take sterilized, nutritionally-balanced pills, and no children, valuable or ethnic, need ever die again. Aren’t those children’s lives worth the effort? We could save them, if we just abolished food for something better. Peer-reviewed, shrink-wrapped, “nutro-pills”TM. Think about it.
Call straw-man all you like. Children are dying. And you’re letting them die.
But AJATT is a language blog. Why are we sitting here making yet more off-color jokes about white people (clever) and writing outside of the blog’s core topic? Well, because, the sweet thing about PD books is that you can read them and then feed the ideas and techniques back into your language study. Language-learning method produces ideas; ideas feed language-learning method. Now, if that isn’t sexy, cyclical and self-referential, I don’t know what is. Positive feedback: taste the rainbow.
Thus concludes the first part of this series. Stay tuned for more baseless remarks about this complex social phenomenon.