I am both attracted and repelled by the “self improvement” genre.

At its heart, I agree that we can get better at many things in life. These include soft skills like communicating with people, identifying and regulating our emotions, and becoming more productive in general. 

We should improve at these things as we go through life. We should learn from our experiences. We can reflect on things and these can lead to better outcomes. Greater self knowledge should enable us to build a life that is a good “fit” with our personalities and draws out the best in us. 

It stands to reason that there should be great resources out there to facilitate this type of self improvement. 

But some of the most popular stuff, whether by Norman Vincent Peale, or Anthony Robbins, or Tim Ferriss, astonishes me. They might have some good points. But some of their stuff is absurd. 

It’s always refreshing to read a different perspective on these things. 

For example, I enjoyed Oliver Burkeman’s book The Antitdote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking and I also enjoy his column with The Guardian. I recommend Burkeman’s work highly. 

I also enjoyed Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh’s recent article in The Guardian – “Forget mindfulness, stop trying to find yourself and start faking it“. 

In this article, Puett and Gross-Loh skewer some popular ideas. They exhort us to:

  • “Stop finding yourself”. 

“[B]e sceptical of the existence of a true self, especially one you can discover in the abstract. [W]e are multifaceted, messy selves who develop by looking outward, not inward.” … “Each of us is a complicated being bumping up against other complicated beings all day. Each encounter draws out different aspects. Who we are consists of behaviour patterns and emotional ruts we’ve fallen into over time – but that means we also consist of numerous possibilities of what we can become.”

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To which, I would also add that there is compelling research, covered by David Eagleman in his book Incognito and Timothy D. Wilson in his book Strangers to Ourselves, that we can’t actually “know ourselves”. The thesis is that many of our internal processes are unconscious to the degree that they are not accessible to our conscious awareness. 

  • “Be inauthentic”

“Who is that authentic self you think you have discovered really? It’s a snapshot of you at this one moment in time. If you stay true to that self and allow it to become your guide, it constrains you. It doesn’t allow for the sort of growth you experience when you recognise that you are ever-changing.”

“We aren’t just who we think we are, we can work on becoming better people all the time.”

  • “Stop deciding”

“What’s wrong with a life plan? When you plan your life, you make decisions for a future self based on the person you are today not the one you will become.

“Rather than boxing ourselves in by committing to big decisions… [another approach] would be to approach them through the small and doable. When you are contemplating a career change, say, or a break up or move, your decision will be easier if you try out new related experiences on a small scale. Pay attention to your responses to these experiences, because they will guide you in new directions.”

  • “Don’t be mindful”

“the tenets of mindfulness as they are popularly understood – including looking within and accepting what you find with detached non-judgment – is the opposite of what mindfulness was meant to be. Buddhism is, after all, the doctrine of “no” self.”

“Confucian self-cultivation is different. It’s about engaging with the world and cultivating yourself through that engagement, through each encounter and interaction. It espouses a very active, not passive, way of cultivating oneself to become a better person.”

Have Puett and Gross-Loh created some strawmen in their list? Maybe. But the article is refreshing nonetheless. 

Sonnie Bailey

In his spare time, Sonnie likes telling people that he’s a former Olympic power walker, a lion tamer, or that he is an orthodontist. He is none of those things. In reality, Sonnie is a financial planner based in Christchurch. Through his business, Fairhaven Wealth (www.fairhavenwealth.co.nz), he provides independent, advice-only, fixed-fee financial planning services. Sonnie is a “recovering lawyer”: he has specialised in trusts and personal client work. He has also worked as a financial services lawyer for many years.