Self-Improvement or Self-Destruction?

I’m subscribed to an enormous amount of channels that are all aimed towards improving certain skills or learning about something new – whether it’s in philosophy, psychology, dating, fitness, I’ve got a huge bunch of videos that I can go through on the daily in my off time. It’s good stuff, but something that has recently come to mind is that it can also cause me some other effects, that being anxiety, worry and panic. Not enormous forms of it mind you, because I catch it early on (and hence why self-reflection is so important!), and recently I identified why – it’s all in the self-improvement craze.

Observe and pay attention to what happens with your YouTube feed and other social networks when you get into the self-improvement/skill development phase. Your feed turns into a giant library of ways to improve yourself. Videos are titled with things like “How to not be mediocre” or “Become the next entrepreneur”, etc. I have a YouTube channel and even some of my own videos are guilty of this. It’s all revolving around improving yourself, but one aspect that I suspect seeps into the mind of many people (myself included) is the idea that they need to be better than what they are now. They watch these videos, they understand that they need to do x to achieve y, and in order to become someone better they need to build up their grit, they need to batten down the hatches, go full monk mode, work out harder, etc.

I took a step back from all this after noticing significant anxiety creeping into my life. “That’s interesting”, I thought, because there’s nothing I ought to really be anxious about. So I meditated on it, and then thought what its cause was. The lightbulb switched on when I had finished watching a podcast that I frequent and I looked at my recommended feed on YouTube. Everything was essentially telling me that I need to be better – that right now, things aren’t good enough.

I thought on that. Why is my life not good enough? What makes that so? What evidence is there for that? It all came together in my mind because I realized that on some level, these videos had me comparing myself incessantly to other people. All of the data coming in was saying “You’re mediocre and here’s how you can be better”. Consciously, I like where I’m at and am doing quite well really. But all that info was slamming me and putting me into a comparative mode of thought – sure I’m doing okay, but am I as wealthy as that guy? Am I fit enough? Am I on track for a good retirement?

Self-improvement is good, but it becomes a poison when it starts to make you feel like you’re not good enough in the present, and this is the key point that needs to be understood. The source behind suffering and dissatisfaction is within desire. This is something that the Buddha had identified. This is true when you think about it – we are unsatisfied when we don’t have the things we want, when we don’t have values. So we work to get them and, seemingly, it satiates us.

But that’s not what happens necessarily. It’s a temporary form of satisfaction, which then repeats itself again when we become dissatisfied within our current context. It’s a cycle – that said, it’s a natural cycle given that without desire, we’d just sit and die. In fact, no one says that desire is bad. It’s a good thing!

The problem arises though when we allow our minds to compare endlessly without recognizing that in the present moment, things are still okay. We are conceptual animals, and the way we understand the world is via comparison, omission and isolation down to essentials. Comparison is natural to us and it allows us to function in the world in such a way that lower animals can’t. The brain is amazing.

But when we allow ourselves to constantly compare to others and yearn for more based on that comparison without restriction, we become unhappy. Sure, I am quite fit and am in great physical shape, but I don’t have the six pack the guy on YouTube is talking about. I also don’t have the salary the other guy says he has. Damn, I have to work harder! And this motivational guy on TV is telling me I’m failing and can be so much more!

The point is not that you be still – desire is a constant and it is good – the point is that you need to appreciate and practice gratitude to what you have achieved and own now, while simultaneously understanding your goals for the future. Being present and in the moment is vital to experiencing genuine appreciation for your life, and without that serenity within the present, “More” will never make you happy because your internal world is in chaos. Conversely, what other people achieve is not for you to follow – it’s there for you to be inspired and make your own way.

A great misunderstanding of some Eastern philosophies (not all) is that they teach you to work to destroy desire. Incorrect, desire is the source of life. The point behind it is to understand that desire, if untamed, can lead to incredible suffering – and to achieve that understanding and serenity, you follow the path of the middle way. Balancing your life. But how one balances their life is entirely up to the individual, hence why I or anyone else can’t tell you how fit or wealthy you ought to be. You need to do the work on your own. Follow your own path, and that’s precisely what makes life so good.

Set goals and work to achieve them, but work to achieve them in the present, where you are good enough just as you are, and can make yourself bloom even brighter. Take a break from self-improvement books and material too, and just focus on what’s around you. More often than not, the path to your own joy is right in front of you – you’re just to focused on following others advice to notice it.

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