Stop Improving Yourself
Here I am, at the end of my holiday vacation, reviewing what I accomplished during my time away from my job. I had made big plans. I was going to learn iOS programming using Swift. I was going to complete the first week of Coursera's Machine Language course. I was going to dig out my saxophone and teach myself how to play. I was going to clean out my basement closets, etc.
Do you want to know what I did? I spent time with my family, and played a lot of Final Fantasy XI. That's not all I did, of course. I did some much needed repair work in my bathroom and cleaned my workbench area. In general, though, I didn't accomplish any of my big plans.
An Awakening and Realization
At first, I was disappointed in myself. I was feeling irresponsible, lazy, and immature. Then, two things happened. First, I realized trying to make myself feel bad for doing things I enjoy is counterproductive. Second, I read Kevin O'Shaughnessy's post about the need for creativity, and was struck by this quote:
“One cannot become a leader by continuously improving. That’s imitation of the leader. You never overcome a leader by imitating them and improving slightly. You only become a leader by leapfrogging those who are ahead of you. And that comes about through creativity.”
– Dr. Russell Ackoff
This reminded me of something I had read recently on a subreddit. An OP’s question was about the value of self-help books, and the top response related that the responder found most self-help books were useless because they focused on fixing what was “wrong” with you. The response went on to say that it was only when the individual started reading stories about successful people that his mindset changed from fixing himself to thinking about how to achieve his goals.
The more I reflected on those ideas, the more I realized how convoluted the messages from the gurus of self-help and continuous improvement have become. All around us, we have people telling us to always be improving. We need to be reading these books. We need to be learning these skills, attending these conferences, watching these Ted(x) Talks, completing these courses. At the same time, we’re told that we must be active on Github, and have an active blog. We need to achieve, achieve, achieve, or else the world will pass us by, and we'll find ourselves on the corner.
I'm here with a call to stop all this. Stop trying to improve yourself! Why? Because there is nothing to improve on. You are complete as you are, but you have forgotten this fact. There is no need for you to do anything. Actually, the sooner you learn to let go of everything, the better. There are two reasons for dropping the self-improvement programs and accepting yourself. The first reason is that it’s much easier to make progress towards your goals if you are starting from a place of peace and confidence. Second, recognizing your complete nature helps you to do something important: find your purpose.
It may seem odd on this site to write a post that calls for us to stop undertaking many of the site’s suggested changes. However, I think it's relevant, because in between the discussions of books we should be reading and activities we should be partaking in, we lose sight of the most important thing: our purpose. When I ask people why they are improving themselves,I have often found that they give me blanket answers: “To stay sharp”, “to stay ahead of the curve”, “to keep moving forward.” These are like inspirational posts on Facebook. They feel good to read, but ultimately, they are fluff. You can move forward in a circle, after all. That curve could lead right into a wall.
Without a purpose, these activities are akin to running on a treadmill. You're putting the effort in, but you aren't going anywhere. Without a defined purpose, you won't know which of the activities will lead to the highest return on your investment of time. Without a purpose, you're like a ship that sets sail in the ocean without a destination. Without a purpose, you will never know when you are done. In other words, how can you keep moving forward if you don't know where you are going?
Finding one's purpose in life is a misnomer. You don't find your purpose in life. You create it. You define it. It's hard, though. Despite the numerous books, articles, and videos that attempt to chart a general path for establishing goals, defining your purpose is an extremely personal choice. At the risk of repeating the advice that self-help resources so uselessly offer, I can suggest a few starting points.
First, think about your eulogy. What do you want your friends to say about you at your funeral? Starting from the end of your life will help you think about the path forward.
Second, your purpose is never about you, it's about other people. Part of accepting yourself is the realization of yourdesire to share your gifts, talents, and interests with other people. We've all experienced the joy of giving as opposed to receiving when we see that smile, hear a heartfelt thank you, or experience a hug. All of these are better than a new iPhone, a million dollars in the bank, or a certificate for course completion.
Third, and most important, your purpose isn't your passion. Passion is a temporary emotion that flares up and dissipates. A purpose is a sense of resolve that carries you through the lean times. It helps you pick yourself up after you've been knocked out. It helps you to stay home at night working, while your friends are out having fun. In fact, your purpose is what helps you forego a short term pleasure for a greater result. (Right now, for example, I am foregoing more gaming to write this post.)
Ultimately, it's up to you to decide your purpose.
Kaizen is the Japanese for improvement, and for people within process improvement and personal development, it has become a synonym for “continuous improvement”. Yet the word more accurately translates into the term “change for the better”. There’s no concept of continuous.
With self acceptance and a definition of our purpose, we come back to the notion of self help and continuous improvement, but with a new understanding. Many of the activities we are told we need to do (usually to be better developers) are good. Reading and writing are great for creativity. Attending conferences and user groups are great for learning, networking, and socialization. Ted(x) Talks can inspire us. Staying in shape is important for good health. We must choose which of these activities best serve our purpose and focus our efforts on those, while cutting out anything that doesn't help us.
It is only within the context of our purpose that the value of an activity can be accurately measured.
A Call To Action
Obviously, if you haven't given much thought to your purpose, you need to do that. Before that, however, you will need to accept yourself. I personally recommend meditation. Meditation has become popular for many reasons, but the ultimate purpose of it is to teach you to simply be. The ultimate form of self-confidence is feeling a strong, overwhelming emotion and simply sitting and letting it pass.
Self-acceptance is not a goal, however, as much as it is journey. One that you will work on every day of your life. You don't need to fully accept yourself before you start defining your purpose. Therefore, plan to spend some time reflecting, and coming up your purpose. In the end, only you can define that.