“I felt a twinge of nervousness when I popped the large white pill out of its aluminum strip. Shortly after swallowing it, I thought I could feel something, but the effect was subtle, hard to describe. I was feeling alert and awake, as though I had downed five coffees.”
In 2016, business school professors Carl Cederström and André Spicer spent an entire year test-driving self-improvement techniques for their book, Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement.
The excerpt above describes Cederström’s experience with a so-called smart drug:
“When trying to read a book, the words and sentences passed me by, like speeding cars on a highway,” he said, “and whenever I tried to write something down, the words kept disappearing.”
The authors spent thousands of hours experimenting with productivity drugs, sex toys, and plastic surgery.
They talked to psychics and life coaches, attended motivational seminars, and participated in professional weight-lifting competitions.
In a world where we’re all seeking new ways to enhance ourselves, the book raises important questions about the self-improvement industry.
Namely, does it do us any good? And at what point can our collective obsession with self-improvement actually harm us?
I’m no stranger to self-improvement. I’m always looking for ways to live a more balanced life, while slowly growing my company, JotForm.
But the quest for self-improvement can have negative consequences, and can even undermine something entrepreneurs care deeply about: productivity.
The rise of self-improvement
“If you’re looking for self-help, why would you read a book by someone else?”
— George Carlin
Mr. Carlin has a point. It’s counterintuitive to seek others’ advice to help ourselves. Nonetheless, the genre has steadily gained popularity over the past couple decades.
“It’s no longer enough to imagine our way to a better state of body or mind,” writes the New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz.
“We must now chart our progress, count our steps, log our sleep rhythms, tweak our diets, record our negative thoughts — then analyze the data, recalibrate, and repeat.”
Younger generations are even more zealous about self-improvement. Baby Boomers used to be the biggest consumers of self-improvement content, but millennials have taken the lead.
In 2015, 94% of millennials said they made personal improvement commitments, compared to 84% of Boomers and 81% of Gen Xers.
And millennials are willing to pay for it, too. While Boomers said they’d spend an average of $152 a month on self-improvement, millennials reported spending nearly twice that — though their average income is about 50% lower.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that millennials have embraced self-improvement. They have high expectations for themselves — higher than any other generation.
But they’re also hyper-self-critical, with social media offering constant reminders when they don’t measure up. The result is a generation obsessed with meeting inflated expectations for themselves.
Be wary of the gurus
The desire to improve ourselves is a good thing — to a certain extent.
There’s good reason to be cautious before diving head-first into the self-help movement, and especially before chastising ourselves if we fall short.
First of all, self-improvement literature often compares performance across people, and ignores our own personal range. It also tends to focus on peak performance, not individual variances.
For example, President John F. Kennedy was famously able to read 1,200 words per minute. My top reading rate isn’t nearly that fast, so our performance shouldn’t be compared. I suspect President Kennedy didn’t always read that fast, either.
Ultimately, the self-improvement industry can make us feel inadequate. It can lead us to question aspects of our lives that we never even thought to improve.
And even if it works for someone else, a self-help technique might not work for you.
Research shows that people who purchase self-improvement books have likely bought another during the previous 18 months. When the first title doesn’t deliver the promised results, we’re back on the hunt.
One of the most interesting observations from Andre Spicer, co-author of Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement, was that he spent a year focusing on himself — to the exclusion of everyone else in his life, including his wife and children.
His marriage, he admitted, was not at its best. After 12 months of chasing self-improvement, he didn’t feel like a better version of himself at all.
Though Spicer’s case may be an exaggeration, some self-absorption is an unavoidable consequence of the quest for self-improvement. And it can negatively affect our relationships with the people who matter most.
For me, spending time with my loved ones is therapeutic. That’s why I return to my hometown every year, to join my family’s annual olive harvest.
That’s why I organize my schedule to work abroad while traveling with my wife and children. I doubt any book about meditation or relaxation could leave me feeling as refreshed as family time does.
Finally, spending too much time on self-improvement can make you less productive. By focusing on the newest way to improve and track our progress, we have less time to do our actual work. Or, we have fewer opportunities to (productively) waste time.
Improving your relationship with self-improvement
Self-improvement can be a slippery slope, leading to compromised relationships and productivity.
But by remaining aware of ourselves and what we choose to consume, it is possible to have a healthier relationship with self-improvement.
The first and most important step: Stop comparing yourself.
Mark Twain put it best when he said: “comparison is the death of joy.”
Comparison is hard to avoid, but we can start by using social media for information-gathering and inspiration, rather than visiting accounts that leave us feeling empty.
We can focus on our own goals, review our personal mistakes and successes, and decide how our experiences can lead to positive change.
Speaking of positivity, optimism is fine, but be realistic about your goals. Otherwise, we’re likely to feel like we don’t measure up.
“You have to look at your resources and your personal situation and at the market to see if you can really move in the direction you want,” says John Vespasian, author of On Becoming Unbreakable: How Normal People Become Extraordinarily Self-Confident.
Rationality, Vespasian says, allows people to maintain a balance between their dreams and reality.
Remember, too, that improvement isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario.
Even if President Kennedy read 1,200 words per minute, he probably had a lot more material to cover than the average person. I read for pleasure and often return to the same books I love, so 1,200 words per minute is an unnecessary exercise for me.
“You can learn good ideas and examples from other people, but your path to personal development is going to be unique,” says Vespasian. “It’s crucial to adapt your self-improvement plan to your personal circumstances and goals.”
One final thing I’ve learned over the last 12 years: progress is gradual, and you can’t speed it up with a quick life hack.
Growing JotForm to serve over 4.2 million users required more than a good self-improvement tip. I had to show up and put in the hard work every single day, while competitors entered and left the market.
Some days were long and it wasn’t always fun. But growing without external funding took patience. And it required an unwavering focus on my larger goals, rather than getting distracted by the latest self-help technique.
Try an attitude of gratitude
Sometimes, the self-improvement industry feels Iike one big Catch-22.
Its writers, coaches, and trainers want to help you reach a goal, but they also depend on you to fail.
That’s why it’s important to approach self-help with caution. It’s okay to follow other people’s advice, but be realistic about your expectations, and focus on your own goals and progress.
Don’t fall victim to comparison, and remember to be grateful for the positive qualities you already have — the ones that don’t need improvement.