The Myth of Self-Improvement

This blog is focused on performance improvement, of which one important aspect is improving personal performance. That is why a recent segment on CBC Radio’s Spark, hosted by Nora Young, titled “Self improvement? Enough already” caught my attention.

In the segment Young interviews author Svend Brinkmann, a psychology professor and the author of the book, Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze.

The self-improvement movement is hardly a new thing. But it’s certainly gone into overdrive in digital culture. We’ve talked about it before on Spark. Think of the endless productivity apps and fitness devices. Or the clickbait “news” articles that promise ‘simple steps to healthy aging’ or ‘the one weird trick to improve your relationship’.

And then there’s social media.

It can sometimes seem like a rushing torrent of tips for personal betterment, and humblebrags about how much better other people are. Our workplace culture stresses lifelong learning and endless adaptability, with the not-so-hidden threat of unemployment.

Svend Brinkmann thinks we should just say ‘no’. Svend believes that the drive to be constantly on the move, forever improving, is leaving us rootless.

“We see the consequence in the large number of people that suffer from stress…even depression,” he says.

“Of course, it’s great that we can be creative and develop new ideas, but we really need some firm ground to stand on to thrive.”

Stand Firm was a runaway bestseller when it came out in Denmark. It’s an anti-self-help book…in the form of a self-help book: seven steps to overcoming self-improvement.

One of his first steps is to stop navel gazing and looking for the ‘inner voice’ that will give you the key to your life’s purpose.

“If you look at the world’s cultures, this idea that who we really are is an inner, private core, that is a recent, contingent idea,” he argues.

“If there is meaning in life, it’s found in our relationships, in our connections to culture, to nature, to community.”

My take on Brinkmann’s thesis is that it challenges the idea that, as individuals, we can read a self-help book, attend a seminar, or take a training session on things like “mindfulness” or some other buzz word of the moment and actually achieve meaningful and lasting betterment. Over the years I have read some of these books and either attended on my own free will such sessions or was compelled to attend training of this type because my company organized the event and brought in the guru, coach or trainer. These sessions and books are sometimes trite but occasionally they have some interesting bits of insight or perhaps a tool or framework that is useful.

But I think Brinkmann’s observation, that profound personal betterment is found in the context of our relationships and connections to others and not through a solo expedition of self-discovery or self-improvement, is an important thing worth considering. This mirrors my experiences and observations on the technical aspects of performance improvement. For years people have, as individuals, read books on performance improvement or attended training sessions on things like “Six Sigma” or “Lean thinking” and while they may have learned some things, tangible betterment within their organizations was almost always minimal because without others in our network — in this case our bosses and co-workers — also sharing our worldview and system of beliefs and tools, we remain solo travelers with limited ability to change things.

There is a big downside to an inward looking solo approach. It sets people up for a sense of personal failure when things don’t change either in their lives or in their organizations, that somehow they weren’t good enough, disciplined enough or worked hard enough to make it succeed.

When I advise people and organizations on performance transformation I emphasize that we need to understand our own unique contexts and starting points. By that I mean that we must reflect on whether, for example at our place of work, we are a single contributor who is passionate about change but whose colleagues are not ready for or wanting change. Our expectations of ourselves and how we define “success” or “failure” must be tempered by our context and our relationships with others.

This is not to say that there are not some areas of life or parts of work that we cannot unilaterally improve, but that much of our personal and work situations are not in a silo of individual attitude or effort. Instead, we usually need to influence others around us to also change, or in other cases we need to work less on “ourselves” but on, as Brinkmann puts it, our connections and relationships to other people in our lives, to culture, nature and to community.