Quashing the Self-Improvement Urge

One of the driving forces of my life for many years was the need to improve myself. It’s one of the driving forces for people who read my work as well.

It’s an incredibly pervasive urge: we are always trying to improve, and if we’re not, that’s something we should improve.

It’s everywhere. Where does this urge come from? It’s embedded in our culture — in the U.S. from Benjamin Franklin to the early entrepreneurial titans, everyone is trying to better themselves. It goes deeper, to ancient Western ideals of the perfect well-rounded person. But it flourished in the 20th century, from Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill to Stephen Covey. And now it’s in full bloom, with blogs. And yes, I’m part of this movement.

So what’s the problem? You could say it’s great that people are constantly trying to improve themselves, but where does it end? When is anyone ever content with who they are? We are taught that we are not good enough yet, that we must improve, and so … we always feel a little inadequate.

This is true no matter how much you’ve accomplished. You might have achieved a thousand goals, but do you have defined abs? Are your boobs big and bouncy? Do you have perfect skin? Have you read every classic in literature? Do you know fine wines, fine art, and every great musician from classical to jazz to punk to rock? Do you have success as an entrepreneur, as a writer? Can you speak several languages, and have you traveled the world? Do you own fewer than 100 things, or a small house? Are you a fast runner, and have you run a 100 miler? Can you Crossfit, or lift 1,000 pounds in the Big Three lifts? Do you have the perfect home, and can you cook gourmet meals? Are you the perfect parent, or have perfect work-life balance? Can you do yoga, meditate, juggle and do magic? Do you brew the perfect cup of coffee, or tea, or beer? Can you recite Shelly, Shakespeare, Homer? Are you good at picking up women, are you the perfect friend, the perfect lover, a romantic husband, a wife who meets her husband’s needs, a master craftsman, a hacker and a programmer, a knitter or sewer, a home-repair expert, knowledgeable in investing and real estate, do you know the perfect system for goals and use the perfect to-do software, is your phone as nice as his, or your bag as nice as hers, do you have cute boots or a manly shave? Are you debt free, or car free or gluten free? Do you give to charity or volunteer at shelters or build schools for Africa? Is your TV as large as mine, or your penis?

Are you adequate? Are you confident of that?

We are never adequate, never perfect, never self-confident, never good enough, never comfortable with ourselves, never satisfied, never there, never content.

And it becomes the reason we buy self-help products, fitness products, gadgets to make us cooler, nicer clothes, nicer cars and homes, nicer bags and boots, plastic surgery and drugs, courses and classes and coaches and retreats. It will never stop, because we will never be good enough.

We must improve. We must read every self-improvement book. When we read a blog, we must try that method, because it will make us better. When we read someone else’s account of his achievements, his goal system, his entrepreneurial lifestyle, her yoga routine, her journaling method, her reading list, we must try it. We will always read what others are doing, in case it will help us get better. We will always try what others are doing, try every diet and every system, because it helped them get better, so maybe it will help us too. Soon, we will find the ultimate solutions, soon we will get there. No, that hasn’t happened yet, but maybe this year will be the year.

Maybe 2012 will be the year we reach perfection.

Or maybe it will never stop, until we die, and that’s a part of life — life is a constant striving for improvement, and we’d hate to ever stop wanting to improve, because that means we’re dead, right? Even if that means that as we die, we wonder if we could have been better, and our last thought is, “Am I adequate as a person?” Even if that means we are never happy with ourselves, at least we are striving to be happy with ourselves, right?

What if instead, we learned to be happy with ourselves?

What would happen?

Would we stop striving to improve? Would that be horrible, if we were just content and didn’t need to better ourselves every minute of every week? Would we be lazy slobs, or would we instead be happy, and in being happy do things that make us happy rather than make us better? And in being happy, perhaps we would show others how to be happy? And crazy as it might sound, maybe we’d start a little mini-revolution of happiness, so that people wouldn’t feel so inadequate, or need to spend every dime on products, or spend all their time on self-improvement.

A revolution of contentment.

Think of how this might simplify your life. Think of how many self-improvement books you read, or listen to in the car. Think of how many products you buy to make yourself better. Think of how many things you read online, in the hopes of being better. Think of how many things you do because you feel inadequate. Think of how much time this would free up, how much mental energy.

Realize that you are already perfect. You are there. You can breathe a sigh of relief.

The urge to improve yourself will come up again. Watch it, like a funny little clown trying to tease your soul, but don’t let your soul feel worse for the teasing. Don’t let yourself react to this little clown, nor feel the pain of his attack. Let him do his dance, say his funny things, and then go away.

Quash the urge to improve, to be better. It only makes you feel inadequate.

And then explore the world of contentment. It’s a place of wonderment.

‘Contentment is the greatest treasure.’ ~Lao Tzu

Quashing the Self-Improvement Urge was originally posted on Zen Habits on 12/13/11.

the lost art of solitude

“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.” ~Henry David Thoreau

You don’t need to be a monk to find solitude, nor do you need to be a hermit to enjoy it.

Solitude is a lost art in these days of ultra-connectedness, and while I don’t bemoan the beauty of this global community, I do think there’s a need to step back from it on a regular basis.

Some of my favorite activities include sitting in front of the ocean, still, contemplating … walking, alone with my thoughts … disconnecting and just writing … finding quiet with a good novel … taking a solitary bath.

Don’t get me wrong: I love being with loved ones, and walking with a friend or watching the sunset with my wife or reading a book with my child are also among my absolute favorite things in the world.

But solitude, in these days as much as ever, is an absolute necessity.

The Benefits of Solitude

The best art is created in solitude, for good reason: it’s only when we are alone that we can reach into ourselves and find truth, beauty, soul. Some of the most famous philosophers took daily walks, and it was on these walks that they found their deepest thoughts.

My best writing, and in fact the best of anything I’ve done, was created in solitude.

Just a few of the benefits I’ve found from solitude:

  • time for thought
  • in being alone, we get to know ourselves
  • we face our demons, and deal with them
  • space to create
  • space to unwind, and find peace
  • time to reflect on what we’ve done, and learn from it
  • isolation from the influences of other helps us to find our own voice
  • quiet helps us to appreciate the smaller things that get lost in the roar

There are many more benefits, but that’s to get you started. The real benefits of solitude cannot be expressed through words, but must be found in doing.

How to Find Solitude

You start by disconnecting.

Take every means of connecting with others, and sever them. Disconnect from email, from Facebook and Twitter and MySpace, from forums and social media, from instant messaging and Skype, from news websites and blogs. Turn off your mobile device and phones.

Turn off the computer … unless you’re going to use the computer to create, in which case, shut off the Internet, close your browser, and shut down every other program used to connect with others.

The next steps depend on which of two strategies you use:

1. Holing yourself up. This can be done in your office, by shutting the door and/or using headphones and the calming music of your choice. If possible, let coworkers know you can’t be disturbed during a certain block of your day. Or it can be done at home, by finding a quiet space, shutting the door if you can, or using headphones. The key is to find a way to shut out the outside world, including co-workers or those who live with you.

2. Getting away. My favorite way to find solitude, actually. Get out the door, and enjoy the outdoors. Take a walk, find a park or a beach or a mountain, find a quiet coffee shop, find a shady spot to rest. People watch, or nature watch.

Other tips:

  • Try taking a quiet, relaxing bath from time to time.
  • Curl up with a good novel.
  • If you’re married with kids, ask your spouse to give you some time off to be alone, and then return the favor. Make it a regular swap.
  • Take a walk every day.
  • Get into work earlier, and work in quiet.
  • Have a nice cup of tea.
  • Try a regular time each day when you’re disconnected.
  • Consider limiting the stream.
  • Trouble with self-control? Use one of these tools.
  • No time for solitude? Try these tips.
  • Try sitting still, and focusing on your breath as it comes in and goes out. As your mind wanders to thoughts of the past and future, make a patient note of that, then gently return to your breathing.

“I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.” ~Albert Einstein

the lost art of solitude was originally posted on Zen Habits on 4/2/10.