Self-Improvement Has Made Me Worse

Niklas Göke
Nov 29, 2017 · 8 min read

When Batman meets Superman for the first time in Dawn of Justice, you instantly know who’s in charge and who’s in trouble.

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After crashing the Batmobile and interrupting Bruce Wayne on his rogue mission, Superman tells him to ‘bury the bat’ and let it go, putting mercy before justice. Of course Batman doesn’t, swearing revenge.

Lately, I feel a lot like Superman in this scene. With a stern look on my face, I swoop in to try and fix other people’s mess, but don’t get much credit for it. This is a cause for concern, but not about those other people, about me.

A lot of us strive to become superhuman, but this pursuit has a shadow. It looms ever closer and if we don’t watch out, it’ll swallow us whole.

Despite our best intentions, self-improvement can make us worse.

When Mindfulness Isn’t Optional

Over the past three years, I’ve gotten really good at noticing things. Not just about myself, but others too. In fact, I now can’t not notice things.

I notice when 10 out of 10 people on the subway are on their phone, when the dude in front of me is switching only between his sports betting account and Tinder and when the guy four seats over wastes all his time instead of working. I notice people who are always late, always behind and always broke and I can pinpoint exactly what needs fixing.

Now, I finally noticed that all this noticing is driving me nuts. I’d love to say “I don’t mind” and mean it, but it’s never true. I do mind. I mind everything.

Mindfulness is a gift when it’s directed inward, but outward? Not so much. It’s a good thing to realize you’re biting your nails, but constantly observing other people’s behavior? That’s a curse.

Why?

Comparison Is The Road To Madness

Mark Twain remarked that “comparison is the death of joy.” But, and this is worse, it’s also the birth of misery.

Comparing ourselves is an instinct as fundamental as survival itself. If Gronk can outrun the bear, pick the right berries and get the pretty neanderthal lady, maybe you should be more like Gronk. In a modern society built mainly on and for individual freedom, however, this is useless.

And yet, every notice is a new chance to compare. He eats well, I should eat better. She wastes time, I’m more productive. Even if we rationally estimate our own abilities, comparing still hurts us, an Oxford study suggests:

“The findings potentially have implications for social interactions in the workplace as well as clinical disorders such as depression.”

Interesting, right? Confidence and clinical depression can have the same source: comparing yourself to others. Most of the time, the results of your comparisons don’t even matter.

You’ll land in a bad place anyway.

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Judgement Is Never Just

Most people make poor choices. They don’t want to worry about money, or getting up early, or if what they do matters. They, however, would never consider these choices poor. That label is pure judgement on my part.

The problem is that with so much mindfulness, millions of mini comparisons, judgement itself becomes a habit. This is a common side effect of self-improvement. Since it’s all about getting better, you’re left with only two opinions of other people:

  1. They’re better than you.
  2. You’re better than them.

Whichever one you settle on, you lose. This is self-improvement’s dark secret.

The Price Of Self-Improvement

When you constantly compare yourself and decide you’re worse, you spiral into depression. But what happens when you think you’re better?

Imagine you’re Superman. You don’t need to compare, you have actual proof: you can’t die, you know everything and you’re physically stronger than anyone. You’re the ultimate success in self-improvement.

Unlike most of us, Superman didn’t choose his superiority, but he paid the same price: loneliness.

Sebastian Marshall perfectly described it in an essay 6 years ago:

You know what I think it is? You won’t be understood once you step off into the abyss. The more you do it, the more people won’t understand.

The second guy I mentioned, the effort guy? He’s got coworkers right now he can commiserate with who understand him. The business idea I mentioned to him doesn’t exist right now and there’s a demand for it. His income is such that even with a low price point he could still make 2x-3x what he’s making now and fulfill a market need.

But then what? Then he’s the only guy doing this thing. No commiseration. People won’t understand him as much. And the more you do that, the more people don’t understand. If you keep taking all those edges that no one else will, pretty soon your neighbors don’t understand you, can’t understand you.

It’s just you.

The higher you climb on the mountain, the thinner the air gets. More success, fewer fellow climbers, until you’re left with only one truth:

You’re the best, but you’re alone.

Medium is full of posts telling people how they can become the best. Be more creative, more productive, more aware. But once you achieve that, once you’re better, faster, stronger, how do you blend back in?

Even if you become superhuman, you’ll still spend your life among mortals. How do you deal with that? I see no posts about this issue.

We’re so worried about acquiring power — over our minds, our bodies, our time — that we forget learning how to use it responsibly to serve the world we live in.

And so, often, by the time we get it, we’re victims of our own success.

Running From Mediocrity, But Where To?

It all happens slowly, of course. 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.

You notice, you compare and through the years, you silently collect millions of judgements until you conclude you’re alone. You might succeed in self-improvement, but fail in being human.

This is the dangerous path many of us are on. I know I am. I must find a way to turn off my comparison machine, because it’s been running too long already. That’s the big, wicked twist of the story.

In that scene from the beginning, I’m not Superman. I’m Batman.

A lot of us are. The frustration from the loneliness of our path makes us bitter, impatient, and angry. So we abandon our true mission, one comparison at a time, until we can retreat only into our lonely cave of judgment. Not despite, but because we come out on top.

You may feel you’re ready to pay the toll of self-improvement, but you still might not like who you turn into. We think we’re improving ourselves, when actually, we’re becoming the villain of our own story.

If you run away from mediocrity, but right into malice, what good does it do?

On Sweeping

For Clark Kent, the option to compare went out the window when he was a child. The moment he pushed the first school bus out of the river, any doubts were gone: if he goes rogue, we all die. Lucky for us all, before putting on his cape, Superman turned his powers inward.

That’s what we must do and it’s much more important than how much power we have. The problem is neither other people’s indifference to, nor our obsession with self-improvement. It’s the comparison that stinks.

Be better for the sake of being a better you, not better than everyone else.

There’s not much to gain from Pomodoro timers and dollar cost averaging for the people who enjoy their lives precisely for the lack of those things. It just so happens that because I care about self-improvement, I care about you-improvement too. Because then we could nerd out together. But we can’t and so I feel lonely.

It is my duty to deal with that loneliness and make sure it doesn’t drag me down. There is no ‘other people’s mess’. Just my mess. Nothing to swoop in for. The dirt is in front of my own doorstep, waiting for me to sweep.

You have a dirty doorstep too. Only if we all sweep will our streets be clean.

Superman Is Dead

When the world asked him to, Superman turned himself in. When the world asked him to, Superman appeared in court. Knowing full well the rules did not apply, he abided by them anyway, for the sake of the greater good.

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In a sick twist of fate, meeting the renegade bat led to his doomsday. As the ultimate of human evolution, Superman paid the ultimate price. It’s what makes it so hard to get out of the trap: You can be a saint and still lose.

That’s why the movie is beloved by hardcore fans, but commercially, far from the success it should have been. We don’t want to see the hero do everything right and then die. We know life’s not fair, but we hate to be reminded of this reality.

And so, as he tries to build a new team of heroes in a post-Superman world, Batman is too late when he realizes it was never his turn to judge:

Alfred: “You’ve got a team here!”

Bruce Wayne: “Superman could bring this team together better than I ever could. His strength…”

Alfred: “Doesn’t matter how strong you are or what abilities you
might have…”

Bruce Wayne: “He was more human than I am.”

Silence —

Bruce Wayne: “He lived in this world. Fell in love, got a job. Despite all that power. The world needs Superman.”

Finally, Batman learns a true hero is not defined by the superiority of his power, but by the times he chooses to wield it. This moment is called a Harajuku Moment. Coined by Chad Fowler, Tim Ferriss defined it in The 4-Hour Body:

“It’s an epiphany that turns a nice-to-have into a must-have. There is no point in getting started until it happens. No matter how many bullet points and recipes I provide, you will need a Harajuku Moment to fuel the change itself.”

We all need such a moment in our quest for self-improvement. You have to acknowledge you’re not a hero to start acting like one. I had mine when I read this quote in The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday:

“When philosophy is wielded with arrogance and stubbornly, it is the cause for the ruin of many. Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others.” — Seneca

Superman is dead. We must become our own heroes, or his sacrifice was in vain. I don’t know where you’ll find your Harajuku Moment, but you need one. Until then, until we learn to use our powers, the best we can do is ask:

What would Superman do?

Most of the time, he would probably just keep sweeping.

Niklas Göke

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I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. I also publish daily micro-blogs to help you live a balanced life: https://emptyyourcup.substack.com