Self-improvement doesn’t make people happier.
The entire point of self-improvement is to evolve to that place where you’re no longer preoccupied with becoming better. Yet, as the avid self-help-fan will have experienced, trying to self-optimize only seems to drive one away from a satisfied, ‘I’m enough,’ state of mind.
Even worse: if you need such goals to feel like your existence has a purpose, you’ll become addicted to them. Without a goal, you can’t fall short. Without a metric, you can’t be inadequate. Failure is only possible after we’ve created the possibility to fail.
Cruelly, feeding this voice can feel perversely good. Sometimes negative states give us a strange sort of addictive pleasure.
So, should we just stop playing this game, surrendering to the accidental shape our personalities and our lives have solidified into?
🎵“All this aggravation ain’t satisfactioning me”🎵
Quitting means being OK with whatever. That’s where the appeal of stopping comes from.
“In The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld explain that most successful people … have an implicit sense of inferiority.”
Doesn’t that sound like a rather dark side of ambition?
“[Most successful people] … remain unsure of themselves. They have a chip on their shoulder due to being oppressed in some way. So they continuously push themselves, regardless of how successful they become, to prove themselves.”
Indeed, to most, “success” is simply whatever The Other sees as high status. So self-improvement comes with a prescription: enjoy in moderation.
The only way to truly benefit from self-improvement is to one day arrive at a place where you no longer need it. Like a cast for a broken arm. Or a bandage for a deep cut. You put it on, let it heal you. And then you take it off and move on with your life. — Mark Manson, What’s the Point of Self-Improvement Anyway?
Lesson: the danger of ambition is that you link your accomplishments to your worthiness.
Where’s the danger, really?
Nonetheless, ambition has a role to play in winning the game of life. In terms of long-term happiness, playing it ‘safe’ is not safe. It’s actually the riskiest option.
As the metaphor has it,
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among stars.”
Something to keep in mind when pondering your New Year’s Resolutions is that if you choose to shoot for the treetops and miss, you’ll land among the bushes instead. It’s not very comfortable there.
Why not? Because your enemy isn’t failure, but boredom:
“The worst that [can] happen [isn’t] crashing and burning, it [is] accepting terminal boredom as a tolerable status quo.” — Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek
Not all boredom is your foe. There is nothing wrong with momentary boredom. That’s just a temporary lack of stimulation. Nothing to worry about.
However, when you don’t listen to these signals, this transient state will mutate into the chronic condition of existential boredom.
Ignore your dreams often enough, and your heart stops caring. Your goals shouldn’t be all that matter to you, but out of self-respect, you should try your hardest to achieve them anyway.
The feelings of emptiness that are so typical of depressions, burn-outs, and other crises, don’t arise because there is nothing to do, but because there is nothing you want to do. Nothing seems meaningful to you.
Being ambitious is scary — not being ambitious is dangerous.
As psychoanalyst Adam Philips writes, this kind of boredom is
“The mood that contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire. In boredom there is the lure of a possible object of desire, and the lure of the escape from desire, of its meaninglessness.”
Not acting on your wishes is a cruel version of ‘use it or lose it.’
In life, ‘losing’ doesn’t mean ‘being defeated’. The surest way to lose is to refuse to play.
While playing this game, we need to strike a delicate balance. Self-respect demands that we make a dedicated effort. Self-worth demands that we feel we are enough regardless of its outcome.
Being ambitious and content at the same time is the great challenge of life.
There’s more to that
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