The thin line between self-improvement and self-destruction

Looking for wisdom

“Apply yourself!”, Walter White tells Jesse in Breaking Bad. It goes for all of us. Whatever we want to achieve or become we should put in the effort. But maybe we want to achieve and become more than we should. The issue isn’t that we set the bar too high, it is that we set several bars and move them all the time.

A Danish Professor in Psychology, Svend Brinkmann, made a very controversial statement; Stop improving yourself. You won’t decay, you’ll feel better.
In his book, “Stå fast!”, losely translated to “Stand your ground”, Brinkmann lists seven rules.

  1. Stop feeling and sensing yourself
  2. Focus on the negative aspects of your life
  3. Be a NO-man
  4. Supress your feelings
  5. Fire your life coach
  6. Read a novelle — NOT a book on self-improvement
  7. Dwell on the past

The irony, he acknowledges, is that his protest on self-improvement is actually a book on self-improving. His main point is that self-improvement leads to self-worship and that makes one a worse person — not a better.

To put things into perspective I spend A LOT of time watching lectures, talks and listening to podcasts on marketing, innovation, technology, economy, leadership, storytelling and journalism. I recently finished a book on negotiating techniques — prior to that I read Peter Thiels’ Zero to One, before that The Lean Startup and before that biographies on Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. I am and always have been very skeptical on self-improvement. I can’t imagine doing a mindfulness seminar or the icebaths Tim Ferriss always talks about. 
I consume all of this knowledge, advice and insight to get smarter and better, to advance in my career and in life. Until recently I didn’t consider it self-improvement, but of course it is. If everything’s about gaining something that contributes to reaching some goal, it’s self-improvement. That’s not necessarily a problem but if it gets in the way of a good story or a quick laugh — it is.

Yesterday my girlfriend showed me some dumb video of a cute dog and I actually got a little annoyed. She’s smart. Why would she show me this, I thought? It has no value. But I’m wrong. I actually envy that she can unwind and laugh at something silly without wondering how she improves by watching this. By being so afraid of wasting time on something irrelevant to my goals, all this self-improvement becomes my way of guilt free procrastination.

Right now, Medium recommends that I read “The 5 Quotes Gary Vaynerchuk Lives By”, “100 Things I’m Going To Do With My Life” and “These 6 Words Helped Me Overcome My Fear of Failure”. By constantly looking for lifehacks, smarter ways to do this or to accomplish that, we miss out on experience and the joys of carelessness. Sure, we shouldn’t just stop improve or learn as long as every second of every day isn’t about this.

As made famous by Tyler Durden in Fight Club: Self-improvement is masturbation. Sometimes — maybe even most of the times — we just improve by accident. And that is just fine.