A cynic's guide to self-improvement

The cynic is you, but also me

I’m pretty sure most of self-improvement is a scam, but that hasn’t stopped me so far.

I’m a sucker for self-improvement, born again every minute. Or at least every ninety days or so, which seems to be the average interval between my purchases of new self-help books. When it comes to self-improvement stereotypes, I’m about as cookie-cutter as they come. I am the target market. I’m in my thirties, but I’m nearer 40 than I am 30. I’m male. I’m white. I’ve got a desk job. I’m married. We have a kid. We even have our own home, smashed avocado and frivolous holidays be damned.

No matter how you look at it, I’m the beneficiary of extraordinary privilege. And in a lot of ways I’m extremely happy.

But in a lot of other ways I’m extremely not.

I procrastinate endlessly. I’m unfit. I’m forgetful. I’m lazy. I’m inconsiderate. I lack self-control and self-discipline. And, most maddeningly, I can’t seem to finish most things I start.

I’ve got a raging cacophony in my head that constantly shouts at me about my flaws, and I’ve become obsessed with the idea of fixing them. I buy self-help book after self-help book, and while they occasionally help, more often I find author’s voices joining my mind’s clangor choir of mental chiding.

I want to be fit.

I want to do things I care about.

I want to be able to work on things consistently instead of flaming out.

And, the big one.

I want to feel less shitty about myself.

After a good couple of decades worth of devouring self-help stuff it’s become a guilty pleasure, like cake at midnight. Much like late-night snacking, I don’t know it’s helped much, there’s a distinct possibility it might have harmed, and it’s not something I feel comfortable talking about.

About the last thing I can think of to do is to take the notion of self-improvement and do journalism to it. I’ve always made sense of the world through words, and perhaps writing all this down, and doing it with some degree of consistency, will help quiet the mixed messages and metaphors left over from all my previous, largely failed attempts to achieve self-improvement.

My view of self-improvement oscillates from glassy-eyed optimism and hope to cynicism and disgust. I’ve found myself wondering if anyone ever really improves themselves, ever. Complicating this is that the field of self-improvement seems awash with grifters whose success all seems to revolve around having written a self-help book, or having launched a self-help course (for just six easy payments).

For these guys (and they are nearly always guys, in the male sense, which I’m sure isn’t a coincidence) having self-belief that borders on the delusional seems to be an asset, rather than a liability. I simply cannot grok this. I’d rather achieve something and then talk about it. “Fake it ’til you make it” seems like such a circular ethos; a power-drill from a grifter’s toolkit.

And that’s just the grifters. I haven’t even touched on the really dark side. All manner of toxic ideologies and extremist cliques seem to use self improvement as a Trojan horse. White supremacist groups offer hikes in the mountains and comradeship. Incels have the blackpill; a dark mirror of self-improvement paired with communities built around mutual alienation. From cults of personality to actual cults, from ancient religions to modern manifestations, self-improvement is a foot in a door with a hidden catch. We can make you a better person, and all it’ll cost you is…

All of the above is why I think there might be some value in pursuing a self-improvement project publicly, but there’s another reason that’s a bit more important to me. I’m not doing this because I want to get famous or rich. I’m not a guru. I don’t want anyone to think I’m trying to be one, and in the event of actually succeeding in this self-improvement project (for a given value of success) I don’t want to become one. The idea gives me the fucking heebie-jeebies. The only reason this is called a “guide” to self improvement is because I was stuck for a name for the blog and I like Douglas Adams. But I still want people to see this, because when I’ve talked about my struggles – with anxiety, depression, with the tension between wanting to improve as a person and not knowing how to go about it or feeling routinely bad about it – it’s resonated with people. Some strangers, some people I know well and care about.

The chances of reaching a big audience are pretty scant, but I reckon it’s worth doing if only to help those people out a bit.

So here are my ground rules – the principles I want to operate this project on.

It’s free.

I remember reading Rich Dad, Poor Dad when I was a kid. I remember all the advice about investing in property and stocks and passive-income assets. And I remember well the sense of betrayal when I realised that the author had taken very little of his own advice and instead become rich by selling products that tell you how to become rich.

To me, that’s a grift. I don’t want to be a grifter.

I have no objection to people making money off their interests (in fact, being able to get better at my job and turn my passion for art into a proper business is a big part of the impetus behind this project) but the idea of getting rich by telling people how to get rich really sticks in my craw. It’s gross. And the idea of getting rich by hawking self-improvement seems even worse. It means everything you create is contaminated with a sales pitch; just six easy payments. I’m so fucking sick of it. If you really have cracked some aspect of life’s code then bundling it up behind a paywall seems fundamentally unfair, as those who might be in the most need of it will probably be least able to afford it.

But I can afford it, for now, so here’s the deal: I’ll pay for the courses and buy the books so you don’t have to. If there are any golden eggs of wisdom, I’ll fry ’em up here. I’ll even recommend them. But there won’t be any Amazon affiliate links, no six-step course. I’m going to make it as free as I know how. That’s the intention. If you feel that what I have to say has value, and you want to support it, that’s great - please feel free to subscribe. But you shouldn’t have to.

If I’m improving, there’ll be proof in something besides me writing about self-improvement

I’ve listed the things I want to improve at (fitter, happier, more productive, ha) and I’ll be happy to track how I’m going with those things, how/if my general mental health improves, and so on. But the main reason for turning myself into a self-improvement guinea pig and trying to find gold amongst the grift is I want to do more art. More writing, sure, but not just self-improvement writing. I like painting, and I’d like to get better at that as well. Maybe, if it’s at all possible, realise that long-held ambition and turn art into a business. I’m pretty sure I can think of some other measurements of success too. If any of it works, you’ll hear about it.

So that’s what this thing is. A dive into the history and practice of self-improvement coupled with some self-experimentation. And plenty of confusion about where to put hyphens. (Is it self improvement, or self-improvement?) That’s probably enough for a first post. Stick around for the next one, in which we’ll dive into the history of self-improvement, and rediscover exercise. Hopefully.