The never-ending road to self-improvement

“Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to”
Alan Keightley

Sports players are always told they can “do better”. Even championship winning teams are told they can “play better”. A musician’s next album could always “sound better” and Little Johnny at school could always “try a little harder”. We seem to be in a constant state of attempted self-improvement. Are we ever happy with who we are or what we’ve achieved?

Survival is the main preoccupation for a vast majority of the world’s inhabitants. If it’s not yours then you’re one of the lucky ones, like me. Also, like me, you’re likely instead preoccupied with building a career, or “trying to make something of yourself” as people like to put it. We’re brought up to be ambitious and conscientious, to strive to be successful at whatever we choose to do. Society does what it can to equip us along the way. We’re in a hugely priviledged position.

Personally, I’ve always believed that I need to have fully developed at least three ideas before I consider myself a success. I have no idea why I think I need to be a success, or why I think I need to prove myself three times, or even who I’m trying to prove it all to. But I do know that I enjoy building and starting things, so each time I decide to go through the process it’s because I enjoy it.

Despite what we constantly hear, though, it’s not just the “taking part that counts”. Whatever we do has to succeed – or lead us on to something else that does – if we’re to “reach our potential”.

Many social entrepreneurs live in this world. Life is about taking the seed of an idea, building it into something meaningful, and then ideally doing it all over again. Do it just the once and it might be luck. Do it a few times and you’re smart. The problem with this approach is that you never quite know when you’re “there”. At what point do you stop pushing and settle for what you have? Surely it’s not possible to constantly self-improve?

As someone who’s constantly pushing themselves to improve, I think about this a lot. Looking at the Zen Habits website, I’m not alone. Quashing the Self-Improvement Urge is a wonderfully reflective post on the subject, and is well worth a read if you’re in the same boat. As Leo Babauta himself concludes:

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.

I wonder how well this approach would sit with today’s social entrepreneurs and innovators?

27 thoughts on “The never-ending road to self-improvement

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  11. David Megginson says:

    I think Leo Babauta oversimplifies life grossly in the article you link to (which, ironically, is a self-improvement article itself). He implies that people set goals only because they think they’re inadequate — as far as that goes, I agree that it’s related to self hatred and is a bad thing.

    But when you wrote in your posting “I do know that I enjoy building and starting things, so each time I decide to go through the process it’s because I enjoy it,” you identified the flaw in Mr. Babauta’s argument — some people *like* to set goals and try new and harder things, not because they feel inadequate or discontented, but because taking on new challenges is fun. You can be happy with yourself just as you are, but still get a rush from learning a new programming language, trying a harder crossword puzzle, running a kilometer further (or faster), or building a new kind of aid web site. That’s the group where, I think, you’ll keep finding the best innovators.

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  20. Aleksei says:

    Hi Ken!

    I’ve been thinking about this topic whole 2011 and became to the same ideas, thoughts and feeling.

    It’s incredible! \o/

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  22. kiwanja says:

    @David – Thanks for your comments. I guess this is one of those personal things which will be different for everyone. I have a book – “The Way of the White Cloud” – which talks about not forcing things in your life, but letting them happen (to an extent). For some people forcing things works well, for others they just end up setting goals they’ll never reach.

    @Aleksei – Good to hear!

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  24. David Megginson says:

    @kiwanja – thank you. I think the difference, once again, is the motivation. “Forcing” implies that a people are dissatistifed, thinking they are inadequate, and are doing something (losing weight, running faster, etc.) just to be normal, whatever “normal” is. I believe that kind of thinking is an attack on the self.

    The other alternative is exploring and striving for the sheer joy involved. You begin from a perspective that you’re already fine (nothing needs fixing), then go out for a walk (so to speak) to see what other possibilities are out there. That’s where starting meditation or yoga, playing a harder guitar piece, learning a new programming language, running a faster 5 or 10K, solving a more complex crossword, etc. is a celebration of the self rather than an attack on it.

    My issue with the original article was that he seemed to conflate the two. Striving and exploring doesn’t always start from a place of discontent or dissatisfaction.

  25. Beat Schindler says:

    In the same way as a rose by any other name is still a rose, and as the desire to end desire is still a desire, the resolve to end improving yourself is still self-improvement. What to suggest to people who abandon responsibilities, families and children, do short cuts, lies and steal, end up in addiction and penal institutions? Quash the urge to be better? It’ll only make you feel inadequate? Gimme a break. Growth IS the natural course of things – when what’s preventing is eliminated. Just be natural? That’s not what the crowds of people ready to completely forfeit personal experience want to hear – now that their guru has declared the natural course of things, unnatural. The world, after all, is a place of wonderment.

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