The upside of being ill in bed this week has been that I’ve had the chance to read more than normal. Most thought-provoking was an article by Alexandra Schwartz in The New Yorker entitled Improving Ourselves to Death: What the self-help gurus and their critics reveal about our times (click here). The article explores a range of literature on self-improvement. Motivational ‘experts’, such as Angela Duckworth (‘Grit: The Power of Passion’) or Jane McGonigal (‘SuperBetter’) argue that you don’t need talent to become smarter or better or faster and offer techniques for anyone to learn how to be more efficient, more focussed, more effective in the pursuit of happiness and productivity. They don’t, however, address what happens if you can’t?
Professors Cederström and Spicer (‘Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement’) take a more light-hearted approach as they spend a year attempting to improve themselves through the techniques of the multimillion pound ‘self-optimization’ movement, including drugs, surgical implants, the administering of electric shocks and stripping naked in public. What they learned was interesting. As Cederström comments in an interview with Hattie Garlick for The Pool: “All these goals sound reasonable. Why not try to be healthy, spiritual or financially astute? But the thing about self-improvement is that it’s a never ending pursuit. It can absorb you entirely, to the detriment of everything else – your friendships, your family life, your sanity…” (click here).
Perhaps the most interesting approach is that of Will Storr who published Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us last year. Storr considers the age of perfectionism we live in today. Because Instagram and Facebook constantly bombard users with images of other people’s endlessly “amazing” and “awesome” lives, it’s not just FOMO we’re at risk of, he says – it’s a severe loss of self-confidence if you think you’re not living up to this ideal. He strongly argues that we should embrace our own imperfections and everyone else’s and not worry about unattainable utopias: “Here’s the truth that no million-selling self-help book, famous motivational speaker, happiness guru or blockbusting Hollywood screenwriter seems to want you to know. You’re limited. Imperfect. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Perhaps it was feeling ill that drew me to the bleakness of this philosophy, but I did find it rather liberating in its possibilities. Have we reached a point where personal growth is actually an endless source of stress? Schwartz’s article ends by referencing Svend Brinkmann’s book Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze. The Danish philosopher believes that the secret to a happier life lies not in finding your inner self but in coming to terms with yourself in order to coexist peacefully with others: ‘Brinkmann’ writes Schwartz, ‘does offer some advice that seems immediately worth taking. Go for a walk in the woods, he says, and think about the vastness of the cosmos. Go to a museum and look at art, secure in the knowledge that it will not improve you in any measurable way. Things don’t need to be of concrete use in order to have value. Put away your self-help guides, and read a novel instead’.