Reflections on Self-Help and Diminishing Returns

If you were to ask my fiancee, she’d tell you I have a book-buying problem.  I buy books faster than I can read them, and I have a small collection weighing down my shelves at home.  In a month’s time, we will be moving houses and part of the burden is to box the books and be mindful just how heavy books in boxes can actually be.  I prefer printed books, but I also have a steadily growing Kindle library and now an Audible library.

For 2018, the pace of my reading has slowed down significantly since 2016 and 2017.  At present, I have only completed 10 books for the year (with many half-read books strewn around the house).

If you go through the books I’ve read since my first reading list in 2016, you will notice a large proportion of my books fall under the self-help and personal development banners.  While I acknowledge that these books have been helpful in kicking off my attempts to make positive changes at work and in my life, I’m noticing a trend – I’m not really getting as much out of the books as I used to.  I seem to have hit a point of diminishing returns.  I started noticing it in the books I was reading, but it’s also spilled over into the daily lists of articles I get from Quora, Pocket, Medium, etc.

There is an over-saturation of the same studies being cited and a dearth of tips, tricks, tactics, protocols, hacks, systems, routines, mental models, and insights that tend to recycle similar themes.  Especially mental models – those seem to be in vogue right now with the online think-pieces and people creating courses for you to enroll in.

I also noticed that the further out from primary sources you get, the more recycling you find.  There tends to be four broad classes of folks who populate this domain:

  1. the innovators who write reflectively about what they did or the systems they created (the Ramit’s, the Dalio’s, the Covey’s, etc.);
  2. the populizers who interview, report, and connect ideas from the innovators (the Gladwell’s, the Duhigg’s, the Ferriss’s, etc.) ;
  3. the repeaters who recycle from columns one and two (this is typically the people writing Medium and Quora posts and asking you to sign-up for their email lists); and
  4. the folks who spend a year doing a thing then write a book about it, which pairs something they experienced with a study/book/system that is supposed to give insight or explain what happened in case study format (I won’t name names here, but the books are usually structured like those in group 3 above).

I wish the insight above was mine, but in full disclosure I had read this idea from someone and for the life of me I can’t remember where (the irony is not lost on me).  I suppose the only thing I’ve added to the above is item four.

I know it’s not fair to pigeon-hole people into only these four categories.  Some people in the second group produce novel insights that place them in group one, and some who write in group one are also guilty of slipping into group two from time to time.  The point is not to dismiss the books that are coming out, but rather to try and objectively draw circles around them in meaningful categories.

I think the diminishing returns I’m seeing is a result of my desire to find a magic bullet to fix whatever problem is “holding me back” from being in a place I want to be, mixed with one of my greatest flaws – I will read, and read, and read, and never make behavioural changes to take action.  Instead of making progress towards my goals in a meaningful way, I instead stay “productive” by reading.

Will this stop me from reading these kinds of books?  Probably not. Let’s be honest, these books are designed to be appealing.  They are a mix of relatable narratives and the promise of a better tomorrow.  They are my harlequin romance novels, my pulp reads.  They are easy to digest because someone else has done the thinking for you.  It’s my own kind of soma that keeps me peaceful and happy.  I know it’s not really that nutritious, but I enjoy it as a guilty pleasure nonetheless.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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A Reminder to Myself

Last week was a crazy week.  At work, it was the perfect storm between closing out the business of the previous semester, getting the next semester off the ground, and working to start all program reviews before the college faculty disappear for the summer.  In that time, I had meetings on top of meetings (and in one case, two meetings running concurrently).  I had students queuing up to see me for help.  There are agendas to be set, committees to chair, and a hundred messages waiting to be read.  Last week was hell, but I survived.

I had to remind myself of one important thing.  In my job, nothing is so important that it can’t wait.  Sure, there are critical deadlines looming over my head, and a number of people rely on me for deliverables.  However, despite the pressure I was feeling, I knew that there was nothing that was so critical that it couldn’t be added to the list of things I needed to do in favour of focusing on more important tasks.

I’m lucky, because not all jobs have this kind of luxury.

This reminder to myself isn’t meant to show-off or flaunt my job.  It’s not to show that I don’t have accountability, or that I’m allowed to slack off.

It’s a reminder of Eisenhower’s Matrix – there are lots of things that are urgent, but it’s critical to recognize and prioritize what’s important.  In Covey’s language, you put first things first.  For Koch, 20% of your tasks will create 80% of the value.  And on, and on.

Last week, it was important to remember these lessons.  I couldn’t serve everyone at once, and that’s ok.  The best thing to do was to focus on making headway where I could, and leave the rest for next week.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

A Lesson in Networking

I had a networking success moment last week.  After returning from the ethics board conference, I started doing the standard follow-ups.  One of my follow-up messages was to the director of the Portage network of Canadian institutions whose mission is to promote good data management practices for research institutes.  I noticed at the Portage presentation that Ontario Colleges were typically not included in their activities on account of the fact that Colleges are only now making concerted efforts towards research and data.  It’s still too early for the Colleges to have caught up with what Universities have been doing all along, so the two organizational structures are out of alignment.

I saw this bit of oversight as a good opportunity to introduce myself and suggest that I could connect Portage with my home institution library if there wasn’t already an existing working relationship.  In my follow-up message, I asked for some details for an upcoming event that I could pass along to the director of our library.

I then reached out to our director with the information and filled her in on the details from the conference, and what value a connection with Portage might offer.  Keep in mind that I don’t really know a lot about the library, its operations, or its institutional priorities.  I was merely offering a potential connection without knowing whether things would be a good fit.

At this point, it’s out of my hands, but I did my part to facilitate the introduction.  I think this is the overlooked side of networking.  Most of the time, we think of networking as “what can this do for me.”  Instead, it might be more useful to flip the question around and ask “how best can I help this person with my network.”  You get more value from offering value to others than if you just treat everything as an opportunity to gain for yourself.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

I (Finally) Cancelled My Gym Membership

I finally got around to cancelling my membership to my gym.

My last visit to the gym was at the end of November last year (I thought it was October, initially, so I wasn’t doing *that* bad…).

I have been away from the gym for so long that the branding and colour scheme has all changed to Crunch Fitness in my absence.  It was strange to walk in and see all the same equipment, but with new branding stickers adorning the equipment and different paint on the walls.  The vibrant reds and blacks have given way to more muted blues and greys – a shadowy ghost of the former company.

I’ve written before about my poor habits with going to the gym, and how much it costs me when I fail to go for months at a time.  I’ve had some successes, but mostly I tend to fall off the wagon.  The longest string of success I’ve had with exercise is using the elliptical at home with the Zombies, Run! app.

The decision to cancel my membership is motivated by three reasons.  First, since we are moving in May, I will be too far away to reasonably commute to the gym (and if I was inconsistent before while living close to the gym, there is almost no chance that anything would change in my habits after the move).

Second, I reviewed my finances and wanted to clean up some unnecessary recurring charges to my credit card.  Things like the gym and my subscription to Crave TV were cancelled since I rarely use them.

Third, with the move to the new house, I’d like to take a crack at exercising more from home.  I’m fairly regular with the elliptical running, and I would like to purchase a few more items to create a bit of a home gym.  While I doubt I’ll have a home gym like Jujimufu on YouTube anytime soon, I can add a few pieces that will allow me to get a reasonably comprehensive workout from home, such as a barbell, bench, and maybe a squat rack.  Stretch goals would include battle ropes, a heavy bag, and kettlebells.

If the home gym fails, there is a commercial gym and a more specialized gym in the town I’m moving to, so I could always sign back up when things settle down.

In the meantime, here’s a salute to World Gym (and Cruch Fitness who took over all the World Gym locations here in town).  I very much liked my experiences at World Gym, and I don’t regret our time together.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Trying Something New – Painting

A few years back, I stumbled across Bob Ross videos on YouTube.  His Joy of Painting series made painting seem accessible and fun, and it stoked in me a desire to try it out.  My experience in creating art mostly was concerned with drawing and sketching.  Only once (in high school) did I attempt to paint a picture (a large Spider-man poster, which was meant for us to experiment with painting along one side of the colour wheel).  Painting has largely been intimidating for me to try until I watched Bob Ross.

A friend who paints suggested I try starting off with an easy medium, like acrylic paint, since oil painting can be both challenging and dangerous if you don’t take the right precautions.  I made a New Year’s resolution to try out painting before the end of the first quarter, and in February I found a local art store that runs beginner acrylics classes.  For four weeks, you learn lessons from a local artist and complete a painting each week to take home.

This week will be the last class.  I’m sad that it’s over already and I’ve really enjoyed the experiences so far.  I’m hoping the store sets up the intermediate class soon, as I will gladly pay to attend that class as well.  When you sign up for the beginner class, you are given the option to purchase a starter kit with some paints, brushes, and canvasses.  I’ve already started buying additional supplies, such as more paint colours, a medium to extend the acrylic drying time, a new kneadable eraser, and more canvasses.  Below are the paintings I made from the first three weeks of the course.

I’ve even started experimenting with paining at home – last week I attempted my first run at mixing flesh tones to paint people (I hope to attempt a self-portrait in the near future).

I’m glad I invested the money in this experience and am looking forward to practicing this new set of skills.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan