A Better Way to Think About Self-Improvement


Self-improvement as we know it, said the philosopher Alan Watts, is a hoax. Because the self that needs improving is the same self that is doing the improving! So long as you think of the self as a closed system, then improvement is impossible.

If you really want to improve yourself, you are going to need to look far beyond your “self.” It is a trap to direct your focus only inward. Any meaningful change is also heavily influenced by what is outward.

You are shaped by the people with whom you surround yourself. You are shaped by the place you live. You are shaped by the content you consume—the books you read, the people you follow, and the podcasts to which you listen. You are shaped by your work; yes, you exert yourself in what you do, but what you do also exerts itself on you.

In other words, the self is part of a larger system. And it is only by viewing the self in this way that it can be improved.

The system is technically infinite. Take geography and people, for example. You could go from your friends to your colleagues to your neighbors to your city to your county to your state to your region to your country and on and on. At a certain point, this isn’t really all that helpful, since there’s not much you can do to switch the planet upon which you reside (though rest assured, people are trying). 

Practically: When you think of self-improvement, start at the innermost rings and look outward. For most people, adjusting one or more of the examples given above—people, place, content consumed, or work—is plenty. Surround yourself with who and what you want to become. Better yet, realize that you are your surroundings! To change yourself, change them. And also realize that when you degrade your surroundings you are degrading yourself. This simple insight can be transformative on how you carry your”self” in the world.

One final note: this isn’t to say that you aren’t unique. You are! No one has the same exact combination of experiences and DNA as you do. It’s just that your uniqueness is shaped by what’s outside of you every bit as much as by what is inside.

Here’s Robert Pirsig, writing in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

I suppose you could call that a personality. Each machine has its own, unique personality which probably could be defined as the intuitive sum total of everything you know and feel about it. This personality constantly changes, usually for the worse, but sometimes surprisingly for the better, and it is the personality that is the real object of motorcycle maintenance. The new ones start out as good-looking strangers, and depending on how they are treated, degenerate rapidly into bad-acting grouches or even cripples, or else turn into healthy, good-natured, long-lasting friends.

He’s definitely writing about bikes. But I think he’s also writing about people. 

— Brad

(For more, check out this article on how emotions are contagious, this one on different layers of identity, and just about anything by Alan Watts.)

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