Viktor Frankl, a psychologist who survived multiple concentration camps during World War II, pointed out that it’s not equilibrium which brings good psychological hygiene. Equilibrium is a million dollar word so I’ll rephrase this a bit. What Viktor Frankl meant is that we should turn away from stasis. Okay, turns out stasis is a five hundred thousand dollar word so I’ll try one more time. What he really meant (and I mean it this time) is that we shouldn’t seek complacency.
We should always be striving. Always be moving. Always be changing.
Too easily we become bothered by our need to change. We’ve made enough progress. We’re good. Right where are we. No need to hop on that treadmill. No need to pick up that book. No need to set that alarm. We like who we are now, so why should we do anything that would threaten our current identity? And it always is a threat. Any period of stillness and peace is immediately destroyed whenever some force, within or without, works upon it. We know this from physics and the same holds true in human psychology.
Anyways, I’ll answer that question with a question.
What is it better to be? A white belt, or a black belt?
Bing bing! If you guessed black belt, you’re correct. It’s better to be a black belt than a white belt. A black belt can kick more ass than a white belt (and she can tolerate much more of an ass kicking than a white belt can). A black belt has access to more moves. Having access to more moves means that a black belt can beat tougher opponents. And what happens when you beat tougher opponents? You become stronger. You win more competitions. You earn more respect. Not just from other people, but, more important, from yourself. Because, self-improvement brings self-respect. Like it or not, this is how it is. The more you achieve, within a context that’s actually meaningful to you, the better you’ll feel about yourself. And even if you’re oceans away from how strong or how smart or how wealthy you want to be, wanting to improve will set you far from your most degenerate version. Of course, you can’t want all day. You actually (surprise surprise), need to take action. You need to move. You need to plan. You need to work. You need to decide what you are going to do, today – not next week because that might not even exist – but today, and then you need to do it.
Wanting to improve will probably frustrate you. The moment you decide to improve is the instant your imagination conjures up an ideal you. You are currently not your ideal you. And perhaps you never will have those washboard abs and brains full of foreign languages and philosophy quotes on demand. Well, so what? I’m arguing that becoming that which can improve is much healthier than becoming that which has finished improving. Take chess, for example. Say you improve in chess until you become the best chess player in the world. You play Magnus Carlsen, the best chess player in the world, and you beat him. 14 times in a row. You’re now so good at chess that it’s actually disturbing. Okay, now what? Just keep playing chess until you get so good that the Chess Board of Directors or whatever it is decides to name the game after you. And so on and so on. It’s not like The Game of Chess can tell you hey, how good you are now is as good as you can get. It’s okay, you can stop now. Chess is a game with a very high skill-ceiling. So high, in fact, that there is no skill-ceiling. The skill-ceiling is actually a myth. Because chess is what James P. Carse would call an infinite game. An infinite game is a game you can play forever and ever and never see an end to it. Chess doesn’t end after you beat Magnus Carlsen 14 times in a row. You could always beat him 15 times in a row. Or he could make a come back. Chess, like all good games, is never over. The same is true of life.
Life is never over until we decide it’s over. Until we decide we’ve had enough. Until we decide that we’re complete just as we are. This is a notion that carries a whole lot of nonsense, that we’re complete just as we are. It assumes we’ve taken taken inventory of every aspect of our lives, that our relationships are perfect, our health is perfect, our finances are perfect, our work is perfect and we can tuck ourselves into bed for the rest of our lives. The idea that you’re okay the way you are is just utopianism minimized to the individual level. What happens when a society gets everything it wants? It gets so bored that setting stuff on fire will seem like a good idea. What happens when you give yourself cheat codes for life and infinite, unearned, unconditional positive self-regard? You get so bored that setting yourself on fire starts to seem like a good idea.
Self-improvement is sort of like setting yourself on fire. Except you’re not committing arson to your entire being. Only the parts of you that are no longer serving you. This is another issue I take with the ‘just accept yourself’ movement. It assumes that all your habits and all your knee-jerk reactions are appropriate. Do you see how narcissistic this is? What it’s saying is that you get a perfect score! But, I’m told, the accept yourself idea also adds that you accept yourself warts and all. But what do you do with the warts? You cut them off! They’re warts! No one wants to see your warts and you probably don’t either! Get rid of them! Please!
Self-improvement is not the same thing as therapy. Therapy is a science. Therapists, especially skilled ones, go through rigorous examinations and study for years to learn how to do it right. On the other hand, self-improvement, like fitness and philosophy, is something that no one knows how to do properly. Self-improvement is open source which means that anyone can contribute to it. Anyone can come up with an improvement regime that works for them without having to do much shopping around. Cutting ties with your daily meditation habit isn’t as worrisome as switching therapists. Self-improvement is merely an addition to whatever else you’re doing to maintain your sanity. It is not a substitute for professional help.
I’ll end this by going back to the setting yourself on fire thing. I take it back a bit – yeah you should set yourself on fire. But, only some of you. Only the habits and knee-jerk reactions that are no longer serving you. Serving you to what? Well, that’s up for you to decide. You’re here right now. You’re an adult, which means you have responsibility towards…something. I don’t know what it is for you but I know it’s something. Even if you haven’t quite figured out to what you owe your responsibility, there definitely is something you could be working toward. Whether that’s a social cause, a charity, a business, or a family, there exists a project — a calling — toward which you can and should direct your energy. To do otherwise would be to hide from the world your potential. And that wouldn’t be so good.
Thanks for sticking around,
Cheers to your good health.