(6 minute read)
If you browse the self-help section of almost any bookstore, there seem to be nearly infinite principles, strategies and tips for living well.
But it goes deeper than self-help. Psychology, religion, philosophy and other fields all offer advice for how we ought to conduct ourselves and treat others:
Live in the now. Be more productive. Practice gratitude. Never be satisfied. Focus on the positive. Prepare for the worst case scenario. Always be improving. Accept yourself as you are. Love thy neighbor. Be more assertive. Meditate. Journal. Apply the 80/20 rule. The list goes on.
It can all be a bit overwhelming.
But what if there are far fewer self-improvement principles than we think there are?
Even though there may appear to be endless pieces of advice out there, there is a lot of overlap between seemingly different ideas. For example, there might be 100 books on productivity, each with 20 pieces of advice. But this doesn’t mean there are 2000 distinct productivity principles. It just means that the same idea can be expressed in different ways, from different angles, and through different lenses.
Having been a student of personal development and other related fields for the past 15 years, I’ve been exposed to a massive amount of ideas. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the best way to organize this information in order to make sense of it all.
To that end, I’ve identified three distinct categories into which most life advice/wisdom might be sorted. It’s a simple framework and is still under construction. But there does seem to be something to it. At the very least, organizing information helps your brain remember it more efficiently and effectively.
The first of these three categories/meta-principles is “Pay attention,” which I explain in a previous post. The second category, which I will explain here, is “Get clarity.” I describe the third and final category in a separate post here.
The Many Different Ways of Getting Clarity
The process of getting clarity can take various forms. Generally, this category has to do with defining, identifying, making distinctions, drawing boundaries, reframing, and getting perspective. Here are just a few of the ways this meta-principle manifests itself in self-development, philosophy, and psychology.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective forms of therapy for decreasing anxiety and depression. It’s all about identifying negative thoughts and reframing them through a more rational lens in order to get clarity (perspective).
Setting goals is fundamentally about getting clarity on what you want to accomplish. Being goal-oriented means that you have identified what’s important to you. Once you have clarity on what matters, you know what action to take. The saying, “You can’t score if you don’t have a goal,” points to this principle.
Finding your “why” is about getting clarity on your deepest motivation for doing something.
Clarifying the problem improves your peace of mind. This is the duty of a therapist or psychologist — to help you sort out your thoughts and get clarity on your circumstances. Precisely defining your worries can help minimize anxiety about the future, but leaving your worries vague and unexpressed makes them seem more overwhelming than they are. Similarly, sorting out your thoughts and feelings about past events can help you stop dwelling on them and gain peace of mind in the present. On the other hand, leaving the past undefined can lead to depression, regret, shame and other negative emotions.
Defining your life helps give it meaning and structure. Leaving your life undefined leads to uncertainty and a lack of meaning, the end result of which is chaos. For example, if you haven’t defined who you are or what your role is, you might feel existentially lost and confused. More literally, if you visit a new place and are unable to identify your location on a map, you might feel lost or disoriented.
The Stoic principle of “negative visualization” is about defining the worst case future scenario to increase your gratitude and peace of mind in the present. When you get clarity on what you’re actually scared of, your fears become less scary. Known monsters are less scary than unknown monsters.
Drawing boundaries in your relationships is how you help others gain clarity about how to treat you. This is a useful thing to do with your friends, family, peers, partners, authority figures, and especially with children you are raising who have no sense of boundaries yet.
Being organized is having well-defined physical boundaries between items. This is true of organizing data on a spreadsheet or tidying up clutter in your room.
Working productively means clearly identifying the mission-critical tasks for the day and doing them.
Making pro and con lists is the process of getting clarity on the good and bad aspects of a particular situation.
Effective learning is characterized by making distinctions and getting clarity on specific ideas and concepts. Paying attention is also an important aspect of learning.
In a disagreement, deconstructing someone’s argument can help you get clarity on the specific points of disagreement. This is the first step toward resolving a dispute. The more clarity you have about where you disagree, the finer resolution you have on the other person’s point of view and the more likely you are to resolve the disagreement. Without clarity, there can be no solution.
What are your thoughts?
Am I onto something? Where else do you see the principle “get clarity” show up? Have I gone off the deep end? Let me know in the comments!
Ruben Chavez is a writer, personal development educator, and host of The Think Grow Podcast. He has created a community of over 3 million readers across his collective platforms, including his popular Instagram page ThinkGrowProsper. Along with this blog, these platforms are his way of inspiring and connecting with thoughtful, creative, and ambitious people just like you.