The Life-Changing Magic of Realizing There is No “Life-Changing Magic”

How the gurus of self-help unwittingly derail our progress by creating unreal expectations.

When we’re kids, we’re bombarded by talk of magic. From children’s books, shows, movies, and games — to Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy — there’s no shortage of magical explanations for things. Our entire worldview is filled with magical explanations of things.

Part of growing up, it seems, is leaving magic behind, and focusing instead on understanding how things work. That’s not to say that there is no place for wonder and admitting that we don’t know something. In fact those attitudes are a great way to start learning and improving.

But over the past decade or so, something has been going on in the self-help and personal development world. The idea of magic has somehow crept in. The idea that we can somehow improve ourselves and make big changes in the world by circumventing normal action and cause/effect mechanisms seems to be gaining momentum.

But what is that doing to us? How is that affecting our quests for personal growth?

The Magic Hour

In 2006, Rhonda Byrne released the book The Secret, which describes and encourages people to engage in a kind of magical thinking. It must have been in the zeitgeist, because within 5 years, as Steve Jobs attempted to beat what would end up being terminal cancer, his biographer chronicled Jobs’ approach as heavily anchored in magical thinking.

The term “magic” then took off. By 2015, Elizabeth Gilbert used the concept in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Around that same time, Marie Kondō released her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up. And alas, a new paradigm for personal growth was born.

As more and more online content about self-improvement cropped up, use of the word “magic” skyrocketed — and it continues today. More than that, the use of the term “Life-Changing Magic” continues in content all around the internet and traditional media.

But is that a good thing? Is viewing and describing our interaction with the world through the lens of “magic” helpful? Or does it oversimplify and obfuscate things — causing us to fail at the task of understanding ourselves and understanding reality?

Magic vs. Method

So what is magic anyway? When we see an article or book with the phrase “magic” or, better yet, “life-changing magic,” what is at play? Regardless of what the author might intend or explain, connotations draw us in. Nearly everyone has a dense set of ideas and (more importantly) feelings about magic.

When we were children, magic was a big part of our worldview, and depending on how life progressed for each person after that, it may have remained there in some way. So when we see the word magic, offered up as a serious descriptor of something in life, it’s very easy to leave behind critical inquiry and everyday reasoning.

When we describe things as “magic” or “magical”, and especially when we describe something as “life-changing magic,” a few detrimental things happen to our thinking. First of all, when things are described as “magic” the connotation is that they happen without direct or strenuous effort. That might be the very definition of magic as it’s used in work about self-improvement; magic means spooky action at a distance — both at a physical distance and at an intellectual distance. Just do this one thing, just change your mindset, and things fall into place — as if by magic.

Furthermore, when magic frames a discussion of something, mystery is accepted — rather than questioned. Things are left unexplained that we might normally feel compelled to deeply and shrewdly investigate and understand, so we can leverage that understanding to more effectively make things happen. This is especially harmful when we take a view of our mental lives as magical in some way. While we can certainly drum up thoughts and desires from seemingly whole cloth, it does little good to do that while abandoning the practice of taking a hard look at your emotional and cognitive patters, as well as behaviors, and getting to understand how your mind works.

The Damage of the Word “Magic”

Even if the actual process that an author or speaker lays out isn’t really magic, but more like a tried and true method, it can still be harmful to describe it as magic. Why? Because connotations are often much stronger than actual descriptions. This means that you can describe an empirically sound, difficult, and methodical thing all you want, but if you use the word “magic,” the perception will often be that somehow less effort and frustration is involved — which is false.

Does that sound dumb? Of course it does! But that’s simply Marketing 101: words — even single words — matter greatly because they can have such a deep effect on people’s perceptions and behavior. The words we use to present things to people — even ourselves influence how we view things and behave.

So if we’re going to describe something as “magic” or “life-changing” or both, we’re structuring expectations and framing things in a way that is quite vulnerable to misunderstanding and disappointment. That mis-framing can be the difference between someone sticking with something, or abandoning it in frustration — because their unrealistic expectations weren’t met.

Everything’s “Life-Changing Magic”, So Nothing Is

At the end of the day, personal growth isn’t really secret or magical. So why not approach it that way — rather than by pretending that there’s some piece of it that somehow defies normal understanding? That would reduce the likelihood of people forming unrealistic expectations of the world and themselves, and (I imagine) would increase the likelihood of people sticking to something that’s difficult — because they were never presented it as if it were immediately and magically life-altering.

That’s the thing about “magic” — as well as things like revolutions, disruptions, and inventions. They’re neither as immediate nor radical as they seem. Everything is gradual and incremental, what makes it seem otherwise is where our attention is. We’re not paying attention, so we don’t see the subtle changes happening.

In fact, think about the most practical meaning of the word “magic,” — as in what stage magicians do. The most basic principle of the craft is that things look like they happen seemingly out of nowhere — because your attention is not on the action. It’s an illusion, possible because we don’t see what we’re not paying attention to. Misdirection is key in magic, and it’s why we stare slack-jawed every time we see a trick. It seems like it all happens in a flash, and defies the laws of physics, but it doesn’t. We just have a skewed view of things, because we weren’t watching closely.

When it comes to self-improvement, and the so-called inner game, there’s no possibility of magic because whether we want to or not, we’re captive audiences to all the stuff in our minds. Your mind won’t let you misdirect and trick yourself for long. So the only real way forward is not by magic, but by incremental but steady change. It’s not sexy, fast, whimsical, magical, or anything like that. And rather than trickery and misdirection, it requires complete and total honesty and transparency with yourself.

Can that seemingly slow, steady, and un-sexy inner game produce big things? Absolutely! It just doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and sustained effort. That’s the great news: if you do things in small and doable steps, you’ll find the kid of progress that’s much harder to lose than the kind you make with sweeping and whimsical maneuvers.

I’m a fan of magic, but I refuse to play tricks on myself or others in order to grow. I refuse to oversimplify and paint in broad, sweeping strokes — especially when it comes to making myself and the world better. In my experience, my mind usually figures out the tricks, and revolts agains them. Instead, I’ll embrace method: tangible, workable, and at times slow steps toward sustainable and significant long-term growth.

Join me, won’t you?

Written by

Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”:

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