There’s a paradox with self-improvement and it is this: the ultimate goal of all self-improvement is to reach the point where you no longer feel the need to improve yourself.
Think about it: The whole goal of improving your productivity is to reach the point where you never have to think about how to be more productive. The whole point of pursuing happiness is to reach the point where one no longer has to think about being happy. The whole point of improving your relationships is so that you can enjoy some drama-free cunnilingus in the McDonald’s drive-thru without almost crashing the car.
(Still working on that last one.)
Self-improvement is therefore, in a weird way, ultimately self-defeating.
The only way to truly achieve one’s potential, to become fully fulfilled, or to become “self-actualized” (whatever the fuck that means), is to, at some point, stop trying to be all of those things.
One of the beautiful things about Tyler Durden in Fight Club is that he seems to understand the implicit vanity and self-absorption that comes with the desire to improve oneself. Now, before we go all Fight Club, start punching each other in basements, and blowing up bank buildings, I do believe that there is an important role for self-improvement and the millions of podcasts, books, seminars, and articles that you obsessively consume. There is hope for you, I promise.
But, as usual, a lot depends on why you care about self-improvement. So, let’s all put our shirts back on and take a look.
How to Approach Self-Improvement
There are two approaches to improving yourself:
1) The self-improvement junkie. Self-improvement junkies feel like they need to jump on every new seminar, read all the latest books, listen to all the podcasts, lift all the weights, hire all the life coaches, open all their chakras, and talk about all their childhood traumas — both real and imagined — incessantly. For the self-improvement junkie, the purpose of self-improvement is not the improvement itself. Rather it’s motivated by a subtle form of FOMO (fear of missing out). The junkie has this constant gnawing feeling that there’s still some magic tip, technique, or silver bullet of information out there that will create their next big breakthrough (again, both real or imagined).
Self-improvement for the junkies becomes a kind of glorified hobby. It’s what they spend all of their money on. It’s what they do with their vacations. It’s where they meet their friends and network.
For most people, this isn’t necessarily that bad of a thing. You could certainly spend your time and money on worse things (oh, hello meth and cocaine, didn’t see you there).
2) The self-improvement tourists. Other people only come to self-help when shit has really hit the fan. They just got slapped in the face with a divorce or someone close to them just died and now they’re depressed or they just remembered they had $135,000 in credit card debt that they somehow forgot to pay off for the last 11 years.
For self-help tourists, self-help material is like going to the doctor. You don’t just show up to the hospital on a random Tuesday saying, “Hey Doc, tell me what’s wrong with me.” That would be insane.
No, you only go to the hospital when something is already wrong and you’re in a lot of serious pain.
These people use self-help material to fix whatever is bothering them, to get them back on their feet, and then they’re off into the world again.
I would argue that self-help tourists are using self-improvement advice in a healthy manner and that self-help junkies are (often, but not always) using it in an unhealthy manner. Remember, the paradoxical point of all self-improvement is to reach a point where you no longer feel you need to improve yourself. Therefore, the constant indulgence in self-improvement material just continues to feed that feeling of inadequacy.
Many people come to self-help material because they feel like something is wrong with them or the way they are. The problem is that anything that tells you how to improve your life is also implying that there is something inherently wrong with you the way you are.
These people can then end up in a spiral of sorts. They vacuum up productivity advice and start waking up at 5 AM and putting cow piss in their coffee and meditating 30 minutes before breakfast and journaling with binaural beats in the background while visualizing their spirit animal.
Then they wake up the kids for school…
And, oh fuck, what if they’re waking up their kids wrong? And so now they order 22 books on parenting tactics, start attending seminars on how to raise your kid’s self-esteem, leading to another seminar on how to plan for your kid’s financial future, and THAT leads to a $10k super-premium platinum mastermind extravaganza where you’ve gone into debt and re-mortgaged your house so you can learn how to become a millionaire by the time you’re 50.
Where does it end?
At least not until you decide it does.
Need Help Figuring out What to Give a Fuck About?
Focus on the Big Picture
There is no such thing as an optimum life. Sure, there are some habits and actions that are healthier than others. Sleep1, exercise2, and that stuff you put into your face to live3 are all good places to start. But the 80/20 here is pretty simple: just don’t fuck up the big stuff.
It’s fine to indulge in self-improvement material as long as you understand your relationship to it. And as long as you make sure it’s a relationship where you control it, not the other way around.
Because the self-help junkie may get to experience the feeling of growth/transcendence/improvement/expanded-consciousness over and over again. But just because you feel like you moved forward doesn’t mean you actually did.
Because the only way to truly benefit from self-improvement is to one day arrive at a place where you no longer need it. Like a cast for a broken arm. Or a bandage for a deep cut. You put it on, let it heal you. And then you take it off and move on with your life.
- Ellenbogen, J. M. (2005). Cognitive benefits of sleep and their loss due to sleep deprivation. Neurology, 64(7), E25–E27.
Walker, M. (2017). Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. Scribner.↵
- Warburton, D. E. R., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. D. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 174(6), 801–809.
Guiney, H., & Machado, L. (2013). Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 20(1), 73–86.↵
- Amine, E., Baba, N., Belhadj, M., Deurenbery-Yap, M., Djazayery, A., Forrester, T., et al. (2002). Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases: report of a Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation. World Health Organization.↵