Self-Improvement Doesn’t Have An End, It Is The End

Start, or finish? Or neither?

I like Mark Manson.

Apart from Wait But Why, at which Tim Urban never posts anything anymore anyway, he’s the only blogger whose new articles I check out immediately. And his paperback Models — which sounds like a dating manual but is so much more than that — is probably the best self-help book I’ve read.

used to agree with him that self-improvement is curiously self-undermining:

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.

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. — Mark Manson

The thought is this: the purpose of (self-)improvement is to evolve to that place where you’re no longer preoccupied with becoming better. Yet, as the avid self-help-fan will have experienced, working to self-optimize only seems to drive one away from that satisfied, ‘I’m enough,’ state of mind. As such, there’s something paradoxical about the enterprise.

Lately, I’ve changed my mind about this argument.

This not what personal growth is about.

The difference between self-improvement and productivity

Here’s why: self-improvement is not like productivity.

Unless it’s your only source of self-worth (in which case you have bigger problems), the aim of improving productivity is to ‘get to that place’ where you no longer need to think about how to be more productive.

There’s an ambiguity in the word ‘need’ here, though.

Does it mean:

The place where your psychological need for increased productivity has been satisfied

Or does it mean:

The place where your output-per-hour ratio is high enough and you don’t need to increase it further to make a living while having a life

Is productive enough an objective, or a subjective matter?

In my second most-popular essay (which I was afraid to publish), I weighed in on the latter interpretation.

All these productivity articles give me the feeling I could always do better — that I’m never doing good enough. To shake this nagging feeling, I had to accept that I could always be more productive and that my productivity is never going to be 100%. However, I decided that as long as I’m productive enough, I would allow myself to stop worrying about maximizing my productivity.

My psychological need for ticking off items on my to-do list was out of tunewith how much it mattered, in reality, to complete all these tasks.

Beyond a certain barrier, productivity no longer contributes to uplifting your life. ‘Productive enough’ is an objective matter and when you’ve passed the threshold, and your output-per-hour ratio is satisfactory, just give the exclamation marks productivity gurus throw at you a Buddha-like smile.

This where productivity and self-improvement part ways. There is no such break-off mark for personal growth.

Personal growth, I’ve come to believe, is an inherent part of the good life. So when you’ve arrived ‘at that place’ — where the need to grow no longer exists — even then, unlike productivity, holding back might actually be a mistake.

What’s “the ultimate goal of all self-improvement”?

So where do I disagree with Mark?

Well, he argues that

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. — Mark Manson

And then goes on to explain why, lest you turn into a self-help junkie, self-improvement is more like scratching an itch: you feel a need (an itch) and change your behavior accordingly (you scratch) to make the need disappear and when you’ve succeeded in that you stop the action (you quit scratching).In his own metaphors:

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. Mark Manson

On this view, like a cast, or a bandage, the value of self-improvement is instrumental. There’s no use in putting on a bandage if you don’t need one. It is only useful as a means.

The ultimate goal of all self-improvement is to reach the point where you no longer feel the need to improve yourself. Mark Manson

This is where I disagree.

The target of self-improvement is not to scratch an itch — to satisfy some urge you happen to find yourself having or heal some nagging feeling that just won’t stop bothering you until you’ve learned how to belly-dance.

The ultimate goal of self-improvement is to have an awesome life, and this means it never stops.

The real paradox of self-improvement

A lot of people find their deepest gratification in tuning a car, or analyzing a balance sheet, or solving a philosophy problem. For many of us, the employment of these skills is in itself worthwhile, quite apart from any useful results they might produce.

When I’m not doing at least one scary project each month, I become unhappy.

By contrast, I don’t need constant productivity-improvements to remain cheerful. Productivity is just a set of habits and techniques you need to train yourself in and I’ve done that and if I don’t bother with that for months I’m fine.

But — call me arrogant — if I am not investing in myself or learning something new or making something or exercising a skill, I think I’m slacking.

And I feel shit.

Why does lying in bed all day make me miserable?

Lying in bed, pondering this apparent contradiction, in a peculiar state of lazy sadness, I realized:we would want to carry on exercising our abilities and getting better in them even in Utopia, even when we’re ‘there’.And by not doing so, I’m removing a vital ingredient of a life well-lived from my existence. That’s why dicking around gets me depressed,

The pursuit of practical skill has value in itself.

‘The paradox of self-improvement’, as Mark calls it, is not that self-improvement, despite appearances, has as its ultimate goal something that’s ‘in your head’. No, the true paradox of self-improvement is that it’s perhaps the only kind of improvement that is not done for the sake of whatever it is being improved, but for its own sake.

Personal growth and the good life

So here is where we are. We’ve been debating whether the final goal of self-improvement is to get to the position where you’ve satisfied your self-improvement need, or whether personal growth has no external ‘what it’s for’ but is its own end — an inherent part of the good life.

I think that (i) the latter viewpoint is more in line with why we care about personal development. Self-improvement has intrinsic value and, in contrast to productivity, becoming better and exercising skills are essential components of what makes life worth living.

Therefore, (ii) personal growth not about satisfying another need or gettingsomewhere or “reaching a pointwhere you no longer feel the need”.

And (iii): there is no finish line, after which you are ‘there’, a mark at which your quality of life doesn’t take a hit when you opt out of personal growth and lie at the beach sipping mojitos all day.

In reply, Mark contends that there is linguistic evidence for his theory about how self-improvement is ultimately undermining because “anything that tells you how to improve your life is also implying that there is something inherently wrong with you the way you are.”

This argument is, I believe, too quick. I don’t think improvement has this moral connotation to ‘wrongness’. Trying to get better only means there is room for growth. Not that there’s something not cool with your current level.

For example, you might read “anything that tells you how to improve” for other reasons than where the rise takes you, because the process of progressing means more than the goal at the end of it.

Engaged in the creative process we feel more alive than ever, because we are making something and not merely consuming. — Robert Greene, Mastery

There is a pure joy, a sweet, childlike delight, that comes from just learning and trying to get better. Looking back, you’ll find that the best years of, say, coding or drawing or scuba-diving were those you spent on the learning curve, when there was ecstasy in the mere act of doing.

Whether you’re religious or not, there is something inherently important about existence and not wasting it.

Personal growth shouldn’t be thought of as a band-aid to fix something. That’s not what it’s for. What it’s for, is to prevent you from settling for eternal boredom — and your life from going by unnoticed.

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