notes from “improving ourselves to death”

samuel-zeller-358865I’ve been enjoying this New Yorker piece and wanted to share my notes and thoughts from this piece. I’m an avid reader of self-help books, however, the more I read, the more I recognize that there needs to be a good middle ground between what they recommend vs. accepting who I am.

And this piece did a really good job explaining our cultural obsession with self-improvement and how we should deal with it. A couple of interesting tidbits from the piece

Cederström and Spicer estimate that the self-improvement industry takes in ten billion dollars a year.

I had no idea that the self-help industry was that big! In comparison, the entire book industry is estimated to be approximately $28 billion dollars per year.

…he interviews psychologists and professors who describe an epidemic of crippling anxiety among university students yoked to the phenomenon of “perfectionist presentation”—the tendency, especially on social media, to make life look like a string of enviable triumphs.

Totally agree that social media makes other people’s lives to look picture perfect, and I sometimes avoid going on facebook because I hate experiencing that pang of jealousy.

Like reality television before it, social media frames human relationships as a constant competition for popularity and approval.

Pre-wedding, I was jealous of all my friends who posted every detail of their weddings. Post-wedding, I’m jealous of friends who post pictures of their babies.

And it takes a couple of seconds for me to realize that I’m content with where I am in my life right now.  I wonder if there is a way for me to shake off that initial feeling of jealousy and envy when I see my friends experience something that I don’t have.


The best part of this piece was reading about Storr’s explanation of how we got to this perpetual self-optimization state. While the author of the article, Alexandra Schwartz, wasn’t too crazy about his book, I enjoyed her outline of how we got to this place.

Storr’s explanation for how we got into this predicament has three strands. First, there is nature. “Because of the way our brains function, our sense of ‘me’ naturally runs in narrative mode,” he writes; studies show that we are hardwired to see life as a story in which we star. At the same time, he says, we are tribal creatures, evolved during our hunter-gatherer years to value coöperation and, at the same time, to respect hierarchy and covet status—“to get along and get ahead.

Next comes culture—a trajectory that wends its way from the ancient Greeks, with their idea that humans are rational creatures who must strive in order to fulfill their highest potential, to Christianity, with its doctrine of a sinful self that requires salvation, to Freud, who’s “just a self-hating, sex-afeared, secular reinvention” of the same, and, finally, to the perilous American pursuit of happiness.

The three pillars, (1) our collective sense of self, (2) us being social creatures and (3) our cultural obsession to fulfill the highest potential, all contributed to the rise of the “self-help” category.

While it’s useful to know the causes for our collective desire to self-optimize, I wonder if there is anything we can do, after learning about them.


Enough of our mania to be the best and the most, [Brinkmann] says. It’s time to content ourselves with being average.

The best advice that the author provides, based on her research, is to accept ourselves with being average, which is similar to what Mark Manson recommends in his book. Compared to the well thought-out analysis of our current cultural state of self improvement, I think the ending of the piece was underwhelming yet it’s the best advice anyone can give.

Go for a walk in the woods, he says, and think about the vastness of the cosmos. Go to a museum and look at art, secure in the knowledge that it will not improve you in any measurable way. Things don’t need to be of concrete use in order to have value. Put away your self-help guides, and read a novel instead. Don’t mind if I do.

Perhaps learning to live life, enjoy what the arts has to offer, without trying to always better ourselves, is the best way to optimize our lives and fulfill our potential.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

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