The project of personal development entails paying attention to two variables: “what works for most people,” and “what works for me.”
You’re doing yourself a disservice by disregarding either of these variables.
However, most personal growth gurus and teachers focus almost exclusively on one or the other.
It’s odd. You’d think if they were so cosmic, they’d know we really do need both.
Why do we need both?
“What works for most people” is important to pay attention to because human beings tend to have things in common.
We tend to have the same types of nervous systems, generally speaking. We tend to have things in common when it comes to how we respond to reward and punishment. Our brains almost all run on basically the same neurotransmitters. Our bodies almost all require fundamentally similar nutrition and rest to function.
“What works for most people,” when it comes to emotional and psychological development, is laid out in the reams and reams and reams of psychological and behavioral research my field has amassed in the last several centuries.
It’s an imperfect body of work, the psychological research, I’ll give you that. But the fact is research psychologists have conducted enough studies and replicated enough results that we really do know a lot more than you might think about “what works for most people.”
Why would you ignore that, the way many self-help teachers like to?
Granted, the research is often not sexy; it often doesn’t lend itself to the, uh, creative sensibilities of a subset of people who prefer more metaphysical explanations for why humans do what we do; and it often confirms things that we already know.
But ignoring the psychological research— “what works for most people”— sets us up to somehow believe that we are fundamentally different from the vast majority of our fellow humans…and I assure you, no matter how alone or special or alien you feel, you’re not that different from your fellow humans.
“What works for me,” however, is important to pay attention to for a different reason: because no matter how similar you might be to your fellow human beings, your mileage is absolutely going to vary when it comes to how helpful any given tool will be.
You have a history of associations, experiences, rewards and punishments that are unlike anybody else in the history of humanity.
No one besides you occupies the highly individualized world you’ve built in your brain and mind.
While you may be similar to your fellow human beings in that you respond to the same forces of reinforcement and punishment— and again, I assure you, that is the case— you have an unquestionably unique matrix of meaning that determines what you, specifically, find reinforcing and punishing.
Why would you want to ignore that, the way many professional therapists do?
Granted, professional therapy often falls into the trap of assuming that because humans are fundamentally similar, they must all then be the SAME, and because we’re “scientists,” we need to assume everybody is the SAME, unless we have empirical evidence to the contrary.
Failure to take into account both extremes— “what works for most people” and “what works for me” — accounts for many, many therapeutic and personal development failures.
On your own journey, one skill that is imperative to develop is the willingness and ability to flip back and forth, as needed, between considering “what works for most people” and “what works for me.”
We need to be willing to take either approach when trying to understand an emotion or behavior.
We need to be willing to take either approach when trying to create a useful plan of action.
We need to deeply accept that we are both part of the human species and also a unique organism that has never existed before we, personally, were born.
The skill of “flexibility of perception and approach” is a game changer.
It allows us to both take advantage of the collective wisdom of the behavioral science paradigm— and also the years of data you have collected over the course of a lifetime of being YOU.
If you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you know I don’t believe in ignoring any valid set of data.
Be a scientist. Use all the available data. And be smart enough to know when to take a macro-approach…and when to reel it in to the population of “you.”
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