I don’t think it’s rash. There is a huge trust-worthiness problem in personal development writing. Find someone using the phrase “snake oil” and have them explain what’s wrong to you.
So if I wanted to write a much stronger critique, then I think the door is wide open. However, I tend to think almost all personal development writing and products are a net positive. So my life’s ambition is not to trash people. Rather, I want to note that there is a way to get a higher level of trust than is possible in the current system (the flaws in current writing are all systemic IMO).
Here’s the passage that I think you’re responding to:
The vast majority of personal development writing is not meant to improve your life. Rather, it’s meant to sell you on an additional product which may (or may not) improve your life.
I’m not sure where you got that I’m calling that writing poor. All that passage says is that it serves a different, less valuable purpose. Plenty of it is good writing. Some of it even introduces people to a path that will change their life.
[I have no idea about your writing — do you have an example that you think is particularly good?]
But I’m happy to go into what I think the next level of quality is for personal development writing and why there are systemic reasons you don’t get that quality in traditional publications.
First of all, the definition I’m using of “better” is that the reader is more likely to have a positive change in their life without purchasing any additional products from the author.
To reiterate — that’s a two part definition of better:
- This better definition is about articles that change people. An article could be entertaining as hell, but if it doesn’t change people then it doesn’t count.
- Second, the article is the product that changes the person’s life, not a sales pitch for some future product.
So what tends to be wrong with the status quo?
In general, it takes a lot of effort to help someone change. If you deconstruct your typical best selling self-improvement book you’ll find that the amount of concrete advice usually could fit on one page.
(I’m of the perspective that the best-selling self-improvement books are effective interventions if the reader has opted in, i.e. I can’t hand you The Secret and expect it to change you, but if you bought it yourself I’d have high hopes.)
The purpose then of the rest of the book is to sell the reader on the idea that they can change. So you have one page of advice sprinkled in with hundreds of pages of sales pitch.
And that sales pitch is fantastic and completely necessary. We aren’t rational creatures and so interventions need to be able to reach both our rational brains and the emotional side that sits below. A book is actually a fantastic way to do this. So is a documentary.
The complete package of rational inspiration, emotional inspiration, and concrete tutorial takes time and length. A magazine article never has time for this (think Men’s health). Neither does your average self-improvement article. A Tim Ferriss article always takes the appropriate amount of time and that’s why he’s effective.
#2. Placement on the funnel
A fantastic coach just submitted an article to Better Humans explaining how the world has changed and thus the reference side of GTD has now become much more important. (GTD tends to put a lot of emphasis on task processing and less on the information that you file away.)
I was totally sold on this change in the world. But the article ended with a call to action to buy his productivity coaching package.
He’s not wrong to have written this article and the article was not poorly written.
But I had to reject the article because it didn’t stand on it’s own. It’s a sales pitch because the article exists on the left side of the marketing/sales/product funnel.
The Medium Membership articles exist on the right side of that funnel. Medium already marketed and sold the reader something. So the point of articles you read is to encapsulate the entire value of membership.
This isn’t about good articles or bad articles, it’s about purpose.
Personal development articles written by content marketers for the purpose of content marketing serve a marketing purpose. They don’t stand on their own.
#3. Wrong authors
The public internet is so damn competitive. It’s striking to me how much of the best personal development writing is written by professional marketers.
But it makes perfect sense when you realize how hard it is to find readers. These marketing authors are fantastic at finding the emotional core of a piece of advice and then representing that core in a headline and intro. This is a real skill and is really valuable.
But these are still the wrong authors to write the most valuable articles. The articles all have a ceiling because the authors don’t work hands on with the people they advise.
When people try to follow the advice they will fail in a hundred different ways. Many of these ways are surprising.
It takes a huge amount of empathy and experience to help a person navigate these waters.
So, a How To Think Like Charlie Munger piece can be made extremely compelling through great marketing. The page views could be through the roof. But have the readers started thinking like Charlie Munger? That’s the question I’m focused on.
Getting the experience to write at the level is not hard. So I’m not saying a content marketer could never do it or that they are inherently flawed people — just that they clearly don’t do the work on a day to day basis to have the experience to be experts.
I want to work the phrase “cargo-cult advice” in here somewhere. That’s what I want to do better than. Anyone can research some stuff and present it as advice. But not everyone has experienced both sides of using that advice and helping other people use it.
Of course, you only have one example article from me as a publisher. And I’m on my own learning curve.
But what I’m going for from that one article is to have depth, to have emotional resonance, to have empathy for challenges and to have an author with true expertise.