The Self-Help Delusion
I think it’s time to get over this whole “self help” thing. There is an entire industry based around telling us that they have the elusive secret to happiness, that if you just read this book, watch that video or do these exercises you can become a better, fuller person. I’ve read a lot of stuff like this, and even though I appreciate good advice, I’ve come to almost resent the whole idea of “self improvement.” I resent it because it tricked me into putting my energy towards trying to find something that I had all along.
You know those cheesy maxims that say you’re already perfect the way you are? It turns out they’re right. And if they’re right, that pretty much negates the whole business of helping you improve yourself. How can you improve on perfection? Thing is, you’ll never be satisfied if you’re bent on self-improvement. If you’re anything of a perfectionist, you’ll never be good enough. How can that be healthy? You’re not a work in progress. You’re a human being living a life in progress. You don’t have to work toward being a complete person, hoping you can achieve that fullness someday. You have it now. You just have to make the decision to recognize that.
Of course, if you’re already perfect then how can you explain all those bad habits you’d like to be rid of? Well, just because you’re perfect doesn’t mean you can never—or should never—change. Things are always changing. That’s how life is. And it’s in this seeming contradiction, that you’re already perfect but you should embrace change in yourself, that we can find the key distinction that shatters the fragile framework of “self-help.”
I think it’s as simple as changing one key word: Evolve, don’t improve.
That makes the most sense to me, but how exactly does one do this? How can we strive for our own evolution without falling into the many traps of seeking self-improvement? In my experience (and I’m only an expert on my own life), there are a few good ways to hop on the evolution train:
1. Get to know who you really are
This sounds simple, but it may take a lot of soul-searching and genuine effort. I only feel like I really achieved this within the last year or two of my life. When you have a firm grasp on who you are, you will have a much better idea of what you really want. And when you know what you want, whatever that may be, you have the framework for your entire life. I wish I had some insightful thing to say about how to figure out who you are, but it’s probably different for everyone. It took me years of whittling away the things that I was not in order to find who I am. It may very well be a much easier task for someone who really has their shit together.
2. Make a point to live in the now
Also not always the easiest thing to do, but incredibly important nonetheless. Don’t spend your time regretting the past or worrying too much about the future (worry the minimal amount, enough to make informed decisions now). Now is all we have, so live in it, be grateful and appreciative that it exists. Your purpose in life has nothing to do with what you were or what you will be. They’re just figments of your imagination in the now.
3. Make the decision
Make the decision to forgive yourself for your shortcomings. Make the decision to learn from your mistakes. Make the decision to do what you love to do. Make the decision to be grateful for what you have. Make the decision to be happy. Sound simple? It actually is. Not always easy… But simple.
When you do these three things, you have control over your life. Not complete control over everything that happens, which is obviously impossible. But you control your destiny. You control your outlook on life. You understand how you feel about things, you control how you react to situations. And you can be happy right here, right now, just as you are, with no need for improvement.
One of my favorite TED talks is by Nic Marks. He set out to find the true measure of happiness and came up with five things that generally make people feel fulfilled: connect, stay active, keep learning, take notice, and give. I think this is an superbly simple summary of how little it actually takes for a person to be happy, and it didn’t fill a self-help book. It doesn’t even fill a paragraph. It’s five simple things to think about every day without beating yourself up over the constant need to be “better.” There’s no need to plan or construct a grand scheme that you will someday have the self-discipline to carry out.
No one can be happy all day every day. So do what you can to learn about yourself and strive for fulfillment over constant happiness. Evolve and grow, don’t improve. Save the money you would have spent on self-help books and buy yourself a nice dinner. Or buy me dinner. I’m free tonight.