The Misdirection of Self-Improvement

Achievement and success are ubiquitous objectives with an plenty of material to help get there. But, against a backdrop of wall-to-wall self-improvement, increasing numbers of people experience reducing quality of life, depression and stagnating incomes. Is self-improvement failing us?

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers.

Trainspotting movie intro


We’d all be echoing Danny Boyle’s introduction to Trainspotting if observed behaviour defined prosperity. A poisoned chalice of surging debt has replaced the virtue of net worth with the temporary feel-good factor. It’s not at all farfetched to see parallels between addiction and debt. Worse still, like Hotel California, it’s a place that’s hard to leave.

Speed is the key
If you want to be me
So when people say
Here, do it this way
You’ll know it’s the means to be free

The cult of personality is a sophisticated beast, often used to create desire to own things. Advertisers and marketers associate products with successful people and, almost without realising it. We can feel like we’ll be more successful if we own that product. In 1965, Mick Jagger found satisfaction from smoking a certain brand of cigarettes, and in 1979, Viktor Kiam liked Remington so much he bought the company. Since then, marketing by association has become much more sophisticated.

Charisma too is no longer only a badge of character earned through danger and adversity. Now it’s a course, a learned skill, presumably available in affordable instalments.

Competition increased the speed needed in many industries. It’s not enough to make cars. Now quicker and cheaper design and manufacture of new models is much more important. Technology is an enabler, but in businesses with low barriers to entry the result is often closer to fashion. Like the Tamagotchi phenomenon of the 1990s or, more recently, the fidget-spinner craze, one minute nobody has heard of them and next they’re at every checkout and in every popup shop.

This is what happens when chasing what’s popular.

The dazzling maelstrom of possibility distracts and confuses. Losing our way or, worse still, losing the plot. Self-improvement facilitates or aids and abets depending on where you’re standing.

Self-improvement facilitates or aids and abets depending on where you’re standing.


Whether it’s fashion, stocks or property, jumping on the bandwagon is risky unless the stakes are trivial.

Advice comes from many sources and although it may be well-intentioned it is not always helpful. I’ve long viewed taxi-driver recommendations as crucial end-stage indicators.

Human desire to improve is unique in the animal kingdom. The wallpapered burrow belongs to fiction along with, alas, Badger’s Home. Are wall paintings in some stone-age caves the earliest evidence of human DIY? But, scholarly study is the esteemed precursor to almost all progress.

No firm line divides academic literature from factual prose. And likewise, no step marks betterment morphing into Self-Improvement. Intent is the distinction, not content. The purpose of the endeavour crucially affecting the outcome.

  • Better grammar — tick
  • Spell checker — tick
  • Haircut — tick
  • And so on.

Improvement is good, at least in the case of my overdue haircut! Reading style guides — tick. Affirmations — Nope. A step too far.

Where to

Empowerment, encouragement and facilitation all help us get where we want to go. But where we want to go needs to be from inside. Our own personal destination.

Flipping houses will turn flipping into an adjective when they don’t sell.

The latest moneymaking phenomenon spawns advice like rock-guitarists driving huge entry-level guitar sales. How’s your Bitcoin fortune coming along? Turned the red paper clip into a Ferrari yet? Money bestows choice, ease and even power, not success. Success needs education, empowerment and health (physical and mental). Determination can be an asset or a curse; great for pushing past the tough times but alienating everyone with rudeness and pushiness when taken too far.

So, what do we do? Is there a better way to resolve these issues? One way is by suggesting self-improvement is only valuable when it encompasses self-fulfilment. Thus, the improvement assists in a fundamental and organic way helping us to become the person we want to be. The fundamental difference is not emulating someone we’re conditioned to admire.

The fundamental difference is not emulating someone we’re conditioned to admire.

Starting with “What do I want to do?” or “What do I enjoy?” you’ll find candidates for that inner calling, the real you. That route lies joy and contentment making pre-requisite hard work worthwhile. If the day-job pays the bills, great. After all, there probably isn’t a rock star anywhere who didn’t pump gas or wait tables at some time. Some day-jobs can last a career though. If your fulfilment comes in other ways, and the job is only to make money, that’s fine. Otherwise, watch out and make sure time doesn’t run out on you.

Before font was a choice
Before font was a choice

Self-improvement empowers and educates to do something else; as well or instead. Beekeeping, snowboarding, author or tennis pro.

Whatever you like.

We can make money or write a book. We can make furniture, learn to write software or study management. If money is truly what you want, there are more ways than ever to set about it. Just don’t get carried away monetizing the neighbourly chat with an app, website and funding. Some things are good enough as they are. Maybe you are already good enough too? Now wouldn’t that be a fine thing.


You may enjoy Using Maslow’s Pyramid to Harmonise Goals with Our Innate Motives

Please follow us at


Writer & Coffee Drinker. Authenticity is the new zeitgeist.