Tim Ferriss’s Recent Change of Heart Shows How Self-Improvement Can Fail You
Without self-acceptance, self-improvement is only noise.
Tim Ferriss has made a wildly successful career out of improving himself, quantifying his progress, and pushing the boundaries of human productivity.
But in a recent interview with Clay Skipper from GQ, Ferriss acknowledges that he’s been responsible for much of what he calls “the noise in the self-improvement or self-optimization space.”
The “noise” of self-improvement are the aspects that are a distraction from what truly matters. And, for Ferriss, that has meant a shift from searching for “answers to questions about how to do more (and do it more efficiently)” to focusing on what’s happening “inside and helping you get comfortable being with yourself.”
“Not everything that is meaningful can be measured easily.” -Tim Ferriss
For many of us, discovering what matters most happens as we go through difficult times and realize what’s working for us and what’s not. For example, while having successfully “improved himself” to the nth degree, and having experienced incredible success, Ferriss found that he still struggled with his mental health: “Certainly I found myself, after checking a lot of those boxes, still suffering.”
Whatever self-improvement methodologies Tim was using had ultimately been a distraction — noise — from what would aid him in his mental health struggle.
It doesn’t matter how much money you have or how much you’ve accomplished if you’re still just as miserable and ashamed of who you are — distracting yourself from yourself. In this case, the money and accomplishments only prolong the suffering.
Much of what we call self-improvement is really just a band-aid for deeply rooted pain. And this pain is a seemingly universal experience of feeling unworthy.
Tara Brach — the noted psychotherapist and meditation teacher — describes this unworthiness in her book Radical Acceptance:
“As a friend of mine put it, ‘Feeling that something is wrong with me is the invisible and toxic gas I am always breathing.’ When we experience our lives through this lens of personal insufficiency, we are imprisoned in what I call the trance of unworthiness. Trapped in this trance, we are unable to perceive the truth of who we really are.”
Our root problem — as Tara Brach describes — is ‘unworthiness’. We feel that we are just not enough — that we are uniquely flawed. And this is why self-improvement can so easily become a problem.
If I am uniquely flawed and I’m ashamed of those flaws, then it is only normal that I will be attracted to anything that promises to help me “improve” and to be “better”. But the vast majority of self-improvement does not address the roots of my feelings of unworthiness but rather distracts me from them.
And the thing is, this sort of self-improvement “works”. You can experience short-term feelings of success and experience dopamine-fuelled highs that make you think everything’s great. But, in time, your feelings of unworthiness will return — leaving you looking for another hit of “self-improvement”.
Any improvement that doesn’t address your underlying sense of unworthiness is just noise. To live fully alive, you have to grapple with the genuine stuff of life — your own unique experience of unworthiness, shame, and discomfort at being alone with yourself.
And the way to “improve” this sense of unworthiness is to accept it — to stop hiding it, fighting it, and compensating for it. Accepting ourselves as we are is a journey deeper than any productivity hack or supplement stack. It’s difficult, scary, and — as Tara Brach writes — radical:
“Clearly recognizing what is happening inside us, and regarding what we see with an open, kind and loving heart, is what I call Radical Acceptance. If we are holding back from any part of our experience, if our heart shuts out any part of who we are and what we feel, we are fueling the fears and feelings of separation that sustain the trance of unworthiness. Radical Acceptance directly dismantles the very foundations of this trance.”
This sense of unworthiness cannot be remedied with competition, productivity, or any form of external success. And any self-improvement philosophy or practice which is fundamentally about compensating for this inner pain will only ever fail to improve your experience of life, your happiness, and your peace.
However, this isn’t to say that we must throw out the baby of self-improvement with the toxic bathwater we often find it in. Brach writes,
This doesn’t mean that we can’t compete in a healthy way, put whole hearted commitment into work or acknowledge and take pleasure in our own competence. But when our efforts are driven by the fear that we are flawed, we deepen the trance of unworthiness.
Tim Ferriss’s goal has always been to quantify his journey so his followers could learn from him and progress faster. And with this recent revelation, it seems he has made a giant leap in that direction.
By exploring the vast universe of self-improvement and self-optimization and coming up short, Ferriss’s new understanding serves as a lesson to us all: don’t waste your time with the “noise”. Instead, build a foundation of self-awareness and radical self-acceptance, and then you can consider enjoying the practical advantages of improving your productivity and external success.
The self-improvement world needs to change. In our tireless pursuit of improvement, we’re often just masking our inner pain of unworthiness. Each of us knows this, to one degree or another. To move forward, we must turn off the noise and face our true selves without judgement — only then can we hope to experience any authentic change or improvement.
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