"Relationship experts tell you how to maintain successful relationships, wealth experts teach you how to manage your money, and health experts help you improve your body. Unfortunately, these experts often disagree with each other…If you try to incorporate all these different ideas into your life, you’ll end up with a fragmented, incongruent mess. I soon realized that an intelligent approach to personal development would have to resolve these incongruencies somehow. Such an approach would have to make logical and intuitive sense, satisfying both head and heart. It would have to appear logically correct in order to satisfy the left brain, and it would have to feel intuitively correct in order to engage the right brain."
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I’m generally not a fan of many personal development books, but for Steve Pavlina I’m ready to make an exception. Personal Development for Smart People belongs on your bookshelf in between that copy of Linchpin by Seth Godin, and The 4-hour Work Week by Tim Feriss, because it focuses on helping readers develop a universal framework for living a more purposeful and spiritually self-aware existence in all aspects of their lives – whether it be work, health, finances or relationships. It also helps readers identify which of the ideas that enter their life are worth holding onto, and which are worth discarding – an important distinction to be learned for those who wish to live lives of simplicity, meaning, clarity and purpose.
A departure from most personal development narratives, what struck me most about this book was its lack of focus on direct solutions to problems that face most people, and a greater emphasis on the process by which readers can develop a system for understanding problems, analyze them within a self-defined framework and arrive at solutions that aligns with their personal aspirations and values.
Pavlina’s personal involvement in this book takes less of the form of a guru, and more of a guide. A friend and mentor who has made most of the mistakes that there are to make, and who has devoted a greater portion of his life and career to understanding how people can be spurred on to live lives of fulfillment and conscious personal growth – personal and professional growth which is self-determined, willful and congruent with one’s values and aspirations – this is a book that should always be within sight.
And there’s no better way to judge a book’s credibility than to begin by examining the experiences that make its author a credible spiritual guide.
The Big Idea
"Do you remember the exact moment you first became interested in personal development? I certainly do. It happened in January 1991 while I was sitting in a jail cell. I’d just been arrested for felony grand theft. This wasn’t my first run-in with the law, so I knew I was in trouble. I was 19 years old."
And so it begins.
From being troubled youth with a history of shoplifting and petty crime whose luck ultimately runs out, to becoming a college student able to complete four years of university education in just three semesters and graduating with the highest distinctions just two years later, to launching a career as an entrepreneur and successful game-developer by his early twenties, Steve Pavlina’s true obsession has been to identify universal principles that can be applied in order to pursue lifelong conscious growth, and to uncover the “hidden order beneath our seemingly chaotic growth experiences” (page xiv).
“The laws of physics are universal. Although their specific applications can vary tremendously, these governing laws don’t change based on our location, our culture, or our moods; the core principles are the same whether we’re dealing with rockets or submarines. Why should the field of personal development be any different? Couldn’t universal laws of consciousness exist as well?” (page xvi).
And in doing so, he’s identified three key laws of behaviour, upon which all other laws rely: Truth, Love and Power.
Sounds cheesy right?
Actually in his narrative, it makes sense: Truth is the approach to incorporating honesty and forthrightness within as many areas of your life as possible. Some of the questions he asks himself, and us, as readers, are designed to make us think, reflect and if need be, feel uncomfortable with our own “achievements”.
Do you really enjoy doing the work you do on a daily basis, or are you doing it because it delivers a false sense of security, freedom, maturity or concordance with social expectations?
Are your relationships increasing your feelings of personal happiness and fulfillment, or would you be better off being honest with yourself and your significant other, and moving on?
We are duly warned in turn – “the first step on your path to personal growth must be to recognize that your life as it stands right now isn’t how you want it to be. It’s perfectly okay to be in this position. It’s okay to want something and have no idea how to get it, but it’s not okay to lie to yourself and pretend everything is perfect when you know it isn’t” (page 5).
So where do we go next?
"Love is an emotion, but it’s also much more than that. One of the fundamental choices you face in every encounter is the choice to approach or avoid. You can try to connect with people, or you can pull away from them. You can immerse yourself in your day`s work, or you can procrastinate. You can approach any person, place, or thing with the intention to connect, or you can remain aloof and keep your distance. The decision to connect is the essence of love."
It’s one thing to be forthright and brutally honest about your aspirations, your relationships or your perceptions of a meaningful life, but what does that mean if you don’t have anyone or anything to share it with it?
A life lived in isolation for its own sake requires a level of sacrifice that may eventually make it untenable. Why not choose to connect and find others who will willingly help share the challenge of living in accordance with your high standards?
It is possible to live a life aligned with the truth, and do so in the company of a passion, a relationship or a community that allows you to be fully aware of your choices, actions, and their consequences.
“If you want to grow consciously, you must deliberately decide which connections you’ll strengthen and which you’ll allow to weaken. Such choices ultimately determine the shape of your life. In the long run, your life becomes a reflection of what you choose to connect with most often. When you feel good about your connections, you come into greater alignment with the principle of love” (page 28).
Build and nurture connections that will support and strengthen your pursuit of conscious, self-aware personal growth, and in the midst of success it will sweeten your sense of fulfillment; in the midst of failure, it will help strengthen your resolve against embracing despair.
"Power…is your ability to consciously and deliberately create the world around you. When your power is weak, you can’t effectively satisfy your needs and desires, and you become a victim of your environment. When your power is strong, you successfully cultivate a life of your own choosing, and your environment reflects it."
And this completes the trinity.
It’s one thing to be honest and forthright with yourself, and another to mediate the connections that you choose to latch onto and let go of in your life. But without some modicum of control over your immediate surroundings the first two laws are very limited in their effectiveness, and can only be exercised fully by your ability to manipulate your environment to reflect your will.
“To some people, the word power is almost a dirty word, negatively associated with abuse of force, corruption, and unbridled greed. But in truth, there’s nothing inherently evil or corrupt about the exercise of power. This principle can be aligned with truth and love, or it can be aligned with falsehood and disconnection. Whether power is used for good or evil is determined by the consciousness behind it” (page 48).
Realizing that power is what allows truth and love to have an effect in your life is necessary, but it is also important to realize just where the “feel good” aspect of truth and love needs to be delineated carefully. Understand that Pavlina’s advice isn’t necessarily about morality, but more about guiding you to take responsibility for your own actions, and hence your own conscious growth as a thinking being.
If you sincerely believe that acting in adherence to your personal conception of truth, and maintaining your connections with certain people, ideas and passions (love) will allow you to demonstrate the highest, most complete form of self-expression, then so be it, act so, but make sure to take total responsibility for all of your actions – good or bad.
There’s much more that can be said about this book, but then this summary would get too long. The only piece of advice I have to suggest is to not to read this book in one sitting, but rather pick it up, read through a few pages at a time, and try to reflect and implement what you pick up with earnestness.
This book is packed with some of Pavlina’s most well-developed ideas, honed over the course of a lifetime of contemplation, meditation, reflection and personal experimentation.
Use it to your advantage.