Too much optimization

Did you see this article by Alexandra Schwartz in the most recent issue of The New Yorker? In the print version, it’s called “Resolutions,” but I think the digital version’s title is much more apt: “Improving Ourselves to Death.” It’s about obsessive self-improvement and how it’s a reflection of our current economic and cultural priorities and beliefs. And it’s so good. I’ve been trying to draft an essay with a similar point that also cheerfully deprecates my own participation in the movement for over a month (but exams took over my life, blah blah, same story, you know).

If you’ve ever looked around the Internet and found yourself thinking

  • I should be drinking more green juice/change my breakfast routine/find out what maca powder is/do a cleanse
  • I need to create a morning routine that includes meditation/journaling/yoga/exercise/breath work/reading something instructive
  • I should exercise more/run a marathon/do yoga/do pilates/go to the gym/hire a trainer
  • I should optimize my productivity/set S.M.A.R.T. goals
  • I should buy a dream visioning planner/set intentions
  • I should sleep more/meditate more/buy a meditation cushion/do a meditation retreat
  • I should KonMari my whole house
  • I should research night creams/facial masks/collagen supplements/teeth whiteners
  • Etc.

then this is a great article to read. It’s also great if you’ve never had any of those thoughts but can’t seem to shake the sense that other people are onto some big happiness secret and you’re toiling in ignorant misery. (It’s also great if you think your life is fantastic and self-improvement is for wackadoos.) It explores the pressures, paradoxes, and conundrums of the current manifestation of American self-improvement, all while critiquing some of the biggest gurus.

As I read, I found that at various times I’ve fit into different camps. But a few themes are clear for me. No one should feel pressured to do something because everyone else seems to do be doing it–especially if it involves spending money or uprooting your life in some drastic way.

I needed to make a change all those months ago because I actually was slowly killing myself with perfectionism and people-pleasing. I was suffocating to death in my own life. Letting go, slowing down, embracing mediocrity, and accepting that I’m not here to fit in or be well-balanced but to be my eccentric, clunky, chunky self (as James Hollis terms it–you knew I was going to throw in a reference) was imperative for my health and well-being.

If you really feel like you’re not where you’d like to be, and that sense comes from a deep, internal place–not from Instagram envy or workplace comparison–then find out what needs to change to feel more at peace with where you are. It could just be a mindset shift, but it could also be a job change or something else. The only imperative I see is to do what works for you and have fun along the way.

I’ll leave you with the words of Alan Watts:

I can only think seriously of trying to live up to an ideal, to improve myself, if I am split in two pieces. There must be a good “I” who is going to improve the bad “me.” “I,” who has the best intentions, will go to work on wayward “me,” and the tussle between the two will very much stress the difference between them. Consequently “I” will feel more separate than ever, and so merely increase the lonely and cut-off feelings which make “me” behave so badly.


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