I really like learning expert Scott Young, but his recent piece "What's Beyond Self-Improvement?" rubbed me the wrong way. In there, Scott argues that deliberate attempts to improve our lives by improving ourselves occupy more or less a kind of stage of life with its own promise and pitfalls. Scott suggests switching from a self-improvement-oriented philosophy of life to one oriented towards objective values, after you've fixed most of your problems.
On the contrary, I think of life as being of one piece. Though times in life have different textures and priorities, it's a mistake to think of self-improvement as a discrete thing. Switching philosophies of life in response to success is like changing the rules in the middle of the game. And you can't just change your philosophy of life anyways - it is a complex, interwoven matrix of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that may be slowly budged at best.
If higher values like service, mastery, and creativity matter, then they always mattered. Deciding what to do, when, why, and to what extent does not follow any kind of template and tasks are rarely sequential. Choices about what to do are really choices about who to be. Navigating this never-ending parade of options is part and parcel of the self-improvement enterprise, and the self-improvement enterprise never meaningfully ends.
Self-Improvement as a Stage
According to Scott: when you're in the self-improvement stage, you can (and should) do things like develop new health, fitness, productivity, and relationship skills/knowledge/habits. By doing this, your life gets noticeably better. You identify problems, then fix them (with a little luck, too).
Eventually, the self-improvement stage draws to a natural close, because the major life improvements have already been made and (allegedly) new problems of similar size/importance do not typically arrive to replace the already-fixed ones. Then, people sometimes freak out because they've lost the motivational tension that previously drove them towards their goals and desires.
In response to the end of self-improvement, a person might blow things up behaviorally, to recreate the tension (for instance, by ending a good relationship or quitting a good job). Or a person might start floundering mentally, having invented some emotional problems for motivation. But these ways of introducing motivation provide a cure that may be worse than the disease.
Generally, Scott argues, you can tell that motivational tension has left the room when you start feeling bored with life. To plan for a graceful exit from the self-improvement stage, keep an eye on the higher values you might pursue when your big problems have been solved: service to others, mastery (the pursuit of excellence for its own sake), and the exercise of creativity.
Do Higher Values Improve Your Life?
Here's the crux of Scott's point:
"I think the way out of this trap involves a shift in the philosophy of life you hold for yourself. It has to be a shift away from the tension coming from fixing your problems, and onto more abstract goals that you're explicitly aware won't improve your life."
This seems nuts to me. Just because service, mastery, or creativity pay different types of dividends than, say, attaining a comfortable material lifestyle or getting married doesn't mean that they can't "improve" your life. Scott's argument here depends on a narrow, modern view of what makes life go well - an impoverished hedonism or "desire satisfaction" theory of value.
If service, mastery, and creativity are theoretically - and not merely subjectively - valuable, then how are they supposed to motivate you anyways? If they don't "improve" your life, by whatever standard of "improvement" you maintain, then how are these poised to fill the new motivational void?
Bottom line: It's not psychologically realistic to expect to spend the first part of your life chasing desires and getting happy then to flip a switch into lofty satisfaction mode. Happiness and desire satisfaction must be mixed in with higher values all along.
Becoming a Good Person Is The Task of a Lifetime
Every step towards excellence, broadly conceived, makes your life better, broadly conceived. Sometimes deficiencies in excellent are discrete to identify and fix, like developing better fitness and nutrition habits. Sometime these deficiencies are amorphous and qualitative, like if you find that you lack kindness or generosity. It may be tempting to reduce the value of service, mastery, or creativity to mere pleasure, but many people find these at least partially to bear intrinsic value, apart from their effects on happiness.
"Self-improvement" is simply a manner of speaking about the clearer of these tasks. If your interest in "self-improvement" fades and the motivational tension drains out of your life, that poses its very own self-improvement related questions, so the ride never ends:
- What am I feeling?Is it boredom, or something else? Is boredom bad?
- What is the value of service/mastery/creativity? What are the right ways for me in particular to pursue these? Should I follow my strengths or shore up remaining weaknesses?
And it's just plain false that once you've fixed big things in your life, the other stuff that comes up is more like routine life maintenance than fixing problems. Have you heard of these things happening to middle-aged or older adults? Sometimes a few at once?
- Divorce or marital crisis
- Crisis over remaining single
- Struggle over the death or illness of one's parents
- Unexpected loss of a child
- Non-life-threatening but incurable chronic health issues
- Career change (or a dilemma over the possibility)
- Navigating friendships and social life across contexts and time (old friends, new friends, work, neighborhood, church, etc)
- Moving house
- Coping with the simple fact of aging
- Developing & maintaining meaningful hobbies/leisure activities
- Becoming religious, converting, or losing one's faith
Existential issues are real & central
If you struggle over one or more of those things ^, it doesn't mean that you've "mentally torn down" your past improvements in order to whip up some new motivation. Instead you, like so many humans before you, are facing existential issues. Welcome to the human condition!
Existential issues have a character distinct from practical, logistical, education, or financial problems ()though they may be bound up in related ones). Whatever skills helped you to fix your initial self-improvement problems may or may not help with ongoing or new existential issues. Your prior self-improvement successes may create legitimate new existential issues (think: someone who focuses on success at work gets worse at enjoying leisure).
And existential issues are not resolved by identifying that they arose from boredom (a.k.a. ennui), even if they did. Existential issues must be resolved in their own ways, with a psychological-philosophical toolbox that's never too full. Some of them are never really resolved, so the task becomes living alongside the existential matter.
Some aspects of self-improvement are pressing, discrete, noticeable, and quantifiable. But don't be mislead into thinking that these constitute a separate stage of life. Deciding what to focus on, and when, is itself a philosophical task and a self-improvement-related undertaking, and it continues until we die. Similarly - assessing, treating, and/or tolerating boredom is an implicitly philosophical task. There is no recipe or sequence baked into any of this, just you and everything that matters swimming around in time. Good luck.
Pamela J. Hobart - Philosophical Life Coaching Newsletter
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