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What’s wrong with self-improvement quotes

man saying self-improvement quote "just be better"

Self-improvement quotes are hugely popular. And I’ll admit that I also enjoy the smug sense of understanding when I read one and think “hmm yeh, that’s true”. But while pure ‘productivity porn’ has got a bad name, it seems these banal one-liners are still more than legit. I think that’s wrong.

What are self-improvement quotes?

Before attacking them, I want to make clear what I mean by self-improvement quotes. I mean the things you see a lot of on social media or in newsletters, that give a tiny piece of ‘wisdom’ that is supposed to inspire you, give you a new way of thinking, or make a clever point. Some examples:

quote from Andrew Duggan on Twitter: "Don't wait for miracles, your whole life is a miracle" - Albert Einstein
quote from Tim Fargo on Twitter: "I have decided to stick to love...Hate is too great a burden to bear" - Martin Luther King Jr.

Often they’re quoting someone else – someone you can’t really argue with, like MLK, Einstein, or Confucius – but increasingly, it’s the figure themselves.

quote from Naval on Twitter: "Read the books they want to ban."
quote from Tony Robbins on Twitter: "LOVE IS ALWAYS THE ANSWER. It heals, it blesses, it renews, and it restores. LOVE is our nature and our evolutionary advantage as human beings."

Why self-improvement quotes are popular

Annoyingly (to me, at least), these kinds of quotes seem hugely popular. At least in the bits of social media I see – which, admittedly, is not that much – they get lots of likes, shares, and comments. Even this bot tweeting stuff that Shane Parrish has previously said, has 507 followers.

Most self-improvement newsletters include some of them, and people talking about self-improvement on podcasts have even incorporated them into their casual speech.

Why is that?

Of course, some of it is the format. Social media posts are shorter than blog posts, which are shorter than books. So there’s some necessity. But people could write or (at least!) link to longer content if they wanted to. They often don’t.

Aligning yourself with Einstein

“If you want something to sound profound, just attribute it to me”

Albert Einstein1

A more significant reason is wannabe-intellectual signalling. The creator gets to demonstrate by writing their own quote that they belong to some sort of club of great thinkers. Not only do they write interesting and useful things, but they are able to see the world in a different way. They think outside the box. They are not only smart, but wise.

A lot of self-improvement creators want to set themselves up as experts or even gurus. This helps bring in the publishing deals and speaking gigs, and consulting deals with wealthy clients. Sounding like a guru is a good way of doing this.

At the same time, the consumer – by retweeting, sharing, liking and so on – gets to show they understand. They too see the world like this wise person, even if they didn’t write it. They see the world as it really is, rather than the conventional wisdom. And if they share it with others in their own social media spheres, they get to bask in a little of the reflected glory.

Self-improvement candy

For people who aren’t on social media for the absolute lowest common denominators of content – pornography and its variants, the most tribal bits of politics, questionable jokes, and videos of people falling over – self-improvement quotes might be at the more dopamine-releasing end of the scale of what’s in your news feed. I have no evidence to back that up, but do know that the flicker of recognition you get when you understand the idea behind a quote is quite satisfying. They’re often set up in a structure that promotes this – like a tiny puzzle you have to solve:

quote from Naval on Twitter: "Just as you travel so that you can miss your home, you socialize so that you can miss your self."

As much as we all want to improve ourselves as much as possible, doing so is difficult. So mixing in some of this candy along with all the Brussels sprouts you’re trying to consume is an attractive strategy.

Or self-improvement protein bars?

Scrolling through a load of self improvement quotes is also a quick-hit way of doing something that feels like it’s good for you. In a way, they’re more like protein bars than candy. They’re still full of sugar, but have some goodness in. But if you don’t go the gym and work out, they’re not going to do much good.

We all have limited time and energy, not to mention attention spans, so this kind of content fits well with today’s world. A bit like a HIIT workout that lasts 30 seconds in total. But are you actually fitter at the end of it?

“Inspirational quotes are the protein bars of self-improvement”

A. Wasteoftime

They’re easy to produce (mostly)

Just like candy is easy to make, and easy to make attractive, it’s often easier for a content creator to make a pithy tweet based on their existing material than it is to write a new article. Obviously there’s a range, from pithy and insightful, to overly-shortened and misleading. And some of it does take real thought. But most of it feels like it could be made by a decent computer algorithm, let alone GPT-3.

James Clear is at least good enough to show how he makes some of his best quotes:

quote from James Clear on Twitter: "You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems." Taken from Archilochus.

It’s therefore a good way of filling out a newsletter, pumping up your social media stats, and increasing your portfolio of products. If you can get people hooked on the quotes, they’ll soon be devouring the branded merchandise, munching all the premium content, and end up chowing down on the cohort-based courses.

What’s actually wrong with self-improvement quotes

So if these quotes are actually like protein bars, and 30 second HIIT sessions, is that such a bad thing? Not obviously, no. But I think there are some costs.

They don’t work by themselves

Self improvement quotes signal that you can improve yourself by consuming more and more ‘wisdom’. If you just collect all the quotes on the power of leverage, you’ll be able to transform your life by spotting all the ways you can ‘level up’, automate and systematise.

But not only is there a sizeable gap between knowing and doing – there’s a significant gap between quotes and actionable knowledge. The more the information’s compressed, the quicker it is to consume, but the more the context is lost. It’s not enough to know that burpees burn 10 calories a minute2 – you need to actually do some. And it’s relevant context that they’re absolutely horrific.

quote from James Clear on Instagram: "Do less. Keep returning to one thing and continue to refine it."
But what one thing, James?

Or they’re misleading / unclear

I’m generally in favour of compressing things down to get the useful information in as short a way as possible. Some writing is overly repetitive, and deliberately pads stuff out. I myself have written summaries before. And it can better to read a shortened version than not engage with the material at all.

But generally, compressing a message makes it vaguer. It removes caveats and qualifications. It takes out the context in which it is (somewhat) true (maybe). It makes it seem more powerful than it is, when chances are it’s less powerful than it seems. Good examples are usually found in the Daily Mail:

Daily Mail headline "They might cool and comfortable but flip-flops may 'raise your risk of getting skin cancer'"
Yep, it’s usually about cancer, because it scares people. Thanks, Daily Mail.3

Obviously, self-improvement quotes tend not to be as bad as this, but they also fail to give the full story.

quote from Shane Parrish on Twitter
So what am I supposed to do? Just sit with clarity and focus for a long time, and ‘positive non-linear results’ will come? What does that even mean?
quote from Naval on Twitter: "A healthy body is light and silent, just as a healthy mind."

“I am getting better every day”

Self improvement quotes act a bit like affirmations. They can give you a little boost of inspiration at best. But is saying you’re a ‘money magnet’ going to make you richer? Of course it’s not.

You might think this is harmless. But having the illusion of moving towards your goal, when actually you’re not, will surely reduce your motivation to do the things that will get you there. If you think you’re on the right track, you won’t change course.

I may be being cynical, but I’d guess a lot of the self-improvement quoters know this. But they also know it’s a good way to get you into their ‘funnel’, so you move more quickly to buying things.

They give self-improvement a bad name

When I told a friend recently that I was writing about self-improvement, he laughed in my face. Almost as if I’d told him I’d given up my job to join a multi-level marketing scheme. I think that’s because some of these quote-type materials, the obsession with shiny new toys, and the guru-like quality of some of the fields ‘thought leaders’ make it seem like a big cult. One that plenty of people don’t actually get any benefit from, but that they’ve sunk so much into that they can’t get out.

I think self-improvement is hugely positive, and important. It can not only make us smarter, healthier and more personally happy, but better people for those around us. So damaging this idea is hampering all of those things.

And opportunity cost (of course)

My favourite objection to anything that isn’t directly harmful is that there’s always an opportunity cost! You can always find something else that’s more worth doing, so the objection’s often unfair. But in this case, I firmly believe the self improvement quoters could be doing much better things with their time.

I love James Clear’s writing, but delete most of his 3-2-1 newsletters in seconds. I think Shane Parrish has written some excellent pieces, but I recently trolled him on Twitter because of another banal quote (which I can’t link to, because he blocked me 😂) . I think that’s why they get up my nose so much. They’re brilliant people producing meaningless crap. The quotes are perhaps for a new audience, but as someone who’s read more of the good content, I’d rather just have more of that, please. Do more of what made you good, just in new areas.

To be fair, the people who are less impressive are also quite annoying when quoting, though that’s more because it seems like they’re trying to pass themselves off as some sort of guru, when clearly they’re not. If other people want to quote you, fine – but don’t make out you’re the Dalai Lama.

They’re often misattributed

“The problem with quotes on the internet is that you can never be certain they’re authentic.”

Abraham Lincoln

This Quora thread is funny, because all the ridiculous quotes from people who didn’t actually say them, are side-by-side with equally-ridiculous quotes in the ‘related answers’ the site suggests.

Needless to say, where some sort of authority is being cited on the internet, there’s a chance the authority never said that, meant something else, or said it in a lot greater context.

Why self-improvement quotes have some value

Clearly I’m in something of a minority in my hatred for these quotes. So it’s usually worth exploring why that’s the case, and what merit they do have.

They save time, and gets readers interested in good ideas

As I’ve already said, I’m not against condensing things. We all write many more words than we absolutely need to when making points that could be lots shorter or just left out to save the poor reader some time4. Condensing things can introduce readers to great information, if they migrate from the ‘shallow’ end of the pool to the ‘deep’ end. Although there are surely some who would get into the deep end, but don’t because the shallow is more immediately inviting.

“Use the shallow end to get to the deep end. Or just throw yourself in the sea.”

A. Loadofrubbish

They clarify points

My favourite self-improvement quotes are analogies, like time being like money, or reading every day being like doing reps at the gym. Examples help clarify a point in the reader’s mind. They make the abstract concrete, and you thus understand the concept better, and can apply it more clearly. They work very well within the flow of an argument, in a wider piece of writing, and sometimes have this same effect in other contexts where you find them.

They can make it more resonant, or memorable

Some of the best self improvement quotes have a special quality – resonance – that it’s hard to get into writing. But the format of a quote seems to help it along. Perhaps it’s something about the ‘puzzle-like’ quality that makes it more appealing to your brain. It’s also much easier to remember quotes than whole books, and memory is important for lots of things.

They can make writing better

Constraints can be useful tools for thinking, and being able to write something meaningful in fewer than 280 characters is quite a skill – one that can be applied to other bits of your writing. And some writers like to test out ideas on social media, get feedback, then work them into something bigger. A social media post is like a writer’s ‘minimum viable product’. I’ve tried it myself, and it can be a useful process. If nothing else, it makes you feel more engaged in a community than when all you have is you and the blank screen.

What’s the point of this article?

You may quite reasonably be reading this thinking: “well if you don’t like them, just avoid them”. I could do better at that, for sure. The reason I haven’t been able to avoid them completely is that they come from excellent content creators. I would like to get as much value out of James Clear’s wisdom as I can – just without all of that. I want the cake and to eat it.

Is the cake worth the calories?

But some recent reading suggested a better way. Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism proposes you take a step back to consider your strategy for each technology. For example, instead of deciding whether Twitter has some value for you – it almost certainly will have some – you should decide whether you can get that value in a better way.

The same goes for individual people whose content you consume. Do you need to consume all of it, just because some of it’s great? No. Will you miss out on James Clear’s next book because you don’t read all of his tweets? Almost certainly not.

So if you want to avoid the self-improvement quotes, unfollow everyone else on social, and unsubscribe from their newsletters. I’ll still be @TheTomNorth and @Effective Living. You can also sign up to my newsletter, which is just one email a week, with no self-improvement quotes.

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Footnotes

  1. Not actually
  2. At least according to the reliably-questionable Healthline
  3. And yep, they can’t even write in full sentences.
  4. Or, ‘we all use more words than we need to’.