Is self improvement worth it?

We are all going to die with flaws and faults. Chances are they will be the same ones we started out with or developed early in life.

This occurred to me this morning as I was thinking about the idea of “working on” your problems. You can work and work and work but you still will die with them, or at least some of them.

Nobody gets to the end line perfect. A fully formed, totally evolved, fabulous human being.

And yet. And yet. There is a kind of Western mythology, or at least American one that suggests or insists perfection is attainable. One must “face their fears” and “conquer their demons” and “challenge themselves” ad nauseam. But why? Will there be a big prize? Oh I guess you might say that there would be indirect prizes of a kind. A better life perhaps, or a more successful career and better relationships. Maybe. Or perhaps pride in having mastered a personal weakness; it does feel good to overcome one.

Maybe what’s bothering me is this. It is other people who invariably set the standards the rest of us are supposed to achieve so far as how we need to be. A lot of the ideas in my head, particularly on this subject, are not my own. I would have never come up with the idea that you must face all your fears and defeat them head on. Oh hell no! My philosophy almost certainly would have had something to do with getting as far away from your fears as possible. You could send them a postcard occasionally but cozying up to them on purpose? No, I would have not have thought of this. And yet this notion about facing your fears is in my head. Stuck.

Here in mid-life I have a pretty good handle on who I am. What my strengths are, what my weaknesses are. I’d be a liar if I told you I wasn’t an advocate of self-improvement because I’ve worked hard to improve a number of things in myself. But they were and are things I want to improve, things I find valuable and that stemmed from A LOT of thought and reflection. My point is that so many messages I get from outside of me about how to live and how to be don’t jive with my own thinking. You (i.e, the culture) may want me to improve in ways that have little value to me.

American thinking is so damned gung-ho. If you just work at it, by gum, you can outfox all your problems, flaws, and weaknesses and achieve a kind of personal nirvana and ride the Success Train through the rest of your days. What kind of nonsense is this? Who really does this? I don’t know anybody who is flaw-less. And complicating matters is that the person you think is a fabulous human being could be somebody I think is a shmuck. And vice versa. In fact, I’ve noticed that any number of people deemed popular/successful – whether in the micro world of my personal life or in the macro world of the larger culture and populace – are not people who especially impress me.

Okay, here’s another thought, my own. That the way to develop yourself as a human being is to find the right balance between being selfish and giving. This matters because too many of the ways a person is supposed to become more evolved, it seems to me, are by doing things they don’t want to do, things that are hard for them (re: conquer your demons, face your fears, etc). If they were being selfish, they wouldn’t do them, and maybe selfishness, a degree of it, has its place. Selfishness can be a kind of self-preservation. The word has a bad rap but it’s typically meant to embody the people who are excessively so, negatively so. On the other hand people who give too much or needlessly self-flagellate can stand to be a little more selfish.

And if I may – it often seems that the people most genuinely interested in improving themselves and working on their flaws are the ones least in need of it. In my life I’ve known plenty of jackasses, losers, fools, and lousy human beings who had absolutely NO interest in improving themselves and “working on” their faults. Oh, it’s true, that by and large, they were a pretty wretched bunch who will never know true happiness or peace but I don’t think they could see that whatsoever (in their books they are miserable because of OTHER people so there will never be any getting through to them so far as “working on tbemselves” anyway). [The semi-exception: The person who pretends to “work” on himself and learns to parrot phrases, such as the wife abuser who can now say things like “I need to take responsibility for my feelings” and “nothing justifies what I did to her” while secretly still believing in his heart she had it coming and if she just didn’t provoke him so much on purpose he wouldn’t beat her.]

It’s like the wrong people care about improving themselves. Or if that’s going too far, there’s a cohort that worries too much or at least out or proportion to their “sins”. So maybe that’s my point. Or one of them.

Working on problems, flaws and weaknesses is a good thing. But – assuming we’re not harming anyone or bothering anybody – they should be the ones that we want to do, the ones we find worthy. Not merely what we’re to!d.

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24 thoughts on “Is self improvement worth it?

  1. Maggie Wilson

    An ex-boyfriend did work for a childrens’ theatre. I recall watching a rehearsal. The director was losing her cool with the young actress. She was berating her, by way of motivation. Charming, yes? She was exhorting her to “Face your fears! Rise above! Strive for perfection!” She went on to quote a line from Disney/Hallmark/Hollywood (take your pick, they are in this plot together.) I couldn’t handle it – the young actress was a wreck, and I was about to either clobber the director or break down in tears myself. I left.

    I am so with you on this bogus sentiment to strive for perfection, to face your fears, to reach for the stars. There’s nothing wrong with doing any of those things, as long as you are happy with second best. Or third. Or 99th. Aim high, and be content where you land.

    I take incredible comfort in knowing this one tiny detail: if it were not for imperfections in our genetic makeup, we’d all be identical! Imperfections are mandatory!

    This does not mean that I don’t try to correct my mistakes, and to do better if/when I can. But if I set the bar too high, and anything less than leaping clear is a disastrous failure… well, we know that won’t end well.

    Another great post. I find I have to read, then re-read, and mull and must and come back to respond several hours later.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      You could pay me no better compliment than the one you just did here Maggie. Truly, thank you. Your responses give me much to work with too.

      The kind of berating-as-“encouragement” that you described in the theatre happens in sports too. Maybe being called a “loser” or “quitter” or told you “can do better” motivates some people; I’m sure not one of them.

      I really like your point about our imperfections adding to or creating our individuality. Perfection would equal clones.

      I am reminded now of how I once heard personality assessments were being done in some work places so the boss could make the employees “work on” their weak points. This really irked me. Why not play to people’s strengths? And why should someone’s boss be the person to try to “fix” them? Isn’t it enough to perform well the job you’re hired to do?

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      1. Maggie Wilson

        “…personality assessments were being done in some work places so the boss could make the employees “work on” their weak points.”

        This would trouble me, too. I’d much rather that the focus be on my strengths. Then, in a supporting role, and with my expressed wishes, the manager could arrange for any coaching/training that I’d need to strengthen my weaknesses.

        If my “weaknesses” are so pronounced that I cannot function to desired standards on the job, then I shouldn’t have been hired for the job in the first place – it is, as they say, “not a good fit.”

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        1. writerinsoul Post author

          I still am in uncertain that it’s an employer’s job to psychoanalyze employees in any manner. Improving a person’s job skills through training is one thing; improving their personality is quite another.

          (I once took a test as part of a interviewing process; I think my genuine claims of honesty – there were many questions related to integrity/honesty – sounded alarms as if by definition I was claiming to be TOO honest for believability.)

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  2. Anne Mehrling

    I never thought of that in detail! Thanks for doing the thinking for me so I don’t have to wade through all that. I guess I’m old enough that I’ve come to accept myself with my flaws. Mainly I try to build up others, and that’s more important to me than aiming for perfection in anything else.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      It’s an idea that’s been percolating with me for awhile; finding the balance between trying to be a better person vs. just what you say, accepting yourself as is. Your point about building up others is a kind way to go about things.

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  3. surgeryattiffanys

    Lots to think about…. And I guess it is used to try and get young people to achieve, or have ambitions. Me old bird knows better 😛
    It’s like my father used to tell me that if I worked hard enough, I could have anything I want. Well, I found out that even after a decade of IVF and abusing my body with procedures and hormones, I can’t have children. So I guess Daddy lied…..

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      That’s a bitter pill, I’m sorry.

      Wanting things isn’t enough. Deserving them isn’t enough. “Don’t stop trying” isn’t the answer to all situations and dreams.

      I expect you’re right about trying to motivate children but even children need to have reasonable expectations or maybe more importantly,to be taught useful coping skills. (I could have used some.)

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  4. Ron Walker

    This was a great read. In the end it comes down to being satisfied with ourselves. Nothing wrong with trying for a balance, but if we change ourselves too much just to appease others, then we will let ourselves down.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Thanks. Quite right about being satisfied with yourself and not changing to appease others. Satisfied is a good word here – it implies good but not perfect. And also – if you become dissatisfied for whatever reason – because it’s likely no more a constant than any other state – you can try to do something about it then.

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  5. Peg Stueber-Temp and Tea

    The first thought I had in rejoinder to your post is:

    “You cannot have infinite growth with finite resources.” I’ve said that for years when faced with the quarterly “We need to grow our business” pep talk from the Corporate Suits on high.

    Why do we – as a culture – set ourselves up for such abject failures? Personally, I think it has a lot to do with the competition motivations bred into our species. When humans compete for anything, the focus sharpens and the blood floods with endorphins, creating an all-natural high. We ride the rails of these chemical stimulants released by the hormone system, seeking out that all-elusive dopamine rush at the end of an achievement attained, yet never realize the horrific crash after this hot flood really SUCKS.

    Our society venerates the adrenaline junkie. We just pretend we’re more civilized than the barbarian stabbed their ‘enemies’ with a large pointy object to get the thrill.

    I prefer balance and equilibrium, but then again, I’m nowhere near normal.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      I like your quote about finite resources; what are people but finite resources after all?

      My anthropology background is limited and my history is shaky but I don’t think all cultures are naturally competitive. There must be a docile, uncompetitive (yet functional) group somewhere!

      And your comment, which makes sense, makes me think of something else too, namely that giving, sharing, and comraderie also produce endorphins and feelings of well-being. I do think the culture strictly defines people as winners and losers, and the adrenaline junkie types – the competitive, cutthroat sorts – are most lauded.

      (Normal is that overrated.)

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  6. Sheila Moss

    In my experience, people who are stupid don’t know it. My doctor gave me food for thought. “Since you have physical limitations,” he said, “You need to try to be as physically fit as you are able to be.” That is probably true in other aspects of life as well. We may never achieve someone else’s idea of perfection, but we can still have our own personal best.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Sheila, it’s true that I’m at my best when I’m competing against myself, setting my own bar and not over focusing and comparing to other people. Your doctor’s words were smart and thoughtfully put.

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  7. battlewagon13

    I have always found it amazing that the people that I can tell have the MOST to work on to become that ‘perfect person’ are the people who are least aware that they have so much to work on. They already believe they have found their perfection – and maybe THAT is the key take-away. If you are happy, then you are perfect. I have this continual argument with my family who want to go off and see the world, that you ‘only live once’ and need to experience all that’s wonderful about every country in the world. Balderdash I say. I would be perfectly happy and content to stay in about a 100-mile radius of where I am right this second for the rest of my life. I have sun, snow, ocean, mountains, fall, spring and family. What else do I need to have?

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Maybe there is a line between contentment and complacency that we need to watch. I waffle around about this quite a bit. Like you, I want to be happy with what I have – and not fall into that tempting trap of thinking “If I just did X” or “I just went to X” or “I just had X” I would be happy and Life Would Be Grand. In the same way if I’m not happy with who I am by now I never will be.

      The people you are talking about who “need a lot of work” and don’t know or care cause the rest of us a lot of trouble and grief. Not caring is a certain kind of freedom for sure – but it’s best when it’s not in a vacuum.

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  8. Pistachios

    Societal expectations, pressures, etc are a constant source of frustration for me. I generally don’t have a problem with following orders, provided they’re reasonable; and I don’t mind going with the crowd if that’s the way I’m going anyway; but all these ideals and standards and generalised concepts of perfection just make me gag. In some cases, the greater the pressure, the greater my resistance. Makes me think of one of Newton’s laws: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction…

    Actually, this post also reminded me of a saying about how a fish (or whatever animal) will always feel like an idiot if its worth is only ever compared to elephants (or some other vastly different animal) (Probably doesn’t matter what animals you use in the saying – the idea is still there.)

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      I am the “Why?” Girl and always have been. When people say things must be done a certain way or you can’t whatever, I want to know “why.” I also don’t suffer pointlessness (or incompetent authority) very well. I do maintain that most of us want to be societally accepted because when you look around at who isn’t and how they get treated, it’s not too pretty. There’s a high price of totally opting out.

      Fish and elephants! An excellent point. I’ve heard that the quiet, contemplative person is venerated in Asian cultures so I keep things like that in mind (as a semi-loud, contemplative person in the U.S.).

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  9. Alexander Lorenz

    Great post! I have been writing recently about self improvement. It’s important to remember that different people have different priorities, and what works for one might not work for another. I know that it’s going to be helpful for me to keep that in mind when I’m writing. Because if I’m just promoting the things that help me, without taking into account other peoples’ preferences and goals, then I’m not helping them. And if I’m not helping other people, then I’m failing my readers. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      I see your point but I only write about what works or doesn’t work for me and let people use or leave it as they see fit. I don’t take the approach that I’m here to help people; I think people gravitate to what resonates with them.

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