What self-help articles fail to say
Every time I open the internet, a headline like this hijacks my attention: If You Want to Be Successful, Do These 83 things.
I suffer from Fear Of Missing Out. I don’t want to be the loser who didn’t know about the latest lifehack. I click.
Like clockwork, a sigh of relief follows as I conclude that, once more, I haven’t been foolishly living my life ignorant of the new trick that would have made me a millionaire by now.
It must have happened 83 times already.
These listicles usually recite some variation of the classic self-help secrets. You know, things like waking up at 5 A.M., meditation, fewer carbs, no multitasking, following Maarten van Doorn on Medium.
There’s nothing wrong with that. These can be useful behavioral changes to implement.
What bothers me about these articles is what they don’t say.
Most self-help refuses to define ‘success’
Despite the promises to make you successful, nobody seems to take the time to tell you what they mean by ‘success.’
Most self-help assumes you already know the answer to the great philosophical question “How should I live?” All that’s left is to give you the tools to get “there.”
Because it is difficult to answer for ourselves what it means to “be a better person” or “have a good career,” we often measure these abstract goals by what others believe is a successful or good person.
Success then becomes simply whatever everyone else sees as high status.
Your noble quest to ‘improve’ will transmute into you chasing the familiar trophies: increased productivity, more $$, a big ugly car, infinite Instagram likes and the scary ability to make one’s lips curl upwards on seeing a kale smoothie.
This is why failing to define ‘success’ is a very bad, terrible, no good idea.
What comes before self-improvement
So: if ‘success’ — full stop — is your primary value, chances are you’re just borrowing whatever society rewards with prestige.
If you’re not playing the game of life based on your own values — what you care about and what you don’t care about — it’s a mere zero-sum game for social status.
What’s more, it’s easy to find yourself becoming less authentic under the guise of this kind of self-improvement.
Your job, your hobbies, your friends, are these things mostly a result of what you’ve heard or absorbed without self-reflection? Or are they things you consciously evaluated and chose based on your identity and values?
To meaningfully discuss what it means to improve yourself, we must have some idea of what improvement means.
It’s not enough to simply “grow” and become a “better person.” You must define what a better person is.
What are your priorities in life?
Improvement entails some end, optimization towards something. So after a while, the journey of personal ‘growth’ forces you to think: What am I doing it for? What am I hoping to achieve? Which mountain am I climbing and why?
These questions are meant to tease out your values. Your personal judgments about what is worth caring about in life.
These values you find really important, not the goal you want to achieve, should determine your choices.
To sum up: each one of us has to start out with developing our own definition of success. And when we have these specific expectations of ourselves, we’re more likely to live up to them.
Once you have decided the values you want to realize in your life, then self-improvement stuff has its merits. But first you have to define where you want to end up.
At this point, most life advice falls surprisingly silent.
So let’s ask the tough questions
What does it mean to win the game of life? When have we won?
I don’t think the key to the good life can be found in an 83-step guide, and I certainly don’t think copying everyone else is going to get you there.
No article about “success” can decide for you whether, for instance, you should try to have children or invest your energy in pursuing your career. Similarly, an intense life filled with accomplishments is not necessarily better than a relaxed life filled with savoring.
You have to figure this — which goals to have in the first place — out for yourself.
So how do we do that?
What the philosopher Charles Taylor writes about this is worth sharing:
“[In making such fundamental judgments,] it is not exactly that I have no yardstick, in the sense that anything goes, but rather that what takes the place of a yardstick is my deepest unstructured sense of what is important.”
With no bedrock of certainty about what counts as a successful life, any choice to pursue this or that may seem arbitrary.
On the other hand, this freedom is extremely empowering. In the game of life, you get to make up your own rules — and that’s beautiful!
If there was a single answer about how to live, we would not be free. We would be trapped. Because then we would all have to live to that answer. Instead, we get to choose what we find important in our lives and to define ourselves in doing so.
This crafting of our distinctive identities is, in a way, what life is all about.