Steve Pavlina Interview: For Writers, Bloggers, and Readers

Recently I interviewed uber-blogger Steve Pavlina for Zen Habits on the topic of personal development, habits and daily routines …

But I thought the writers and bloggers of Write To Done would be interested in a deeper look at Steve both as a blogger of an A-list personal development blog, and as a writer of a great new book: Personal Development for Smart People.

What follows is a 3-question interview I did with Steve to share with all of you, and I hope you enjoy it. Steve really went into some depth with his answers, and they’re pretty long, but fascinating nonetheless.

Leo: Tell us a little about your book — why was it important for you to write this? What’s the main message and how will it benefit readers?

Steve: Personal Development for Smart People is my attempt to solve a long-term problem I’ve had with the field of self-help.

I’ve been actively pursuing personal growth since the early 90s, and I’ve been working in this field full-time for four years now. There are many things I’ve found frustrating about it.

The first problem is that most personal growth books, audio programs, and seminars overpromise and under-deliver. If you visit your local bookstore and read the back covers of many self-help books, the sales copy often tries to persuade you that you can change your whole live overnight. While I agree that it’s possible to make big changes in your life through conscious effort, genuine growth is incredibly challenging. In my experience it’s definitely not fast and easy. This exaggeration of results creates unrealistic expectations. Unfortunately when people fail to get the anticipated results, they don’t usually blame the book. They blame themselves. Many people repeat this cycle over and over, feeling slightly more inadequate with each self-help book they read.

A second problem is that most self-help books aren’t very helpful. They rehash worn-out ideas that have been around since the ancient Greeks, or they fill their pages with rah-rah fluff. You may get a temporary pump from reading such books, but they won’t do much for you in the long run. Of all the personal development books I’ve read and the audio programs I’ve listened to (easily over 1,000 of them), only a small percentage were truly helpful to me. It can take a lot of time to find the diamonds among the lumps of coal.

A third problem is that when you read a lot of personal development books, you’ll discover that the self-help field is incredibly fragmented. There are different rules and methods for improving your health, finances, relationships, and so on. The experts don’t agree with each other since everyone has their own agenda. Even when you discover some good ideas from different sources, it can be nearly impossible to apply them consistently because they’ll typically arise from incompatible frameworks.

If you read some books on making money, a few books on productivity, other books on health and fitness, and still more books on spiritual development, you’ll end up with dozens of complicated rules for managing your daily life. And you’ll constantly have to switch between incompatible contexts to apply those rules. For example, the money-making rules you learned won’t likely help you with your relationships and spiritual growth. No one gets very good results with this approach. It’s a fragmented way to live. Most people who attempt this strategy end up backsliding, procrastinating, giving up, or becoming self-help junkies. They think they know what they should be doing, but they can’t get themselves to do it consistently. If you’ve fallen into this trap – as I have many, many times – you certainly aren’t alone. It’s not your fault, however. The problem lies with the fragmented approach itself.

My goal in writing Personal Development for Smart People was to create a book that would solve the major problems of this field. That was no easy task. It required building a complete holistic framework for personal growth from the ground up. The idea is that once you mentally step inside this framework (meaning that you adopt a certain mindset), everything would finally click, and you’d be able to make meaningful progress in all areas of your life without having to repeatedly switch contexts. In other words, you could use the same set of rules to improve your health, build a fulfilling career, achieve financial abundance, cultivate loving relationships, boost your productivity, and increase your spiritual connectedness. Making improvements to your life would therefore be much simpler and far more practical.

That was a tall order, but I truly believe I pulled it off. It took me a good 2-1/2 years to figure out the basic building blocks of this holistic mindset and to test it. Ultimately this pursuit yielded a set of seven core principles. The principles are universal, so you can apply them with great effect to any area of your life – your health, relationships, career, finances, and so on.

So this book takes a holistic, top-down approach to personal growth. This may sound like a bold claim, but once you read it, I think you’ll agree that it’s the most structured book on personal development you’ve ever seen.

The book is divided into two parts. The first half establishes the key principles. This is where you learn the mindset for how to think about growth and change.

The second half of the book delves into the practical application, explaining how to apply this new mindset to improve your habits, career, finances, relationships, health, and spiritual development. You can use the principles to diagnose any problem and to generate solutions that point you in the direction of positive growth and change.

So the benefit of reading this book is that you’ll be able to shed those fragmented approaches to personal growth, replacing them with a more practical holistic model. You can finally let go of all those complicated rules for managing different parts of your life. By anchoring yourself to unchanging, universal principles, you’ll gain a singular “growth compass” that will point you in the direction of positive growth and change regardless of circumstances. Whenever you have a new problem to solve, you can consult this growth compass to point you in the right direction. And you’ll know exactly why you can trust it.

You won’t lose the benefit of all the personal development techniques you’ve learn thus far. Instead you’ll be able to clearly see which techniques are truly principle-centered and which aren’t. You’ll know why certain strategies work for you and why others don’t. And you’ll be able to use this knowledge to engineer your own low-level techniques.

Leo: What was it like writing this book? Did you have tough times and how did you overcome them? Did you have a writing routine?

Steve: I must say this was the most difficult project I’ve ever completed in my life. It was also the most rewarding.

I originally began writing this book in May 2005. My initial goal was to write a book that would be a collection of personal advice, similar in quality and style to my blog articles but with more organization and structure. I created an outline and wrote three complete chapters (about 30,000 words). Then realized I was writing a me-too book. I was disappointed with how it was turning out. It wasn’t bad per se. It just wasn’t going to be anything special or unique. I’m sure it would have been a fine book relatively speaking, but I came to see that such a book didn’t need to be written. It wouldn’t add anything to the world that didn’t already exist in some other form. So I wasn’t inspired to continue with it.

I decided I needed a more ambitious and inspiring goal. That’s when I got the idea to write a truly holistic, top-down book about personal growth. I wanted to go deeper than I’d seen anyone else in this field ever go before. I wanted to define the core structural pattern behind all successful growth efforts. I trashed what I’d written up to that point and started over from scratch.

I have to say this pursuit was incredibly frustrating. I was trying to solve a very complex problem, and I didn’t even know if it was solvable. I spent hours upon hours pondering questions like, “What does it truly mean to grow as a conscious human being?” and “What’s the connection between building a successful career and maintaining loving relationships?” I wanted to connect the dots between all things growth-related, but I didn’t even know what those dots were. Intuitively I could sense there was a deeper structure somewhere beneath the surface, but I just couldn’t get my mind around it. Every path I pursued was a dead end. Every angle I considered seemed wrong. Whenever I tried to go deeper, I just impacted on the surface. It was just too complicated to figure out.

But something about this pursuit absolutely possessed me. Even after two years with little to show for my efforts, I refused to give up. I tried many different methods to stimulate fresh thinking in new directions. I read books. I meditated. I wrote lengthy journal entries. I looked for patterns in reader feedback from my blog articles. I brainstormed long lists of ideas.

Eventually I was able to uncover a piece of the edge of the whole structure, but I couldn’t get past it. I figured out that the concept of truth absolutely had to be a piece of it. It was plainly obvious to me that the more we align ourselves with truth, the more effective our growth efforts will be. When we turn our backs on truth and succumb to falsehood and denial, we sabotage our results. Truth is clearly a universal principle. We can use truth to help us increase our results in any area of life. It doesn’t matter if you want to lose weight, boost your productivity, enter a new relationship, or earn more money. Turning your back on truth can destroy your health, finances, career, relationships, and more. If you want to grow as a conscious human being, truth must become your staunchest ally.

Identifying the remaining structure that connected with truth was the hardest part. But once I’d latched onto truth, at least I finally had a piece of it. The principle of truth gave me something to work with, but I still had no clue what the rest of the structure looked like. It was clear that truth wasn’t enough by itself, but it was certainly important. How much more was there? It wasn’t enough for me to discover one key principle of growth. I wanted to unearth all of them.

I was guided by this quote from R. Buckminster Fuller:

“When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

Each time I came up with a potential solution, I knew it couldn’t be correct because it wasn’t beautiful. It always lacked elegance. So I scrapped it and tried again. It wasn’t enough to satisfy my mind. I sought a solution that spoke to my soul. I figured that if I discovered something that struck me as truly beautiful, it would have a similar effect on others. Only then would I feel I’d accomplished my goal and created something truly worthwhile.

Eventually, through a combination of inspiration and perspiration, I was able to figure out the rest of the structure. It was so ridiculously simple that I felt an overwhelming release of emotion when I finally saw what it looked like. The whole structure was reducible to just three core principles: truth, love, and power. If you understand those principles and how to align yourself with them, you can make major advancements in every area of your life. When you turn your back on these principles, you’ll encounter nothing but failure and hardship.

The results of applying this new framework to my own life have been profound. For example, in the months after I discovered the core principles, I was able to adopt a 100% raw vegan diet. In the decade before discovering these principles, I made many attempts to adopt this diet. I enjoyed great results while it lasted, including an amazing level of mental clarity, but I could never make it stick in the long run. I always found it too difficult and kept sliding back to cooked food. By using the new framework, I was able to diagnose why I was failing and what I needed to do to succeed. My initial reaction was, “It can’t be that simple, can it?” But I applied the solution, and it worked.

To be specific, in my case the problem that kept me from sticking to a raw diet was that I was out of alignment with the principle of love. This principle suggested that in order to succeed as a raw foodist, I should build relationships with other raw foodists. Otherwise my existing relationships would keep pulling me back toward cooked food. As it turned out, that was exactly what I needed to do to succeed. Today I count many raw foodists among my friends, and I receive an abundance of encouragement and support from them. It’s amazing how much easier it is for me to stick with this lifestyle now. Before I discovered these growth principles, I kept misdiagnosing the problem. I mistakenly assumed I needed more discipline and commitment, when I really needed more connection.

I’m not suggesting you have to adopt a diet like mine. I’ve been on a path of dietary refinement for more than 15 years, so there’s a good chance my choice seems extreme to you. I’m just using this as an example to illustrate that an empowering framework makes it much easier to diagnose and solve growth problems, regardless of what you consider your next logical step to be.

Once I discovered the core principles, writing the book was fairly straightforward. It wasn’t trivially easy, but it came together without serious difficulties. It took me a few months to write the first manuscript and perhaps a couple more months to edit it. The editing involved a bit of back-and-forth with the publisher, so much of that was waiting time. I spent a lot more hours figuring out the framework than I did writing the book, so the writing part felt like it was all downhill. I think the fact that I had an inspiring framework made the writing easier. I was excited to share these ideas.

One hard part about writing the book was keeping my blog going at the same time. I had to withdraw some of my attention from blogging to devote more time to working on the book, so I didn’t blog as often during that time. That wasn’t too bad though. Most of my visitors seemed very understanding. Since my website also has popular discussion forums, my readers had plenty of opportunity to discuss their own topics and engage with each other. And for new visitors, there were hundreds of timeless articles to read in the archives.

Leo: You’re an A-list blogger, so our blogging readers will want to know: what are the most important things a blogger should do to write a powerful post that attracts a lot of readers?

Steve: I’ve definitely seen some patterns that help turn certain posts into hits with my readers, social bookmarking sites, other bloggers, search engines, and general word of mouth. I put a lot of effort into my articles, so I think it’s wise to discern why certain articles are more widely read than others. That way I can consciously create content that’s likely to be more impactful. I learned that if I followed certain rules, I could basically engineer a hit article with a high degree of success.

In May of this year, I gave a 90-minute presentation called “How to Create Compelling Content” to a group of speakers. It was based on my observations on which articles became hits and which didn’t. It would be too much to share all of those details here, but I’ll share the key points.

The single most important factor is topic selection. I’ve noticed that when I write about certain topics, the hit ratio goes way up. For example, one of my hit topics is sleep habits. When I blog about this topic, I have an unusually strong chance of creating a hit.

Key topics vary from blog to blog, so you’ll need to experiment. Whenever you enjoy a surge in traffic, consider that it may not have been a result of your high-quality writing or your clever post title. It may simply have been that you choose a topic of keen interest to your readers. When you do experience a hit, wait a little while, and then write something else on that same subject. See if you can duplicate your success. I’m sure you’ll find as I do that certain topics yield hits far more often than others. It’s easier to succeed once you discover your hit topics. You don’t have to limit yourself to those topics – I certainly don’t – but it’s nice to know you can create a few hits when you so desire.

Next, write content that leverages your personal strengths. For example, strategic thinking is one of my strengths. When I write high-level strategic articles, including how-to pieces, those articles are more likely to become hits. If your writing fails to leverage your strengths, it’s safe to say you’re playing a game you can’t win. Other bloggers will surely be strong in your weak area, so you’ll simply be dominated again and again. If you’re unclear about your strengths, read the book StrengthsFinder 2.0, and take the accompanying test. It will tell you what some of your strengths are.

Another thing I do to create hits is to focus on providing genuine value to my readers. My blog uses a popular “Email a friend” WordPress plug-in, and this allows me to see which articles are generating referrals each day. I’ve noticed that certain articles generate a lot more referrals than others. Every day I see the same articles being emailed. In general the articles that receive the most attention are those that deliver a lot of punch. They motivate and inspire people to make real changes. An example is the article “How to Discover Your Life Purpose in About 20 Minutes.”  Even though it’s nearly four years old, it continues to generate strong word of mouth referrals.

Sharing my personal stories is another common element in hit articles. I often use the “make a point, tell a story” method. I share stories from my own life all the time. Sometimes I tell stories to illustrate a point. Other times I’ll write about a problem I encountered and explain how I dealt with it. My blog oozes with my life stories and personality. If you were to read every article from my archives, you’d get to know me pretty well. This act of sharing myself creates a strong bond of intimacy and connection with my readers.

Sometimes I’ll ask myself, “Is there anything I’d be embarrassed to share publicly on my website?” If anything comes to mind, I know it’s a potential golden topic. It’s more important to be human than it is to appear perfect. Whenever I write about my failings, such as the time I got arrested for grand theft or the time I failed in business and went bankrupt, I get lots of personal feedback from people who can relate to what I went through. It’s a cathartic experience for me and a source of value for my readers. Those articles often become “sleeper hits.” They don’t get much attention from social bookmarking sites, but they can generate tons of “Email a friend” referrals.

Writing inspired content is another key success factor. There have been times when I’ve written and edited complete articles, and instead of clicking Publish, I clicked Delete. I’ve done this when I felt like I was forcing out content instead of letting the ideas flow. I feel it’s better to post less often and have something meaningful to say than to push myself to post something uninspired.

A final success factor I’ll share is that if you want to write something memorable, it must violate people’s expectations in some way. When we encounter something unexpected, we tend to remember it. The longer people remember your content, the more people they can share it with. For example, one article that generates countless referrals for me and which did very well on social bookmarking sites is “10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job.” The title of that article violates expectations, and the content is even more over-the-top. People don’t soon forget it once they’ve read it.

Since I’ve been blogging for nearly four years now, I feel a bit more seasoned than when I first started. I no longer put much energy into engineering hit pieces. Now I think about how I can connect more deeply with my readers. I want to write articles that touch people’s hearts, not just their heads. Such articles don’t normally become social bookmarking hits, but I think they’re more impactful and memorable for those who read them. As I see it, the hits I’ve written may draw plenty of fresh traffic, but the deeper articles are more likely to change people’s lives. At the end of the day, I want to know that I’ve made a difference. I feel it does people a disservice if I capture their eyeballs without delivering real substance on the backend.

If you want to attract a lot of readers, write content that deserves to be read by lots of people. If you imagine yourself standing on a stage and speaking your content to an audience of millions, you’ll have a keener understanding of what you can share that would be worthy of such a privilege.

Leo: Thank you, Steve, for your generosity once again … it’s been a pleasure, and the writers and bloggers amongst us will certainly benefit from what you’ve shared with us.

About the author

Leo Babauta

Leo Babauta is the blogger behind the superblog, Zen Habits, which is about finding simplicity in the daily chaos of life.

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