Self Improvement vs Self Discovery

I don’t believe in self improvement.

That is a lie.

I do. And I don’t.

The more I learn about life, the more I find myself in these kinds of fixes where I believe in two things at the same time.

On the one hand, I know self improvement is critical for helping you reach your potential. Especially for a young person like myself who is still building the foundation.

On the other hand, a focus on self improvement implies that there is something wrong with you.

Why Self Improvement is Good for You

I used to be bad with money. I read a book called “The Richest Man in Babylon”. One idea in the book jumped out at me: saving ten percent of my income for emergency savings. Since I started following that formula, I have not had any financial problems.

I used to be a deep procrastinator. I read tons of articles and books to help me with my time management problem. One day I began to use a daily time schedule. Every night before I went to sleep, I would make a timetable for the next day’s activities. My productivity skyrocketed.

These are two big problems I was able to tackle thanks to my focus on constant self improvement.

Why Self Improvement is Bad for You

An obsessive focus on self improvement implies that there is something wrong with you. Sometimes there is, and sometimes there isn’t. When you are always consuming self improvement literature, you tend to focus on your weaknesses. You forget you have strengths. Your weaknesses begin to define you.

Instead of seeing yourself as an awesome whatever you are, you see yourself as your problem. You are a procrastinator, or a spendthrift, or a workaholic, or a porn addict, and so forth.

This is hardly a healthy self image. And that is the double-edged blade of self improvement. While it makes you a better person, it can make you see yourself in a bad light.

BOTH Self Improvement AND Self Discovery

I don’t believe in either-or.

I prefer both-and.

A philosophy I acquired from the book Built to Last by Jim Collins. Also from the famous Scott Fizgerald quote that goes “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

So on the one hand, I continue to focus on becoming a better human being. I want to master the art of living. I want to succeed in all my endeavours. I want to always give my best at everything I do.

On the other hand, I don’t want to become too sucked up in my endeavours to be better that I stop living in today.

And that’s where the concept of both self improvement and self discovery comes in.

Self Discovery

One of the dangers of being too focused on doing better or being better is that you forget to live your life.

When I was a pupil, our teachers always told us, “Life is not a rehearsal”. What they meant was that if we did not study, we would fail at life. That our time in school was important, and if we failed to maximize it, we would regret in future.

Yesterday I heard someone use that saying and I instantly saw it in a new light.

Life is not a rehearsal. You have been given a finite number of years to live. Every day you draw closer to your death. The sand in the hourglass of your time on Earth is always draining.

When you focus too much on self improvement, you forget to live in the present. You forget to be here now. You live in tomorrow. But there will always be something more to do, something else you need to work on. Years will come and go, and one day you will wake up as if from a dream and realize that you don’t know what you did with all that time.

There is no time like the present. You have twenty four hours in your day. You can study and work to your heart’s content. And you can also relax, unwind, live, enjoy yourself, spend time with family and friends, smell the roses, go for a drive, sit in the sun. You don’t need a lot of time to enjoy life: a simple ten-minute break from routine, from smartphones and technology, from work, where you brew a pot of coffee or tea and drink it in silence — that is enough.

Because it is in the moments when you are relaxed, when you are not thinking about tomorrow, when you are living in the present moment, when you are not thinking about being better, when you are simply content, when you accept yourself; it is in this little moments that you begin to discover yourself, to learn wonderful things about yourself, when you begin to see life with a new clarity. It is then that your soul expands to encompass the universe, when you grow large-hearted. It is in such moments that the seeds of generosity, poetry, beauty, creativity, magic, inspiration, wonder, awe, and serendipity are sowed in your heart.

The Power of Self Acceptance

The power of self improvement is clear: you become a better person. You get a better life. This cannot be gainsaid.

But have you ever heard of the power of self acceptance? How many motivational speakers or books talk about it?

It’s a radical act: to accept. In a world where everyone strives to be better and to get more, accepting yourself is a revolutionary act. It is the easiest and the hardest thing in the world.

To accept is counter-intuitive. It goes against our instincts and our training. Ambition seems more natural. Ambition massages our egos and makes us feel good about ourselves. To accept seems cowardly and weak.

But bear with me. Remember what Fitzgerald told us about holding two opposite ideas in our minds and still being able to think clearly? Yes, use that here. On the one hand, it is right and natural and very necessary for all human beings to be ambitious. Ambition drives the world. Ambition leads to progress. Ambition kills poverty. Ambition makes the world a better place.

On the other hand, I want you to also internalize this idea: accept yourself. Don’t hate yourself. Don’t feel inferior to others. Just as a little child accepts themselves, accept yourself. Let your actions display your ambition, but let your mind be tranquil. Don’t strive in your mind. Strive in your actions. As King Solomon told us, all is vanity, and too much striving is like chasing after the wind.

When you accept yourself, you feel satisfaction. It is that quiet feeling of blessedness that comes over you as you are sitting in your grandmother’s hut watching the fire crackle in the three-stone fireplace. Or that which you feel when you are sitting under the shade of a great tree on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It is the feeling of quietness that you will know if you have ever spent your days herding cattle. Or fishing. That feeling that comes over you when you stop thinking about yesterday or tomorrow for a moment. When only this moment exists.

Combine these two things — ambition and acceptance — and you will have the best of both worlds: self improvement and self discovery: productivity and creativity.