Why Is Personal Development So Popular? 4 Factors Behind Its Persistence
By Cecilia Meis
The term “intuitive eating” has seen a recent surge in popularity, but it was coined in 1995, and the roots of the concept date back to the early ’70s. The idea is that fad diets, cleanses, and fasts aren’t the answer. Instead, the answer is and always has been within you. According to the principles of intuitive eating, you can relearn how to eat when you’re hungry, drink when you’re thirsty, and avoid cravings by rebuilding trust with your body and differentiating between physical and emotional hunger.
It sounds simple enough, but for many people, the emotional relationship with food is a deep-seated and complex one. There’s no simple answer to addressing that relationship, but there are tools that can help you break the emotional ties and rebuild healthier ones in their place. Doing so takes consistency, determination, and time — maybe even the rest of your life.
Personal development has been called many things: too prescriptive, too woo-woo, too vague, too cultish. We’ve all seen the rise and fall of thousands of motivational speakers, authors, so-called experts, and coaches. We’ve all seen the negative press and enough bad players touting now-debunked claims that, for a while, society at large had a pretty bad taste in its mouth about this whole “personal development” thing.
Yet personal development has persisted. Why?
At its core, personal development is about changing your mindset in order to improve aspects of your emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual states. If you sincerely believe you possess the power to change your life in some way, there are tools to get you there.
Of course, you must account for the fact that true and lasting change is never going to come from a quick fix. It will require consistency, determination, and time — definitely the rest of your life.
Much like intuitive eating, personal development has seen a resurgence in mainstream popularity. In fact, the $11-billion industry is expected to grow another $3-5 billion in the next four years, according to the 2019 “US Market for Self-Improvement Products and Services” report. Why?
First, the continued growth of social media means purveyors of personal development have unparalleled access to an audience of billions, who in turn have access to seemingly endless amounts of content. Something’s going to resonate with someone.
Second, personal development is necessary. Younger generations are reporting unheard-of levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, much of which can be traced back to a society that promotes busyness and overwork. People want control. They want answers.
Third, access and need breed popularity, which breeds normalcy, which breeds acceptance, which breeds celebration of self-care. The “I did it!” Instagram posts only increase awareness, access, and popularity, further perpetuating the cycle.
Finally, perhaps for the first time, personal development is truly big enough to be personal. Interest has shifted from the messenger to the message itself. A mindset of “take what you want and leave the rest” now reigns supreme.
The result of it all is a clear ultimatum: Work to improve yourself and your skills now and in the years to come, or be left behind by the people who are.
Factor 1: Access
According to the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of US adults are active on at least one social media platform. Most people don’t need to see that number to know it’s true. Many of us can’t or won’t be without our phones for more than an hour.
Social media, like any great technological advancement, has the power to harm or heal.
“The changes in technology present both fresh opportunities to impact people’s lives and an ever-growing demand to be discerning with how you spend your time and energy,” says Marie Forleo, a personal development author and speaker.
There are more than 4.5 million Instagram posts containing the hashtag #personaldevelopment. The potential reach of a single video recorded on a smartphone is virtually boundless.
“Ultimately, [accessibility] is a good thing,” Forleo says. “People have the opportunity to unleash their creativity and connect with others. More people means a higher variety of approaches, perspectives, and styles of teachers to choose from.”
But with this access comes a responsibility for both the creator and the consumer. The consumer is tasked with sifting through thousands of posts that promise life-changing results and discerning the helpful from the innocuous from the harmful.
Regardless of the misleading highlight reels, social media has become an invaluable tool for personal development. Deeply vulnerable videos, lighthearted yet painfully relatable memes, and cartoon drawings of personal experiences all provide a mirror in which a person can see themselves reflected, thereby soothing their feelings of isolation. In turn, users get a vote (with their dollars, likes, saves, and shares) on which platforms will grow. This is crucial for historically underrepresented groups.
“The community gets to decide what’s being heard,” says storyteller and host of the On Purpose podcast Jay Shetty. “People are now going to be able to see people who look like them, sound like them, who have had the same pain as them, who want the same success as them. They’re going to see that reflected in the industry.”
In small ways, the community is already bringing about change. Updated Facebook algorithms prioritize personal posts above business posts. Instagram began eliminating the likes counter for each post in an effort to combat comparison, which has proven to have negative emotional effects on users. And Pinterest recently rolled out self-help assistance exercises in partnership with the Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation, Vibrant Emotional Health, and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
Factor 2: Need
Millennials — perhaps you’ve heard of them — matured amid chaos. Now the largest living demographic in US, they’ve seen political divisiveness on nearly every big issue, increasing debt burdens, and long-term economic instability.
All of the above plays a role in the state of millennial mental health in 2020, which is not exactly good. A recent survey conducted by Mind Share Partners found that half of US millennials have quit a job for mental health reasons.
“The world is waking up,” says Gabrielle Bernstein, a New York Times best-selling author and speaker. “People are uncomfortable in the chaos that they’re feeling. It’s like a pressure cooker we’re living in. People are seeking solutions rather than problems.”
Millennials aren’t afraid to ask for help. In fact, younger generations tend to be more inclined to seek professional mental care and to talk about it publicly than prior generations. But are millennials getting the help they need for the more nebulous but just as deadly forms of persistent stress? Ongoing stress can affect your entire body, from your endocrine system to your cardiovascular and nervous systems.
The current workplace culture in America rewards overwork and busyness and condemns rest and play. This culture begins in early education and is exacerbated in college. It’s only natural, then, that it flows into the workplace as well. The overall result of this culture: a persistent and nagging feeling of not being enough.
“Millennials are really struggling with comparison, with judgment, with feeling like they’re behind, with feeling like they’re not getting what they want,” says Lewis Howes, New York Times best-selling author and host of the School of Greatness podcast. “They’re seeking answers.”
The answer was once “do more.” Personal development provides another answer — another 1,000 answers. And millennials are here for it: In one survey, 94 percent of millennials said they were willing to invest, on average, $294 per month on self-improvement.
“You need to take care of yourself at a biological, cellular level if you want to do things like pursue your passion,” says Tom Bilyeu, founder of Impact Theory. “You simply won’t have the energy to fight through all the obstacles.”
Factor 3: The Age of Celebration
Need and accessibility breed mainstream popularity, which creates normalcy, and now personal development has positioned itself as an integral part of daily life. Directly or indirectly, we have all become fluent in the language of self-care.
Marianne Williamson, a household name in the personal development industry and author of four New York Times best-selling books, built a 2020 presidential campaign on the idea that love and compassion can solve any problem. She is no longer in the running, but her rise to prominence speaks to the growth of what was once a niche industry.
Even men, who have historically struggled with the stigma that self-care isn’t masculine, are joining the conversation. Actor Terry Crews spoke out about his experience with sexual assault. Rapper Kid Cudi talks openly of his history with drug abuse and depression. Howes’ most recent book tackles toxic masculinity.
To say that this is an age of celebration for self-care is to acknowledge that we, as a society, are sick in some way. That’s relatively easy to do with curated Instagram stories of bath bombs and “me days,” but a bit harder when it comes to the real, lifelong work.
For many of the personal development professionals trying to reach an audience in need of self-care, doing so means staying sharp, collaborating with other sharp minds, and finding new ways to deliver a timeless message. Competition isn’t the point.
“What’s the most important thing?” Howes says. “That’s helping people live a better life. I don’t want to hold back from any information or any people’s stories that could serve those individuals.”
If this all sounds a little too naive in light of the personal development industry’s $11 billion pot of gold, it’s important to remember that many of the biggest names in the industry today have found success largely by sharing their own personal development journeys. Much of their continued success comes from trying new tactics and reporting the results with their audiences.
In other words: It’s a business, but it’s the business of humanity. And that’s never going away.
“Make me ask new questions,” Shetty says about his own personal development. “That’s always what I’m looking for: What can help me ask new questions?”
Some of the people pursuing this mission don’t even self-identify as part of the “personal development” category, like Rachel Hollis, New York Times best-selling author and founder of The Hollis Co.
“It’s possible to be known for one thing and have the core mission be something so much greater,” says Hollis, whose business started with a cooking blog and has since grown into a million-dollar media company aimed at providing tools for people to change their lives.
Factor 4: Personalized Development
The Ghost of Personal Development Past may have been willing to accept a prescription for happiness or increased confidence or a smaller waistline, but today’s audience has been burned by feel-good promises. They’re open to new ideas but hesitant to trust.
Power has shifted from brands and personalities to the consumer. Although people like Howes and Bernstein have avid fanbases, it’s easy to become irrelevant when the flow of information is constant. The message, rather than the messenger, reigns supreme — and the bigger the industry, the more messages available.
“Experiment. Try on different teachers, approaches, and modalities like you’d try on a half dozen shirts at a store,” Forleo says. “See which feels best; which messages resonate; and which leaders align with your values, your style, and most importantly, help you create the results you want.”
For those trying to make a name in the industry, those who are willing to take risks and meet people where they are tend to find the most success. Facebook was once the be-all, end-all of social media. Millionaires were once born of the defunct video app Vine. For the consumer trying to discern between good and bad content, intuition is key.
“You’ve got to have a goal,” Bilyeu says. “And you’ve got to hold yourself accountable at all times. Does that advice, when implemented well, actually move me toward my goal? If it does, great. If it doesn’t, then it’s by definition bad, and you need to discard it.”
Personal development is woven into the fabric of American society, but the message has recently been amplified because of a modern need and the power of social media. Think of the teacher, struggling with a student who doesn’t want to learn, who finds a video about motivation from Bilyeu. Think of the college dropout who feels hopeless and turns to a Facebook live video of Hollis explaining how the simple act of a morning routine can change your life. Think of the newly jobless person browsing this very article in search of inspiration for a personal reinvention.
“We want to live in a world where all 7.7 billion people at least understand what a growth mindset is. If they choose to reject it, so be it,” Bilyeu says. “But we want it to be that pervasive.”
The idea of self-care is accessible and necessary; indeed, it has never been more appropriate. Political, social, and economic issues come and go. Our responses — our small places in this world and how we choose to live within it — are up to us.
Personal development can give you the tools. In the 2020s, take what you need and leave the rest.
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