Why Buying Things Isn’t Self-Help

By Duff McDuffee on February 17th, 2011 1

“If I buy it, then I’ll be motivated to change.” This faulty logic leads to suburban basements filled with dust-collecting treadmills, weight sets, and ab gizmos, cupboards filled with unopened vitamins, backpacks with unopened Moleskine journals, and bookshelves (or Kindles) lined with half-read self-help and business books. A set of free weights certainly can help you to get strong, but buying one won’t give you any more motivation to do what is difficult.

The truth is, it’s much easier to buy something than actually change yourself. Hence why we get self-help as consumerism. Gurus of self-help products regularly contribute to this problem. At the Tony Robbins “Unleash the Power Within” seminar I attended, Robbins encouraged everyone present to give a several hundred dollar deposit for his “Mastery University” series of very expensive seminars, using such twisted financial logic like “if you think you can’t afford it, that’s just your limiting beliefs about money that will keep you poor forever” and encouraging people who didn’t have the money in their checking accounts to write a post-dated check and “find a way” to get the money into their account before the check cleared. (The truth is I know several folks who declared bankruptcy from using this method to attend Robbins’ seminars.) Talking out of the other side of his mouth, Robbins also frequently harps on people who read self-help books and go to seminars but don’t take enough “massive action.” Personal development authors encourage selling with emotional triggers to get impulse buys from customers, yet then turn around and blame the customer for not getting results. Talk about not taking responsibility!

Having thumbed through Tim Ferriss‘ book and read numerous comments on this blog and elsewhere, his 4-Hour Body in the words of the NY Times, “reads as if The New England Journal of Medicine had been hijacked by the editors of the SkyMall catalog.” Discussions online about the book seem to center on which products to buy, whether the PAGG stack, the Philips goLITE (something I’ve been considering myself for fixing my messed up sleep schedule and SAD), kettlebells (something I enjoy exercising with, but purchased and honestly didn’t really use for several years), etc. Even discussion about the various diets in 4HB are about what to consume—whether “slow carbs” or a gallon of milk a day.

Whatever happened to things like, say, discipline as the foundation of self-help?

I got into self-help because I lived with constant, debilitating anxiety as a kid. Nobody could be courageous for me—I literally had to do it myself. I think everyone should be involved with self-help to a degree precisely because there are things one can only do for one’s self—whether assessing one’s level of honesty, expressing one’s emotions authentically, getting sufficient daily exercise, managing one’s personal finances in the way that best fits one’s values, etc. Note that there is no purchase necessary to develop self-discipline, to pursue greater honesty, to manage one’s finances, or even to exercise (you can start with or even go your whole life just with walking, barefoot running, pushups, pullups, situps, bodyweight squats, playing sports, etc.). There are still many self-help consumer goods that tempt me—especially exercise equipment of various kinds—but I know myself well enough now to realize that if I don’t have the discipline first to exercise regularly, buying a heavier kettlebell certainly isn’t going to magically give me that.

I Can Make You Self Reliant

One of the major problems with the effectiveness of modern medicine is what doctors call “compliance.” For example, if you have a bacterial infection, chances are penicillin will kill it. But chances are also good that you won’t remember to take all your medicine, thus leaving some little nasties still floating around in your body, waiting to erupt again later, and possibly even becoming immune to antibiotics because you didn’t take the full course of your medicine. Compliance is even worse for things like diabetes that require major lifestyle changes—in the US, non-compliance is 98% for folks with diabetes, and non-compliance is “the principal cause of complications related to diabetes including nerve damage and kidney failure” (source: Wikipedia).

Regardless of what your opinion is of Western allopathic medicine, the fact is that following through is difficult for most people for a variety of reasons: unexpected side-effects of the treatment, cost of prescription medicine, complexity of the regimen, poor trust or communication between patient and health provider, and even simple forgetfulness or other psychological factors. And that’s just for easy things like taking a pill every day. For things like diabetes and hypertension, the lifestyle changes required are so huge for most people they can’t even conceive of doing the basic things required.

Note that this compliance issue also occurs not only with health professionals but also with self-help purchases—whether a set of supplements learned about in a book like The 4-Hour Body, a late night infomercial exercise program, or an overpriced motivational seminar, chances are you’re not likely to follow through with the incredibly difficult path that such purchases require to get the advertised results. There may even be unforeseen side-effects that the sage on the stage somehow neglected to mention during his 4-hour sales pitch. This is why I generally recommend to people that they try something free and foundational first, then and only then think about buying something that might help. For instance, if you’re looking to get in shape, start with three 15-minute walks a week. If you can do that for a month, add 3 sets of pushups from the knees with your walks. Keep that up for a month and then change your breakfast to something like oatmeal and fruit or some hard-boiled eggs with or without the yolks.

This same principle is true of technology that supposedly makes you “more productive” (B.S.—technology amplifies your current habits and tendencies whether productive or distracted by every shiny object on the internet), exercise equipment that supposedly gives you a six-pack (B.S.—visible rectus abdominus muscles come only from low bodyfat percentage, which largely comes from consistently eating healthy and not too much), or techniques that supposedly make sex bigger and better (B.S.—almost everyone agrees that sex is best when intimacy is present, which is the natural result of trust and commitment built over time).

Focus on the fundamentals, the things that require patience and persistence and are basically free or cheap, the things that are ultimately virtues, and then maybe buy something. But know that deep personal change has almost nothing to do with buying the right thing.

Image credit:



Powered by Facebook Comments

Tags: , , ,

34 responses to “Why Buying Things Isn’t Self-Help”

  1. JC Deen says:

    This post is so true. It almost hurts to know that many of us actually find comfort in purchasing something as opposed to doing what it actually takes to create a certain outcome.

    In terms of consumerism, I like the way Tyler Durden summed it up. "We are consumers. We're the bi-products of a lifestyle obsession."

    Then later he says "Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need."

    And it's true. All this 'stuff' in our faces all the time promises this or that, when in reality, we just don't want to either
    A) do the work
    B) deal with the pain as a result of said work

    Thusly – we believe we can just purchase our way out, like we do on a daily basis, with lesser, unimportant goods. However, the real problem arises when the line between the lesser tangibles and the priceless intangibles blurs.

    • Consumerism is a huge problem. Even Tyler Durden was a total hypocrite in his nice leather jacket when he says "We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't."…spoken by Brad Pitt, millionaire movie star! LOL

    • Jack Christopher says:

      To me, you hint at a narrative I hear more often in PD now. Self-help attracts people because major parts of modern life suck. That's opposite of the prevalent, "we're dawning a new age".

      I'd like to see people take a deeper, critical, systemic view of modern life.

  2. 32000days says:

    This is why I generally recommend to people that they try something free and foundational first, then and only then think about buying something that might help.

    This makes sense.

    After all, if a person isn't willing to start to step up to the plate for free (or if not free, at least less than $50-100 – i.e, free-ish, the price of a few books) what's to say the substantially higher price of an audio/video course, a live seminar, a seminar series, or a comprehensive coaching package is going to motivate them?

    Why would the "away from" goal (wasting thousands of dollars) be more powerful than the "toward" goal (transforming their life in ways that they can hardly imagine)?

    For things like diabetes and hypertension, the lifestyle changes required are so huge for most people they can’t even conceive of doing the basic things required.

    I guest posted something similar to this at

    The percentage of people who change their habits in the face of probable death is depressingly small… why should feeling bad or guilty about spending a few hundred or a few thousand dollars motivate them even more?

    This comment seems kind of pessimistic. It's not meant to be so, but the fact is that change isn't easy. If it were, everyone would have the beach body of their dreams and no one would be overweight.
    My recent post Everything you believe is wrong but that’s OK

  3. Greg Linster says:

    Ironically, self-improvement is subtractive. The key to improvement is removing this garbage you describe from your life. Once you remove the "noise" you'll actually have the time to improve yourself. Strangely, I speculate that many people would rather spend their days reading about self-help rather than actually helping themselves with the simple and free things you suggest.

    • I'm certainly guilty of spending my days reading about self-help than doing simple things to help myself! Even now, while I exercise regularly almost daily, I probably read and participate in online forums about exercise more than I actually exercise.

  4. John Soares says:

    Duff, personal development is important to me, but I focus on measured steps and, especially, applying what has been shown to work in quality scientific studies, primarily in the fields of psychology and sociology.

    Right now I'm reading an excellent book by psychology professor Heidi Grant Halvorson called "Succeed." It gives practical advice on goal setting and achievement based on the latest studies. 14 bucks and change on Amazon.
    My recent post Get Permission to Use Copyrighted Photos

    • That's great, John! I'll have to check out that book. I should be clear that I didn't mean to say one must only do things that are free to do "real" self-help, only that the very strong tendency from both consumers and producers alike is to emphasize purchasing things instead of doing things.

  5. liked the article, first time visitor, I will come back.

    I've realized some people are only looking for momentary approval, which is why they buy a whole bunch of stuff they never use or use once. For example, if my cousin blabbed for an hour about why she just joined Weight Watchers and how she's reading so-an-so's book to lose 20 lbs, she wants me to nod my head and say "Wow! That's great, blah blah blah." She then goes about her daily life skipping diet meetings and eating candy, but I'm not there when she falls by the wayside. It's only when she feels guilty and is looking for approval again does she go to the meetings (sporadically) and spends more money on weight loss products.

    For some people, not all, they're playing a "Look @ what I'm doing to change my life, be impressed!" game. But no one really cares because this person isn't serious, they're just looking for attention. The goal isn't real.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Jennifer! If you like, you can subscribe to new articles by email or RSS.

      That's a great game, have played that one quite a bit myself, heh. That whole "being serious" about a goal is an interesting thing. In Buddhism they talk about cultivating the aspiration before one can actually do something, like say be compassionate. So you basically do affirmations like "may I desire to be more compassionate" when you really would rather that jerk mind his own business, etc. So maybe playing this game could be seen as not yet committed, but at least aspiring to be committed to making a change.

      See also the stages of change model:

      People who play this game a lot are folks stuck between contemplation, preparation, and action stages.

  6. Gina says:

    Great Post Duff!
    Yea…I get the same thing with clients thinking they have to buy self care too (pedicure, massage, workshops etc)! We have been led to believe we can buy our way into and out of everything!

    Greg's comment above is right on!

    Reminds me of … "God is not attained by a process of addition to anything in the soul, but by a process of subtraction."- Meister Eckhart

  7. Gina says:

    The more you know, the less you carry. -Mors Kochanski

  8. Chris says:

    Yes, the people I know who go through time management system after system, and give up on them after a few days, come to mind. Many products and workshops, in my experience, can create a temporary "high," and this can have people start to compulsively buy more, looking to get the high again. On the other hand, I did find that some books and workshops deepened my interest in self-exploration, and when I had that interest, I think, I became more motivated to meditate consistently and do other practices that were available to me free of charge.

    • I've certainly done that too—tried many time management systems, productivity software, etc.

      I agree that buying things can deepen one's interests, or even run it's course after having gone through a number of programs whether good or bad.

  9. J.B. Duffield says:

    Not to be a vacuous contrarian or anything Duff, but I don’t believe we’ve simply been taught to “buy rather than do”. I think our desperation for happiness is being exploited for money. Here’s what I mean. Imagine you’re lost in the desert and desperate for water. Trouble is, people wanting to exploit your thirst install hundreds of fake coin operated water fountains. Of course you hope you can spend your way to salvation. But I don’t think you’ve been taught to “purchase” rather than “do” (seek water). You’ve just been mislead by selfish unscrupulous people….selling false hope. Just a thought. J.B. Duffield

    • That's certainly one way of putting it, and it is especially apt for Robbins and Ferriss.

    • Emma says:

      Oh, I just posted something similar below but hadn't noticed your post, J.B.

      I agree, and I would add that, if self-help consumers are as conscientious on the whole as I think they are, we really don't need to add another layer of burden to that, "oh, I've been lazy, trying to solve my problems by buying another book or program when it's really that I just don't want to *do* anything!!" So no, I don't think the issue is a lack of discipline, but a lack of supportive communities/individuals, TRUE mentors, people who have really been there. Not as a substitute for discipline by any means, but as a prerequisite for keeping up the motivation for personal growth.

  10. Emma says:

    My impression is that the most unscrupulous 'gurus' are actually taking advantage of people's feeling of dissatisfaction with their lives. In other words, one day the person wakes up and realizes their life is not going as they would like it to in some way. In steps the guru, saying "you can have change and be successful like me, if only you follow my proven 5 step process for $_____!"

    This can reinforce the person's feeling that they are inadequate, i.e. the guru has this all figured out and I don't. It also reinforces the idea that "there is something wrong with me, that needs to be improved, changed or fixed". So someone could be perpetually trying to change or fix themselves, but their efforts will never be successful because….people can't be changed or fixed! They can only become more of who they already are! So for me, it's got less to do with "buying rather than doing", and more about the fact that that buying is directed towards a questionable goal anyway.

  11. Emma says:

    That's not to say that people can't change the externals of their lives (job, relationships, weight), but it starts internally. I would also add that it is difficult if not impossible to muster the "discipline" to make changes on your own. Most of us human beings need at least one mentor, not a guru, but a supportive friend.

    While self-help consumers may not have such people in their lives (yet), friends don't necessarily cost any money. Gurus take advantage of that too creating a sense of belonging amongst the people who purchase the product/seminar.

  12. […] on hyvä postaus aiheesta: Why buying things isn’t self help. Saan itseni aika ajoin kiinni juuri tuosta ansasta. Haluttaa ostaa kaikkea, minkä haluaisin […]

  13. Great points Duff.

    I've been thinking about "free and foundational" lately, in terms of fitness. Walks and house chores are free, for instance, but you still have to be disciplined to take a walk or turn laundry into a workout.

    It's ironic that we sometimes need to buy things to teach us or remind us about the free things — that make the difference.

    I think the consumerism works so well in self-help/personal development because people don't want to do the hard (free) work — because yes, it can be very, very hard — and they would rather have some product do the work for them. Buying a product is often a way of putting off the work, given that the product doesn't aim to get them to take real action.
    My recent post How to Mindfully Use Internet to Improve Your Emotional Well-Being

    • Yea, and I am certainly not free from the irony of buying things in order to remind me to do something free!

      I suppose the positive view would be that we can see buying things as the aspiration to do the hard work, even if misguided, as if a symbol of what our true values are that we don't always have the will to enact.

  14. really good site .thank you for your time in writing the post.

  15. Owen Marcus says:

    I agree. Growth need not be the new materialism.

    It is like the line I remember reading in Born to Run where Christopher McDougall write about how barefoot running will take off when there is a shoe for it. Well, Vibram created their barefoot shoe so now we have a new sport.

    There is the unfortunate phenomenon in this culture where the value we place on things is often related to its cost. Often I think the change people get only comes from their monetary investment. I wish it wasn’t so.

    I do see programs like Landmark and Anthony Robbins helping people in spite of their hype. It might be my jadedness or 35 years in the business that has me feeling there are often cheaper, more effective and more sustainable ways… but as you said, they require work.

    The other problem I have with these trainings is they are a one shot deal. If there is follow up it is more expensive trainings. For years I have trained other men for free to lead free men’s groups that transform men’s lives. They work because we only take committed men who come four hours per week to work. They also do the homework they volunteer to do. It is work, but it works! I love it.

    Keep asking your questions!
    My recent post You Aren’t Divided – between your conscious and unconscious

    • Hi Owen, thanks for commenting.

      I think it's hilariously ironic how "barefoot running" has become an expensive new consumer niche! There could not be a more clear example of materialism. (And at the same time, I often fantasize about getting some Vibrams.)

      "I do see programs like Landmark and Anthony Robbins helping people in spite of their hype."

      I'm an outspoken critic of Robbins, and find Landmark highly problematic as well (I've written many articles here about that). One of the main problems I see in these types of "weekend transformation" workshops is exactly the premise that the most important changes in life could occur in a few days. While certain things can be catalyzed in weekend workshops, for 99% of the population, deep change simply takes time, effort, patience, and a lot of work that isn't particularly flashy. Things like showing up to work on time, abstaining from taking another drink, cleaning up the house, doing some pushups, being honest when you could get away with a white lie, changing a diaper before the wife asks—these are the kinds of things that constitute deep personal change, things that wouldn't even make sense to have a weekend workshop about.

      Personally I've never found gendered personal development appealing, and 4 hours a week of group therapy to me sounds like torture, but I do think you and I agree that the real change comes from doing the work.

      • Owen Marcus says:


        I agree completely with you – four hours of week of group therapy would be hell. Even one hour would be for me.

        Fortunately our men’s group is not therapy. I made it very clear when I started these pro bono groups that they weren’t therapy. I pissed off some other men because we don’t allow men on psychotropic meds.

        This culture operates under an assumption that men are bad and broken. I don’t. We never had the experiences, modeling or teaching that we needed. Given an opportunity to be real with other men, yes there can be crying – but there is a lot more deep laughing, men will flourish.

        Trainings may ignite the change. As you say, it is the constant throwing of the logs on the fire that produces the change. I have done that alone and I have done it with a group of committed men. I found that with the ‘right group’ it is easier and a hell of a lot more fun. We don’t have to do it alone just as we don’ need an expensive cheerleader telling us what to do.

        One of my missions is to encourage and support men in forming these deep groups. Groups that are not necessarily affiliated with any organization – groups that allow men to be men are powerfully simple. We have men who literally claim the group saved their lives. They certainly have saved marriages.

        The problem with this model… there is no big money in it. There is no quick fix. There is no glory. I would like to make this week to week, day to day work sexy. I want more men helping each other.

        The more we mature out of the weekend training model of transformation, the more likely we are to change ourselves and the planet. It is not for everyone, but I do believe there are more interested in it – you blog proves it.

        My recent post How Would You Change

        • Without knowing more about your groups, I can't say much about it. I will say however that any group in which men even occasionally cry with other men sure sounds like group therapy to me! The social taboo against crying for men in our culture is very strong. Many men can't recall having cried in 10 or more years.

          Also, I am somewhat disturbed by the requirement that no man in one of these groups be on any psychotropic drugs. I don't think taking an SSRI makes a man "broken" necessarily, even though my own experience with such things was negative and I generally recommend people be cautious of trying to drug their problems away. But for many people psychotropic drugs are part of a wholistic solution to their problems. Futhermore, unless I am their therapist or physician, it is none of my business whether a man is currently on a prescription for Paxil or Wellbutrin or anything else, any more than whether they are circumcised or not. This requirement also reminds me of the cult of Scientology which has a similar requirement.

          That said, I basically agree with the notion that personal work through time is more valuable than a WOW weekend workshop. Personally, I've found that I don't fit into groups that self-identify as "men's groups" though, as my way of being and my feminist philosophy tends to pose too much of a challenge to gendered binaries.

          As far as no big money in it, I'd say that's a plus! There is always a way to make a decent, respectable living from something that provides value to others, but only the pursuit of one's avarice provides opportunities to make the "big money."

  16. Jon says:

    Great post, Duff. This is probably my favorite post of yours. I definitely agree with the idea of starting small and free. If someone can't do that, then they can't take care of the bigger stuff.

  17. […] you’re a regular reader of Beyond Growth, you already know that buying things isn’t self-help. If you aren’t doing the free or cheap version of something (e.g. pushups), than buying […]

  18. That is such a great resource that you are delivering and you give it away for free. I love seeing web pages that understand the value of delivering a high quality resource for free. It is the old what goes around comes around routine. Did you acquired lots of links and also I see numerous trackbacks??

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.