THIS ADVICE WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE – UNTIL IT DOESN’T: A LOOK AT SELF – IMPROVEMENT IN POP-CULTURE

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You’ve probably come across this before if you’ve spent enough time twiddling around the internet. A video of some person, usually male, with a confident demeanor telling you to go out there and get it. If you’re lucky, it’s accompanied by a rousing score in the background, with a caption in all caps screaming THESE COLLECTION OF WORDS WILL TRANSFORM YOU, or something of the sort. Yes, that kind. And you watch it. And for a moment, you’re filled with a rush of determination to take on the world, till you’re back to procrastinating again, scavenging for one last good meme before you go to do some work.

But… why? Why didn’t that assemblage of words transform me into the swaggering go-getter heroic figure it promised? A simple answer would be that well, change is not an instant process, and we are very forgetful people. But why do we forget? Why do we stumble a hundred times on things we KNOW are obviously good for us? In exploring this, I think we’ll find a fundamental error in the way the culture  talks about and frames self-improvement, and you might finally get the answer to why you’re still on your phone reading this right now when you should be studying for that exam.

POINT 1 – YOU HATE YOURSELF (NO, YOU REALLY DO)

People, especially the charismatic kind, are often quick to express how much they love themselves. But the opposite is also quite true. When you think about it, how could we not? We spend more time with ourselves than anyone else. You’ve seen yourself in your darkest moments, internally, and the external moments when no one is watching. You are the most knowledgeable of anyone in how nasty, flawed and imperfect your thoughts and private actions can be[1]. A 24 hour camera always rolling, no cuts, warts and all. Why do we shuffle our feet over going to study, or talking to that attractive person? Because deep down we think we don’t deserve it. We’ve seen that this guy is capable of the worst of things. Why should he have that? Could that guy have that? Even though our biology is designed for self-preservation, our unique relationship with ourselves makes us often, also the best people to sell ourselves short.

There’s a saying, that if you spend enough time alone with yourself, you realize you’re living with a madman[2]. Prolonged contact with our inner selves is often uncomfortable, in terms of just being, with no distracting thoughts. Part of the reason is that we’ve evolved as primates to be social beings, but that 

[1] Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules For Life, Penguin Random House, 2018

[2] OverthinkingIt Podcast, Episode 532: The Dragon Bookmark

doesn’t account for all the things we do to distract ourselves. They don’t always involve social interaction. There are things like, the itch to check your phone for new posts the moment you’re alone with your thoughts. But other things, like playing a game, humming a tune, drifting off to remember a funny thing you saw, is often just noise to drown out the weirdness of hanging out with the inner us, alone.[1]

[1] Ibid

POINT 2 – BUT, WHY TRY?

Before I reveal the inherent contradiction in how the culture frames self-improvement, I have to do the scholarly thing and define stuff, because that’s what the world needs right now. Seriously though, this part is important, because the culture often gets this wrong. Especially when discussing fat acceptance and promiscuity. “Love yourself, queen. You go girl, don’t matter what da haterz say”. What is the “self” and what exactly are we “improving”?

Most people think of the self as the part of them that pursues individuation or; cherished personal interests. Being good at filing papers, or being a good bus conductor isn’t usually how the culture frames self-improvement. Instead, it’s usually things like, the side hustle you do while you’re serving fries at a restaurant or your artistic hobby you get up to when you’re not going through boring documents to keep the lights on.[1] The line here gets blurred when for example, your passion is your job, or your job gives you skills that improve your pursuits in individuation, like communication skills in journalism would go to improve a person who has a passion for politics. In that scenario, being good at your job would be self-improvement[2]. The best definition I think would be the collection of interests and attitudes that best reflect our ideal personality. I think when we talk about self-improvement that’s what people actually mean.

So, why improve it? Simply put, humans are in a constant state of inadequacy[3]. Even in good times, there’s always a sense, that the now is not quite the best it could possibly get. It is our curse, and yet our gift that keeps our species trucking along. But what are you improving, actually? If I have a meal, when before I was starving, have I “improved myself”? If I’m a millionaire but I’m currently overweight and a recluse, is my prior financial success a perpetual stamp of self-improvement? I think Jordan Peterson put it best, when he described it as a state where you’re okay in the now as well as in your trajectory[4]; the where you’re on the path to going. In the context of fat acceptance culture, yeah you’re 400 pounds and you’re okay, but with that lifestyle which destination are you on track to reaching? Yeah you missed three lectures and you’re okay, but with that steady behavior, which path are you tracking across time? If we don’t reconcile current position and trajectory in how we talk about this stuff, we run the risk of ending up like some parts of the “Unconditionally Love Yourself” culture where your present gratification is all that matters, regardless of things like future consequence. But I can’t knock that movement too hard for over-correcting in the other direction, because as you’ll see soon the discourse around improving yourself can get pretty distorted…

[1] Ibid

[2] Ibid

[3] Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules For Life, Penguin Random House, 2018

[4] Ibid                                                           

My first memorable encounter with self-improvement literature was in my teen years. I was down on my luck in life when I came across this popular article, with an opening statement in all caps: YOU ARE A PIECE OF S**T. It then went on and on about how we were the sum of our achievements and, defined only by the meaningful acts we were doing, inspired by the famous “Coffee Is For Closers scene” from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. And did it work? Yeah it did, for the most part. It was one of the first few times I got my act together and really grasped being conscientious. This is true for a lot of young men and messages which are the equivalent of “You are a screw up, get up off your butt and do something” really inspire a lot of people. But the principle they appear to hinge on sounds a bit flawed: you are terrible, and you should listen to these words and get better. But then that raises the question: if I am terrible, and solely the sum of the important things I achieve, how can I be anything more than myself?[1] If a person can only be what they are made up of, and I am all terrible, how can I be anything other than that? Aren’t we trapped in a loop, caught in a lie of trying to betray our intrinsic natures?  Do the words baptize your being in some metaphysical transformation? I don’t think so. That doesn’t seem like what’s happening, at least not in the secular framing of human nature. If this were a Christian essay that would be an easier answer.

I don’t think the words suddenly wash you off. There must be something present in you that is already capable of being better. I think a better way to frame that discourse is: “you are already capable of being the ideal you, and the words just help to actualize the potential already there”[2]. But why is this a better way of framing self-improvement than the self-flagellation and self-imposed berating by our Lord Dictator conscience?

POINT 4 – DOUBLE DOWN WE GO

There’s two main reactions to being told you’re inherently a piece of crap: you either accept it and buck up, or you throw your hands up in the air and say “well what’s the point then”. The self-berating model of self-improvement can work, but it can also seriously backfire. Since you’re a piece of crap without that great career and a hot wife, why bother even getting back up? You’re already terrible by nature, and fighting against the tide is harder than laying back and just marinating in your condition. That great career is years away, but your misery is easy to sink back into, a non-judgmental, instantly gratifying friend. You stand as much of a chance, to sink back into the sorry state of things as you do to actually make an improvement. And remember Point 1 – you are the best candidate to hate yourself. Throw that into the mix, and you rather ensure that you are quickly back at the bottom soon after cracking the whip on your scummy self. Also, the whip cracking, self-berating model of self-improvement, isn’t really necessary (shocker). At best it’s a right diagnosis with the wrong medicine. There’s a way you can aspire for greater, without that, and that’s simply by: conscientious- ness.

POINT 5 – STARE INTO THE SUNSET

Conscientious – ness, as Jordan Peterson describes it, is being in a regular state of awareness of your place in the world[3]. What do I mean? And how different is that from the constant experience of living as a person with a consciousness?

Well, you see as human beings our perception is limited. We can only see so far, we can only hear so far, or so much at a time, we can think expansively about the universe and being for only so long a time before we shrug it off, out of anxiety or the dread of our own mortality. But that’s not a bad thing, because it helps us function. Representing the world as bite sized bits: school environment, work environment, friend, not friend, the nerdy guy, the shy girl, the sports guy… all helps us streamline life into a zip file we can understand and interpret in a simple ways. In as much as it sacrifices the complex nature of individual personality for a reductive version of persons, it also focuses our goals and aims[4]. But the problem here is that we also forget that other people have an interiority to them, rather than mere chess pieces in our lives that either move us along or stand in our way. The stranger who slows down his car for you to cross the road isn’t just “stranger”. They see the world from their perspective, they are the main character in their own story, with their own dreams, their own aspirations, and their own weird thoughts. Multiply that perspective times 7 billion, and you’re looking at a lot of scope, a lot more than a person can emotionally tolerate for a period of time. That’s fine. There’s a utility to that adaptation, but at the same time, thinking expansively like that, staring into the sunset, as I call it, gives you a sense that not everything is a part of your play, the world is moving, changing, many different beings with almost infinite interiorities in symphony and war, all at once, and it’s not waiting for you. You’re not the coach on the sidelines, you’re a player. Now marry that outlook with what you aspire to be. That state of regular reflection on your future, and your mortality in the context of the world, is being conscientious. We are, conscious beings, but we are not always conscientious. We block it out, we distract ourselves, for good reason, but there is good in confronting that chaos.

I think when parts of the culture anchor self-worth to grandiose achievements, that’s what they actually mean. But in that frame, they not only risk taking the wind out your sails, but it rips the sail itself. You are capable of being better because you are inherently worth something. That’s worth loving, but it doesn’t need to come at the risk of not changing. Self-criticism can be done, without self-condemnation. Just keep your eye on the sunset, and appreciate the progress you have made. Appreciate yourself, don’t double down on failure when u do fail, and seek the best interest of the valuable you. These collection of words may not transform your life, but I hope they get you thinking about what transformation means.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jesse Heymann is a Ghanaian pop culture enthusiast, and an aspiring novelist and lawyer.

[1] OverthinkingIt Podcast, Episode 532: The Dragon Bookmark

[2] Ibid

[3] Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules For Life, Penguin Random House, 2018

[4] Ibid

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