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Review: Personal Development for Smart People

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When I first encountered Steve Pavlina’s website “Personal Development for Smart People” a couple years ago, I was immediately impressed with the quality of its content.  Steve’s articles–which have titles like “The Courage to Live Consciously,” “Cultivating Burning Desire,” and “Whatever You Fear, You Must Face“–are well-written, insightful, and often motivating.  Yes, they can be sappy and melodramatic, but they are far better than the junk usually found in personal development books.  Steve’s website is a great resource, and its success is well-deserved.

That said, I was a little disappointed by Steve’s recent book, which is titled after his site.  Steve is ambitious in his book’s scope: he wants to define the “core principles” of personal growth, the principles on which all successful growth efforts are based.  There exist self-help books on a broad range of topics–personal finance, career choice, relationships, and so on–and Steve wants his book to subsume all of them.  His thesis is that all effective personal growth techniques are based on a few core principles.  If you apply these principles to your life, he thinks, the more-specific techniques presented in other books will come naturally.

Steve’s presentation is clear and well-thought-out.  I like his core principles, which are named Truth, Love, and Power.  Truth is seeing and accepting things as they are, Love is engaging fully and openly with the world, and Power is consciously effecting change.  I also like Steve’s scientific approach: he requires that his principles be universal, complete, irreducible, congruent, and practical.  And I think Steve is probably right that his principles underlie most, if not all, effective personal growth efforts.

So why did I find PDFSP a little disappointing?  Maybe I just had high expectations.  And, admittedly, I’ve read enough of Steve’s articles that it’s hard for me to judge his book on its own merits.  But I do think it could have been quite a bit better.

First there’s its organization.  PDFSP feels overly-structured and overly-segmented.  I suspect this organization came from Steve’s desire to be systematic–and perhaps to make writing it straightforward–but the result is often tedious, predictable, and repetitive.  The first seven chapters are devoted to the three core principles and four secondary principles that are supposed to derive from them.  A chapter is devoted to each principle, and each chapter is further sectioned off into independent discussions of “terms” that Steve associates with that principle.  For example, in the Truth chapter, there are sections on “perception,” “prediction,” “accuracy,” “acceptance,” and “self-awareness.”  This kind of structure is tedious.  I would have preferred a more-lively take on the principles.

Worse still is the structure of the later “application” chapters, which apply the principles to the usual self-help topics: money, career choice, relationships, and so on.  Each of these chapters is sectioned off into a separate discussion of how its topic relates to each of the primary and secondary principles.  So, in the money chapter, we get sections on “Money and Truth,” “Money and Love,” “Money and Power,” and so on.  Each of the six application chapters is like this, and they account for almost half of the book.  It’s not surprising that this repetition of structure leads to repetition of ideas.  For example, when discussing Oneness, one of his secondary principles, Steve repeats his view that we are all “individual cells of the same body” over and over again.

Steve’s simple, exuberant, and almost-naive writing style may be off-putting to more-skeptical readers.  This style, combined with the general abstractness of PDFSP, makes it a bit hard to relate to him as a person.  Though Steve does describe a few painful experiences from his past, his explanations feel detached and overly analytical.  I only mention this because, in a personal development book especially, it’s nice to feel a personal connection to the author.

All right, enough of the negative.  There’s a lot of great advice in PDFSP.  I like Steve’s suggestion to rate the parts of your life–career, relationships, etc.–numerically from 1 to 10.  If you give something a “decent” score like “7,”  chances are you’re more dissatisfied with it than you think.  To make his point, Steve says that a “7” score is really a “1.”

I like (love?) Steve’s view on love.  Steve sees love as a form of connection and as a way of engaging with the world.  For example, he suggests that, instead of seeing yourself as inherently separate from the people around you, you assume you’re already connected to them.  Rather than assuming that connections take a long time to create, he suggests you assume they already exist (“Instead of having to break the ice with someone, assume that there is no ice.”).  Such an attitude will yield in-kind responses from others and fast friendships, Steve claims.  I believe him.

Steve has good advice on making lifestyle changes.  For example, he suggests running “30-day trials” to evaluate new habits.  The idea is to try something new without actually committing to it.  If a change is good, it shouldn’t be difficult to keep going with it after the 30 days are up.  Steve himself has done interesting trials of things like polyphasic sleep and a raw food diet and has posted the results on his website.

In general PDFSP contains a lot of great advice, whether it be on facing fears or on time management.  And I love Steve’s attempt to break personal development down into a few core principles–he’s largely successful, in my opinion.  However, I can’t offer an unqualified endorsement of his book.  Its overly-formal structure is boring and repetitious, and its simplistic exuberance can take some getting used to.  If the good stuff I’ve mentioned sounds interesting to you and the bad stuff doesn’t sound too bad, it’s worth a look.

Written by miketuritzin

October 30th, 2008 at 8:58 pm

Posted in Reviews

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