Turbo-Fashion for Personal Development: The Pursuit of Self-Perfection Can Harm Us

Personal development seeks to address the intrinsic human need to find meaning in one's existence. In an era of rampant secularization in Western societies, the pursuit of self-improvement has taken on an almost religious role. The problem lies in the narrative that the source of all happiness and unhappiness resides solely within us, which is both false and dangerous.

Personal development seeks to address the intrinsic human need to find meaning in one’s existence. In an era of rampant secularization in Western societies, the pursuit of self-improvement has taken on an almost religious role. The problem lies in the narrative that the source of all happiness and unhappiness resides solely within us, which is both false and dangerous.

Personal development is a distinctly American concept, imported to Poland after 1989. Its roots can be traced back to the evangelical messages directed in the 1950s at salesmen: traveling sales representatives who went door-to-door selling products. At that time, it served as a tool for motivating actions and teaching how to successfully monetize – both goods and oneself. Over time, this idea became firmly entrenched among the American population.

The precursor of what is known as “personal success literature” was Napoleon Hill. In his bestseller, Think and Grow Rich, he propagated the narrative that the path to fortune lies in overcoming one’s weaknesses. “A person becomes what they think about most of the time,” was his famous motto.

Later, Brian Tracy emerged as a prominent figure in personal development with books such as Eat That Frog!; Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life; The Power of Self-Confidence; Million Dollar Habits, and The Way to Wealth.

Training Society

According to Marcin Ilski, who now describes himself as a skeptical personal development coach, this concept served two primary functions in Poland’s reality during the 1990s. The first of these functions, training people to operate under constant competition with others, was discussed by American anthropologist Elizabeth Dunn in her book Privatizing Poland.

Personal development is a tool that creates a certain type of worker who bases their entire existence on personal success, viewing others as potential competitors in the race for that success. This was designed to pacify systemic thinking – ideas based on collectivization and collective collaboration, such as trade unions, which in reality have a greater impact on what happens than individualized units

– explains an educator in critical and systemic thinking.

Personal development flourished in Poland for decades, with its initial function also being to give people hope.

Marcin Ilski. Photo: private archive

One aspect that attracted me – a young man from a small town in the Łódź Voivodeship – was the promise of social advancement. The idea that if I tried hard enough and unlocked my potential, I could become someone else. This was encapsulated in stories with titles like “You are the master of your fate,” “Everything depends on you,” “You can be completely independent”

– recounts the skeptic.

Ilski believes that the function of hope has been abandoned in favor of the increasingly sharp mobilization of people to “check off tasks.” Today’s personal development offerings are mainly targeted at the so-called aspiring middle class. Its members believe they can achieve social and financial advancement, while simultaneously living in constant fear, as they are only “three unpaid loan installments” away from falling into the working class.

The Development Treadmill

Currently, we are witnessing a turbo-trend in personal development. Post-pandemic methods from the 1990s – such as motivational events combining sales with spiritual skills – have regained immense popularity, despite seeming completely out of touch with today’s reality, as they contradict cognitive science.

Times of great uncertainty trigger a search for simple recipes or magical formulas. These allow us to avoid stress for a while or at least minimize it and momentarily believe that everything will be alright. The tools of personal development are designed to pacify the emotions that pulse within us: dissonance, fear, or feelings termed “ugly feelings” like anger, rage, jealousy

– diagnoses Ilski.

Such tools include meditation courses and stoicism lectures. In the corporate space, they serve to increase and maintain employee efficiency while also numbing them to the world around them. This obviously distorts the original idea of these philosophies. Additionally, there is a backdrop of scientistic storytelling – citing the latest neuroscience research.

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Pop-personal development serves as a discipline tool in the pursuit of the best version of oneself, placing individuals on a “development treadmill.” It aims to create an ideal version of oneself, and – in the spirit of this ideology – reaching and strengthening this ideal is supposed to allow us to achieve a state of permanent happiness. This is, of course, an illusion that distances us from the ability to reject potential scenarios of our existences and to recognize our shortcomings. From openly admitting what hurts us and trying to change these aspects for the better – also in collaboration with others. This is the foundation of a good life.

The relentless drive fosters perfectionism and a sense of perpetual inadequacy in participants. The constant acceleration of the treadmill thus borders on self-abuse. Ilski notes that the imperative to be productive and happy is also a form of systemic violence:

In this systemic narrative, the carrot is that if you succeed, you have the right to claim it as solely yours. The hidden stick, however, says: that you have no right to be angry, complain, or blame anyone when things go wrong. The prevailing narrative is that an adult never seeks responsibility outside themselves because this is a trait of entitled people – those who have no chance of success. Consequently, individuals who struggle with problems become silent, withdraw, and grow only more frustrated and lonely.

Personal Development: therapy session
Photo: RDNE Stock Project / Pexels

A World Without Boredom

According to this concept, all failures are correlated with insufficient determination to work on oneself. For many, personal development becomes an autotelic goal – a value in itself. There is a shift in life’s focus towards participating in workshops, coaching processes, and the continuous expansion of knowledge.

We are talking about a constant inward focus, even though our eyes are meant to observe the external reality. This leads to false conclusions about the causes of what happens in our lives. Sometimes, this results in an excessive belief in self-agency. Meanwhile, we often feel anger because something around us is wrong. Yet, personal development tells us: you can’t change anything until you calm down, go to a meditation course, and through it, you will understand everything

comments Ilski.

Such an attitude can also result in a loss of trust in one’s judgments. On the other hand – paradoxically – personal development can imply a nihilistic stance, where one believes they do not influence.

Living in a constant state of “workshop-itis” also leads to a world without boredom or spontaneous rest. However, boredom, though often uncomfortable and irksome, is a natural space where something new can emerge. To truly develop, one must sometimes stop or even step back.

In personal development, reflection time is seen as wasted, time in which one could have continued accumulating something. Yet, the ability to pause is tied to overcoming the fear that if I am not doing something constructive or purposeful at this moment, I am wasting time. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin theorized that humans walked in boredom for so long until they finally invented dance. Secondly, you cannot better understand yourself without trying to understand the world around you, that is, other people. Without these two elements, genuine understanding is incomplete

– concludes the skeptic.

Translation: Klaudia Tarasiewicz

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Published by

Dominika Tworek


A social journalist and a freelancer. A published author. Her works have appeared in a number of Polish magazines such as “Polityka”, “Tygodnik Powszechny”, “Dwutygodnik”, and “SENS”. She critically explores phenomena of contemporary culture with a poetic soul and an inquisitive mind. Her life companion: a chocolate-colored husky named Fąfel.

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