A few years ago I was walking through a Barnes & Nobles bookstore – with The Economist under one arm, and a casual oh-I’m-just-browsing-because-the-coffee-was-this-way look on my face. Why? Because I was browsing the self-help section. And for some reason I felt embarrassed by it, as I know many others do too. Why is that?
This idea that self-help or self-improvement is shameful has for some reason caught on in our society. We hide the “How to” books we read. We avoid therapy to not appear weak. We’re afraid to admit we go to couples’ counseling. We laugh nervously at the ridiculousness of New Year’s resolutions. Yet we secretly harbour a dream for what we’d like to achieve this year.
“Apparently, if you can put a number to it, it’s worth improving”
The interesting paradox is this: We live in an age where everyone is ‘optimizing’ their life – we track our steps, sleep, workouts, calories, emotions, water intake, hormones. Apparently, if you can put a number to it, it’s worth improving.
What’s more, big, aspirational goals are a status symbol. “This year we’ll grow our company 5x!”, “I’m getting married to the woman of my dreams”, “I’ll run my first ultra-marathon this year!”.
But no one mentions the leadership practices they need to learn or the daily struggle to build a strong partnership. No one mentions the gut-wrenching marathon training where you find that the hardest part is overcoming your own self-doubt.
So why are ambitious goals of success prestigious, yet working to actually achieve them is somehow shameful?
We have three hypotheses:
1 | One problem is peer group – and the self-improvement peer group is … colorful.
If you’re like us and have read your way through the how to’s in Getting Things Done by David Allen, the eye-openingly simple 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman, the lessons for a lifetime in Mindset by Carol Dweck, or if you have gone Quiet with Susan Cain or have been Daring Greatly with Brené Brown, then you know more than most people.
But you may also have stumbled on the well-intended yet questionable science in The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. Or the ‘quick and easy results’ promised by many weightloss products, healing crystals offering to replace your medicines, or some other silver bullets (or silver water) to cure all your problems.
The self-improvement genre is colored by its weakest links: the charlatans, the snake oil salesmen, the poor science. It’s difficult to look at the rest without intuitively thinking “This is probably just a bunch of hoo-haa”.
Or worse – not even to cure you. There is a booming $11bn market built partly around the business incentive is to keep you coming back. Many of these companies and experts are merely selling you a dream and some hope along the way, just enough to get you back next time.
And we get that. The self-improvement genre is colored by its weakest links: the charlatans, the snake oil salesmen, the poor science. It’s difficult to look at the rest without intuitively thinking “This is probably just a bunch of hoo-haa”.
2 | The second problem is effectiveness: Data tells us we’re unlikely to succeed in our self-improvement endeavours, so why make the effort?
This is the ridicule we may face from others – a little smirk if one dares to reveal a New Year’s resolution or a newly started diet.
Because the statistics are appalling. 9 out of 10 New Year’s resolutions fail. Only 1 in 3 diabetes patients say they’ve maintained a healthy weight, although it may be costing them their life. 67% of gym memberships are never used. The divorce rate is 50% for first marriages and 65% for second.
With those statistics against you – wouldn’t you be a fool to even try?
But if we accept that we cannot change, that the self cannot be influenced, then aren’t we living a deterministic philosophy? Forget choices and decisions, come what may! So maybe the true problem isn’t that people want to self-improve, but how they go about it.
3 | The third reason is probably the most deeply rooted one: appearance. If you’re working on self-improvement, that must mean there’s something wrong with you. Right?
From a young age we’re taught that there’s a ‘practice phase’ and an ‘expert phase’: You learn to read, then you can gradually move from Dr. Seuss to War and Peace. You study, and then you graduate into work life. You work in an entry-level role, and then you attend a leadership seminar, and boom! you’re a leader.
We accept this practice-expertise model, perhaps because we’re young in most practice phases. But self-improvement works differently. Self-improvement doesn’t look to age. Self-improvement requires us to look inwards, with honesty. Self-improvement requires us to tackle deeply rooted behavioral or mindset patterns that keep us from reaching our potential. Self-improvement is about accepting that “I will never be done”. We may never reach self-improvement mastery – we may merely get a deeper sense of our own imperfection.
And that’s a side of ourself we do not want to see, and definitely not show others. Self-improvement is above all about vulnerability – and for many of us vulnerability is simply not an option.
“Self-improvement requires us to tackle deeply rooted behavioral or mindset patterns that keep us from reaching our potential”
We firmly believe this will change. We believe self-improvement will leave its shackles of shame and become the new status symbol.
Self-awareness and self-compassion are at the heart of success.
Research shows that it’s not self-critique, self-esteem or ‘working harder’ that results in success. In fact, there’s a strong link between success and self-awareness; and success and self-compassion.
The future of work requires self-improvement and a mindset of lifelong learning.
Research by management consultancy McKinsey & Co shows that 75-375 million people globally may need to retrain and completely switch occupational categories by 2030 due to AI and automation. Where our grandparents had a career, we’re likely to have three or four different careers in our lifetime. This means that renewing oneself and embracing lifelong learning becomes a critical skill.
Self-improvement is what makes us uniquely human.
No other species we know of has the ability to observe oneself, imagine a better future, and attempt to shape one’s behaviour for the better. Self-improvement is what allows people to rise from poverty, dream the impossible dream and fly to the moon (and eventually Mars), lead a company from the verge of bankruptcy to a new rise, or to make a marriage not only last but thrive.
Warren Buffett is famous for saying that: “the most powerful investment I ever made, and that anyone can make, is an investment in myself”. Early in his career, Buffett invested in personal development books, in educating himself, and in a Dale Carnegie course on public speaking that completely changed his life and allowed him to become the household name he is today.
How will you invest in yourself? What’s one self-improvement area you could engage in with honesty, passion and vulnerability, to see how it changes your life?
– Nora, Co-Founder and COO of Fifth Corner Inc., creators of YOU-app