We may spend an entire life-time indulging in self-improvement projects. Preparing for life, reading more books, eating healthy, losing weight, getting fitter, waking up early, meditating –- in a nutshell doing all the right things that Instagram dieticians, life coaches and fitness experts ask us to do.
But you will never know who you are and what your true potential is until someone believes in you and bets on you, gives you an opportunity not just because you have a certain number of accomplishments to show but because your authenticity spoke to them and they are ready to take a risk with you.
The fact is, it is rare to find such opportunities or such people. Mostly, we are stuck with doing what pays our bills and with people with whom we have very transactional relationships. Also, we are quite clueless when it comes to understanding our mission in life. So, self-improvement serves as a good interim project if you don’t understand it is a means, or a detour to the end, and not the end in itself. For example, why not lose some weight and get in shape before we figure out what our ikigai is.
Ikigai is a Japanese concept. It is a thing that helps individuals gain a sense of purpose, a reason for living. But you got it all wrong, if you felt that you will be your authentic version after losing all that fat. There are so many accounts of people who thought losing weight would ultimately make them feel happy, but continued to feel like aliens in their own body. (In a previous article I had written about the reason why we need to eat right and exercise.)
Apart from losing weight, the other major recommendation from the self-improvement brigade is: Read tons of books. We are told we should read a book every week. Well, reading books may get you more talking points at a social gathering, and we will be perceived as smart, well-read and intelligent. I get major anxiety watching people read books. Whenever a friend posts a picture of a book he or she is reading, my immediate response is “what am I doing with my life.”
My guess is in the absence of real opportunities to explore ourselves, the short cut we are resorting to is merely regurgitating mugged up material. That’s what the idea of “self-improvement” does to us. It fills us with intellectual material that has worked for others, and now we want to apply it on ourselves, because we perennially feel we aren’t enough and need to improve, which brings us to another popular self-improvement advice — enrol in workshops and courses.
The pandemic saw us getting into art workshops to Artificial Intelligence workshops, to learning about bitcoins and what not. The mandate is to: Upgrade, upgrade, upgrade if you want to stay relevant. How scary and anxiety inducing! People line up in hordes and spend thousands to get certifications for skills they may never require. And are we really going to spend our entire time on this planet upskilling? There are flowers to be looked at and laundry to be done.
The self-improvement project makes you believe that you are not enough, and never will be. It’s a business model. You can choose to have a fitness coach, or a dietician because of their expertise. But simply having them wouldn’t solve the existential problems of your life. While you need to do certain things to stay healthy, there is no improved version of you that exists.
You will still carry all the destructive patterns from childhood trauma and negative experiences. What will really allow you to take control of your life and be close to your authentic self is awareness of your behavioural and thought patterns. So, get off the self-improvement treadmill, and also invest in self-discovery. Who you are beyond your upbringing and privileges, or struggle, your education, your biases and prejudices! What your voice is. And what your unique lens of seeing the world is (more on how to carve your internal instrument in a later column). Let that unravel and present itself to you. And allow yourself the time to really know and understand it.
(The writer is a mental health and behavioral sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults. She can be found as @the_millennial_pilgrim on Instagram and Twitter.)