2 Self-Improvement Ideas That Can Be Harmful

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In 1928, biologist Alexander Fleming was studying a group of bacteria commonly known as staph infections. Before leaving for a family vacation, Fleming inoculated a series of culture plates, giving them time to colonize while he was gone.

When Fleming returned to his lab on September 3, 1928, he noticed that one of the culture plates had become contaminated with a fungus. Fleming was messy, so he was used to finding unusual growths in his culture plates. But, this growth was different.

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Fleming noticed that the staph infection surrounding the fungus had been destroyed, while the staph infection further away was unaffected. What he didn’t realize was that he’d just discovered penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic. For the next 16 years, Fleming and a team of scientists worked to make penicillin widely available to the public.

It’s estimated that penicillin has saved 80 to 200 million lives and adds 5 to 10 years to the life expectancy of US citizens. 1 For this reason, some refer to Fleming’s discovery as the “single greatest victory ever achieved over disease.” 2

It would be great if the story ended here, but sadly, it doesn’t.

Fleming himself presented penicillin to the world with a warning. During laboratory studies, Fleming noticed that microbes quickly learned to resist penicillin through mutation and natural selection. He warned that improper use of penicillin could produce strains of bacteria that antibiotics could not cure.

Unfortunately, the world did not listen. Deemed a wonder drug, doctors began prescribing penicillin for everything. Currently, the CDC estimates that doctors incorrectly prescribe 47 million antibiotic treatments each year.

In the end, Fleming was right. The widespread abuse of antibiotics has created strains of antibiotic-resistant infections known as superbugs. Currently, superbugs are responsible for 700,000 deaths per year—a number that threatens to be as high as 10 million by 2050. 3

You Can Take A Good Thing Too Far

The misuse of antibiotics is a perfect example of what can happen when you take a good idea too far. Unfortunately, this universal truth applies to nearly every good idea.

The self-improvement industry is not immune to this problem. Many popular self-improvement ideas become harmful when taken too far.

This article will identify two self-improvement ideas that can harm your life and then show you how to escape their trap.

Effectiveness vs. Application Graph—When Self-Improvement Becomes Harmful
Effectiveness vs. Application Graph

Harmful Idea #1: It’s Intentions That Matter

Why Intentions Are Good

Your intentions describe how you want to behave and what you hope your behavior will accomplish. For example, a student might intend to study and go to class with the hope of receiving a degree.

When clearly defined, good intentions are helpful because they influence positive behavior. The student who clearly defines a study plan is more likely to take action and earn a degree.

Intentions are also beneficial when dealing with other people. That’s because identifying someone’s intentions can help with forgiveness and understanding. For example, it’s easier to forgive your friend for saying something hurtful if you know they intended to be funny.

Taking Intentions Too Far

Intentions become problematic when you use them as a measure of success. Here’s what it looks like when you use your intentions as a measure of success.

  • You expect a company to pay you for the work you intended to do, not the work you did.
  • You expect your family members to judge you for how you intended to treat them, not how you actually treated them.

This mindset can quickly lead to trouble. That’s because people, employers, and the world do not evaluate you based on what you intended to do. Instead, they evaluate you based on what you did.

If you make a mistake, intentions can help explain your position. But intentions are not a never-ending get-out-of-jail-free card. You can’t continue to drop the ball at work or be disrespectful to your family and expect that your intentions will always right your wrongs.

You might be surprised that people think this way, but human nature leads us to do many questionable things. Ultimately, there are three main reasons why people use their intentions as a measure of success.

1. It’s easy. Being a good employee or respectful family member takes effort. When you use your intentions as a measure of success, you free yourself from doing the work. After all, why bother acting like a good person if thinking you’re a good person is enough?

2. It’s freeing. It’s not easy to apologize and admit fault, but it’s the best way to right your wrongs. Conveniently, when you use your intentions as a measure of success, you no longer have to be accountable for your actions. For example, assume you were rude to your mother. In that case, you get to protect your ego and avoid an apology if you convince yourself you had good intentions.

3. It feels good. Most people feel guilty when they screw up or drop the ball. Because guilt is an uncomfortable feeling, people do what they can to avoid it. However, when you use your intentions as a measure of success, you no longer have to feel guilty about what you did. For instance, suppose you drop the ball at work and lose a sale. In that case, you don’t have to feel guilty if you believe you intended to be a good employee.

Why It’s Harmful To Use Your Intentions As A Measure Of Success

There are two main reasons why it’s harmful to use your intentions as a measure of success.

1. You stop improving. You don’t become better by thinking you’re better. You become better by behaving better.

An employee grows by getting better at communication, negotiation, and customer service. And, a family member grows when they become caring, trustworthy, and respectful.

Ultimately, using your intentions as a measure of success is a form of denial that holds you back. When your intentions are the only things that matter, you have no reason to improve your behavior. With this mindset, you lose your ability to grow.

2. You harm others. Assume that you intend to be a great teacher, but you’re never prepared and cut corners whenever possible.

If you were to evaluate yourself based on your intentions, you’d conclude that you were doing a great job. But, if you were to evaluate yourself based on your actions, you’d realize that you were robbing your students of the opportunity to learn.

The lesson here is simple. You can’t help people with your intentions. The only way to help others is by taking action.

Actions, Not Intentions, Produce Results
Actions, Not Intentions, Produce Results

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Harmful Idea #2: Don’t Have Expectations

Why Not Having Expectations Is Good

An expectation is a strong belief that something should happen. Expectations fall into two broad categories—realistic and unrealistic expectations.

For example, it’s realistic for an employer to expect employees to do their job. But, it is unrealistic for a wife to expect her husband to know she wanted pizza for dinner if she didn’t tell him.

Expectations are important because they influence your happiness. People tend to be happy when their expectations are met and unhappy when they are not. For example, you’ll be happy if you receive the pay raise you expect. But, if you don’t, there’s a good chance you’ll be unhappy.

Happiness vs. Expectations Graph
Happiness vs. Expectations Graph

The problem with unrealistic expectations is they are unlikely to be fulfilled. This issue promotes a never-ending cycle of unhappiness.

For this reason, a lot of self-improvement advice tells you not to have expectations. This is good advice when referring to unrealistic expectations. But, suggesting that people shouldn’t have realistic expectations is bad advice. The following three reasons explain why.

Why Not Having Expectations Is Problematic

Here are three reasons why it’s harmful not to have expectations.

1. You lose control. Realistic expectations establish boundaries. Boundaries are helpful because they clearly define what you will and will not accept. Here’s an example to illustrate this point.

Assume a married couple has the realistic expectation that they will remain faithful, honest, and non-violent.

These well-defined expectations establish order by describing what isn’t acceptable in the marriage. Without them, each partner might feel entitled to do whatever they want. This leads to problems.

For instance, consider the potential consequences if a wife didn’t expect her husband to be non-violent. Likewise, what might happen if a country didn’t expect its citizens to obey the law or a military general didn’t expect troops to follow orders?

Without realistic expectations, you lose control of your life because you cannot draw the proverbial line in the sand. As a result, people take advantage of you.

2. You miss warning signs. Realistic expectations also help you identify problems.

Assume you’re the co-owner of a business. You and your business partner have the realistic expectation that you will follow the rules of the operating agreement. If your business partner does not meet this expectation, that’s a clue your business is in trouble.

In this sense, well-defined expectations act as helpful warning signs that tell you something is wrong. Without these warning signs, your life can quickly veer off course.

3. You justify poor behavior. Some people use the concept of having no expectations as an excuse to do whatever they want. Let me explain.

Assume your parents unrealistically expect you to become a doctor because it will make them look good. In that case, it’s reasonable to ask your parents to let go of their expectations and allow you to choose a career that makes you happy. But, this doesn’t mean it’s realistic to ask your parents to let go of all expectations. For instance, the expectation that you will treat them with respect.

People who take the concept of having no expectations too far believe it’s unfair for people to expect anything of them. These people feel entitled to treat others however they want. If someone has a problem with their behavior, they accuse the victim of having unrealistic expectations.

How To Prevent These Harmful Ideas From Ruining Your Life

Here are three ideas that can keep your life on track.

1. Be Accountable

Nobody likes to admit when they are wrong, but it’s the best way to fix your problems. When you screw up, don’t hide behind your intentions or accuse others of having unrealistic expectations.

Instead, take ownership of your problems. Accountable people admit when they are wrong, understand the value of a good apology, and work to better themselves.

2. Use Your Actions, Not Your Intentions, As A Measure Of Success

When you use your actions as a measure of success, you gain access to valuable feedback necessary for growth.

While it’s not easy to evaluate and change your behavior, it’s worth the effort. Over time, this practice builds character, confidence, and competence. And, when it comes to your relationships, this process builds trust, respect, and depth.

3. Identify And Eliminate Unrealistic Expectations

As you’ve learned, your goal is to let go of unrealistic expectations, not all expectations. You can use the following three questions to help you identify when an expectation might be unrealistic.

1. Does this expectation require someone to read my mind? If someone needs to read your mind to meet your expectation, it’s unrealistic. For instance, reconsider the pizza example above. Expecting your spouse to know that you want pizza for dinner without telling them would require them to read your mind.

2. Does this expectation require me to control something I cannot control? If your expectation requires you to control something you cannot control, it’s likely unrealistic. As an example, expecting everyone to agree with you is an example of trying to control something you cannot control. Since you cannot control what people think, this expectation is unrealistic.

3. Do facts or logic suggest that this expectation is possible? If facts or logic do not support your expectation, it’s probably unrealistic. For instance, assume you’re a new piano player and expect to play at a concert level in two weeks. After examining the facts, you learn that players need years of dedicated practice to reach this level. It’s then easy to recognize that this is an unrealistic expectation.

In A Nutshell

Here are the key takeaways from this article.

  • Most good ideas become harmful when taken too far.
  • Intentions are good because they influence positive behavior and help with forgiveness and understanding.
  • Intentions become problematic when you use them as a measure of success.
  • People use intentions as a measure of success because (1) it’s easy, (2) it’s freeing, and (3) it feels good.
  • Using your intentions as a measure of success is problematic because (1) you stop improving and (2) you harm others.
  • There are two types of expectations. Those are realistic and unrealistic expectations.
  • Unrealistic expectations are unhelpful because they lead to unhappiness. Therefore, it makes sense to eliminate unrealistic expectations.
  • Having no realistic expectations is harmful because (1) you lose control, (2) you miss warning signs, and (3) you justify poor behavior.
  • To prevent these harmful ideas from ruining your life, (1) be accountable, (2) use your actions, not your intentions, as a measure of success, and (3) identify and eliminate unrealistic expectations.

Books That Influenced This Article

The following book links are Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase a book after clicking one of the links, I will receive a commission.

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The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
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  1. Joseph Gottfried. History Repeating? Avoiding a Return to the Pre-Antibiotic Age. Harvard.edu. (April 17, 2005).
  2. Alexander Fleming. Wikipedia.
  3. Nicole F. Roberts. CDC Report Suggests Antibacterial Resistance Could Undo Almost A Century Of Progress. Forbes.com. (November 23, 2019).


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