Escaping the Self-Improvement Vortex
When trying to do better... goes bad.
I’ve relapsed many times. The addiction is not drugs, however, but self-improvement. Still, it’s something I’m trying to break. Podcasts, YouTube videos, books - the sheer volume of content that tells me how to be more productive, more motivated, more focused is like heroin coming in through a firehose. It’s like mainlining other people’s success is somehow the key to my own.
My poor mom gets the worst of it. She’s received plenty of 9pm calls after a podcast spurs another “revelation” about how to be better. “I’ve been doing it all wrong Mom, people don’t make sense, there’s a better way!”
The prevalence of self-improvement heroin could easily be called the best problem we have in our society. “You’re telling me people are driving themselves crazy trying to be better?” Sure, all things considered, it’s not the end of the world. But there’s a reason I call it heroin. You’re left constantly itching, restless, wondering if you’re not doing the most optimized thing, the thing that will move your life forward. OPS (Other People’s Success) turns from a motivator to a constrictor.
Now after a decade of experimenting, the hopium has started to wear off and I’ve been able to see the penrose stairs I’ve been climbing. The problem is this: there is no perfect playbook. There are those who have been successful doing certain things at certain points in their lives. We consume content about these people and try to narrow in on the 1% of what makes those superstars great. Or we read about studies that suggest how to maximize the average brain and body. We then take it upon ourselves to create a frankenstein methodology when in fact using all of it might work for exactly zero people, especially ourselves.
What has helped me find calm in this storm is realizing a few of my key failures:
Failure number 1: Forgetting the motivations of the people giving us this advice.
We’ll start with the worst offenders: successful people writing memoirs. Whenever someone looks back at their career, you are getting a finished product from a person with time and money on their hands. The warm sunlight of St. Barths has taken the edge off the harsh fluorescent bulbs of their early years. They tend to smooth over the day-to-day decisions that got them to where they are.
Jeff Bezos might say that sleeping 9 hours a night now has changed his life, but you could say that sleeping 5 hours a night while building Amazon seemingly changed his life more. Apollo Ohno might revel in his newfound mental health, but it was a certain brand of crazy that might have been essential to winning two gold medals. A CEO might say “be ethical” while knowing full well that when their company was starting they didn’t pay vendors for months as they tried to ensure the business survived.
Worse, these people are faced with the task of creating a narrative around a life that may have been a series of random turns or brazen risks. Isn’t there a chance, no matter how small, that Bezos’ famous regret minimization exercise before leaving his original hedge fund job is actually made up? How many of these stories we hear about key inflection points are really just made up after the fact to mask that a lot life is saying “fuck it! If it doesn’t work, I’ll be ok!” The fact we’re hearing these stories in the first place means those rolls of the dice just happened to hit it big.
Also keep in mind that many “great men” in our nation’s history (Presidents, robber barons, Generals, etc) were writing to make sure their version of events survived as much as they were trying to impart true wisdom to the next generation. The pace of content has only increased with today’s “great men and women” who find multiple mediums to portray a certain image. Someone might say they journal, meditate, and plan each day because it makes them sound like the perfect human. “What a boss”, readers might say. Goal achieved. Be aware of what is marketing and what is true. For us millennials and younger, it’s like differentiating between someone’s real life and what’s on their social media.
Failure number 2: thinking that my best self could come from combining every aspect from every lesson.
Sleep at least 8 hours a night, wake up early to get your best thinking done, maximize your creativity late in the evening, work only 3.5 good hours a day, and always outhustle your competitors. Eat once a day, eat every two hours, and make sure to both maximize and minimize your fats and carbs. Workout every day but leave at least 48 hours of rest in-between. Start your morning by meditating for 40 minutes, journaling for another 30, reading for a further 35, then 1 hour more of planning your day, and finish it off with a 20 minute walk to set your intention. Never let email distract you and always be a responsive collaborator.
Said differently: there are a million things you could do, but doing all of them is actually a recipe for disaster. There’s a concept in the CIA about a threshold to the amount of information you need to make a decision: collect and analyze too little data and you don’t know enough. Look at too much data and you actually end up distracting yourself from what matters, diminishing the quality of your decisions. Investors use this every day too: of all the data points in the world on this company, some of which contradict each other, which are the ones I am going to listen to?
For self-improvement, there isn’t anyone who follows all of the advice that is out there because it’s impossible to do so. We run ourselves in circles, forgetting the hilarious contradictions we subject ourselves to. It’s a Gordian Knot of our own making.
The Way Forward
How to solve it? Like Alexander before you, slice it through by acknowledging who you are, what your life is, and what matters to you.
I would love nothing more than to be the person that can get away with 4 hours of sleep. I’ve tried that. The afternoon rolls around and I’m drooling on my hand, half-reading another news story. I would also like to be super fit. I’ve also tried that and I’m not going back to 2 hours a day in the gym, magical bottles of supplements, and a chemist’s devotion to calorie counting. There are times when I look at the Elon Musks of the world and feel a pang of longing for their laser focus on work. Then I think about the growing importance I’ve been putting on time with family and friends. Those lifestyles are inherently contradictory.
By proving the negatives, however, I’ve found a path to the positive. A decade of lacking fulfillment due to feeling like I wasn’t doing enough has led to a sense of productive peace. I’ve found that as long as your day feels like it has intentionality to it - you are directing it and it’s not directing you - you only need a few things that work well.
Once you choose those few things, the key is not feeling bad about discarding the rest. In a world where testicle tanning could be the next thing you’re not doing enough of, you will realize that consistency and quality matters more than novelty. Maybe your holy grail is 8 hours of sleep, journaling for 20 minutes in the morning, and spending 20 minutes at night planning your next day. What if you did that every day?
It’s basically nothing, but if that’s the only thing you changed in your life and you truly did it every day, you might be massively more content. Maybe swap journaling for a 30 minute jog. Who knows. Find the thing that vibrates your particular frequency and don’t feel bad if something doesn’t fit who you are.
As your life doesn’t stay static over time, neither will your habits. Being a buff dad with heavily neglected kids isn’t the greatest look, so your workout schedule may change in your 30’s. Technology and health supplements may provide such a huge leap forward that it becomes a no-brainer to add something to your morning routine. Change should always happen due to your own life and needs, however, not due to an overexcited podcast guest.
Be intentional, be simple, and above all else, tune out the relentless noise of the next best thing.