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steve pavlina, homer simpson and sanity.

Anyone with any interest in the blog as a tool for promoting inspiring essays of length and quality must eventually visit Steve Pavlina. Whether or not you agree with everything he says, you have to admit it’s lucidly argued, logical and sharp. The self-development game is full of similar information that constantly requires reformulating as times and situations change. Doing this with precision is what Steve Pavlina is good at.

But do you really want to be Frank Grimes?

Cast your mind way back to the 8th series of the Simpsons, when it was still genuinely funny. Homer makes an enemy at the plant- a new and keen employee called Frank Grimes. Frank takes work seriously and loathes the ineptitude and laziness of Homer. He resents the fact that Homer has a wife, a big house, three kids and seems genuinely happy whereas he rents a shoe box apartment and is friendless and undervalued. He tries to expose Homer by tricking him into entering a competition for kids. The idea being to show that Homer is just a kid. But Homer wins and nobody except Frank Grimes minds. In fact this last failure of the people of Springfield to see the hardworking value of Grimes drives him over the edge and he electrocutes himself whilst pretending to be as ‘stupid’ as Homer. Except he dies as a result.

If you can rent, buy or download this episode do so. There is more wisdom here than in any TV show I can remember. The way Homer negotiates with a crazy world without alienating people is brilliantly shown. And poor Frank Grimes, who has triumphed over incredible hardships to even get a job, is portrayed with merciless realism as the effective, hardworking, humorless dork that he is.

Attempts at self-development, personal improvement, outer achievement cannot depart too far from sanity. The advantage that the self-development coach has over the normal guy is that he only has to talk the talk, it’s sort of optional that he live it too. But normal people (unless they read self- help books for entertainment) want to live the advice they are taking on board- and if it tips you further away from sanity then it is not only useless it is worse than useless. It was pointed out to me by Tahir Shah recently how crazy it is to create a ‘hothouse kid’, a child who can perform brilliantly in front of adults, and, er, that’s it. The most precious and, maybe, dwindling quality out there is not brilliance but common or garden sanity. For every 160IQ genius who enters college two years early how many really sane people are there? The twentieth century has been a battleground for sanity on so many different levels from the artistic to the patriotic to the religious. And sanity has often not triumphed.

Self-development can really improve your life. It can get you out of a rut of pessimism and laziness. It can get you using discipline to achieve what you want to achieve. But, and this is why many people deride or are suspicious of self-development gurus, it can also make you nuts. As you conquer your disabilities, as you stride forward, as you gain that blackbelt and learn to speak before an audience of thousands you run the risk of beginning to despise those less determined, less persistent, less, motivated than yourself. You begin to assume that what works for you will work for everyone. You become arrogant, which is only a problem in as much as it is a form of stupidity. Frank Grimes is arrogant. He thinks he knows what life’s all about but he doesn’t. The curse of arrogance isn’t that it’s ‘bad’, it’s that it makes you think ‘this is all there is’,  that you ‘know the score’. In other words you have shut the door on further development.

In one great scene Homer shows Frank Grimes around his house and Grimes is astounded that Homer has met Presidents and even been into outerspace as an astronaut. But Homer’s success is symbolically the fate of the humble. They can keep on developing literally forever. They aren’t sure they are there already.

So just how much self-development can you manage before you go a bit insane? Well, when I did aikido, five hours a day five days a week with the Tokyo Riot Police for a year I went a bit mad. I forgot how to live. I was surviving not living. I never noticed beautiful or interesting things. But I improved no end at aikido. Similarly, when you take the time to write a book it’s very easy to go a bit nuts (one reason why so many writers are cranky) though the reward is having a piece of permanent shelf space.

I think the way to look at self-development is to see how you can use discipline, and learning stratagems, persistence, to improve sanity, rather than boost your own abilities no matter what. It means that any attempt to do anything to change your outer life must be weighed up as having an impact, potentially, on sanity. Some will have a positive impact, but many will tip you towards the negative. Then you need some therapeutic counterbalance. For example when I’m writing a book I reward myself with a lax physical fitness schedule. I’ve learnt the hard way that pushing yourself mentally and physically at the same time is just asking to be stressed out ie. insane.

Part of remaining sane, in the long term, means understanding that any achievement is at a price- either to you or to your family and friends or the general public. A small example is writing an insider non-fiction book about your work. The public will love it but your work mates may feel betrayed. Once you acknowledge that there is a sacrifice to be made and you don’t shy away from this, then you can make the choices that you won’t regret later.

One review of Steve Pavlina’s recent book perceptively made the distinction between self-development books as motivation (a great one is ‘Thinking Big’ by David Schwartz) and self-development books as life improving stratagem resources- which is more the end of the spectrum Pavlina occupies. Don’t get me wrong, he has some great stuff on his blog but the feeling I get is that Steve Pavlina is very focused on his own goals, very clear about them, and very good at expressing his own journey. But that kind of focus, if developed before you ‘have a life’ so to speak, can turn you into a Frank Grimes. But check it out for yourself.

Frank Grimes’ head is crammed full of a burning desire to get on. He wants to compete in life but he doesn’t know why. He doesn’t enjoy the riches of life at all- he only values their symbolic worth as tokens of success. But success as an abstract concept can only take you so far, it has to be success at something.

Being sane means realizing first what occupies your headspace before you try to cram it with more stuff, more ambition.

With sane self-development you realize that once you know what occupies your headspace you can then decide whether you want to ditch stuff or not. You can then move forward surprisingly fast. A former hippy, a German woman I met, who went from taking acid and living a life of basic indolence to training to be what she is now: a top cabinet maker, told me: “You can change your life in a month.” Which she did.


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