Self-Improvement Trap

A while back I mentioned I took a break from reading self-help/self-improvement/productivity books.

I did that because it was becoming quite the problem in my life, but I think there’s a wider problem in the world today as well.

The Self-Improvement Problem

…is that we know we aren’t where we want to be. We know how many people feel they aren’t living their ideal life, or even a very good life. Too many people are desperately unhappy, and it’s evident in the rise (or rise in public awareness, anyway) of depression and anxiety.

My previous situation – always stuck in a book.

Having struggled with both due to a total fear of the future, I turned to self-help books, like many others, in a desperate attempt to figure out how to make my life better, and myself more peaceful. I felt happy often; when I was with friends or reading a good book or making something, but my life itself never gave me a sense of security or the feeling that I wanted it to continue how it was.

I was not content. I am not content. I’m trying to be, because contentment is very important no matter what stage of life you’re at. And it’s hard to live out the fact that contentment and complacency are two different things, meaning you can be content in your life as it is but still actively grow and change it.

I just can’t seem to wrap my head around being happy now and still want a different life. It just doesn’t seem to work for me.

I’ve read Mark Manson‘s work over and over again. I read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** twice in the space of a few months, because it was so good. And he’s right – self-help and the self-improvement movement is a trap. You get sucked into that heady feeling of being on the right track.

I love being comfortable. I love baggy clothes and soft fabrics and old blankets the most because they’re comfortable. My number one dating and shopping criteria is if someone or something is comfortable. I crave comfort. So being uncomfortable is…well…uncomfortable.

I’ve always found it difficult to put myself out there in certain ways. I can play D&D with the best of them, wear what I want even when it’s not cool, and not take crap from people (if I don’t know them too well), but there are some things that still put me into freeze or flight mode (I’m pretty sure I don’t have a fight mode, unless you dis Matthew Mercer and then I WILL come after you).

It’s just so much easier to keep reading, right? Read about writing your unique story. Read about building that cool thing. Read about living your best life, while that life passes on.

As that other total badass, Jen Sincero, says in You are a Badass, staying in the track of almost doing something means you’re safe. I could do so much if only I try, you say, and so you’re never tested, never have to taste failure, and never have to do anything uncomfortable.

Almost no one enjoys being uncomfortable, but there are those to whom pushing it comes easier, and I feel like I’m not one of them.

I’ve been called brave. When I went to Korea, everyone said I was so brave. I don’t have a fear of public speaking, and I’m pretty good at making a fool out of myself and not minding. And so people call me brave. But they don’t see the abject fear instilled so deep it only surfaces in debilitating beliefs about money and career and love and happiness.

My question that I’ll never cease asking is how to make peace with being uncomfortable, because in order to move on, you have to be. How do they do it? How does someone make that hustle-schedule and keep at it when TV and games and friends and sleep call so endearingly?

The Self-Improvement Solution

…is not easy. It’s simple, yes, as most solutions are, but never easy.

“It’s always better to be doing.”

Self-help books that tell you you’re on the right track, and the sort of new anti-self-help books like Sincero’s and Manson’s tell you that what you thought was the right track might not be the right track, but they’re all balms and buffers against the fact that nothing but pure action will get you anywhere, and whether you’re reading the fluff or the facts, you’re still reading about having a great life instead of living one.

As the Disreputable Dog* says, “It’s always better to be doing.”

Only action moves you in any direction. Reading is dreaming with your eyes open, as Yoyo says, and dreaming is a nice way to pass the time, but that’s about it.

Stop reading, start doing. Stop dreaming, start acting. And always go gently. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

*Do yourself a massive favor and read Garth Nix‘s Abhorsen trilogy.

Why I’m Giving Up Self-Help Books for One Month

I’m a self-improvement junkie. I’ve listed it as one of my hobbies because it takes that much time, energy, and passion from me.

The thing is, the proportion of the amount I’ve read to the amount I think I’ve improved isn’t as much as it should be. Have I improved? Absolutely. Hands-down, books have been my greatest teachers in learning how to understand myself. But compared to the vast, VAST amount of books and articles and podcasts I’ve consumed? It should be more. I’ve read enough business books to have started a hundred businesses. I’ve read enough dating books to be married. Or so I think.

The thing is, at some point, self-improvement books become another means of putting off actual action.

For instance, I need to stop logging the time I spend reading self-improvement books as productive work time because it’s really not. I’m enjoying the books and getting a buzz off them, but they aren’t upping my rate of actions taken or anything. In other words, the return on investment stinks.

Just like how I can plan and plan my business and project and never actually get anything done, I can read and read about writing and never have a novel written, but still feel like I’m getting somewhere. Only I’m not. A self-improvement book is a whirlpool in the river to progress, sucking me around and around. It feels exciting and fast-paced and useful, but I haven’t gotten any farther.

So…I’m swearing off them for a month. Starting November (when NaNoWriMo starts, so it’s a great time to buckle down) I will only read for pure pleasure. Like fiction. Or history. Any time I might have spent nobly reading a book on writing will be spent…you know…actually writing. Any time spent reading a book on communication will be spent, hopefully, communicating. Any time spent reading books on business will be spent on actions around that business.

I’m hoping I can count on you guys to help keep me accountable for this. Tweet at me, Instagram me, comment here…however you want to barrage me with reminders to stop reading and start doing, please do so. Heaven knows I’m addicted.

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Help, I’m a Self-Improvement Junkie: Discovery Series

I’ve been reading a lot of Mark Manson articles lately. I really like the guy. He gives good advice, hard advice, with wit and swearing and a little (okay, a lot) of ouch.

There was one article he wrote that had me sitting back heavily in my chair, blowing a breath into my hair as I stared at the wall above my computer.

He said too many people have become self-improvement junkies. And this was not a good thing. Well, he said it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not as good a thing as the junkies think it is either.

Here’s what he says about junkies:

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 weight, 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 or technique or piece 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. – Mark Manson

That’s me. To a T. I know me, and that’s me. Yikes.

I’ve turned self-improvement into one of my major interests. I was proud of it. Super duper proud, because I knew I was just getting better and better all the time.

But wait, what about my panic disorder that developed in the midst of my junkie reading? What about the latent anxiety that has gone unresolved since childhood? What about the depression I struggled even to accept was real? What about that?

Self-improvement books hadn’t made it go away, no matter how many techniques and toolkits I built.

I had the positive thinking down. I knew how to reframe situations. I could throw a book at anything.

I was a junkie, riding the highs of each book and inspirational article I came across. It’s the exact same feeling I have when I get a new idea for a story, or a new idea for a D&D campaign, or a new idea for a crafting project. In other words, it flows just like all my other hobbies and interests. It makes me happy, but that is not the same thing as being healed.

So I’m a junkie. Great. Now what?

Fortunately, Manson tends to follow up his brutal life lessons with practical advice.

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

His advice? Become a tourist instead of a junkie.

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. – Mark Manson

This is golden advice, even to my junkie mind. I want to be in “the world” again, or even for the first time, since I’ve spent most of my waking memory engrossed in the improvement of every aspect of myself.

But the problem with obsessive junkies is, as Mark points out, flawed, because it assumes that there is something to be improved. Something wrong in the first place. It stands in the way of the present, the now, where life is actually lived and enjoyed.

I like how he relates his solution to the 80/20 Principle as well, telling us to just focus on not messing up the biggest decision in our lives. He doesn’t mention what those might be, but I would put job and marriage in there for sure. Maybe attitude as well, especially regarding a growth over fixed mindset. Raising kids with love would be another one. But the little things, the daily habits, morning routines, perfect fitness regimes, and all the other stuff junkies (aka me) thrive on…maybe those don’t matter as much.

Not maybe. They don’t. On my deathbed I’m not going to have my habit trackers before me feeling proud of all the checkmarks. I’ll want my family around me, my legacy, my work made with love.

I feel like a lot of people are junkies, and a lot of them don’t realize there’s anything wrong with it. I was just like that the instant before I read Mark’s article. I thought all those books would help me live life, but while I was busy reading about having a great life, the life itself was moving away from me.

Thanks, Mark.

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Drop Your Potential

In my near-constant reading on self-improvement and psychology, I’ve encountered the idea several times that the idea of potential can be potentially damaging.

It was a bit of a shock, really, because most self-help books tend to talk a lot about potential. How you’re not meeting it (Use All Of Your Brain!), how you can improve it (Take More Classes To Beef Up Your Resume!), and how much latent potential you have (You Can Do Anything!).

The problem is, potential is something “out there.” Something unfulfilled. And we’re likely to never feel that we’ve met our potential. Few people, even those gung-ho, driven, hustling work- and playaholics who live intensely amazing lives probably wouldn’t say, “Yeah, I’m good. I’ve met my potential. I don’t have anywhere to go from here. There’s no more improvement for me.”

Potential is always a step ahead, like a flittering, incorporeal dream we always imagine we see but can never quite reach.

Now consider this statement: You have so much potential.

That’s usually said in a well-meaning spirit. You can do great things. You have so much available to you. That sort of vein. But that well-meaning phrase is often an indictment. Especially if what the parent or teacher who said it meant was that the student or child or employee or whoever could have the fancy job and high rise apartment and six-figure salary, and so when the child or whoever doesn’t get that, there’s the unspoken (or spoken, as is often the case) idea that they’ve failed.

They haven’t met their potential, because they didn’t want what the person who said it wanted for them.

It could also be self-motivated pressure. I have so much potential, I can do everything I want, including starting my own business and having a great family and volunteering in my community and socializing with my friends and….and… And it doesn’t work out that way. So then they feel like they’ve failed too.

Potential is, by definition, in the future. It means having the capacity for something in the future. Not now. It’s a paper dream that keeps running away and the pressure and anxiety it creates can be terrifying.

If you live with the idea of potential, you’re likely to live in a state of perpetual unfulfillment in your present, because only in the future have you somehow met your potential and gotten…what? Everything?

I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer. – Jim Carrey

The solution is two-fold.

First, we need to practice contentment. In her book Present Over Perfect, Shauna Niequist talks about her transition from an overstrung, high-functioning, always on it career mom with a family to a less-than-perfect, much happier mom. She started saying no to things so she could say yes to the important things, like spending days on the floor with her kids playing instead of traveling for speaking engagements.

From the outside, her life looked amazing; speaker, writer, hustler, and mom who managed a house and was a hospitality queen. But she says that the reality was she was crashing down, and her life was so fast she couldn’t enjoy it.

That’s what it looks like when you chase your ultimate potential. Nothing is ever good enough right now, but if you work harder and faster, it could be. (IT’S A TRAP! Thanks, General Ackbar.)

So being present, in the moment, and content with where you’re at, is key. You have to start there.

The second solution builds on the first, because, as I’ve experienced, when you move from fast to slow because of burnout, the temptation to become lazy is strong. You’ve worked so hard, once you get in the mindset to be a little easier on yourself, you start justifying doing nothing and turn complacent.

Contentment and complacency are not the same things. Complacency means you’re sitting still, safe wherever you are, while still being unsatisfied. Fear or laziness keeps you stuck in your comfort zone.

Contentment means you are happy with what you have, and you’re enjoying yourself, but you’re also pursuing those things that interest you. You’re still up for a challenge, but it’s from a place of peace, not fear.

I believe that potential is a new fad, like positive thinking, like treating your self, like hygge, like minimalism, that is yearning for something good but missing the mark.

We’re not living in the future. There are a billion billion paths the future could take, so you don’t know where you might go. You might gain it all or lose it. Being overly concerned with your potential and where you are in relation to it distracts you from the present, from enjoying where you’re at with who you’re with.

I think we all need, even for just a moment, to drop our potential.

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