It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say we are living in the age of self-improvement. In fact, the theme of self-help is something that we are often compelled to suffer through the daily dose of messages claiming to be a heady cocktail of inspiration & motivation.
While tackling the unforeseen obstacles of our daily lives we are often subjected to innumerable messages — advocating that a happier, richer, more successful life is just around the corner. The only thing keeping us away from having it all is our own lack of clarity, commitment, and the necessary sacrifices.
Simplicity at its best.
Which reminds me of H. L. Mencken, who pointed out some inherent anomaly in oversimplification when he quipped sarcastically that
‘For every problem, there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong’.
In fact, it is pertinent here to revisit the underlying principle of Occam’s razor — that a simple explanation is usually preferable to a complex one. And mind you this is something that can be witnessed right through the entire genre of widely accepted pseudo-self-help.
There is a definite assurance wherein you are guaranteed a workable solution for every possible problem (even the most difficult existential problem is not an exception here) — it too can easily be explained lucidly through simple & digestible listicles.
There is no denying that due to the industrial revolution most of our immediate survival needs of food, shelter, and financial security has been taken care of. As a consequence, we often find our attention gravitating towards finding new methods to make our life more purposeful and meaningful.
This peculiar predicament is very aptly captured in the movie “Fight Club” —
“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
The endeavor to make our life more purposeful and meaningful has, in turn, spawned a prolific, multi-million dollar industry of self-proclaimed gurus, bestselling books, blogs, and online courses telling us how to be physically more fitter, psychologically happier — so as to ultimately become a better & more desired person.
At the very heart of this is our conviction that we are somewhat inadequate.
However, we often forget that the majority of us are right now living the dream we once had for ourselves. Married to the person we once dreamed of marrying, have the children and job we once dreamed of having, and own the car we once dreamed of buying.
But then there is no dearth of self-proclaimed experts who are hell-bent on making you focus all your energy only on your inadequacies. In fact, they are well equipped with all their pseudo-wisdom that can help you redesign your unfulfilling Life.
The only prerequisite is — you should be courageous enough to dig a little deep within yourself to come up with nothing but few candid answers — once you are successful in doing that you can be rest assured to rediscover and embrace your most authentic self.
There is a widespread but unfounded belief that spending time and energy thinking & visualizing about how well things could turn up helps us immensely in manifesting the most positive outcome (again million copies of books sold on this topic alone).
Whereas in reality this whole process of visualization adversely affects most people’s motivation to achieve them. They often confuse visualizing success with having already achieved it. We often forget that —
Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who are shit scared to lose everything they have worked so hard to acquire. Here again, thanks to our psychological wiring, we often forget that thinking about the possibility of losing something we value shifts it from the backdrop of our life back to center stage.
Therefore, clinging to any particular version of a perfect and happy life, while fighting to eliminate all possibility of an imperfect and unhappy one, is vulnerable to probabilistic disappointment.
While at the same time one should resist the temptation of being hooked by mental narratives about how things ‘should’ be, or ‘should never be’, or ‘should remain forever’.
Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future — not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.
Try asking yourself if you have any problems right now. The answer, unless you’re currently in any sort of physical pain, is most likely to be no.
Most problems involve thoughts about how something might turn out badly in the future, or thoughts about things that happened in the past.
Since a staggering proportion of human activity is motivated by the desire to feel safe and secure, we often forget that many of the ways in which we try to feel safe don’t ultimately make us happy.
To seek security is to try to remove yourself from change, and thus from the thing that defines life.
The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you.
It doesn’t matter if you had read a thousand books in the genre of self-improvement. What matters is the amount of difference that you have allowed it to make it within your life. This is poetically worded in the following dialogue of the movie “Good will Hunting”.
Sean: [sitting on a bench in front of a pond in park]
…I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell? And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer…
…And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ‘cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much…
…And look at you… I don’t see an intelligent, confident man… I see a cocky, scared shitless kid. But you’re a genius, Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my fucking life apart. You’re an orphan, right?
Sean: You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally… I don’t give a shit about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you, I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t want to do that do you sport? You’re terrified of what you might say. Your move, chief.
No doubt that Life can be rich and wonderful at times but it is also extremely complicated. And there is no magic to simplify it as per our convenience.
The books and audio that you purchase — to teach yourself some techniques to simplify this complicated life — may paradoxically be encouraging habits of overlooking the most mundane but fulfilling experiences that is there right in front of you. And, there is a strong likelihood of you missing it completely because you are busy looking for something else.
Since most of us are flawed and imperfect creatures, instead of always striving to perfect ourselves, we should be brave enough to acknowledge this fact. Because it is only through acknowledgement we learn to show a little compassion to ourselves and all those people we love.