Personal Development for Smart People

In a smart marketing move, Steve Pavlina recently offered a free copy of his book, Personal Development for Smart People, to any blogger willing to write a review about it. It’s brilliant because for a man who is already financially secure, writing a book is either a stroke to his own ego, or he wants to share his ideas with as many people as possible, hoping to help them in some way. Either way, free publicity at the cost of lost sales is a no-brainer. I would have bought the book any way (and written a review), but it was nice to get it for free.

Below is my unbiased review of the book (I don’t want you thinking that since I got it for free that I’d lean towards rating it positively. I’ve gotten a number of things for free that I’ve openly hated, like the flu for example).

About the Author

I’ve been following Steve Pavlina for over a year on his blog at He’s written some great articles, such as his suggestion of using 30 day trials, experimenting with polyphasic sleep, learning how to wake up early, and making money from your blog. He also has some viewpoints that are very “new age-y” and there’s a bit of cheesiness to him (just look at his headshot). I generally ignore what he has to say about vegetarianism, veganism, and raw food; I disagree with the existence of the “law of attraction” (which incidentally can’t be proven so therefore should be the “theory of attraction”); and I don’t know what to think of his “paranormal encounters” with the dead and his wife’s psychic abilities. Like I said, a bit of cheesiness.

About the Book

I wasn’t sure of what to expect from Pavlina’s book. I know from his blog posts that he’s a good writer, but I didn’t know what side of Steve he was going to write about: the normal, more applicable personal development side, or the “I talk to ghosts” side. Luckily for us, he (mostly) stuck with the personal development topics.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One, Fundamental Principles, covers the explanation and exploration of what Pavlina calls the seven universal principles of personal development. The core principles of truth, love and power also combine (like in Captain Planet) to create the secondary principles of oneness, authority, courage, and intelligence.

Part Two, Practical Application, applies each of those principles to habits, career, money, health, relationships, and spirituality. Essentially the first part talks about the theory, the second part talks about the application.

Fundamental Principles

Truth, love, and power make up the three core principles of Pavlina’s philosophy.  In the subsequent chapters he explores the secondary principles that come from them.  Each chapter has a set of roadblocks and exercises to help you grow in each principle, but I’ll leave those for you to discover for the sake of brevity (which is weird to say considering this post sits at around 2900 words), and focus more on the core principles.


Pavlina tells us that “We primarily grow as human beings by discovering new truths about ourselves and reality.” (pg 3) All growth comes from finding out new truths, which makes sense because if you’re not discovering anything new, every day, week, or year is essentially the same as the one before.

But what is truth? The key components are perception, prediction, accuracy, acceptance, and self-awareness.

Perception, “the most basic aspect of truth” (pg 4), says that in order to improve something, you have to look at it, or more specifically yourself, first.

Once you have a sense of where you are now, you can use prediction to help you to grow. Prediction is the ability to draw from previous experiences to predict (and plan) future outcomes. The more experiences you have, the more accurate your predictions become. Accuracy becomes important for both perception and prediction, “The closer your internal model of reality matches actual reality, the more capable you become.” (pg 8)

Of course none of this really matters if you don’t have a high degree of self-awareness (your strengths, weaknesses, etc) and that you accept yourself as you are. And looking at yourself objectively isn’t always the easiest thing to do: “One of the most important skills to develop in the area of personal growth is the ability to admit the whole truth to yourself, even if you don’t like what you see and even if you feel powerless to change it.” (pg 11)

Until I admitted to myself that hitting snooze was a problem I wanted to fix, I didn’t make the conscious effort to remedy the problem. Once I accurately perceived my current situation through heightened self-awareness, I accepted my current state and used past experiences to predict that if I treated waking up early as weekly project, I would succeed at it. And I did (see “Stop Hitting Snooze and Wake Up Early“).

Truth doesn’t come without it’s challenges though. Pavlina points to a number of roadblocks, including media and social conditioning, false beliefs, and emotional interferences. For example, society (at least in the US) says that the week starts on Sunday, but the truth is that it starts on Monday (otherwise Sunday wouldn’t be part of weekend).

So how do you improve your truthiness (thanks Colbert)? Pavlina provides a few exercises, the most powerful of which is the Self Assessment (pg 20). The assessment has you rate your satisfaction for where you are in key areas of your life on a scale from 1-10. He then goes on to say that any area you rate less than a 9 or 10 is really a 1. “Either you have what you want, or you don’t.” (pg 21) It’s like the project management philosophy that a task is either complete or it isn’t . A task 70% complete is as bad as a task that’s 0% complete if the remaining 30% never gets finished. This isn’t too be confused with Pareto’s 80/20 principal – that applies to the design of a project, not the execution of the tasks.

It’s important to note that “an honest rating has more to do with your path than your position.” (pg 21) I’m far from where I want to be comedically, but I would rate the current path I’m on as a 10 since I feel I’m headed in the right direction.


Pavlina’s definition of love is more than just the emotion, specifically that “the decision to connect is the essence of love.” (pg 27). He goes on to say “your life becomes a reflection of what you choose to connect with most often,” (pg 28)–meaning you are what you love.

But what is it to “connect”? Simply put, it means “to give something your attention, to think about it, to engage with it.” (pg 28) What you spend your time on is what defines you; your calendar (what’s on it, not whether it’s a Far Side calendar or a Fireman one) is a better depiction of who you are than any mission statement you claim to adhere to.

In addition to connection, communication and communion are the two other aspects of love. Communication is how we express love and communion is “the deep sense of bonding that gives rise to the emotional side of love.” (pg 31)  Based on this definition of love, it becomes apparent that you choose what it is you love, such as yourself, another person, or Chick Fil A.

Naturally there are problems that exist that can prevent you from forming new, or deepening existing, connections. The first one Pavlina mentions also dabbles in the realm of “new age” philosophies, stating “The assumption that we’re all inherently separate beings is among the worst of [disconnected] thoughts.” (pg 33) Pavlina gets into this more in the chapter of “oneness.”  I believe we are all connected, in the sense that we’re all on this planet together, and what I do ultimately affects what others do, but to make the leap that we’re all apart of the same being is a bit too big of a jump for me.

Aside from the disconnected mindset, Pavlina lists other blocks to love that cover the standard fare of fear of rejection and lack of social skills, both of which are solved by “get over it, the worst that happens in a failed connection is you move on.”

Improving your ability to connect with love revolves around accepting the concept of connectedness (in one form or another).  Each exercise presented builds on the most important point in the chapter: “Love is not an accident.” (pg 40)


Power is about making things happen,  “deliberately creating the world around you.” (pg 47)  And until you take responsibility for your life, it’s impossible to have power.  The concept is actually related to the improv idea of “Yes And.”  “It’s entirely pointless to blame God, your parents, the government, or anyone else for your lot in life.  It doesn’t matter who contributed to your current situation–all that matters is that you must live with it.” (pg 49)  That’s essentially saying to accept the situation you are currently in (regardless of how you got there), and build from there to improve your life.

Power, like love, is also based on what you actually do, what you focus on.  “Time isn’t a disposable resource.  You can’t spend time.  No matter what you do or don’t do, time passes on its own.  You have no choice regarding whether to spend time or not; your only choice is how you direct your focus in the present moment.” (pg 52)  You are indeed what you do since that’s the only thing you have control over.

The tools that make up power are motivation and self-discipline.  “Motivation starts the race, but self-discipline ultimately crosses the finish line.” (pg 58)  When looking at the exercises Pavlina provides to build power, you start to understand that power is what drives personal productivity.  Building productive habits for the first waking hour of the day, establishing personal quotas, and working on your hardest task first are all great ways to be more productive.


Pavlina returns to the concept that we are all a part of a greater being in the principle of oneness.  Oneness is truth plus love, taking love one step further: “Love is choosing to connect.  Oneness is knowing you’re already connected.”  (pg 70)  Luckily there is still much to gain from the principle of oneness without needing to fully believe this idea.

Oneness centers around the aspects of empathy, compassion, honesty, fairness, contribution, and unity- all building back towards this idea that we are all in this together and helping others is really helping ourselves.  But Pavlina also dispels the idea that you have to sacrifice greatly for the good of others.  “A sense of oneness encourages you to optimize and expand your contribution as an individual.  If you perform well below your capacity, you’re denying responsibility for your role in the larger body.” (pg 75)  Like Jay Z says, “I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them / So I got rich and gave back / To me that’s the win, win.”


“Truth without power accomplishes nothing.  Power without truth generates wasted action.” (pg 85)  Authority bridges those disconnects by combining truth and power empowering you to take complete control over your life.  Authority is also about taking action and persevering through failed attempts.  “Failure and success are not opposites.  Failure is an unavoidable part of success.” (pg 90)

As your authority grows, so too will your confidence.  And not the “cocky” confidence, but the truthful confidence that you are capable of greatness.  “Too often we fear our own greatness.  We pretend to be powerless, mistakenly thinking that this somehow frees us from the responsibility of power.” (pg 92)  It does not.  We are responsible for our own lives, no one else.

To build authority, we must become comfortable making independent decisions regardless of what others think.  It’s disagreeing with party lines, questioning religious dogma, and seeking our own truth and authority for ourselves.  As Cartman so gracefully put it, “you will respect my authori-tay.”


The combination of love and power yields courage.  “Courage is being ready to take the initiative, to make the first move, and to set things in motion.” (pg 104)  It’s being direct and asking for what you want, risking possible rejection in the process.  As you build the confidence that comes with authority, you start to recognize that this directness is a win-win situation.  If you ask and you receive, you get what you want.  If you get rejected, then you’ve eliminated one option and have avoided wasting your time on something that wasn’t meant for you.  It’s true, she/he/it doesn’t know what she/he/it is missing.

Courage also includes honor and your conscience.  Courage is discerning right from wrong and following up with what’s right, regardless of the consequences.  “Courage is a choice.” (pg 112)


“Intelligence is the highest form of human expression.” (pg 116)  It’s the combination of the three core principles of truth, love, and power.  Intelligence requires being authentic, expressing yourself creatively, and seeking continual growth.  If you’re not learning, you’re dying.  Pavlina considers growth such a key part of his book, he writes, “If you forget everything else from this book and remember only one piece of advice, it’s simply this: The most important thing you can possibly do with your life is grow.” (pg 120)

Intelligence also includes the concept of flow–once you align with the three core principles, you’ll work with the flow of life instead of struggling against it.  While I don’t know if I agree with the “flow” of life, I do agree with what it means–it’s the journey that’s the most important, not the end result.  After all, life is nothing but a series of journeys.  And once you combine all of the principles, you can sit back and enjoy the ride because “You know in advance that reaching your goals is basically a done deal.” (pg 122)

Living intelligently “results from an integrated process of perception, thought, and action.” (pg 124)  Pavlina provides a Conscious Assessment (pg 124) that assesses your alignment with each of the seven principles, helping to build that integrated process.  He also talks about “Growth Blitzing,” which is basically creating small challenges for yourself (sound similar to the aforementioned weekly projects to anyone?).

Practical Application

In the second part of the book, Pavlina applies the seven principles to six key areas of life: habits, career, money, health, relationships, and spirituality.  With each area, he steps through each principle and describes what it means to live in alignment with that principle.

Habits – Habits, which Pavlina calls “memorized solutions” (pg 138), are what allow us to go on autopilot and get into the flow of things.  Of course this is under the assumption that we have the correct habits.  Pavlina lists 66 productive habits to have (pg 149), including having daily goals, waking up early, being punctual and expressing gratitude.

Career – Your career is “your primary outlet for self-expression.” (pg 161)  Applying the seven principles helps us find an authentic career, one that satisfies what our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits must, can, want and should do.

Money – “Money is essentially social credit.  The more money you have, the more society owes you, and the more value you can extract.” (pg 180)  The seven principles help us get into a contributor-mindset which recognizes that providing fair value is the best way to make money.  Of course, “Intelligence is the ultimate source of wealth.” (pg 194)

Health – The natural view of health is that it’s vitally important.  Pavlina goes off on a bit of a tangent about veganism here, but does make a good point in that “if the average person wouldn’t consider your current health practices extreme, you probably aren’t very healthy.” (pg 205)  This is an example where you must have the courage to stray away from society and say you deserve better.

Relationships – Relationships naturally align with love and oneness, but the other principles also apply by helping you find your honest connections, encouraging you to seek out those you want to connect with, and giving you the courage to forge new relationships.  “It’s been said that you can predict your future by looking at the people with whom you spend the most time.” (pg 224)

Spirituality – “Spirituality refers to your collection of beliefs about reality, including your understanding of how reality works, as well as your personal role in the universe.” (pg 235)  Exploring and defining your spirituality isn’t about finding a religion, but finding universal beliefs that hold up in every situation.  In that sense, the principles shared in the book align with that idea.


Steve Pavlina’s book covers a wide variety of topics but ultimately breaks them down to the core principles of truth, love, and power.  Less a book about personal development (in the sense of “do this, do that”), and more an exploration for universal principals, Personal Development for Smart People is an interesting conglomeration of various theories (sometimes making the assumption that the readers already know those existing theories).  Though there are a few ideas that could be deemed “new age” or “hokey,” the majority of the book is applicable to any person seeking personal growth.  Like any good self-help book should, it encourages you to challenge the norms, to step out of your comfort zone and seek growth opportunities.  As Pavlina writes, “Real conscious growth is seldom undemanding, but it’s always worthwhile.”

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