Humanity has achieved vast material and technological improvements — things are the best they’ve ever been in this realm. Likewise, we’ve made many social improvements in terms of freedoms, equality and justice in many parts of the world compared to even a century ago. Despite all this, it’s unclear if the individual has improved in any meaningful sense. While life for many has become materially abundant and more just, does any of this mean that the self has improved? Despite what the self-improvement movement sells, it’s not at all clear that the ‘self’ can actually be improved. In fact, many of modernity’s discontentments may be traced to just that— trying to improve that which we cannot improve. So, discontentment becomes the inevitable result, whatever riches and rights we may otherwise have. We’ve fallen for the fallacy of personal progress.
The idea of progress
‘Progress’, both as a concept and an empirical question, applied to technological and social matters has validity. We can observe it. But it’s unclear if ‘progress’ has any relevance at all to the inner experience of being. Yet, it’s this very same lens of progress centred on future focused improvement, which we implicitly apply to ourselves. To how we relate to the essence of our being. The modern mind is burdened with the nagging belief that: “If I do such and such, I will become an improved, more worthy, person one day”. And this belief often hides outside of our conscious awareness. Secretly, it can drive so much of what we do and how we relate to life.
Because we can improve such things as agricultural yields and computing power, we automatically believe we can take the same approach of ‘improvement’ to the self. The implicit belief is that improving the self will lead to some kind of ‘arrival’ in the future. The self thus becomes a thing that needs to be bettered before we can be content. But, the self is no-thing at all, as we will soon see.
Paradoxically, our desire to control and fashion our environment, which drives material and social improvement becomes the very thing that gets in the way of us enjoying such progress. We end-up seeking, but never finding —only because we don’t allow ourselves to truly experience whatever we’ve already found.
Seeking to improve the self, only reveals doubt about the inherent validity of being. Doubt, which gets in the way of enjoying whatever external progress we’ve made. Self-doubt thus taints the quality of engagement in whatever we do. For, there is an important difference between (i) doing things — and (ii) doing things because we believe they will improve our inherent worth. This distinction lies at the heart of ALL action, whatever that may be. And it’s about deeper motivation — is there some (secret) hope of becoming a better, more improved person through the doing?
Two people may do what looks like the same thing, but the quality of each’s engagement may be very different. What we are talking about then is how the individual relates to the activity at the most fundamental level.
How you relate is everything
It’s the difference between buying a Ferrari to enjoy the drive and doing so to boost your self-worth.
It’s the difference between wanting a promotion for the perks, or to feel like you can finally ‘be somebody’.
Even ‘generosity’ may not escape this hidden agenda. It’s the difference between being moved to give to charity and giving because you believe it will make you a better person.
It’s the difference between meditating to introspect because it’s interesting and fun and doing so to become ‘enlightened’.
Any action that is anchored to improving the self only reveals self-doubt, ultimately making it an act of deferred contentment. The implicit belief is that this moment can’t be fully enjoyed because the self doesn’t feel worthy to truly enjoy it. Therefore, one must do more and be more, in order to fell worthy — ad infinitum.
Note: It may be useful to add here that developing skill in a particular area — and noticing improvement — is not the same as improving the self. I may get satisfaction from hitting a better forehand, but that’s quite different to pinning my self-worth to one day getting an ATP ranking!
The no-thing-ness of self
Generally, what we think of as ‘the self’ — apart from it being a reference to a unique human body — is really a narrative about the passage of time in relation to us. So, when we think of ourselves as being such-and-such, we are attempting with very broad strokes to capture something vast.
Attempts to define the self may be useful short hands, to identify one another as unique persons with unique life experiences. However, they are highly problematic when we start to believe these broad strokes meaningfully capture reality. At best, your idea of yourself is an occasionally necessary oversimplification — when you are forced to write your CV, for example. At worst, it’s a gross misrepresentation that leads to inner confusion and discontentment. For example, just think of how impoverishing it would be to believe that you are your CV.
Any narrative of self we come up with is highly partial. It will be based on a selective memory that fixates on particular events and attributes for mostly arbitrary reasons. May be ‘career achievements’ will feature heavily in the image of self, perhaps because of parental influence or cultural norms. Perhaps, ‘strength of character’ will feature prominently because of one’s personal interest in the ideas of the Roman stoics. Each one of us will build our self-image based on what we have, consciously or unconsciously, decided is important.
Indeed, much of this tends to happen outside of our conscious awareness. Often, we don’t even realise we are clinging to an idea of self, based on arbitrary and sometimes contradictory measures. And, these measures of the self can so easily become a prison because we can now use them to measure progress — to work on self-improvement! One may chase career advancement, while another chases spiritual attainment — both though are clinging to some idea of the self that they are hoping to improve.
Seeing the fallacy of personal progress
But, if the self we speak of is just a cobbled together image of arbitrary measures, in what sense can it be improved? Are we not merely trying to improve an arbitrary idea of what we think we ought to be? For, the self can no more be captured through our mental ideas or descriptions than a landscape of sprawling hills can be— it must be experienced. In the strictest sense then, it’s very difficult to argue for a self beyond our moment-by-moment arising experience. To try and fix it, is like trying to scoop up a flowing river in a bucket. The self is no-thing at all, but rather a stream of experience. It cannot be put in a box and tied up with a bow.
What’s to be done then? Happily, nothing in particular, apart from noticing the tendency to cling to a self-image and to understand its falsehood. This is enough to open-up a vast creative potential that becomes the basis for fully engaged action — for doing things for their own sake, rather than for some fallacious idea of self-improvement.
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.