Self Help’s Achilles Heal: Finding Purpose

Legions of self help authors have written books and articles promising to help you reach your dreams. Among this plethora of material–positive thinking, planning, time management, networking, negotiating, and more–there is plenty of useful advice on how to reach them, but precious little to help you determine what they are.

In discussing leadership, Jim Collins talks about the difference between managing and leading. The workers are marching through the jungle. The managers are encouraging them, deciding which path to take, and sharpening the machetes. The leader is the one who climbs a tree and yells out “We’re going the wrong way.” The vast bulk of self help literature tells you how to sharpen your tools, but not what you should do with them.

Take Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. His first two habits are “be proactive” and “begin with the end in mind”. The obvious questions these raise are “be proactive about what?”, and “what should the end be?” No amount of “first things first” will help if you’re going in the wrong direction. As Collins says about his comparison companies, they were very efficient at running around in the fog.

I’ve read a lot of self help literature, from Covey to Wayne Dyer, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and dozens more. Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way may offer a good path for some, though I found daily writing didn’t help me. Yet the best advice I’ve come across once more comes from Collins.

The first bit of insight comes from his book Built to Last, which talks about how the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company overcame the fact that their garnet mine was of such low quality that they couldn’t even produce grinding wheels to become 3M, one of the world’s great companies. Collins describes their strategy as one of branching and pruning. 3M didn’t set out to invent masking tape or post it notes. Rather, the company created a culture of innovation and experimentation.

Another insight comes from Collin’s fourth book, Great by Choice, where he explains the process of controlled innovation followed by companies like Microsoft. They make a lot of small, limited investments, and only progress the ones that succeed. I try to follow this practice myself. For example, I created a new website on When it wasn’t successful, I rolled the content back into this blog. The entire experiment only cost me some time, and I still have all the content I developed, so little was actually wasted.

Some other practices that I’ve found worthwhile are reading and watching videos on Youtube, primarily to get ideas about things that interest me. Garage sales are a great source of cheap books. If you buy a book on Thai Chi for a dollar and find it isn’t your thing, you can just donate it to the local charity shop. Another great source of meaning for me is in memories. For example, I read the Lord of the Rings at a very young age, and fantasy and mythology have remained deep interests. By searching back through memories, I occasionally recall passing interests that I can now explore more fully.

If you’re looking for meaning, try to stay open to new possibilities. Don’t get obsessed with mastering the first thing you find that piques your interest. As Jim Collins says, “try lots of stuff; keep what works”. There’s a reason that the meaning of life is an eternal question. Finding something meaningful enough to last a lifetime is hard. Don’t give up on it.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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