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Personal Development for Smart People

Personal Development for Smart People: the conscious pursuit of personal growth by Steve Pavlina

I like Steve Pavlina
I like Steve Pavlina – I like his adrenalin-junkie style. I like how he pushes the boundaries and is always trying stuff (like sleeping twenty minutes every four hours instead in one block as usual). I like that he is willing to step outside the mainstream (exploring non-mainstream sexuality like polyamory). I like that he processes these things and doesn’t tell others that they should be like him (like his ongoing investigation of the diet that works for him). I like that he writes at length and investigates a subject in depth. And I like that even though he writes a lot there is always content in what he says. He may get it wrong, we may want to argue or disagree (even violently) but it is not fluff.

The Book
I like what Steve has tried to do in this book. He has tried to cover the whole field of self-development and come up with a theory to cover all of it. This means that we can test it and find what works or doesn’t. He has put his ideas out there – and made his thinking vulnerable in the process. This is a braver move than testimony: many people relate what worked for them and then say it may work for others. This is undoubtedly true and has integrity. It also is no guide to what may work for others – every person could write their own book like this. Steve’s top-down approach may miss the personal quality and vivid detail of testimony, but it has the virtue of saying that this will work and us being able to find out whether it does or not. We need Steve’s kind of book.

The book is in two sections, the first half lays out the principles, and the second gives the application to various areas of life. Each chapter concludes with exercises you can do.

I like six-sevenths of the basic framework. This basic framework is three concepts and their inter-relationships – these are organised as: the points of a triangle, the three sides of a triangle, and the middle.

The three points are: truth, love and power. In bodily metaphors (mine not his): head, heart and hand. “Power” may be an unfortunate choice of term – what Steve means is that we are able to do what we want to do, he doesn’t mean brute force. It is important to point out that the person is the triangle – not an addition of three points. We are not truth plus love plus power but the entity that is these all at the same time. For me this is a good framework. It is simple enough to be remembered and referred to easily. It is specific enough to offer guidance in the concrete details of our lives.

[The three basic principles however, in my view, fail one of Steve’s criteria: irreducibility. “Irreducibility means that we can’t think of any simpler terms to take account of the experience we are dealing with. To my mind the more basic idea is ‘life’ which I paraphrase as a compassionate joyfulness or a joyful compassion (this is often called ‘flow’ but my terms give more sense of the quality of the experience, for me anyway). Both joy and compassion require engagement with the situation, concern and engagement from the person, as well as an orientation to effective action in the situation. Truth, love and power is an analysis of the more fundamental experience of compassionjoy. I will return to this when I get to the principle of intelligence.]

There is one chapter devoted to each of these terms where they are explored in depth. In the first chapter for instance the key components of truth are given as: perception, prediction, accuracy, acceptance and self-awareness. Each of these aspects is also dealt with, often insightfully. Steve also gives what he sees as the major blocks to truth. There is much substance here. This is a book that you can think about, come back to, and take time to digest.

[I don’t think that ‘acceptance’ is actually a component of truth. I think that this is really what Steve thinks our response to truth should be – once we know what the truth is. This is important in our experience of truth but different to being a component of truth.]

The three points of the triangle give the basic framework: truth, love and power. The sides of the triangle give the combination of each of these two qualities: oneness, authority and courage. Oneness is the combination of truth and love; authority is the combination of truth and power; and courage is the combination of love and power.

This brings us to the seventh aspect of the basic framework, which sits in the centre of the triangle: intelligence. For Steve intelligence is the highest form of human expression. For Steve this is the unified whole of our experience. This is the one seventh of the basic framework that I disagree with.

What Steve means by intelligence is ‘alignment with truth, love and power’. By “intelligence” he means something different to academic cleverness or prodigious memory.

Steve asks us to,
Take a moment to ponder the above definition of intelligence. Does it satisfy your logical mind as well as your intuition? (p.116)

My answer is, “No”. Analytically – intelligence is a different attribute that can be applied to truth, love and power. Power can be exercised stupidly, and love can be well intentioned and dumb. To my way of thinking intelligence is an aspect of truth – understanding differences and relationships between parts and the part and the whole. Intuitively – the combination of truth, love and power (in the sense Steve uses it) is life/flow/joyouscompassion: intelligence is pale and superficial by comparison. For me “intelligence” doesn’t begin to capture the highest form of human expression.

In the second half of the book the general principles are applied to six areas of self-development: habits, career, money, health, relationships and spirituality.

Of these it is money that is the area of my life that I am least happy with, so I’ll examine this chapter as an example of the second half of the book.

Each of the six areas in part two has the seven principles applied to it. Steve applies each of the principles to money.

  • The truth about money is that it is a social phenomenon – it functions as a resource based on a kind of contract or agreement.
  • The principle of love means that we earn money through making a worthwhile contribution to society.
  • The principle of power means being responsible for our financial situation and also using money rather than letting it dictate to you – there may be non-financial ways to achieve the lifestyle we desire.
  • Oneness means making money by making as big a social contribution as you can: to find the overlap between your personal values and what your society values (what they’ll pay for). This leads to a consideration of fairness – ‘the labourer is worthy of their hire’ (if they are making a worthwhile contribution).
  • To develop authority in relation to money may mean educating yourself and trying out new behaviour. Developing authority in the overlap between personal and social values will make it easier to make money.
  • Courage means asking for what you’re worth, and sticking with a heart-centred path.
  • Finally intelligence and money. This means making intelligent choices to increase the social value you deliver and express yourself creatively.

[All this I can mostly agree with. My big disagreement is that there is social conservatism about it. A flagrant example is that parents caring for children are paid little, if anything, while those who play dress-ups for the movies can be paid millions. Steve’s answer is for the individual to adapt – to find the overlap between their personal and their society’s values. My values say that society – which an individual can influence in a small way – may also need changing.]

I hope this gives a sense of the rigour that Steve has. The principles are worked through to practical application in each area of life. The application is thought through, direct and concrete. I may disagree or want to argue with what is said but I like that there is enough substance and clarity so that I can argue or disagree. The subtitle of the book is, “the conscious pursuit of personal growth” and the clarity and concreteness certainly help to become conscious of the area being addressed.

Taken as a whole I really like this book. I like that it wants to play a big game and nails its colours to the mast. I like its rigour and the preparedness to lay out principles and say how they apply. It follows up on the subtitle, of being about by the conscious pursuit of personal growth, by being explicit about its own framework and how it applies in a range of areas.

My Problem . . .
. . . with this book is that it is a good book, perhaps even a very good book, just not a great book. (I think Steve has it in him to produce a great book.) I think it is easily one of the best books I have read on personal development. It is far better than most books out there. It is full of useful stuff and practical advice. The analysis and application is intelligent and often subtle.

Self-development for Smart People doesn’t rival Perls, Hefferline and Goodman’s Gestalt Therapy or Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I was hoping it would. However, I don’t know of any other books that rival Gestalt Therapy or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance either. This is a good book, just not the great book that I was hoping for.

Would you like to feel less stressed?
Could you do with more joy in your life?

The answer is living authentically. Buy the book or sign up for the course now from my Living Authentically website.

I'm Evan Hadkins. To find out how to live a more satisfying life you can download my manifesto on living authentically. It is a book of exercises to guide you to finding, nourishing and living from the core of who you are.

If you would like me to write about some aspect of living an authentic life please don't hesitate to get in touch. There is a box in the sidebar where you can leave a question anonymously if you wish, or you can email me, use the contact page, or comment on this post.

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{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Chris Edgar 2010/02/19, 3:53 pm

    Hi Evan — interesting, it sounds more like an engineering approach to personal development writing than I’ve seen in the past. I guess you’ll just have to put together your own answer to Pirsig. 🙂

  • Evan 2010/02/19, 4:00 pm

    Yes. I meant to put in an extra sentence or two about me having ambitions for what Steve should do, but decided not to. Very much an engineering analytical approach – theory then application and so forth. I hope he manages to come up with a next book that addresses process.

    I’m not sure I have much to add to Pirsig. It’d be filling in the details – how to get in touch with and live a life of quality. I think this is what (my take on) gestalt (living authentically etc) is about anyway. It’d just be making the connections clear I think.

    I’ve been reading Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, which is another take on it I guess. If you’ve read it I’d like to know what you made of it.

    Thanks for your comment, hope you’re having a great day.

  • Adam 2010/02/19, 7:00 pm

    Hi Evan

    Sounds awfully flakey. ‘Power’ sounds like ‘Will to Power’ in the Neitzchean sense, which is not such a bad thing for it to be.

  • Evan 2010/02/19, 8:03 pm

    Compared to much in the blogosphere this book is quite grounded. Power is similar to will to power but he uses it to include responsibility too. Thanks for your comment.

  • Barbara 2010/02/20, 1:49 am

    Hi Evan,

    From reading today I realize why I like you so much, you have way more tolerance and probably foresight than I will ever have. I strongly disagree about Steve and responsibility in the same sentence. Either not true or not true enough.

    Although I think Paulina has had times along the way he was writing in ways to help people, it’s also clear to me he’s taken his success as a license to abdicate a good portion of his responsibility as the guide he now professes himself to be. He used to say it himself. He’s just a regular guy who figured out how to use the internet to make six figures a year. I guess if I wanted the six figures, following his lead to that end would be a good idea. But h’s taken it leaps and bounds further.

    In other words he’s taken on authority, seemingly without anything more then his own experience as a base, uses it to tell his thousands of readers try this or that because you see me doing it I’m handling it so it must be ok. Or in the alternative posing his position as ‘if you want growth, open minds, what’s stopping you’. No, of course he doesn’t say any of that, but I think he uses the default position, which can be dangerous.

    I can almost hear him laughing in the background, wait ’til they hear this…

    In other words, I used to read (quite awhile ago), then kind of saw thru and have have abdicated my position as one of his readers. I did however take a look recently because someone had mentioned their questioning of what he was most recently writing. I visited, I skimmed, got the general tone, which I think is laced with arrogance, some more than demeaning ideas behind the ideas and that was enough for me to know, a web place better to stay away from then look to or at.

    Like I said Evan, you’re more tolerant than I think I will ever be or ever be again. At one time I did employ tolerance in many ways, in the most liberal of ways actually. I had to learn the hard way it doesn’t always work for me.

    Thanks for this opportunity. I guess I needed to be contrary, vocal and release some frustration, and here was the opportunity with good enough reason!


  • Evan 2010/02/20, 6:49 am

    Hi Barbara, Yes Steve does take a position of authority – this is even one of the principles. What he claims to do is argue for why this should be one of the principles and says how it should be applied. For myself, I’m one of those who thinks that authority usually gets in the way. I try to avoid playing the guru or being put in that role (I think the guru is a parent role – alternately demanding and nurturing, which is what makes it tricky).

    My review is probably a reading in the best possible light. I haven’t read Steve’s blog for a while now, it doesn’t really assist me. I have learned from him about being a successful blogger on self-development. In an interview with Leo Babuta (also successful) Steve said that it was the topic of a post that is most important. This cut through the clutter in a way I found liberating.

    I was thinking about publishing an intolerant review – Why I loathe Seth Godin (a marketing guru). I decided this would just be self-indulgent on my part and annoy people to no purpose (I’m hardly going to change the minds of his fans by doing this). It seems to be a half-stated rule of the blogosphere to praise what you like and ignore the rest, which I usually find it pretty easy to go along with.

    Thanks for your comment.

  • Tom Volkar / Delightful Work 2010/02/24, 8:03 am

    Thanks for this review. I’ll probably never read the book. I find him way too wordy for my taste. I did agree with his points on money except for the Oneness one. he seems to be saying that those who contribute the most value are paid the most. I would say yes with one addendum. They are paid the most only if they also can effectively communicate that value through marketing. The fairness he suggests seems like wishful thinking to me.

  • Evan 2010/02/24, 8:21 am

    Hi Tom, Steve certainly uses a lot of words (not my style I think). I do think part of his idea of fairness is wishful thinking, the other side is trying to deliver value through what you do (which I do agree with). Thanks for your comment.

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