I figured it out. Or should I say, “I found out why!” Finally, I found the answer to a question that was troubling my weary mind. More precisely: Why do people keep following other people online? Why do people voluntarily disturb their attention by creating an insanely large list of online gurus who madly shoot advice with their social rifles like Rambo in First Blood? And, why do these same people do little with the guidance they receive?
In the age of distraction and content served by data-collecting algorithms, you can find whatever you want.
It’s like the next billion-dollar idea is right around the corner. Or, the fastest way to learn storytelling is a Twitter thread away.
Leveling up your skills seems extremely easy: You just follow the right accounts on Twitter and Instagram and you’re good to go.
Then, after creating a collection of blue-dotted avatars. The “fun” begins.
Tips are starting to come your way at the speed of light. Actionable content that can help you build an untouchable empire from mud to marble is disturbed from everywhere.
You just need to raise your hand and grab. No, use two hands. Take more of the supremely attractive expert advice that is being produced and poured on top of your already busy mind every time you tab your browser.
But since the content is not the problem – we all know what to do because there are millions of blogs, newsletters, famous Twitter people who freely share their tips on how they get to their level of massiveness, videos, courses, short-form clips, and every other piece of content that is trying to enter the orbit of your attention. Why do people keep struggling with their businesses, habits, with finding their passion, with creating an investing system, or with whatever you can think of?
Well, because if your head is stuck inside your phone for the most part of your day, only reading about how to read, about how to improve your habits, or about how to become successful, you’ll have little time left to actually practice these things.
Personally, I imagine the stream of self-help content being produced each day and shared online, usually on social media, like a river.
Let’s call it The Ambitions River.
Ahh, The Ambitions River is so cool. You get to swim with the best of the best each day. You bathe in ideas from people you usually see on TV. But if you don’t use safety measures, you’ll drown.
Famous people are safe because they sail with ships formed from the bodies of their followers. In contrast, regular people online are swimming on their own. Holding an empty jar, hoping to fill it with successful principles. Then, returning to the shore and creating a sandcastle with the substance. Hoping. Wishing. Praying. That this sandcastle will one day grow up to become a dreamy, money-making fortress.
But the more you want to take home while you’re carelessly swimming with the sharks. The harder it will be to swim back to the surface. The probability of drowning in the real world increases.
Let me untangle the above:
As long as people outsource their happiness, their desire for success, watching famous people – what we will later call magic helpers – being happy and successful. The more they distance themselves from achieving happiness and success on their own.
A delusion is created that progress is made. But there is no physical movement towards the goal of the person. Only shallow consumption of information.
In today’s post, I’m going to explain why we follow successful people online – or such that pretend to be successful – with the intention to change our lives but do little to actually change our lives. Plus, what you can do to prevent this vicious cycle of content consumption without any action.
Realization of Our Helplessness
Early in life, we don’t have any other option but to obey others.
Generally speaking, we don’t even consider following the orders of our parents as a problem – unless they are really sadistic, which basically means that we and they have a problem.
We follow what our parents tell us – including other elderly folks – because they seemingly have all the answers. After all, old people know how to summon light when it gets dark with a simple press of a button and also the secret combination of our favorite dessert.
In our teenage years, this submissive behavior takes a drastic turn.
We become rebellious. We decide that we want to do us.
We no longer consider older folks helpful. We perceive them as annoying talking obstacles whose sole job is to prevent us from doing what we want most at this age – to have fun all the time.
That’s why most of our days are preoccupied with deceptive tactics to avoid them so we can live carefree and pursue our idiotic whims.
Usually, adolescence is a not-so-smart period where we tend to think that everyone is against us and that alcohol and doing the opposite of common sense is a good idea (it’s not!).
Fortunately, after the crazy period of high intense hormones burning inside us, forcing us to do stupid stuff. We return to a calmer state of mind. An adult starts to form. And with adulthood, an enlightening realization forms in our minds – we begin to realize that our parents were simply winging it, all the time.
No, they didn’t have all the answers – and they still don’t. They were simply pretending to know stuff to make us feel safe.
Aware of this realization along with the fact that we’re now old enough to take care of ourselves, we start to notice our own flaws.
We start to see all the dangers that threaten our existence when we finally wave our parents goodbye from the back seat of the taxi taking us to our rented flat in a new city.
The rented flat that feels and looks like a prison – small with no windows. The rented flat where we are all alone. Alone against the modern jungle. Unsure whether or not we’re going to make it. Doing our best to stay alive.
“Will I survive the wilderness without my mom and dad? Will I have food to eat? Will I get the job I want? Will I find a partner? Will I finally drive a sports car like the people on TV? Can I have more money? Why I don’t know jack shit while everyone around me is super successful?”
These are just some of the questions that take shape in our frightened minds.
Yes, adulthood is a “great” period.
Not only do you have to figure out stuff all by yourself, but eventually, other human beings appear. Waiting for you to figure things out for them – your kids.
Once we start to see the limitations of our knowledge, of our skills, we cannot help but feel powerless.
And in today’s times, this existential powerlessness of the individual has been greatly increased by the mighty reach of the Internet.
While we are feeling threatened by the modern problems intoxicating our minds – thinking about money, work, friends, finding a balance between fun and obligations – we constantly see other people who are seemingly living their greatest life.
People going on vacations. Actually, no. It’s like their life is a vacation.
Thus, for both internal and external reasons, a desire to attach ourselves to these so-called magic helpers online is formed – the ones who always have something new to teach us. We convince ourselves that these people have all the answers. That they hold the key to turning uncertainty into opportunity.
Outsourcing Internal Problems To External Entities
In the book The Art of Being, Erich Fromm, the author, writes the following mind-blowing sentence: “Aware of the many dangers that threaten him, of death, of the insecurity of the future, of the limitations of his knowledge, man cannot help feeling powerless.”
Thus, to compensate for our impotence, we seek outside help.
The brilliant Erich Fromm continues: “man seeks to attach himself to “magic helpers,” in many forms: shamans, priests, kings, political leaders, fathers, teachers, psychoanalysts, as well as to many institutions such as Church and State.”
Nowadays, these magic helpers come in many forms. Mainly, though, in the form of online gurus and yes, even self-help books.
Surrounding yourself with as many successful people, and a pile of books we actually don’t intend to read. Seems like the most obvious choice for someone to safely function.
“Obviously these people have the answers I’m looking for. I’m going to consume their content and make it my mantra!” is what we tell ourselves.
So it begins.
Our virtual life becomes a scene crowded with ambitious tips in the form of Twitter threads, inspiring videos, blog posts, newsletters, Instagram stories, and what have you.
All of this, to tame our inter uncertainty.
We follow more. But we do little with what we follow.
Whenever we have a problem, we go swimming in The Ambitions River.
The water is always warm and bubbling. Everyone there is friendly, talkative, and inspiring. Besides, while we are splashing and catching waves, our problems seemingly disappear.
But that’s exactly the problem. They seemingly disappear.
The Danger of Merely Following Advice
None of the gurus you follow online will magically save you from your problems. Sure, the content most god-like online creators produce is pretty damn useful.
I mean, some people even argue that reading books is no longer important since there is so much advice online freely flowing.1
So what’s the problem?
We spend more time-consuming content instead of using the content we consume.
And I’m not simply saying this because I think that I’m an omnipotent idol that knows everything.
I’m saying this because I feel this way all the time myself.
I get lost in the consuming stage – drowning in The Ambitions River – more often than I care to admit.
I start reading about creating a YouTube channel with all the different aspects related to shooting videos and then uploading them into the void, but without the actual intention to shoot videos.
Simply reading about this gives me pleasure and persuades my mind that I’m doing something productive while I’m not doing anything. I’m simply procrastinating.
You might say that there is nothing wrong with diversifying your knowledge. Learning about different things that are not at all related to your field of work. And there isn’t!
I do agree that we should strive to be curious generalists rather than indifferent specialists.
Yet again, in most situations, we satisfy ourselves with simply consuming helpful content without actually using it.
We Wish For Success Without Doing The Hard Work
The clientele of famous Twitter people who talk about starting a business, for example, are passionate folks who dream about creating their own life centered around their interests.
But following a single person is usually not enough. It’s never enough.
We start to deliberately search for more. More idols to obey.
At some point, when we have an ever-flowing stream of information that seems like life-altering suggestions, an illusion is created.
Depending on the person, there are three possible outcomes:
- People who only pretend to want to make a change. These folks are OK with simply reading content about starting a business but they are not actually committed to the idea. They consume for fun and out of boredom.
- People who start to implement the advice but never get past the basic commands. They try, they fail, and they throw in the towel. Convincing themselves that they don’t have what it takes.
- People who actually start and finish the process. They use the information they consume to accomplish their goals. But the more they progress, the more they realize that more consumption doesn’t lead to better output.
Let’s untangle the 3 sections from above:
The first group is simply satisfied with consuming content. We might say that they experience confelicity.2 Meaning that they find delight in someone else’s happiness and this is usually enough for them to function.
Group two wants to make a change but they are intolerant to pain. They believe that by simply following people and doing the average, they will reach enlightenment. But as we all know, there is no such thing. Without effort and willingness to experience pain, there is no growth. Nobody achieves anything worth achieving without getting into the mud and getting dirty.
Thirdly, the group of people who are able to overcome the hardship and actually get results, realize that they don’t need more advice. They need a set of principles to follow and use them. There is no need to overload your mind with hundreds of tips. A handful of people is enough. This realization gives them clarity and mental space. Therefore, they start to carefully choose who to follow and what they consume.
If you’re a type 3 person, congratulations.
Continue doing what you’re already doing.
If not, read along.
We’ve established, hopefully, a base-level agreement that suffocating your brain with gurus is not very helpful. Or should we say, entering The Ambitious River with a simple bathing suit and your favorite inflatable toy is quite dangerous.
Besides, you can’t build your sandcastle while you’re still swimming. You need to exit. To stay strong on your feet and start using the learned.
This leads to…
Stop Following and Start Leading A Better Life
How to prevent ourselves from becoming mere collectors, enrollers, of Twitter threads, and finally start to practice what we so diligently consume?
Adopt a general conviction that you can handle things despite your current limitations.
This sounds super simple. But it takes a lot of inner work.
When reading the tips shared online, our world starts to feel easier, manageable.
We get comfortable when reading the reinforcing words shared by famous people. It’s like they hang us a lifebelt which can help us swim beside them.
Still, it only feels simpler and safe. Our actual situation is not fixed.
Reading self-help books and following leaders is like preparing to live – but not actually living.
To stop procrastinating and idolizing gurus, we need to enhance our confidence in ourselves.
Because, exactly the lack of confidence in our own skills gets us lost in a tornado of motivational speeches.
After all, if you possess inner strength and you believe in your own abilities. You won’t feel the need to get external validation all the time. You won’t feel the need to “bathe” with famous people in The Ambitions River whenever you have 5 minutes to spare. You will focus on your own tasks.
But how can you achieve this high level of confidence?
The path is similar to the path artists go through trying to find their own unique voice.
Here’s how I see things:
How To Start Using The Advice From Famous People – Not Simply Follow Them
1. Find Something That Truly Inspires You
First, we should find something that truly inspires us. A vision. Something we’ll approach with love and respect.
Call it whatever you want. A goal. Mission statement. Rebellious desire to prove to others that you can lose weight or play the violin despite your current condition.
Plainly, you need a need for a different place.
Here I’m not talking about visiting Monaco or Paris during the summer. More like finding a life-long goal that will help you wake up each morning motivated.
2. Start Imitating Others
After we have a goal, we move to the imitation phase.
Find people who already do what you want to do and start imitating them. The work you do here is mostly going to emulate what other people are doing because you’ll be too scared to do different things – your things.
In this second stage, when you read about optimizing your circle of friends, for instance. Or read through tips about waking up early, you will try to do exactly what the person is suggesting.
3. Start Experimenting
Stage three is about exploring different concepts. Experiment with different unknown topics. Read different books. Follow people who are not gurus (exploding head emoji!).
At first, like everything, it will feel like foreign ground. You will be simultaneously scared and excited. But you should push through. The goal is to “taste” different ideas. Create a mix using what you know, add a dose of things you don’t know, and form a cocktail of awesomeness.
4. Discover Your True Powers
The final stage is gaining the power and mindset that you can make it work. That you can figure things out along the way.
You use everything learned and you start to produce original work with inner confidence and conviction that you can do whatever you want.
At this final stage, you no longer rely on outside help, or at least not that much. You simply use the learned in the past for reference to create your own signature work. You distance yourself from the gurus. Or if I can use the concept of subject-object relationship – you slowly detach yourself from others and their lifestyle so you can make time and room for the lifestyle you, yourself, desire.
Plainly, you no longer want to swim in The Ambitions River all the time. You simply go to the river, take a refreshing sip, and continue building your own ship, safely waving at your famous friends from the shoreline.
Some Closing Thoughts
Following people online is like watching porn.
Don’t blush. The reference is clear.
You fill the inner emptiness by watching others do what you want to do. You feel good watching other people live their lives – the life you want for yourself. But as like porn – excuse me for the 18+ reference – this is just a temporary solution.
You feel pleasant sensations only while watching others. But this excitement is short-lived. You eventually need to watch more if you want to feel good again.
To actually experience life. You need to live it.
Instead of just watching, reading, and listening to other people doing fancy stuff. We need to get going. Overcome the general feeling of malaise by starting running, failing, getting up, and trying again.
Do yourself a favor:
Join The Study Newsletter: A laid back newsletter about very serious ideas from even more serious books – and not only. Great for lifelong learners, creators, & wanderers alike.
- OK, I can’t give you a link to the source of this statement due to the massiveness of the online world but I’m sure I’ve read it somewhere.
- Confelicity is a much-underused word meaning delight in someone else’s happiness.