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Pavlina’s book review: Personal Development for Smart People

October 24th, 2008 by

Summary: I didn’t like the book, and won’t go into detail here; instead I marvel at how many people read, believe and act on things that are completely unsubstantiated by any evidence. But that only shows my naivety: it seems that most of the world outside science -and some inside- works that way.

Who is Steve?

Steve Pavlina is a top-100 blogger and a personal development guru. He has done several impressive things like majoring in Math and CS in three semesters, trying polyphasic sleep for 6 months, and testing several extremely demanding changes on his habits like eating raw food only. 

In my view, the field of personal development feels scam-ridden. It preys on people who may not have the strongest will. So the title "Personal development for smart people" feels tonge-in-cheek (Oxymoron?). I’m sure many readers, with an empirical bias, may be bothered by all the new-agey chat out there that passes for advice (with no solid evidence backing it up). Now, is Steve different? Is this book better? The answers are no, and ‘maybe, I don’t know what else is out there’.

Problems with his method: Who in the academia should be doing Steve’s job?

One thing that bothers me is that Steve’s book uses no references whatsoever. He claims to have read most self-help books, but does not acknowledge any specific ideas from them. If all the ideas in the book are new and his, then I’m very impressed -I wouldn’t know-, but that seems unlikely. Again, I’m sure self-help books are all like that; making reference to other people’s ideas in a way you can track them down, as sensible as it sounds, remains a signature of the academia.

In the same way, Steve rarely uses links on his blog, unless he is advocating a product or a person.

Which should be a red flag. Still, the guy is tremendously likable because you can see that his intention is to help people, and that he is honest about that.

Someone in the academia should be doing the work that Steve does, but more systematically.

Who is this group? Social psychology? I have no idea. My first reaction is that I’d feel ashamed of being part of that group. Loads of taxpayer money, hordes of grad students, and entire institutions protecting them… and they got their ass kicked by a guy with a blog. Maybe it’s not the academia’s fault.

Another people that should be ashamed is religious organizations, but I won’t sidetrack the discussion in that direction.

Take any of Steve’s topics. For example: does polyphasic sleep produce an overall increase in productivity? If this turns out to be the case, it would make all the sense in the world for policy makers to advise entire nations to encourage people to be polyphasic sleepers. That would remove the social awkwardness of being a polyphasic sleeper (the reason Steve quoted for him to stop!).

I have not checked the literature on polyphasic sleep. I’m sure there’s work on this. But I’m also sure nobody has made the same impact as Steve converting people to polyphasic sleep.

Also, nutritionists should take note on how a single person can switch the food habits of a large group of people by blogging.

This may sound terribly negative, as if we academics were playing some zero sum game with bloggers and other influentials (in fact, Steve advices against this mentality, and encourages thinking in terms of abundance). But isn’t it sad when academics spend entire lives working pretty much every hour they are awake, and nobody cares? For an academic, chances of changing society at a scale Steve does are slim. Very slim.

I may sound like an ‘academic absolutist’, who believes that nothing out of the academia has any value. Far from it; if you have followed this blog, you know we are critical of the academia and are disgusted by several common practices in it.

But wouldn’t it be good if more non-academics actually cited where their ideas come from? Note: this doesn’t imply all good ideas come from academics, and I’m trying to fish citations for them. If anything it’d make the reader’s life easier if he decided to master the topic he is reading. With more people writing content for others (that never gets revised or filtered properly, thanks to the wonders of self-publishing and the Internet), I’d love to see more use of citation. It doesn’t have to be compliant with any of the standards (APA, Chicago, etc): just tell me where you got your idea from so I can investigate more if I want to.

The basic question that keep popping in my mind and the book fails to address: "How do you know what you know?"

Take any claim. For example : "Many people set goals and then assume the path to reach them will require suffering and sacrifice. This is a recipe for failure." Why? If we know something about expertise is that it is acquired through deliberate practice and that is not a pleasant thing to do. Playing scales on a piano, training a repetitive move that is key for your sport, memorizing chess openings etc are all key for success on those activity. And they are ‘suffering and sacrifice’.

If I can find a counter argument in a few seconds, the claim is not backed by any kind of evidence, and there’s no reference I can look for to satisfy my curiosity, my bullshit detector buzzes. Sorry.

Not that citation is the panacea, either. Most people I know agree that 90% of the published papers they read are horrible. Peer review (the traditional variety) is crushing innovation and make science look like a political game. But still… why are most bestselling books missing the most basic form of referencing where their ideas come from?

And one could count the millions of readers that Steve has as evidence that his stuff is good. But can it be that there are millions of people whose bullshit detectors are not in the same category as ours?

Should we aim to educate people so they look for better indicators of authority? And what are those indicators of authority? This is the question we’ll address in a future post.

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