Personal Development Became My New Religion. And I’m Okay With It.

A religion scholar's reflection on his road to self-improvement

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personal development

A few years back, I was taking a road trip in the Canadian summer sun. Cruising somewhere along the rugged cliffs of the Bruce Penninsula with the car radio turned to our national public broadcaster, I heard an interview with director Joe Berlinger.

He was talking about his newest movie, a documentary of Tony Robbins’ intensive weekend transformation experience called Date with Destiny. Although he was initially suspicious of Robbins, Berlinger said that he experienced a remarkable personal transformation through the experience.

And that was it.

But months later, as the snow piled around our windows in on an evening in northern Canada, it came again. The kids were down, and my spouse and I were searching Netflix for something to watch.

When we saw I am Not Your Guru, we laughed at first. But we decided to watch 10 minutes.

Two hours later, we were still sitting as the credits rolled.

It’s hard to explain how I felt after watching it. It didn’t transform me right away. I didn’t have a come-to-Jesus moment. But I was fascinated by what I saw: people having their lives transformed.

The footage was oddly familiar.

I spent my early life in evangelicalism, and much of what happens in personal development looks like–well–church. Step into any slick evangelical church and you’ll see a rock band playing soul-tugging music, lights dimmed, and a charismatic figure pacing across the stage.

Tony Robbins could be in church. And it’s no coincidence that the lines between personal development and religion are, well, blurry. Just ask T.D. Jakes or Joel Osteen, mega-church pastors turned personal development gurus.

I left evangelicalism years ago. And I’m a scholar of religion, so I have all sorts of critical lenses to study personal development from.

But I couldn’t shake the fact that I saw people being transformed. And it wasn’t really because Tony Robbins is magical or charismatic, although he’s a great speaker. I watched people who wanted transformation, who were looking for growth, and they found it, not unlike the people in that revival service all those years ago.

Berlinger was suspicious, so he followed the people after the seminar and found that the transformation “stuck.” Months later, the characters in the movie were still living transformed lives.

You might think that was my “conversion” to personal development, but it wasn’t. That just planted the seed.

My actual point of conversion came a few years later, as I was riding a commuter bus into the city for a day job working at a think tank. I was remarkably sad, struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder and still unpacking the loss of not becoming a professor, which was what I thought I’d do with my PhD.

You might say I was ripe for transformation. I was ready for a life-changing experience.

So when a Tony Robbins podcast rolled onto my playlist, I reached for the “skip” button. But instead, I listened.

And I was hooked. I’d listen to personal development speakers everyday, and my taste evolved from Tony Robbins to Les Brown to Lisa Nichols and Tom Bilyeu.

Yes, every day. Religiously.

Finding your power

The irony isn’t lost on me that my new religion looks a lot like my old one. Whether it’s because personal development came out of evangelicalism, or because evangelicalism is inherently narcissistic, I’m not sure.

But there are similarities.

Although science is at the borders of personal development, brought about in theories like “drive” and “grit,” or in Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability, this remains a world that often looks much more like religion than critical analysis.

And that’s okay with me.

Because what personal development gave me, as I was feeling lost and directionless, was a celebration of agency. My agency. My personal power.

That I wasn’t a helpless bystander in my own story. I could change it.

Through developing myself and working on my mindset, I took back agency of my own life. I grew the courage to choose where I wanted to go, and ultimately to admit to myself that I was deeply unhappy where I was at.

For the first time since leaving academia a crushed person, I came to see that I could control my future—not perfectly, but I could shape it. I created a vision that excited me. And that made me feel more alive and inspired than I had in a long time.

It’s not about the messenger

I’ve spent my life around religion, and yes, a lot of religious leaders are hypocrites. The personal development world is no different.

But I can’t deny that I’ve been helped by it.

I’ve witnessed my share of disgraced religious leaders, and personal development will be no different.

But at the heart of my new belief system is not a guru; it’s a belief in myself.

The guru is the guide, the Yoda… you’re the hero of this journey. And if one seems more like a Jar Jar Binks than Yoda, ignore them.

To the naysayers

Now there are, rightly, a lot of personal development skeptics. I don’t blame them. Frankly, most of personal development falls on a continuum between profundity and crap.

The other day I was targeted by a YouTube ad—obviously YouTube knows what I like. In a soft voice, the presenter asked me, “Do you believe a person could be trained to sense what’s in a book simply by placing your hand on the cover?”

No, moron. I don’t.

That’s crap.

Personal development centers on intangible experience.

One person’s deep revelation might be another person’s barf-bag. This is personal stuff.

And there are some serious potential red flags with personal development:

  • Toxic Positivity- It’s not healthy to pretend that things are okay when they’re not. If anyone tells you that, they’re full of it.
  • Ignoring Structures of Inequality: Deep structural inequality makes it a hell of a lot harder for some people to positive think their way to a better life or better world. So, the message that you’re just not believing in your own future enough gets pretty thin.
  • Manipulation: There’s nothing worse than manipulation, especially when there might be money involved.
  • Guilt: Feeling inadequate because other people are progressing towards a goal faster or feeling like you’re just not trying hard enough.

The personal development world has all of this crap and more. Did I mention it’s like a religion?

So if you step into personal development, you take the good with the bad.

The road of transformation

Monday morning, I’m reading Harvard Business Review and I see an article on “growth mindset.” At the board meeting, they’re talking about the power of positive thinking.

It turns out, this isn’t just my religion. It’s everyone’s. From Oprah to Tony, it’s becoming our societal religion, and nobody has to knock on your door to convert you to it. It might even become the dominant worldview of the twenty-first century.

And like so many of that faithful in other religious traditions, my own story has been shaped by my experience.

Why do I believe? Because it changed my life. Because I saw it. Because I just “know.”

Personal development became my new religion. And I’m okay with it.

So as I sit in the dark every morning and meditate, I’m amazed by the life-changing progress I’ve experienced over the past few years as a personal-development junkie.

  • I learned to believe I am enough
  • I’ve stopped letting other people determine my self worth (well, almost)
  • I know what I want to give to the world, and the only question is if I can grow enough to give it. Because nothing else is gonna stop me.

And I wish more people would discover this.

And if you’re skeptical or not a convert, I can’t say I blame you. This is my religion after all. It doesn’t have to be yours.

But there might come a day when it is.

Originally published at Roostervane.

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