You Cannot Talk About Self-Improvement Without Talking About Values

There’s a question that has been on my mind a lot lately:

What difference does self-improvement make?

In what way(s) does engaging in self-improvement make my days and life go different compared to the life of someone who doesn’t bother?

To paint a picture, let’s look at Joe. Joe’s routine is rather stable:

  • He goes to work.
  • He comes home and unwinds.
  • He watches the typical sports/sitcoms/movies.
  • On Fridays/Saturdays, he hangs out with the same 5 or 6 friends.

I’m in the second half of my twenties, and most of my friends (and their partners) are settling into a routine that looks much like that of Joe.

Where’s the difference?

“To answer my question,” I think to myself, “here are some differences.” I design morning routines, write about goal-setting, afternoon protocols. Passion, persistence and work, productivity guides and cheat days. Self-care, self-talk and self-love. Happiness and conquering unhappiness. And so forth.

Joe doesn’t spend his days grappling with these topics.

OK, sure — but that’s just to say we don’t have the same jobs. It doesn’t necessarily entail something about us having unsimilar ways of living or unequal qualities of life. And that, of course, is what it’s all about.

Failing to make a meaningful difference

According to the brilliant self-improvement writer Niklas Göke,

[M]ost productivity advice fails to make any meaningful difference in your life over the long run. — The True Purpose of Productivity

Not the response I was hoping for.

Let’s start with the positive. No one denies implementing that the right techniques will increase your efficiency. You’ll work faster and learn quicker and complete more stuff.

If you master — or even dabble in — time-optimization strategies, your output-per-hour ratio will rise.

We shouldn’t brush this off too easily, because, while obvious, it’s a big plus. Improved productivity allows me to undertake more exciting projects before I die. I’ll take that.

But still, these benefits are very local. Ideally, it should extend way beyond output-per-hour ratios.

And here, when it comes to most productivity advice, Niklas’ doubts arise.

Narrow self-improvement

Why? His point is that we can never get the whole lot done, so just maximizing our efficiency, until we can beat the end boss and clear all tasks we’d ever come up with, is a misguided approach.

Clearly, the do-more-until-you-can-do-everything approach can’t work. And that’s why gimmicks and tactics can’t possibly be the best productivity advice. If you [by contrast] assume you can never get everything done … going for the maximum number of tasks instantly becomes a wholly futile effort.

Engaging with ‘do-more-until-you-can-do-everything’ advice, doesn’t ground a fundamental divergence between Joe and me (and Nik), it only indicates I get a little bit more done when I sit down at my desk. That doesn’t mean I have a better grasp on how to live, because, as Seneca said two thousand years ago, “excessive productiveness does not bring fruit to ripeness.”

What is it for?

If we utilize our increased output-per-hour ratio exclusively to add more tasks to our to-do-lists — another blog, another call, another design, another line of code — that doesn’t make us better humans. If the goal of increased productivity to do more of the same, it has something futile — self-refuting, even — about it.

What matters is to be effective while also being a good human being. Extreme productivity doesn’t impress me. Healthy priorities do.

For that, we need to answer the ‘what for’ question. Indeed, if it’s not based in your very own values — what you care about and what you don’t care about — “improvement” is a shallow a rat race.

At this point, most life advice falls surprisingly silent.

Most self-help refuses to define ‘success’ and is therefore ethics-agnostic. It assumes you already know the answer to the great philosophical question “How should I live?”. All that is left is to give you the tools to get “there”.

The only way for self-improvement to have a meaningful impact, by contrast, is if it gets us to scrutinize our Why.

Mark Manson put it best:

You cannot talk about self-improvement without also talking about values. It’s not enough to simply “grow” and become a “better person.” You must define what a better person is.

Improvement entails some end, optimization towards something. So after a while, this path forces you to think: what am I doing it for? What’s my definition of success? What am I hoping to achieve?

If there’s one thing I observe to set self-improvers apart from average Joes, it’s that they have spent more thinking about these questions and know why they’re doing what they what they’re doing.

They have a lot more self-knowledge than those who do not.

They don’t just study productivity advice best to achieve their goals, but also study themselves — which goals to have in the first place.

The first difference

People like Joe, in my experience, will react to such questions as if you’ve just made their kitchen table disappear in thin air.

Raising their eyebrows, they ask, in a confused tone of voice: “What do you mean, why am I spending 40 hours of my week like this?”

This imagined dialogue makes me think of another fictional conversation — this famous Alice in Wonderland snippet where Alice asks for advice on which path to take:

[Alice:] “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where — “ said Alice.
Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“ — so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

So many of us run and run and run, heading somewhere, but we never thought about where that should be. Here’s another 2.000-year-old observation by Seneca:

“There are only a few who control themselves and their affairs by a guiding purpose; the rest do not proceed; they are merely swept along, like objects afloat in a river.” — Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius

“Controlling yourself and your affairs by a guiding purpose” is the first benefit of self-improvement that trickles down.

You’ll ‘arrive’, the question is where

When you’re on the treadmill, it’s sometimes hard to see it all.

You’ll arrive, the question is where.

Many folks have been caged into the same day-to-day grind, wasting away, spending their life doing things they don’t enjoy and don’t express their personality.

Your job, your hobbies, your friends, are these things mostly a result of what was told to you or some other unreflective process, or are they things you consciously evaluated and chose based on your identity and values?

In the latter case, you have a responsibility to yourself to change. Otherwise, you have compromised your identity in some way to fit what others have dictated it should be. When you don’t make an effort for the things you care about, you’re telling yourself your own values don’t matter.

So far for the first, extremely important, difference.

The second difference

Knowing which direction you want to go, subsequently, allows you to take control and steer accordingly. That’s the second difference.

In its extreme form, Joe’s mindset is defined by an attitude, an assumption that life happens to you and you’re not responsible. This false.

Everything you need is within reach, but you have to reach. Finding is reserved for the searchers.

Meaningful self-improvement turns you into a searcher.

“Most people waste huge amounts of their life because they aren’t actively chasing a challenge that summons their greatest focus and creativity.” — Benjamin Hardy

Obviously, down the road, this active mindset results in way deeper differences than just completing more tasks on Tuesday afternoon:

One day you opt out of binge drinking, the next you tell your friends to get their shit together and two years later, you run your own dev shop while they extended yet another semester. — Niklas Göke

That, right there, is difference number two.

Why self-improvement matters

In her wonderful conversation with the cat, Alice asks which path to take, given she doesn’t know which possible destination she values, and the cat answers: if you don’t care where you end up, it doesn’t matter which way you go.

Whether we realize it or not, our values are constantly reflected in how we behave.

Not caring about the direction you’re taking, then, isn’t ‘neutral’, but reveals something profound about you: you’re not using your compass and probably haven’t been calibrating it.

Self-improvement starts to make a meaningful difference when it makes you realize that achieving success in life is not as important as your definition of success. This, in turn, ignites constitutive self-reflection about your values. Which, then, inspires your elevation from a passive into an active mindset.

Self-perception first. And self-motivation will follow.