Essay

The Paint-By-Numbers Guide to Your Creative Self-Actualization

By Duff McDuffee on June 9th, 2010 1

Yesterday, an email arrived in my inbox from a popular “lifestyle design” website. This sales letter encouraged me to become a rebellious Jedi Knight and design my life on my terms by joining a mentoring and training program along with like-minded revolutionaries. The pitch contained the following hilarious typo (emphasis mine):

The [product name removed] is the belief system (or faith) that underpins an accomplished, virtuous, successful, and joyous life – a life free from the tyrannical oppression of independent thought and independent action.

Ah, finally some honesty in advertising. For what is the consumer of such a personal development product really wanting than a guaranteed blueprint to self-actualization, a life free from the oppressing existential dread of having to make decisions amidst a backdrop of groundlessness and meaninglessness!

Ordinarily we think of freedom as an unequivocally positive concept. … Yet freedom viewed from the perspective of ultimate ground is riveted to dread. In its existential sense “freedom” refers to the absence of external structure. …the individual is entirely responsible for…his or her own world, life design, choices, and actions. “Freedom” in this sense, has a terrifying implication: it means that beneath us there is no ground—nothing, a void, an abyss. A key existential dynamic, then, is the clash between our confrontation with groundlessness and our wish for ground and structure.
~from the introduction of Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom

The ebooks, video courses, life coaching, blogs, and email newsletters of many a budding personal development guru largely aim to provide a pain-free “paint-by-numbers” structure for one’s existential condition—all the while promising liberation that can only come from a direct confrontation with that groundlessness and desire for stability.

In fact, for all the talk of freedom, liberation, creativity, meaning, and purpose, few if any bloggers in our community seem to be wrestling with the existential dilemmas that give rise to such: the inevitability of death, the burdens of responsibility, one’s feeling of existential isolation from others, feelings of meaninglessness, existential anxiety, despair, and dread. While personal development and even lifestyle design promise solutions to existential problems, the cult of positivity prevents even the most superficial discussion of the underlying issues that might lead to their resolution. Indeed, considering existential questions is not something one does in polite company. It’s as if we fear that if one stares into the void too long they will be transfixed as if by Medusa’s gaze, unable to look away, trapped forever in overwhelming despair.

The title of this blog post was of course a joke. Years ago I remember reading about Albert Einstein and becoming inspired by his creativity. I remember clearly having the thought “I want to be creative—just like Einstein.” I laughed out loud at the absurdity! Clearly if I was creative in the same way as Einstein then I was a copycat and thus not creative at all. I hope more and more people will wake up to the absurdity of attempting to solve one’s existential dilemmas with a $47 ebook or the equivalent. Perhaps such products, failing to resolve the problems of the human condition, will also lead some of us to face our lives with resolute courage, allowing us to finally come to terms with the deepest struggles of being.

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51 responses to “The Paint-By-Numbers Guide to Your Creative Self-Actualization”

  1. Yalom is a good read. I might have mentioned this before, but I have a theory that of the four Ultimate Concerns Yalom refers to, death and meaningless are of a higher order. His other two (freedom and isolation) are like water off a duck’s back to me, which suggests they cannot be Ultimate. Death and meaninglessness keep me transfixed (and, from memory, I think they are the longest sections of Existential Psychotherapy, with death the longest section by far).

    I find I can bring almost every conversation back to death and meaninglessness very quickly. There are three responses: 1: WTF are you talking about? 2: Terror at the abyss, and a swift shutting down. 3: Relief that someone else understands this is the logical end of most things. It’s often quite amusing.

  2. elaine says:

    So this particular course wants you to be Darth Vader?

  3. Evan says:

    I find Yalom a bit light on frankly. His prose is too measured for someone confronting the void. It is angst measured out in teaspoons.

    Some of us bloggers do deal with existential themes. But the genius of blogging is its immediate usefulness – quite different to detached reflection (more journalism than literature). But this means dealing with these things at the decidedly mundane level of what it means for day to day relationships and decisions.

    I think this is a challenge to existentialism – it is so often grandiose, and doesn't deal with the nitty gritty aspects of existence. It may deal with death but there is not much about illness – or even little niggles. It is hard to recognise the existentialists take on existence in much of our lives.

    Nietzsche (the patron saint?) said that if we stare too long into the abyss it stares back into us. Much of the meaninglessness of existentialism may be a projection by existentialists of their bourgeois milieu.
    My recent post Is Belief Compatible with Experience?

    • I think this is a challenge to existentialism – it is so often grandiose, and doesn't deal with the nitty gritty aspects of existence. It may deal with death but there is not much about illness – or even little niggles. It is hard to recognise the existentialists take on existence in much of our lives.

      It's an excellent challenge. And yes, the existentialists are far too ahistorical and acontextual to understand the extent to which their perspective is relative to context and not in fact universal. But I'm not so sure the existentialist position is irrelevant. The fact that issues of freedom, choice, "lifestyle design," creativity, etc. continue to pop up again and again in personal development indicates to me that many are dealing with existential concerns, whether they recognize them or not, whether they are dealing with the root concerns or not.

  4. Evan says:

    Oops forget to tick subscribe to comment
    My recent post Is Belief Compatible with Experience?

  5. When I read the first paragraph, I knew exactly what you were talking about. I really dislike bullshit internet marketers, especially the ones who, like you say, infuse positivity and self-righteousness in what seem like purely selfish actions without ever looking at the deeper symptoms of the problems they're trying to solve or the repercussions of how they are going about business. I'm glad you're calling them out on it.
    My recent post All It Takes Is Persistence

  6. ellen says:

    I think that you are being too literal with the absurdity of copying Einsteins creativity. That came from pondering deeply, having his own insights and making his own decisions. You could copy his outward mannerisms and method maybe but the thoughts and insights would be unique to you, the differing neurological architectures of your two brains would ensure that, before even considering differing experiences, personal histories and modes of perception. We structure ourselves from birth by copying those around us but still all remain unique individuals.
    I much prefer the absurdists to the existentialists. I was deeply miserable when younger but found the gloom and despair that Camus explored in his novels to be weirdly uplifting. It was only many years later that I made a conscious connection (after relentless prompting from a teacher) between despair, which means without hope and the liberation of finally letting go of hope. It is a glorious freedom to be hopeless but as you say, not something that goes down too well in polite conversation at the dinner table.

    • Certainly one could model Einstein's creative process and apply to other domains and thus be creative similar to Einstein. (Robert Dilts did just that in his book Strategies of Genius vol 2 in fact.) Not only could this be a uniquely creative act but also a useful one.

      My point was that I didn't want to be a physicist, nor necessarily think like Einstein. What inspired me was that he did something creative that added to human knowledge by following a line of inquiry that was uniquely interesting to him. In that way, yes one could "copy Einstein's creativity" and have it be a unique, authentic expression. But it is very important to differentiate this from re-creating the wheel (or general and special relativity in this case) and fooling yourself into thinking you are being creative and contributing to humanity in a uniquely special way.

      And yes, I've found Camus and other "negative thinkers" profoundly uplifting as well.

      • ellen says:

        I didn't pick up on your point about not wanting to be a physicist, essentially not wanting to be someone other than you already are, from your piece.
        And I see your point about not recreating the wheel, but then my view of Einstein is of a man with an obssession, following his nose wherever it lead him–(no value judgements on obssessions from this obssessive) and I doubt he ever considered 'being creative' or 'contributing to humanity in a unique and special way' until he became a lauded and famous physicist.
        He could just as easily have been overlooked and languished in obscurity-would his life have been less satisfying to him had that been the case?
        What I find absurd is the notion that a pre-emptive vision of the goal, 'being creative' or 'contributing to humanity' will accomplish much. The pre-emptive vision kills creativity stone dead. The goal of 'build a better water pump' or 'build a better vacuum cleaner' invoves creativity but creativity is itself not the goal.

  7. Frank Schoenburg says:

    Holosync is the epitome of a paint by numbers guide to enlightenment or self actualization. Just pop in the CD's, listen, and let the music take your brain into delta waves. Easy, painless transformation. When I bought holosync years ago, this is what I wanted. Easy liberation. I still want easy liberation. One glaring problem: It doesn't work!

    Perhaps such products, failing to resolve the problems of the human condition, will also lead some of us to face our lives with resolute courage, allowing us to finally come to terms with the deepest struggles of being.

    After experiencing the limitations of these products, we are left with a choice. Purchase the next product and repeat the cycle of futility or find practices that actually broaden our awareness and humanity.

    • Great example, Frank. I have to admit I too was suckered by the get-enlightened-quick promises of Hollow-Sink that matched my own greed.

      (p.s. I deleted a duplicate of your comment, in case you were wondering where it went.)

      • essay help says:

        I knew exactly what you were talking about. I really dislike bullshit internet marketers, especially the ones who, like you say, infuse positivity and self-righteousness in what seem like purely selfish actions without ever looking at the deeper symptoms of the problems they're trying to solve or the repercussions of how they are going about business.

  8. Chris Edgar says:

    What comes up for me is that personal development would serve us better if it acknowledged the uniqueness of each member of its audience. Because everyone's mind and body is different, we all ultimately need to discover for ourselves which practices will give us what we're looking for. At its best, I think, personal development can give us tools for recognizing the patterns of thinking and feeling happening outside our awareness, to give us more choice around how we act in the world.

    For example, I don't think it's very helpful to just tell everyone "if you're 'feeling bad,' jump up and down and say 'yeah'!" For many people, I think, that kind of one-size-fits-all practice just alienates them further from themselves. I get the sense that we'd be better served by practices that help us become more intimate and familiar with what "feeling bad" means for us — noticing where we feel tense, heavy, and so on. In my experience when we become with a sensation like that (whatever it is for each of us), the label "bad" can fall away.

  9. Walter says:

    If there's one thing I don't understand about the propensities of human, it it our longing to escape from the difficulties of living. We have classified everything according to its positiveness and negativeness. One thing I learn about life is that I should not stifle my understanding with my limited knowing. Life is a learning process, resisting what we perceived as a contradiction with our beliefs only serves to keep us ignorant. 🙂
    My recent post 5 lies you should never fall for

  10. Sumi says:

    The typo's funny:) But Duff, I have a question. How do you know that the existential problems cannot be solved with simple solutions? What if they are not profound at all? What if they are just like other needs. When you are hungry, you get some food, when you feel existential anxiety, you watch the stars and say to yourself: "There is so much that we don't know!" And what's music for, and dance and the arts? What are kisses for? Perhaps staring into the void for too long can indeed make your soul starve. Because meaning is the food for your soul. And philosophy is a soul detox:) Love, Sumi

    • You do make a good point there Sumi, and I agree that in some moments existential problems can dissolve when one is absorbed into contemplation of cosmic beauty, of the meaningfulness in the ordinary.

      That said, the process of confronting one's nonexistence is not all roses and kisses, at least for some of us!

      • Sumi says:

        I can see that Duff:) One part of me is just like that! I can relate. I like your articles! It's like having a conversation with that part of me. I don't meet that one often among people. They're all trying to silence it I guess but you express it so beautifully and honestly! Carry on!:)

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