Self-improvement
How We Make Headway

Man doing a plank and using laptop at home Photo (detail): William Perugini; © picture alliance / Westend61

We want to improve – relentlessly: to learn from, avoid, and accept mistakes. Self-help guides, coaches, and trainers do a lot to help us achieve our goals. But we could make it so much easier on ourselves!

Maximilian Buddenbohm

If you went on social media when the corona pandemic broke out, you may have noticed two opposing recommendations right from the start. On the one hand, some people pointed out how useful the lockdown was: now, at long last, we had time to do all sorts of things! When if not now! Countless pursuits and possibilities were passed around by coaches, trainers, and teachers of all kinds. We could finally learn Spanish, computer programming, piano, or yoga, PowerPoint or at least the smart way of hosting an online meeting. The number of subjects and skills to be mastered just kept growing. The corona crisis came to be regarded as educational leave.

Some, on the other hand, pointed out the great advantage of the lack of opportunity: they wanted us to learn to meditate, to focus on nothing, to heighten our awareness of the unfamiliar silence around us, our diminishing requirements and options and how little we really need – apart from this one particular meditation app, of course! The corona crisis came to be regarded as a wellness holiday.

These two contrasting recommendations also happen to be the main thrusts of self-optimization as propounded in innumerable self-help guides. There’s a third thrust in a different direction, which didn’t come to the fore much during the first weeks of the pandemic – and for good reason. I’ll get back to that later.

It’s all reduced to platitudes

You can listen to abstracts of non-fiction and self-help books read aloud on services like Blinkist, a latter-day German-language version of Reader’s Digest, so to speak. Select a subject like “psychology,” “self-improvement,” or “career,” and you’ll be treated to extremely oversimplified versions of what are, for the most part, already quite simplistic books. It’s all reduced to platitudes, and sometimes it doesn’t amount to much in the end. But it’s still interesting stuff, seeing as some of these books are

bestsellers that provide fodder for small talk for years. They influence management decisions and even the rules we live by, our daily routines, and, presumably, our self-image. Surely, they end up helping some people, there’s no reason to doubt that.

One of the main aims of these self-help guides is to boost efficiency, to get more of something, to improve and maximize, and constantly look ahead towards the future. These books and other self-help media often adopt a combative “roll-your-sleeves-up” tone and heavily stress specific techniques, methods, and rituals. And yet, they all boil down to the same quintessential message: “Pull yourself together now!” And then, you just do a little more or do things a little better.

The other tendency of self-help guides is to boost mindfulness and observation. The focus is on less, on the minimum, doing nothing, resting, and the here and now. These books and other media adopt a gentle, whispering tone and emphasize techniques, methods, and rituals. And they, too, all boil down to a single quintessential message: “Take it easy!” And then, you just do a little less or do things a little more slowly.

Pull yourself together! Take it easy! Be happy!

If you stop and think about these two basic messages for a second, it may occur to you that they pretty much cover the bulk of the good advice that is dished out – according to the particulars of each situation – in helpful talks with friends and family, co-workers, and acquaintances, whether about matters of career or of the heart. They may well be expressed more eloquently, but the point is that, at any rate, one can get plenty of mileage out of these two pieces of advice.

I mentioned a third variant above. It’s not based much on methods, nor does it clearly advocate action or inaction. Instead, it’s a call for understanding, recognition, and reassessment of the situation. Then again, this instruction is likewise simple, straightforward, familiar advice among friends: “Be happy!” It’s not surprising it wasn’t loudly trumpeted at the outset of the pandemic, seeing as the situation around the world didn’t look very happy. But this instruction comes up in more and more extended speculative articles about the post-corona world. Some, for example, mull, at great length, over the question of whether we can ever be happy again – or

perhaps even happier – at some point in the future. We’ll all pull ourselves together now, then we’ll relax, and then we’ll be happy.

One mistake after another

Upon reflection, these messages seem to correspond to different times of day. “Now pull yourself together!” is our morning mandate when getting out of bed, while “Just relax!” is the appropriate after-hours mantra. A real “happy hour,” on the other hand, is harder to pin down – which is telling, by the way, for happiness is elusive.

But these maxims also match up with the seasons and even the stages of life. We can play around with them, apply them in this or that situation. That’ll keep us busy – and striving – because all three maxims require an effort, for they are all based on the assumption that things aren’t good the way they are, that things could definitely be better! We have an almost superstitious aversion to accepting the present state of affairs as optimal. Instead, we routinely view the present as a string of attempts and mistakes. Success is somewhere out there, we’ll get there someday.

If this were as good as it gets, we wouldn’t be interested in self-improvement anymore and there’d be no point in aspiring to anything: what’s the point if there’s no getting better? We’re hooked on self-improvement, even if we don’t call it that in so many words, even if we’re not even aware of it. We always want more – just like our economic system, which we’re constantly vilifying. Can this unappeasable yearning be right at all? Or is the whole principle of endless self-improvement ultimately a fool’s errand? Maybe we ought to read a self-help guide on how to actually interpret these self-help guides. But we’d have to pull ourselves together first. Or relax, that must be the first order of business.

In any case, we’d have made a little headway and we’d be a little happier.
 

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