The Power Of Detached Action: How To Break The Addiction Of Needing Self-Help Books


Today I received an email, it inspired this post.

Basically the person is motivated (frequently motivated) but hasn’t seen the motivation translate into results.

There are so many ways to get “motivated”.  There are so many self-help books that are on the shelves of bookstores. There are so many inspirational quotes and videos that exist nowadays on the Internet.

In spite of these, many people don’t take action, despite feeling frequently motivated, despite constantly reading self help books and blogs, watching videos, sharing inspiring pictures or quotes.

It’s like they are stuck in the “motivational” world without using the motivation to create results for themselves. 

The entire self-help industry is built on the fact that people will come back and buy more books, without actually fully using them.   This is how books are sold.

People buy the book, get a good feeling from it, but then don’t translate the feeling into sustainable action.  Then, a couple months later, they get a stirring, and go find another book, read it, feel good, but then don’t create habits of sustainable action, and thus the cycle perpetuates.

If everyone actually did what was in those self-help books, no one would ever need self help books.  The entire industry would implode.  

Every year millions of dollars are spent on self-help seminars and only a small portion of people experience sustainable changes in their life.  Only a small portion of people are able to take what they learn from that seminar and translate it into habits that make a difference.

I know this intimately well because I lived it. For several years I was totally addicted to self-help literature.  I was in a bad place in my life.  I was in a career I hated and wanted out of.  Each time I would read a self-help book it would give my brain a boost.  Like a drug.  It would make me feel momentary hope and happiness and inspiration, but I didn’t take action.  I didn’t make any noticeable changes.  So I kept going back to different books because each new book would give me a new “shot” of happiness.  The books themselves became a drug, even though my life largely didn’t change in the process, and because I was unhappy in my life, I kept needing more and more books to sustain me.

I own hundreds of self-help books that were purchased from 2007-2011 (while I was practicing law).  Since 2012 (when I quit law) I haven’t purchased another self-help book.  I read other things now.  The reason why is that I found a method that works for me.  I stopped looking for motivation, and started taking action.  Once I started taking action I developed habits.  After I developed habits I became self-sustaining.  I didn’t need another book to help me.  I could help myself.

Reading motivational quotes, self-help books, stories and watching motivational videos can become an addiction and a crutch, and become a form of resistance for people.

It feels good, but if you don’t take action, and create real results in your life, self-help books and motivational material is hollow.  If you do take action then you don’t need self-help books.

When you are dependent on self-help, you are left needing more and more “motivation” to function.  You become addicted to the motivational material, not because of the results that it creates, but rather because of how they make you feel.

You start to need the motivational material.  You aren’t self-sustaining.  Rather you are dependent on another book or video to keep going.  

A lot of the time we feel inspired and motivated.  Perhaps there is something that we read in a self-help book that stirs us up, or maybe we see a YouTube video or watch something on TV that makes us want to take action in an area of our life that we are struggling in.

However, if we don’t take immediate action on the motivation that we feel, and crystallize this action into a sustainable habit, then we won’t see results or change in our life. The motivation will have been hollow, and the only purpose that it served was to give us a little “emotional pick me up”.  It acts in a way like a drug.

There is a gap that exists between motivation and action (or in other words motivation and results).  Often times there are barriers that prevent us from taking action despite our being initially motivated.

I believe that a person who lives an abundant and fulfilling life is able to take action on motivation.  They create a pattern of behaviour where no motivation is ever felt without corresponding action taking place.  Therefore no motivation is ever wasted.  Every time they feel motivated, they take action.  This yields great results over time.  They don’t need self-help books to get going. They are “self-sustaining” .  Their brain, and their habits, are their own form of self help.

What is the gap?   Why do people search for motivation, but often don’t follow it up with sustainable action.

Here are a few reasons:

  • Fear:  We get motivated to do something, but then fear kicks in.  Fear of failure.  Fear of public embarrassment or criticism.  Fear of wasting time on something that doesn’t get the results we want.  Fear can completely nullify motivation and eliminate action.  If we dwell on fear then we will not take action and our initial motivation will be wasted.
  • Worrying About Not Getting Results: Sometimes we are motivated to do something but then we start worrying that we won’t get the results we want.  This may be rooted in fear, or a lack of personal belief, or some other mental barrier.  The reality is that when we start obsessing about results, we often experience anxiety that our actions will be in vain. When this happens we don’t take action.  Or, if we do take action, our action is hesitant, and with timidity.  We don’t throw ourselves into the endeavour (which is what we need to really get the results we want).
  • Bad Habits: We are a slave to our habits, whether we like it or not.  We have to build habits that serve us well.  Habits of complaining, being a victim, not doing things that scare us, not working hard, among others, work to torpedo any motivation that we feel.

So what is the solution?  How do we take build sustainable patterns of behaviour that eliminate a need for constant “motivation” and “self-help”.

For me the answer came from an interesting revelation:

It was the “self” that was causing all the problems in the first place.  My fixation on “self”, “me”, the “ego” and my corresponding pursuit of fixing that “self” was at the heart of the problem. In order to break the cycle I had to transcend the self. 

What saved me (and continues to sustain me) was learning the power of detached action. 

Action without hope for reward or fear of consequence.  Learning to act first, and act without regard for what will happen.  If I felt a stirring of motivation I had to learn to act before the fear crept in, before the worrying about results become manifest, and before any bad habits could take over.

Detached action was the remedy 

The more I learned to actually take action, the more I was able to loosen the grip of needing motivation, the more I created results in my life, and the more I created sustainable change.  Now I do not need motivational books or videos.  I have a system that works for me.  It involves daily action.

So if you feel constantly in need of motivation, my guess, is that you have an action deficit in your life.  Either you aren’t taking action, or your action is being thwarted by fear, obsession over results or bad habits. 

There is a passage from a book (not a self help book) that helps me to remember the power of detached action.  It is from Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel:

Perfection in the art of swordsmanship is reached, according to Takuan, when the heart is troubled by no more thought of I and You, of the opponent and his sword, of one’s own sword and how to wield it – no more thought of even life and death.

All is emptiness: your own self, the flashing sword, and the arms that wield it.  Even the thought of emptiness is no longer there.  From this absolute emptiness comes the most wondrous unfoldment of doing.

What is true of archery and swordsmanship also applies to all the other arts.  Thus, mastery in ink-painting is only attained when the hand, exercising perfect control over technique, executes what hovers before the mind begins to form it, without there being a hair’s breadth between.  Painting then becomes spontaneous calligraphy.  Here again the painter’s instructions might be: spend ten years observing bamboos, become a bamboo yourself, then forget everything and paint.

So here is my advice to the person who emailed me, and to anyone else who is feeling motivation:

Forget everything and just paint 



One comment on “The Power Of Detached Action: How To Break The Addiction Of Needing Self-Help Books”
  1. jaymeolson says:

    Hi Ryan, you are so right. I have made action my credo. I notice as I take action, options appear, I make decisions. I feel I am driving. As I sat interviewing last week, a little voice kept saying if I get the job or not, this is what I do. My Ego and self worth were not attached to the outcome of the interview. The motivation and buoyancy dove tails from action. Amazing.
    Thanks again for edifying me.

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