On Self-Improvement

Leo Babauta has a big post on quashing the self-improvement urge.

I don’t love it.

So what’s the problem? You could say it’s great that people are constantly trying to improve themselves, but where does it end? When is anyone ever content with who they are? We are taught that we are not good enough yet, that we must improve, and so … we always feel a little inadequate.

I do say it’s great that people are constantly trying to improve themselves. It’s what I’m doing, and I think it’s what most self-aware people are doing. But, while I do strive to get better, I also feel proud of who I am at the same time. That varies from day to day, but overall I’m a self-confident person. I wasn’t always, but luckily my parents dragged me to a karate class when I was nine, and I was able to develop a sense of self-worth. I found a drive within myself to get better, but it didn’t come from being told “You suck!” all the time; it came from a desire to be awesome. So while I suppose I did feel “inadequate”, it inspired me to grow into a better, stronger person. Why would I want to be content with being a shy little dork? (Part of me remains a shy little dork, of course.)

We are never adequate, never perfect, never self-confident, never good enough, never comfortable with ourselves, never satisfied, never there, never content.

While I’m sure some people feel that way, I think it’s a sweeping generalization. There’s a big difference between wanting to get better and thinking you’re a worthless human being with nothing to offer anyone. I hope the latter are a minority.

And it becomes the reason we buy self-help products, fitness products, gadgets to make us cooler, nicer clothes, nicer cars and homes, nicer bags and boots, plastic surgery and drugs, courses and classes and coaches and retreats. It will never stop, because we will never be good enough.

I agree that much consumerism is driven by a feeling of lack, and that many people attach their self-worth to their possessions. It’s a tenet of eastern philosophy, and that line of thinking is obviously incorrect.

I think there are two levels to this “self-improvement is bad” argument:

  1. Self-improvement is bad because it convinces people to buy things they don’t need, like self-help books.
  2. Self-improvement is bad because it never allows people to be happy.

I agree with number one. Advertising that suggests, “You need to eat this! You need to wear this! You need to buy this!” scares people into spending money. It’s like when the news tells us to stock up on bottled water, canned food, and generators because there’s snow in the forecast. “Self-help” as an industry is in fact probably unhealthy. Everyone has issues, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to buy XYZ product. That’s just about the money.

I disagree with number two. If self-improvement consumes your existence, then yeah, that’s bad. But it’s not difficult to see how people can aspire to be better without becoming debilitated in the process.

We must improve. We must read every self-improvement book. When we read a blog, we must try that method, because it will make us better. When we read someone else’s account of his achievements, his goal system, his entrepreneurial lifestyle, her yoga routine, her journaling method, her reading list, we must try it. We will always read what others are doing, in case it will help us get better. We will always try what others are doing, try every diet and every system, because it helped them get better, so maybe it will help us too.

I suppose that would be the case for an individual incapable of thinking for themselves — and perhaps that’s the majority of the population — but not everyone looking for self-improvement lives that way. The way to self-improvement lies in introspection. But that’s not to say we can’t or shouldn’t learn from others.

New information must be considered before being implemented. We must evaluate new information before deciding if it’s applicable to us.

Would that be horrible, if we were just content and didn’t need to better ourselves every minute of every week? Would we be lazy slobs, or would we instead be happy, and in being happy do things that make us happy rather than make us better?

But doesn’t getting better make people happy? Again, there’s a difference between wanting to get better and being obsessed with your own inadequacy. Too much of any thing isn’t good for you. If the quest for self-improvement causes you to neglect other aspects of your life, then yes, it’s probably time to reevaluate. But self-improvement is not inherently bad, so long as it’s done in moderation, like anything else.

Think of how [being content] might simplify your life. Think of how many self-improvement books you read, or listen to in the car. Think of how many products you buy to make yourself better. Think of how many things you read online, in the hopes of being better. Think of how many things you do because you feel inadequate. Think of how much time this would free up, how much mental energy.

Yes, it would help many people who are consumed by their feelings of inadequacy. While books and audio tapes may contain valuable information, looking for magic bullets in them is futile.

Realize that you are already perfect. You are there. You can breathe a sigh of relief.

Striving to get better is not the same as striving for perfection. If you were perfect, you’d never make a mistake, and that’s unhealthy.

You are not perfect. But you’re probably awesome anyway.

Quash the urge to improve, to be better. It only makes you feel inadequate.

But a feeling of inadequacy often inspires us to get better, to learn new things, and to grow. You can’t grow if you think you’ve nothing left to learn. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get better as long as it’s not hurting you or someone else.

Ultimately, I see what Leo is saying, but to suggest that all self-improvement is bad doesn’t make sense. Striving for contentment is itself a form of self-improvement. Growing is what life is about.

I can think of nothing more valuable than having an unconditional love for yourself. That love should be for your strengths and your weaknesses. You should be happy with who you are while recognizing your flaws, and yes, striving to improve them. These flaws do not render you a broken or worthless human being. On the contrary, they are as much a part of who you are as your best qualities.

I agree that people shouldn’t beat themselves up over their inadequacies. Don’t feel bad about not being perfect; no one is, and you’re awesome. But still try to be the best person you can be. Why wouldn’t you?

I say love yourself right now, and get better all the time; it’ll only give you more reasons to love yourself.

And then explore the world of contentment. It’s a place of wonderment.

Well, that’s true.