The following is an excerpt, Chapter 14, from my new book — Real Help: An Honest Guide to Self-Improvement
“You got a dream … You gotta protect it. People can’t do somethin’ themselves, they wanna tell you you can’t do it. If you want somethin’, go get it. Period.” — Chris Gardner in the Pursuit of Happiness
This could be another run of the mill chapter of a self-help book about keeping your dreams guarded because everyone’s trying to tear you down. Again, this is true in a sense, but the cliche doesn’t fully explain what’s going on.
Taleb once said, “Life is like an Ayn Rand novel, except well written.” In Rand’s books, the protagonist is often an outlier who basically sees everything the opposite way of the common person in society.
Take Howard Roark, the protagonist in The Fountainhead.70 Howard is an architect who strives to make truly groundbreaking and aesthetically perfect buildings. Often, his creations are mocked by the masses, but with an underlying sense of envy at the real craftsmanship and originality of his work.
The character he’s juxtaposed against, Peter Keating, is the prototypical success. Also an architect, he follows the rules, pays homage to the greats, always does a stellar “by the book job.” He climbs the ranks, kisses the right asses, ascends the ladder, and gets everything he wants. But he’s not happy.
In Howard, he sees everything he’s not.
He often masochistically comes to Howard for advice. Howard gives it honestly and matter of factly without a hint of emotion, which infuriates him further. See, when you experience someone who’s the true antithesis of a societal drone, it’s infuriating.
Per Rand in the book, “Men hate passion, any great passion. Henry Cameron made a mistake: He loved his work. That was why he fought. That was why he lost.”
Howard’s mentor, Henry Camron, urged him not to follow the same path of daring originality and true love for the work because he knew it was a surefire recipe for ostracism. Even if you don’t aspire to be great, original, brilliant, or famous, even slightly deviating from the norm runs the risk of that ostracism and social rejection.
The problem isn’t that it will be this super severe criticism. It’ll be more of a “death by a thousand cuts” situation that will come from many angles and many people and will further fuel the Resistance against your calling. It’ll come from people you love too.
When I told my mom I quit my job, I could hear the disappointment and concern in her voice. Didn’t matter that I was making five times as much money as I’d been making at the job. The script runs deep. What’ll help you get through this is understanding that people genuinely can’t help themselves. Neither can society at large.
Having this understanding means everything. There’s no grand conspiracy, but different little variables — human nature, status, group mentalities, etc. — inevitably lead to the same predictable situations.
While the situations seem trivial in each individual instance, they will crush you when combined unless you’re ready to deal with them. It’s good to think of yourself this way: as the hero going through a narrative arc.
That narrative, archetype, and desire for adventure runs deep. Harness it. How do you harness it? Through the combination of becoming the hero of your own life but also moving in silence, so to speak, when it comes to your daily interactions. First, let’s start with the hero.
There’s this idea called the “narrative fallacy,” which says human beings mistakenly look at their life through the lens of narration. Screw the narrative fallacy. Narration is a feature, not a bug. Prescriptions fall flat and journeys inspire.
Let’s walk you through the journey, talk about the characters you’ll encounter, and give you the tools you need to thwart the enemies in your path and come home victorious.
The Nobody Phase
The hero often starts off as a nobody. Peter Parker is a dork. Harry Potter an abused orphan child. Katniss Everdeen is just chilling in District 12 minding her own business. Why is the protagonist often a lowly unassuming nobody?
Because we relate to this person most.
We don’t feel like heroes ourselves. It’s not like you’re just depressed or super unhappy. No, you’re just an extra in the movie. You don’t feel special. You feel as if there are thousands of other people who can do what you do or live how you live. What makes the arc of the journey so appealing is seeing someone go from ordinary to extraordinary because that’s what you want. Peter Parker gets his super strength, Harry Potter becomes the strongest Wizard. Katniss becomes a true warrior.
Another theme in these stories is that the seemingly weak qualities of the characters come in handy. Their meekness makes them a bit more discerning and empathetic, which comes in handy during tough challenges and obstacles, as well as helping them to gain allies along the way. Think about how this can translate into your life.
Right now, you might not think of yourself as strong, but the negative aspects of your past can help mold you in becoming the hero.
In my case, had I not screwed up my life so much, I wouldn’t have as many interesting stories to tell. I wouldn’t be able to relate with people who feel like failures and losers without first being a failure myself. My message cuts through noise better because I’m not speaking from a pedestal like your guru who never went through hardship and just started writing articles.
In your case, you’ll come to understand that your ordinariness is your superpower. Going from unassuming to becoming the hero feels much better than coming out of the gate successfully.
Try to think about how you can flip the negative upside down and use it to your advantage like the hero. You’re shy and timid? Learn to help the shy and timid; think of Susan Cain, author of Quiet, who helped other introverts become comfortable with themselves. You doubt yourself? Become the example for those who doubt themselves. You often overstep and try too hard? Find the arena for your gregariousness to thrive.
Answer the Call
Uncle Ben gets shot, and right before he dies tells Peter, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Harry gets invited to Hogwarts. Katniss swaps places with her sister and enters The Hunger Games. The unassuming protagonist “answers the call.” You have this call in your life. You have it more than once, but whether or not you answer it is up to you. I’ve told you about my call — when my friend asked me to write for his website.
Sometimes the call comes through an invitation. Sometimes it comes through pain and loss. It’s important to understand the call and respond to it. It could come in the form of a seemingly trivial opportunity, like getting to volunteer in an industry you want to try or having a coffee with a potential mentor. It could come in the form of a crisis, such as realizing you’re 40 years old, you’ve spent two decades in the wrong industry, and you’re stuck with the wrong partner.
You can either answer the call, which runs the risk of throwing your life into chaos make no mistake about it, or push the feelings down as far as possible and “run out the clock” on your life.
If you do accept the call, remember how the hero always begins the journey. They have no idea what the hell they’re doing. You will be clumsy. You’ll suck. But you can become a hero by the “end of the journey.”
Life is a continual evolution, so there’s no true endpoint, but you’ll go through periods of your life that will feel like this narrative arc. You’ll go through this arc when you build a new core pillar for your life like I did with writing.
The hero often accepts the call reluctantly. They’re not always gung-ho about it. Just because you’re not super confident about starting a new life path doesn’t mean you can’t succeed.
You don’t have to be super-amped up to begin, but you do need to begin.
The Many Challenges
Your villain will always be the Resistance. It will take many archetypal forms and present challenges along the way. You have the beguiling voice of the siren that represents the hero’s weakness for lust, aesthetics, and beauty. Think of people with “golden handcuffs” who answer the call of the siren and have many shiny and nice things, but no meaning. The challenge is often a manifestation of your inner demons. Think of the fact that Harry Potter has a piece of Voldemort, who is evil, in him.71
Your demons, flaws, vices are all constantly trying to pull you into hell. How do you rise above?
Well, as the arc lengthens, the hero gains confidence. The more you’re able to exert control over your life, the more confident you’ll be in the future. To spark the momentum, you need to begin. It often comes from being able to see the end point a bit.
So first you stumble around, and then you get a little win — traction. After you get traction, you see the bigger picture so you can fight those demons.
The more I realized that I could have a shot at this writing thing for real, the more the vices melted away. I stopped drinking and doing drugs altogether. I begrudgingly learned to be more organized. My laziness and procrastination melted away because I gave them a reason to.
Momentum breeds confidence, but not without its struggles. Of course, you’ll have starts and stops just like the hero. You’ll make it just in the nick of time. You’ll have those moments where you feel like all is lost. What’s the thread that ties through the theme of every hero who helps them make it through? They know they’re serving a larger purpose.
At a certain point, they realize it’s not necessarily about them but rather what they can provide to the world.
You can provide and be the hero in many different senses. You’re not just the top car salesman in your city. You’re helping people keep their families safe while going on grand adventures, helping young adults fully enter the world with their first car, and providing a key need to help many people make a living. You’re not just a computer programmer. You’re helping build the digital infrastructure that runs the entire planet. No writer is just a writer. You’re inspiring, giving people an escape from a cruel world, telling stories that shed light on the human condition in a way that gives people real pause and reflection.
Whatever path you choose in life, it’s not corny to look at it as a mission. It’s imperative. It’s the only way you can face the challenges and win.
The Climax, Final Battle, and Return Home
There is no one moment where you “arrive,” but there are little arcs you’ll go through — years of your life — where you’re striving toward a certain aim, and you triumph. You get what you want.
After two years of night school and a side job at a fast food restaurant, you get a job doing the new trade you learned and double your income. You struggle for years to build your online business, and then you finally quit your job. Years and a hundred pounds later, you get to enjoy the activities you love.
To get there, you’ll reach a pivotal moment that will happen on your way to completing your journey. You’ll have some of your highest levels of fear just when you’re about to get what you want. We fear failure and we fear success.
I’ve seen other writers get some traction, ascend very close to their tipping point, and then flame out and disappear. I’ve felt it. You get this weird feeling that you don’t deserve to be successful. You think it’s too good to be true. Any day now, it’s all going to come crashing down.
The good news? Push through that moment, and you win. How? By realizing you’ll have a level of confidence and meaning that’s impossible to get without that final push. Feel that legendary status on the horizon — not a legend to others, but to yourself. You just have a different shine and swag when you did what the hell you said you were going to do. It’s hard to explain, but so worth achieving.
Then, you just end up starting a new adventure. Life is a series of cycles with no end point. Winning and becoming the hero won’t sustain you at all. You want to climb all over again. It’s just a game. A fun, messy, tragic, confusing, chaotic, and joyful game.
Now you’ve had the meandering narrative to get you inspired. Let’s look at things a little bit more practically for your day to day life; some of the common villains, challenges, and obstacles you’ll face.
How To Deal With the Crabs in a Bucket Mentality
I’ve realized how insidious, pretentious, and outraged the world has become, so I’ve opted out of that sphere of society totally. I don’t read the news, I’m on social media for business purposes only, and I don’t talk about current events with people.
Now, you don’t have to become as heavily guarded as me. But the more you succeed, the more you see how nearly all of your surroundings, especially people, are trying to drag you down hard. This is nothing new, but I don’t think people understand how bad it is, how much power these stimuli have over them.
Remember, the Resistance is formless. It’ll take shape in the media, TV shows, conversations, books, signs on the street, everywhere. When you become more observant, you’ll see how much this message of helplessness has permeated our culture. You think it’s not affecting you, but it is. This doesn’t mean shut the world out. But it does mean you’ll need a very refined BS meter.
Avoid these influences when you can, and just focus on doing the work.
Here’s how the process will work. At first, nobody cares. You’re Peter Parker. I remember the first time I mentioned to someone that my article had been published on a semi-popular website. “Oh, cool,” was the response. Since people give up on their dreams 99% of the time, people usually brush you off when you’re at the beginning. Better to not even mention what you’re working on, even at this point, because you develop the practice of handling other people’s reaction to your success before you actually have it. You’re training yourself for the moments that will happen next.
The moment you start to get any traction at all, your demeanor changes. Peter gets in the cage fight with his super strength and wins. People get the sense there’s something different about you. They don’t always like different. Normon Osborn, best friend turned foe, grows suspicious of Peter. They will want to treat you like the old you. People are habitual creatures who don’t always respond well to change.
If you’d mentioned what you were working on in the beginning, they’ll ask you about it now, figuring your change has something to do with it. Granted, some people will support you. And when you really succeed, people will fawn over you. But you keep the same attitude regardless.
“How’s the writing coming along?”
Understate your positive feelings about it. Be self-deprecating. “Oh, it’s just a hobby. I like it, but not taking it too seriously.”
If there’s a visible element to your success like losing weight; people will want to “pick your brain.” At a glance, it’ll seem like genuine curiosity, which will make you want to tell the truth. Don’t. Just say something like “I have good genes. I just had to get back in the gym a little bit.”
They don’t want to hear about the meticulous calorie tracking, four days per week regimen, and nutrition research that went into your transformation. Deep down, they believe they’re at least equal to, if not better than you, meaning that you must have some sort of “magic trick” for success. Letting them know you just exert more effort than they do is a quick way to stir envy.
On your arc, it’s not necessarily that people are going to be outright rude or mean to you at all. Your friends will still more or less like you. Society will keep spinning on its axis without noticing you. Things will more or less be the same. But as you radiate this self-actualized sort of energy, there will be a subtle opposite reaction.
You’ll notice more how society is geared to fail.
It’s not that people will become more inherently soul-sucking, but you’ll be more aware of these scripts, and this heightened awareness fuels this opposing force. The tall poppy indeed gets cut down if you’re not careful. Again, nobody is trying to do this to you. It just is. You’ll have to navigate this cunning form of resistance for the rest of your life.
Pretend You’re Like Everyone Else
I’m opinionated. I have big ideas to share and disagree with much of conventional wisdom. Whenever I state my opinions too often, I get in trouble. This goes back to the idea of reflecting other people’s inadequacy to them. One of the easiest ways to sour a conversation is to make someone feel dumb. Another easy way is to share an opinion that goes against their belief system, which is an extension of their identity as a human being.
Why do you think arguments about hot button topics get so heated? When you’re arguing about belief systems, you’re arguing against someone else’s value as a human being. You’re not literally doing this, but that’s how it’s perceived.
I still slip up from time to time, but I’ve come to realize it’s better to engage in small talk, discuss the mundane like the weather and celebrity news, and do my best to fit in with other people. Some people do want to talk about big ideas, debate, share strategies, etc. Value those people. Connect with them more. Often, these people will end up in your circle because of your shared interests. Otherwise, mum’s the word.
I reserve this medium for the messages I really want to share because I know people are seeking it out. Only people who have the desire to improve would read a self-improvement book or article. Even then, people often begin reading with their horns up because cynicism tends to be a default state of mind, even for positive people.
It does you no good to evangelize to people in person. Hell, I have to temper my writing, even though the point is to try and help. Forcing ideas is the worst way to convince anyone of anything, especially in conversation.
First, it doesn’t work in such a small timespan. Nobody is going to change after having a “big idea” conversation with you. Second, no matter how well-intentioned you are, you’ll come across as arrogant and judgmental. Last, the vast majority of people do not care about self-improvement to a degree that would actually help them, and they never will.
Don’t try to save them. They don’t want to be saved. Let them rot. This is a cold-hearted way to think, but it’s effective and deals with the reality of the world we live in.
It took me a long time to realize that. Where you’re immersed in self-improvement, surrounded with people who want to improve, and focus on that improvement to the exclusion of “normal” activities, you start to believe self-improvement is ubiquitous. It’s not. Yes, there are millions of people out there genuinely trying to live a better life, but that number is small compared to the total population.
For the most part, people just want to maintain the status quo and live how they’re currently living. They gave up on the idea of self-actualization a long time ago. You can’t save them. So don’t even try. You’ll want to be their messiah, but what’s a god to a nonbeliever? Leave it alone.
Stop Wanting People To to Believe in Your Legitimacy
Here’s a tough pill to swallow. No matter how successful you become in a route that’s not traditionally defined, traditional people won’t give you the credit you think you deserve.
Imagine two different scenarios.
Scenario A: You go to MIT, Johns Hopkins, or Harvard Law, and go on to become an engineer, doctor, or lawyer. You’ll be showered with praise. You’ll be the pride of your family and the envy of your peers. With a multiple six-figure salary, you’ll be at the top of the employment food chain, garnering respect from your colleagues and community.
Scenario B: You have no college degree. Instead of shelling out 100k to go to a four-year institution, you got a job out of high school and started tinkering around online. You learn how to develop e-commerce sites, become a dropshipping expert, and create a seven-figure income for yourself. Or you’re the top plumbing contractor in your city with your own business, making 10 times the amount of a lawyer or doctor. You’d think being more successful than a doctor or lawyer in purely monetary terms would garner more respect, but you’d be wrong. It doesn’t fit the script, so you don’t get the credit.
Again drawing from these stories. Often the hero wears a mask. Nobody knows who he or she is, nor does the person themselves actually get the credit. The traditional route of success where everyone will pat you on the back is, again, the call of the siren; the lust and addiction to validation.
The trick here is learning how to get your validation from yourself, from your work, from your mission. Validation from other people doesn’t even exist. Nobody can validate you. It’s not like they have a “you’re validated!” sticker they can stick on your shirt. You can only perceive validation. Your interpretations of other people belong to you.
This means that if you just figure out how to please yourself, your job is done.
The world may never fully recognize you for your accomplishments. The question is who were you accomplishing these things for? Yourself or the world? Marcus Aurelius once said that sanity means “tying your identity to your actions.”
At the end of the day, it’s not about success, money, respect, status, or recognition. This journey is about sanity. It’s about finding a safe haven in your mind built brick by brick with the accomplishments that serve no other purpose than making you feel good about yourself so that you can look at the mirror and like what you see.
You want to get yourself to the point where you’re genuinely amused with your life, so much so that you don’t even feel the need to share it with other people. I announced the launch of my first two books to all my Facebook friends because I wanted praise. I’ll promote this book of course, but not to my social circle. They’re not going to buy it anyway.
You’ll get to the point where you can just take a vacation without having to post pictures of it online. You can have millions in the bank without the urge to buy a Rolex and a Lamborghini. You’ll buy stuff because you like it. You’ll do things because you want to do them. As your success increases, if you’re smart, your neediness and validation-seeking decreases.
Then, a funny thing happens. You’ll watch everyone else and see how much they crave validation from others with all their social media peacocking, gossip and status signaling, buying shit they don’t want. And you’ll silently chuckle. You won’t pity them either. You’ll just understand the nature of the game.
You know how the world works, and you know your role in it. That’s all you need.
Ayodeji is the author of Real Help: An Honest Guide to Self-Improvement