Book Review: Steve Pavlina’s Personal Development for Smart People

Steve Pavlina’s been my inspiration, and I’ve long admired his refreshing insights, bold claims and supreme logic.  When he offered to send out free review copies of his book, Personal Development for Smart People, I eagerly signed up and was very excited when it arrived. He claimed that he sought to uncover truths not even touched by Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (a pinnacle in this field, if you asked me), and I thought if anybody is going to pull off such a feat, it would be him.

And I do believe he delivers.  But, in doing so, the effect I experienced was quite different from what I was expecting, in an unfortunate way.  Below let me illustrate what I mean.

What the Book Is

Briefly, the book is divided in two parts: the first is the theory of all theories, Steve’s 7 Principles of Truth, Love, Power, Oneness, Authority, Courage and Intelligence.  The second part is the application, where he discusses how these principles apply to habits, career, money, health, relationships, and spirituality.

The writing is pure Steve: thorough, logical, strong and bold without being cocky and condescending.  I detected no difference in the voices of blogger Steve and book-author Steve.  If you like his blog, that’s what you’ll get in his book — except it’s even longer (hard to imagine, I know, considering how verbose he is!  😉 )

What It Delivers

In its introduction, Steve outlined his mandates for the principles he was to identify.  He is very well-versed in the personal development/self-improvement (PD/SI) literature, but he rarely references others’ works, so by this I suspect it was purely a process of his digging deep into his supreme intelligence to deduce principles based on his observations and logic.

And he has a lofty list! His principles were to be:

  • universal
  • fundamental (meaning, all other PD/SI concepts would trace back to his principles)
  • irreducible, like prime numbers in math
  • congruent, never contradicting, with each other
  • practical

Reading through the first half of the book, I couldn’t help but conclude that he succeeded in discovering this.  Logically, it is impeccable.  There’s just no room to argue with Steve.  I’m sure many of us will be quoting him from here on, to explain why something is the way it is.

Among the seven principles, the truth of oneness resonated with where I am in my development the most.  The idea of us being but individual cells in a larger body is not exactly new, but in Steve’s hands it has a profound impact.  Because he is able to explain why this is, I can totally accept it, even when what he claims is not scientifically proven (yet) in anyway.

Similarly, the application section is packed full of vintage Steve.  This part contains many episodes that were at least mentioned among his blogs, as it deals with more concrete problems.

Particularly, I’ve always felt that his work on habits is among his greatest contributions.  The analogy of a chess game to a habit change is so innovating, yet it makes complete sense.

What It Didn’t Deliver — to ME

However, while I sat and marveled at how everything makes so much sense, I noticed that I wasn’t exactly enjoying reading this book.  Perhaps it’s because the words he chose for the 7 principles are all ordinary, common words?  Or maybe because as a PD/SI blogger myself, I’m already familiar with many of theories and claims in this book?

Upon pondering on this a while, I recognized what was going on.  He and I are polar opposites in terms of our personality types.

First, Steve’s writing is intelligent and logical, but almost completely devoid of all emotions or feelings.  Oh, he talks about them, all right — intuition, too.  But his writing does absolutely nothing to evoke or connect on that level.

Second, even when discussing applications, Steve doesn’t illustrate his points with real-world or personal stories.  He mentions them here and there, but it doesn’t dig deep enough to truly illuminate, to really reveal how it applies.  The most gripping part for me was the introduction, where he outlined his autobiography of his evolution up to the writing of this book.

These two traits, as I mentioned, are nothing new if you read his blogs.  He writes the book in exactly the same voice.  But a blog entry is a different format.  However long it is, it is still designed to make a single point.  These qualities don’t bother me on a blog, as I am picking and choosing entries that solve my specific problems.  And I can feel the elation of truth being revealed and explained, not because his writing appeals that way, but simply because I can process what he’s saying because I have the real world example to connect it with on my hand.

Taken as one book, I have to admit that it was one massive, dry reading.  It reminded me for forcing myself through a college textbook.  Like the books you find in a library’s reference section, perhaps the best use of this book is to use it as a reference — you just skim through it at first to see where everything is, and go back to re-read specific portions when relevant situations come up.

My Suggestions to Steve

It’s a rare occasion when I say a PD/SI book is too short to fully realize its impact, but I feel like this book is such a case.  Steve cut out all unnecessarily (in terms of explaining his points) fluffy, touchy-feely parts to jam pack this book with meaty, dense, extremely left-brained prose of high-and-lofty theories.  As he dutifully works through each of his applications, explaining how the 7 principles apply in each area, an intuitive and emotional person like me feels like someone is filing my heart with a piece of sandpaper, grinding it with dryness.  It just doesn’t connect with me, and forcing myself to maintain the engagement became a chore.

The fault lies not in the material, but the delivery.  If Steve aims to broaden his reach, I have to recommend (it’s funny coming from a fellow man, but) he get in touch with his feminine side.  I feel nothing but disappointment in talking down on a book by one of my favorite bloggers, yet in being rigidly true to who he is, his writing fails to deliver its potent content to those of us on the other end of the personality spectrum.  I am yet to listen to his podcasts, but I suspect he’s not nearly as dry in his speaking — as if he was, he would not make an engaging speaker, and Toastmsters tell its members not to be so.  Perhaps he should try reading his book aloud, to see if it has any relevance when spoken.  I can’t speak for all books, but many good books I can think of will remain potent when read outloud.

This is a bit of a tangent, but while my base is firmly on the intuitive and emotional side, over the years all my four areas in Myers-Briggs personality types have grown closer to the middle. While this shift wasn’t entirely conscious, I suspect I developed this way primarily to fulfill many of the traditionally male roles I’m expected to fulfill, both in my work and my family.  But the vast majority of my close friends are women (and I seem able to maintain such relationships without getting sexuality or infatuation involved at all — so the myth of men and women not being able to be friends without being lovers is completely irrelevant to me) and I have come to consider my possessing of both traditionally masculine and feminine qualities as one of my assets.  If I may be so audacious as to suggest where Steve’s personal growth may take him, I would urge him to explore his intuitive and emotional sides.

I’ve always advocated that there are a few principles but infinite applications.  And the glue between the two are personal stories.  Because he didn’t spend enough of time illustrating his points using real, or real-sounding stories (fables are perfectly capable of packing a punch) his application section lacks the power to really illuminate a light on specific problems.  His principles do apply, don’t get me wrong.  But us emotional type just don’t feel how powerfully so.  It boggles my mind as to why, he, an owner of one of the largest forums on the topic, did not draw on the wealth of stories being shared everyday.  He could have obscured all specific details to protect privacy.

I felt that 7 Habits had the perfect balance of logic/intellect mixed with real-life illustrations, making all his points supremely convincing.  Pack a book full of “aha” inducing insights every 3 pages, delivered in such a manner that it appeals to both intellectuals and emotionals, and you have yourself a classic.  Another book I suggest to Steve is Zen Guitarby Philip Toshio Sudo.  Steve mentions how studying disciplines foreign and unrelated can still bring out new insights and universal truths.  Zen Guitar is obviously a book for guitar players, but its principles are so profound that it applies to any kind of learning or living, and it’s written in a refreshingly concise, poetic, yet superbly logical and well-organized way.

Oh, and one practical suggestion.  I wish his editor would have capitalized the names of seven principles — as they are such common words, yet what Steve means by it is different from the conventional meaning.  Capitalizing Steve’s Love principle would have clarified which meaning he’s talking about.

Concluding Thoughts

If you are a PD/SI blogger, I would recommend this book as a reference.  Grab it and quote from it to back up your points.  If you are primarily left-brain-oriented person, this book will be fabulous.  It doesn’t contain any sob stories to dull the sharpness of his chain of logic.

If you are an intuitive/emotional type, looking to shed a light on your specific problems, then I would say there are better books for you.

And finally, I really hope Steve writes more books, now that this theory-explainer is out of his system.  As dense as it is, this book feels like what should be an overview of a book or a series of books.  Having explained his theories (even the application section feels like it does no more than explaining how the theory applies to generic situations), he can now turn his attention to more specifics, taking complex and intertwined real-life situations and unraveling it with his supreme intelligence.  Hopefully in the process, he’ll begin to expand his horizons and be more accommodating (I’m not suggesting that he changes who he is.  I’m just suggesting that he expands upon himself) to those of us who are not like him.  For there is such a power in this material, and it was such a missed opportunity for me.  I can’t wait to see what comes up, as he digs deeper into the fertile ground he laid out here.


  1. Wow, Ari! Too many times I’ve read gushing and fawning reviews and then have been disappointed upon purchasing the book because it fell short of expectations, fueled by the fawning review! You’re doing a great service to your readership by presenting all facets of your impressions. Thanks. You’ve gone up even further in my estimation.

    Betsy´s last blog post..ENERGY

    1. Hi Betsy,

      Well, music, books, art and movies — they’re all personalized media. What works for one person doesn’t for others. There are some fundamental mechanics about how it’s put together we can judge objectively, but beyond that, it’s a matter of taste.

      I hope I made my point of view clear in my review. If you feel that you can see where I’m coming from, then perhaps your opinion on the book may be similar. If you feel that what you look for in such books are different, then the book has a potential to appeal to you more. It’s a well-written book. If you are into this type of books, it may still be worth a browse in a book store.


  2. The Steve Pavlina blog is an interesting phenomenon.

    I have taken a look at some of his blog articles, and he is clearly a very talented writer. I should take more close looks at his material.

    He appears to be a big believer in the law of attraction, a belief system that doesn’t wholly resonate with me. I believe positive thoughts breed positive actions… But the law of attraction goes way beyond that.

    Either way, I enjoyed your review even though I’m not very knowledgeable about his blog or writings.

    I’m also not certain if I strongly prefer personal examples being expressed in articles on self development. I think it just depends. The main objective, for me, is that the concept is communicated clearly; in a way that can be utilized by those who read it.

    I’ve never really pondered the importance of personal examples. But, I would argue – that metaphors are excellent ways to demonstrate points, and yet – they are not personal examples.

    Bamboo Forest´s last blog post..It’s All About to Go Down

    1. Bamboo,


      You’re right, I do agree that PD/SI need not have personal examples — metaphors, fables and other stories that illustrate the point will suffice in communicating the point. That said, real, personal stories with names, dates and place attached, are by far the most vivid, most convincing way to prove that certain concepts apply — because we’re all talking about reality, in the end. If a metaphor resonates, that’s because you see a parallel in your own life to connect it with. But a personal story can be a proof all by itself (assuming that you trust the author’s authenticity).

      Apart from your wit, I think your style is closer to Steve’s. His book and blog may resonate with you. Some of Steve’s blog entries were certainly eye-openers for me. I’m a bit sad that the book didn’t do it, but I think with right personalities it will.


  3. Thanks, Ari. I was wondering about this book. I didn’t know who Steve was until my first week blogging, though of course I’ve heard a lot about him since. The other day I was on Twitter, and Tim Brownson said something about the book like it was half wonderful and half maddening. Sounds like you two kind of agree. I agree with both Betsy and Bamboo as well. I like my books with a personal touch, and would not want to be disappointed. You are doing a service to your readers.

    Writer Dad´s last blog post..Forty Days and Forty Nights

    1. Hey Sean,

      Thanks! Yes, judging from your writing style I think you and I have some similarities. That said, if you have a specific problem — whether it’s money or relationship — don’t let my review keep you from going to his site and doing a search. Steve is like a library. It’s best to go in and just pull out information you need.


  4. Hi Ari:

    I too am new to Steve’s blog and I have to admit that I find it rather dry. I have spent a lot of effort in my own book to “show, don’t tell” as any good memoirist knows. I feel only by actually allowing the reader into your inner mind, do you really get your point across and achieve resonance with your audience. I like to think I managed to find that resonance in my own work, but like anything, its subjective. I do believe that we (those of us who are awake and writing about this stuff) are all getting the same message across, in many different ways in order to reach a wide variety of people and their unique learning styles. This giant nudge, the waking of others is a growing phenomenon. Its an exciting time to live.

    1. Hi Abby,

      Welcome back! Thanks for your comment.

      Ultimately, I think we have to concede that we write what works for ourselves. Overly sentimental or emotional work may get dismissed by left-brainers as touchy-feely without true substance. We can’t be everything to everyone — but there is much we can do by simply working with the portion of the population who respond to what we have to say. That’s certainly good enough! 😉

      I do agree that there is one set of “truth” and we’re all using different words, metaphors and examples to get to them. It is indeed exciting to realize that all of us from all kinds of backgrounds can still agree on something fundamental.


  5. Hey Ari,
    I’m glad to see that you got to review Steve’s book too.

    I agree with what you said about writing what works best for ourselves. I tend to have a short attention span and struggle reading an entire blog post if it’s more than 500 words long. So I tend to write shorter posts. They’ve been getting longer, but they’re still short compared to what most people write.

    1. Hi Lovelyn,

      If that’s the case, I’m really glad you’re hanging out at my site! It must be quite a challenge for you around here. 😉

      I actually admire brevity. I wouldn’t say short is always more mature, but for my evolution, that’s what I aspire to. So in a few months, perhaps I’ll be more to your liking. 😉


  6. I once watched an accomplished guitar player perform flawlessly. It was too flawless. He might as well have been a robot. The performance left me impressed, but not touched; appreciative, but not elevated or motivated or emotionally charged in any way. This book sounds the same.

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  9. Hi Ari..

    This is the first review of Steve’s book that I’ve read, that seems to express out loud (well, written on a web page!) how I’ve often felt about Steve’s blog. Yes it’s intellectual, yes it’s academic, yes it reminds me of uni, and yes it is completely devoid of any heart, soul, emotion! I was beginning to think it was just me who felt that way! Cheers for such an honest review.

    Ross´s last blog post..Why I’ve always hated goals

    1. Hi Ross,

      Welcome to OBV! Well, to his credit, Steve himself sent me a very gracious e-mail, saying how he can see it didn’t work for me. You know, nobody works for everybody. His achievement, both on site and in his book, is monumental — and nothing I can say will take away from it.

      That said, it really didn’t work for me. Oh well. I highly recommend you check Maya’s framework if you want good theories delivered with heart — now that’s one smart woman.

      Keep in touch, I look forward to getting to know you!


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