The Tyranny of “Self Improvement”

Credited Jessica Devnani

Since the time I first joined Medium back in December 2016, I have generally been pretty impressed by what the site has had to offer. Those who frequently read and contribute here will surely agree that the sense of community made available to writers is invaluable and validating. The people who give of their spare time to edit and publish the work of others provide an encouraging space that allows one to immediately strike while the creative iron is hot without having to second-guess the nature of the audience or the relevance of the topic. Concurrently, this allows me to write fist-gnawing, hair-curling banalities such as “strike while the creative iron is hot” without someone with taste being able to actually physically hurt me, which of course allows the pleasure of it to be all the more perverse.

While the sheer volume of excellent work available and scope of ideas covered here can occasionally be somewhat intimidating, the upside of all of this is that you begin to gain a clear and interesting view both on what people like to enthuse about, and also what people like to read. And sometimes what they really, really like to read. The hottest and most prevalent topic I’ve seen recur on this site, with varying iterations of sub-topic or intensity, is what I will generalise as the theme of “How To Be Successful”. I am both fascinated and concerned that this is the case.

We all know who Tony Robbins is. He’s that wide-eyed, rather impudent man who elevated the hands-free mic beyond the fast-food worker and latched it on to the mouths of a million bellowing, flying-fox riding “lifestyle coaches”. I remember that scene in the nineties on the infomercials; a huge, shameless, mountain of a man soaring down from the rafters of a jam-packed stadium on a zip-wire, screaming. The audience screamed. It was like the rapture as visualised through the mad eyes of an Amway acolyte or skull-drinking priest. As soon as his feet touched the ground he’d just run and run and run in circles around that massive stage, eventually finding some wobbly looking fellow in the audience and shattering his hand with a high-five.

His speeches left people gaping like a species of fish that had been taken out of water so many times that it had eventually evolved to live solely on land, only for it to be taken and thrust in the water again. It was like church for spurned venture capitalists and credulous grandmothers. The VHS videotape set cost precisely and exactly loads of instalments of $69.99 US. It was a breathtaking watch, but it didn’t work on me. Not because I was somehow too smart, but because I was simply far too English. The disappointments of the world have sunken far too deep into the British skeleton for them to be aroused by such fevered ululations of mass hysteria without our bones shattering into timidity and sploshes of tea. Of course these are just stupid stereotypes; the guy just scared me. But it clearly worked for many people. His popularity seemed without rival in the market. His penchant for foot-roasting firewalks and infantilising depressed members of his audience seemed to speak earnestly to the deep-seated frustrations of the thwarted aspirant, the spurned orphans of the American Dream. But that’s not to say he was not a worldwide success either; for all the protests to cultural exception I might sardonically pose, he has clearly transported an idea and ideal across the globe that many strongly desired to reached towards.

From then until now, it seems as though the desire remains both as sought after and unfulfilled as ever. The amount of bloggers, vloggers and Youtubers providing “lifestyle coaching and self improvement” is a market vast enough to entirely exhaust one’s time planning and psyching up for, investing in and allegedly building from. And whether all of this positive self-talk and visionary strategy works or not, it is clear that the pressures and expectations of contemporary society have cemented the genre’s popularity, and that the central gist of the messages themselves have been carried far from the self-help books and audio tapes, out to the most insufferable, prototypical swindlers and recently into a more benign, mainstream form of “lifestylism”. Considering this, I expected to see a lot of it on Medium, but little did I know how pervasive it would be.

Of course we are supposed to curate what we see on the front page by selecting our preferences. Lifestylism seems to break through any of that. Of course Medium arranges content by topic; but lifestylism easily breaches and spills beyond the confines of that. Of course Medium is used by many “Start Up Entrepreneurs” trying to inspire and enthuse as much as they provide practical advice, yet lifestylism’s presence here far transcends that. The cult of the guru is everywhere; admonishing you to give “that one thing up” that is in the way of your success, or to perhaps give everything up, or to get back up from the painful failure of the last time you tried, or “sweep the slate clean” and “find yourself”. You need to find a mentor, ditch losers, harness your productivity (humour me), use an app to facilitate the harnessing of that mentored, loser-less, productivity. You need to 90/30 it, 24/7 it, 48/12 it. You need to visualise, you need to reach out, you need to “spread your online presence”, “diversify your output”, “find your creative space”. Some of them say it is hard, some of them say it is simple, but because it is so simple it is hard. The fish goes back in the water and drowns.

I don’t want to name names and lash out at other writers here. Besides, if I’m correct then everyone has seen these pieces and knows who I’m referring to anyway. Of course, the other side of the Lifestyle story is the part that keeps it all airtight, immune from criticism. You see, if you were a winner you would never have read this far (in regards to like, the handful or less who will read any of this anyway (“this is no way to think, Calvin, this is how you set yourself up for failure” [‘Don’t tell me how to think, this is exactly what I’m talking about, people will read this and it will undermine my point’])). You would never have allowed the bland horror of my naysayer narratives to slip the guard of your focused mindset. You would not have had room for this in your daily hustling schedule, and the poisonous (anti)social circles I inhabit are a level of hell you should have ascended and left behind a long time ago. Maybe you slowly became undisciplined in your daily grind and fell from grace, and us Vultures of the Aspirational Wasteland have come to cast a shadow over your unsteady frame, to pick at your flesh with our ever-projecting cynicism.

This is the way pyramid schemes work. Someone has seen potential in you personally, all of you personally. They have seen it because they have seen it in others and they have seen it in themselves. They see you in themselves. They remember when they were like you; they only had a schilling or a quarter in their pocket or whatever, lying on their friend’s sister’s couch, it was their last chance and they had hit Rock Bottom (the bottom is always Rock). But they found their potential, they reached in and reached out and reached this way and reached that way and they found It. Now they run a successful start up worth millions and everybody immediately cries when they seem them. So now you can find It. But it begins with You, and it also ends with You.

Not every life coach occupies such barrel bottoms in order to scrape them, but they very often run with the same principles, and the first rule of the day is that the responsibility for all of your achievements or problems lies with you as a person, and therefore any time you or anybody else says otherwise they are only projecting a void of their own envy, self-hatred and defeatism that seeks only to suck the wind out of an optimist’s bloated sails. External factors that challenge the reality of the go-getter are always seen as either irrelevant or immovable forces that yield only to your attitude, which is asserted to be the only thing you have any real control over. Now this is one of those platitudes that is somewhat true, but the intent and context in which it is used by the Lifestylist turns it into a kind of shield of bullshit, or with that metaphor totally failing, some kind of defence mechanism.

“Oh you took my advice on that and now your situation is worse than ever? Well that’s no way to look at life, playing the blame game like that is probably the reason why you failed in the first place”.

Variations of this sentiment always exist as the subtext beneath this kind of thinking. Much like in the worst lowbrow fundamentalist religions, the depth of your faith is the only indicator of your success. Low faith gets the pep-talk. And the pep-talk doesn’t fail. It isn’t allowed to fail. Only you can fail. And you fail because you wavered in your conviction or allowed the failures of the world to convince you of as much.

As I said, Medium typically doesn’t go this low, but the overall messaging clearly coasts off of these sentiments in the unconscious depths of the consumers, and maybe even the more dedicated writers themselves. I mean these lifestyle coaches have to start somewhere themselves, and that’s often same empty room everybody else is pitching to for a good while, it’s just that these people have the immense self-confidence/audacity to shout “game your social spread and outreach by going where the people are… do you hear me” and then retreating to their custom-built decompression chambers before their minds implode under the otherwise shameful pressures of mass irony.

So what do we learn here? Well think about this: in Zen Buddhism you are taught to focus on the present. Placing the mind anywhere else, be it on things, or the past, or the future, or desires, is considered craving. Cravings are considered unachievable and the source of torment. Meditation then, is not used like it is in its Western, secularised incarnation (the type with such philosophy discarded and New Agey-lifestylism in its place), but instead as a place to attain a fundamental awareness of the present and “no mind” (mushin). You learn what this is through just sitting and adhering to the practice itself. Many lifestyley types like to think their ideas fit with this (or anything that promotes them as reasonable and avoids explicit critique), but they can’t since the unflinching mindset they have towards achievement and personal growth exemplifies such craving. Their very instructions are received in the impermanent thought chains of language, and they are “chains” in both senses of the word..

But this may be a story for another day. For now just don’t walk along hot coals, okay? It’s pointless.