‘Self-improvement is masturbation. Now self-destruction…’Tyler Durden, Fight Club
I’ve had read self-help books for over a decade and in recent years I’ve become disillusioned with the whole idea.
My quest for personal development has lead me to read, listen and watch so much advice. But a part of me is exasperated.
When will it end, when can I give up with all this learning? I just want to sit back and be content for a while.
This feeling got me when I deleted some podcast episodes on self-help. I wondered to myself, what if those episodes were important? What if they had good ideas that I might need?!
I felt somewhat afraid. As if my life would fail if I didn’t have the knowledge they contained. Where did that fear come from, and why?
Self-help, self-improvement is a vague idea and when I first started out on my quest I had the notion of improving my life. But now that it has I’m wondering if all that reading was necessary.
What does self-improvement mean? What is it we’re trying to do here?Words like self-improvement and personal growth are often used, but are they the right words to use?
What’s more, there’s a whole self-help industry out there worth billions. How useful is their advice? Is self-improvement really possible and what do we mean by that?What follows here are a few points I picked out of my introspection.
In my quest, I wanted to get better at everything. But that’s an enormous undertaking. The feeling ‘I’m not enough’ is what kept me going back again and again.
Each post or episode is a way of saying, ‘there’s more to learn, you’re still not good enough, you’ll never be enough, never know enough.’
Reading this stuff is an addiction in some ways, with the industry as the dealers. We can’t learn it all, can’t catalogue and curate all the wisdom and good ideas. There’s not enough time.
It’s our relationship to uncertainty, and our desire to eliminate it that keep us searching.
So here I was, like an addict. Wanting to feel better and convinced the answer lies in books. Every post is like a hit. I felt better in the knowledge that I was not slacking, not complacent. It shows I’m a good person because I care so much about getting better.
What does that say about me? Little that’s good. I’m addicted to being better. I looked down on those people who don’t share these values. Who don’t push themselves hard? Self-help can be like that. We use it as a symbol of our virtue.
The self-help industry exists because it plays on our fears and insecurities. We’re either told we have a problem. Or we don’t feel good, successful or happy enough. So we buy books, seminars, courses.
It’s taking life itself and turning it into a competition. This kind of neediness makes the economy work and self-help is no different.
Self-help can’t fix you because you don’t need to be fixed.
We need to be aware of our motivations and why we’re reading this stuff and remember it’s your own insecurity and fears that are driving our quest.
True, personal development books can be of enormous help and there is some genuinely good advice out there.
But at some point, you will have to deal with the fears an insecurities that keep you coming back for more. I learned that I’m okay as I am, I learned how to accept myself despite my flaws.
That’s why I cut down on such reading. A moratorium on advice. I no longer need it so much. I let go of the need to know it all and learned to live in the mystery and imperfection that life is about. The rest I can figure for myself. (My journey from consumption to production as I like to call it).
Self-improvement plays on our fears, but true self-development is coming to terms with those fears and avoid becoming addicted to the advice that claims to make it all go away.
The ‘Improvement’ myth
‘Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer, maybe self-destruction is the answer’Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
To improve is our aim. But I have trouble with this because it implies that we have a ‘self’ to improve.
We think there is this ‘fixed self,’ this ego inside of us that is our core unchanging identity and that to improve we need to uncover it from the illusions that surround it.
However Buddhism and modern psychology tell us that such an idea of an immutable everlasting self is an illusion. There is no core unchanging piece of ourselves that we refer to when we say ‘I’. Our identity is not something fixed, but it changes over time. So how can something that’s illusory exist and change over time be improved?
Perhaps the problem here is the word we use. ‘Improvement.’ We take it to mean a process towards perfection. To improve is to make better. But how do you measure that?
Acorn, then a sapling, then a tree. They are different, yet they are all the same. How does improvement fit in here?
Consider your own life and how different you are to the person you were ten years ago. You might think who you are now is an improvement on the past, but is a tree an improvement upon an acorn?
Growth is a better word. It’s not to be better at who we are, we cannot help but be who we are. It’s to realise our potential. Making sure the acorn does become the tree.
Our lives are full of possibilities, not all will be realised, but we all fear not living up to something greater.
Perhaps the best way to understand what we want is what we try to avoid.
The enemy of growth is stagnation. Stagnation is stasis, rigidity, an attitude that resists change. We recoil from it because it implies that the world has left us behind. We have become obsolete.
Self-improvement seems the wrong word. What we want is to flourish. As I put it. ‘Not just to live but to thrive.’
Such a misunderstanding can leave us upset because we’re trying to live up to the idea of a perfect life and self-help merely fosters that kind of insecurity.
But as we are discovering self-improvement maybe the biggest myth the industry espouses.
Follow your passion
I have heard this one more than once. Just follow your passion and you will find success. Such advice has the problem of being vague. We all have desires but they come and go.
The mistake here is we think we find our passion first then we go and follow it.
Nonsense. Passion is what arises after practising something you enjoy, it arises after the work not before.
It’s about people who when faced with uncertainty and ambiguity want the answers before they act. It’s also the idealistic notion that the right job is one where you only feel joy, never boredom or stress.
Such idealism can’t exist in the world because all jobs, no matter how amazing, have their downsides. Dull boring or negative moments where the job seems like a chore or a struggle.
In effect the more we emphasise passion, the less we become satisfied with our jobs. We become unwilling to settle for anything less than perfection.
Passion, calling, feeling, it’s all becoming mixed up as we expect our calling to make feel passionate all the time. It’s a perfectionist trap like the ideal partner, only here it the ideal job.
What’s more, it’s likely that you have already found your passion. We all spend our time one way or the other, so whatever you spend your time on that’s your passion. You have already found something the keeps your attention, you just don’t recognise or want to accept it.
It’s asking ‘what do I like?’ Can’t you tell?! Why are you asking someone else?
This ultimate ‘Passion’ is the desire to do what you love, so what do you like doing? Then and go and do it.
There is no secret to it, children don’t ask what’s fun to-do, they just go and do something they enjoy.
Illusion of progress
‘Your level of success will seldom exceed your level of personal development because success is something you attract by the person you become.’Jim Rohn
Get this reading a book on Procrastination is procrastinating!
This is a big downside of the modern age, with all this knowledge at our fingertips it’s easy to read book after book, post after post, videos, seminars and more. An endless stream of consumption that gives the illusion we are doing something, when we’re just stuck in the loop of learning.
This the what the self-help addiction does to people, the illusion of progress. It’s no good reading if that’s all that you do.
Why? Because what holds us back is not our lack of knowledge, there’s plenty out there to be found (Too much in fact see below).
No, what stops us is our fear, and the only way to grow and change is to learn how to deal with it. This only comes through facing our fears through practice and moving out of our comfort zone.
Change will happen by reading books, they help you see the world in new ways. But to live better you need to act. Putting the advice into practice and changing behaviour, lifestyle, so that the outer world matches the change in the inner world.
Malaise of Seriousness
‘You have achieved success if you have lived well, laughed often and loved much’Bessie Anderson Stanley
With self-improvement, there’s a lot of work to do, so there’s not a lot of time to have fun. This is perhaps one of the hardest things to accept about all this self-improvement.
We think we have to drive ourselves harder in order to improve, but life then becomes more like a workplace. Where we have little or no time to enjoy successes, live for the moments, sit back and relax.
Our seriousness means we are always looking ahead, to the obstacles we face, or to the past and the baggage we carry.
When life becomes all work we can look back an realise we didn’t enjoy it at all. This betrays one of the most important truths. Without fun and enjoyment, life is not worth living at all.
Children can sometimes be our best teachers. They don’t obsessively consume self-help advice. They practice and play to enjoy themselves. So stop trying so hard and taking it all so seriously.
Focus on being and playing. Enjoying the work and effort.Forget about doing it right and just try and see where it leads.
‘Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.’Bill Gates
With all this reading my to-do list expanded because I wanted to improve on everything.
However, once a project is completed another take it’s place. It never stops. The result is a never-ending to-do list. It’s demoralising too. All those success stories you read can make you feel like you will never be one of them. It seems like everyone is doing better than you.
Self-help is stressful because we feel we need to work so hard at it, never letting up or taking time out. Such stress can lead to overwork and ill-health.
We need to learn patience and accept that skill and achievement take time. We must learn to work diligently, habitually, but in small steps, a little bit each day. Because it all adds up over time.
Also, it’s knowing that you can’t get it all done, so a good practice is to focus on what’s most important.
Instead of working so hard, learn to accept that life is not a competition, go at your own pace.
The knowledge trap
‘He who considers too much will perform little’Friedrich Schiller
With all this learning and study one of the traps we can fall into is the idea that just because have studied a subject that means we know and understand it.
Studying is the easy part, we risk very little except a little time and money. We can read all about productivity, spirituality, psychology but I found that knowing all this stuff doesn’t take for a better life. Because knowledge of a subject will never equal living it. (The map doesn’t equal the terrain. LINK)
Another trap here is analysis paralysis. So much choice tends to paralyse us as we fall into the quagmire of trying to decide which option is best for us.
To be knowledgeable is not the aim, I fell into the trap of trying to know it all and eliminate the uncertainty. That’s making ‘talking the talk’ more important than ‘walking the walk.’
There a plenty of people out there who can talk a good game, but what will set you apart is playing a good game.
So cut back on the studying and get out into the world and experience it. The knowledge gained in this way is far more valuable.
None of us will go to their grave wishing they had read more self-help. Self-help is good in bouts and doses, but study should never be a substitute for doing the work.
The biggest lesson is that there are some things you just can’t learn from books, only from walking the path.
The Importance of Self esteem
‘Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished’Dan Gilbert
All this reading about getting things done, meaning, purpose, work may be of massive use but there’s one thing that needs to be addressed. If you don’t feel worthy then all of the advice you read doesn’t matter.
No amount of good advice can help someone who feels they don’t deserve success and happiness.
Low self-worth was the basis for holding me back for years. I didn’t act upon much of what I read because of this.
So many of us grow up thinking we don’t deserve to be happy and there is some fundamental flaw within us that prevents love, connection and success from finding us.
Even if we do succeed we still feel unworthy and are terrified others will find out we’re a fraud.
Such fears can help sabotage our efforts. We fear failure because it will make us look inept, or we fear success because we don’t think we can cope with the greater responsibility.
So our low self worth causes us to hold ourselves back, not try too hard, and dismiss our dreams as unimportant.
Low self esteem is the biggest hurdle in so many ways. It’s what makes life tragic, because more potential goes to waste due to lack of trying, than lack of skill.
You have to want it, and honestly know that you deserve happiness. Then the desire and courage to pursue it and accept it gradually surfaces, as it did with me.
By putting self-help aside I started to find out who I really was beyond the books themselves. I had more time to work on projects that would bring me happiness rather than just read about what would.
Books can help shift your perceptions, but book knowledge is never the end only the means to an end. Like cleaning your house, personal growth/self-help. Is one facet of a complicated existence.
Personal development knowledge is not an end, it’s a means to an end. This is why we must treat self-help with some caution. Make personal growth a part of your life, but never the biggest.
Self-help, personal development space, can be an enormous benefit in helping live better happier lives.
But that helpful attitude conceals within dangers and snares. It can be addictive, distracting, exhausting, anxiety and fear-inducing, demoralising and misleading. Self-help can foster a neurotic attitude where we’re always worried about how we are doing.
I have learned we need to be cautious. Self-help whilst at the same time goes with the idea of overcoming our insecurity nonetheless exploits those insecurities to sell the very boss they’re are selling.
As such happiness can’t come from reading these books but on how you live your life. Self-help is like crossing a river in a boat, once you have crossed you leave it behind no longer need it.
For more ideas on living better subscribe to my newsletter.