March 16, 2017

Self-improvement generation

Why have we seen an explosion in self-improvement literature in recent years? If increased ambition and our tendency to compare ourselves are behind this trend, where does this leave us? How do we cope with being increasingly dissatisfied with ourselves?

I had a moment to spare, so I dived into a lovely little bookshop in Liverpool Street station. As I looked for something interesting, I realised that self-help books on every conceivable subject surrounded me. There were offers of assistance on how to form good habits, how to avoid procrastination, how to succeed in my career, how to think slower and even how to unleash the power within, which is particularly impressive, as I didn’t realise there was any power there in the first place! Overwhelmed by the choice on offer, I bought nothing. Perhaps someone should write a self-help book leading us to the ideal book?!

Leaving aside the casual mocking, I recognise the merits of this genre. I’ve read numerous books that could fall into the self-help category. As I prepared to ask my then girlfriend (now wife) to marry me, I read a book on marriage. Recently, after I started leading a marketing team for the first time, I spent a couple of days learning about online marketing and reading about leading teams. I’m a believer in self-improvement.

But I am intrigued by the phenomenon. We seem to have experienced an explosion in the self-help genre in the past couple of decades. In the UK, self-help books have become the most popular genre of books [1], with sales in the US topping $11 billion annually [2], growing by more than 15% in 2015 [3]. The Arts Council even funds a national scheme, Reading Well [4], through which doctors can prescribe self-help books to reduce anxiety, self-harm and depression.

Kathryn Schulz in New York magazine sought to understand the self-help movement and could immediately see the appeal:

‘It’s easy to understand why we want to be different. We are twenty pounds overweight; we are $20,000 in debt; we can’t believe we slept with that guy; we can’t believe we didn’t’ [5].

According to Schulz, self-help serves a natural purpose in helping us address our personal failings and assisting us in making better choices. But why has the industry grown so much in recent years? Why this increased interest in improving ourselves? Surely we haven’t become that much more flawed?

Perhaps it’s to do with increasing aspirations. In my grandfather’s era, the average person had moderate ambitions — to be married, to have children and to provide for one’s family. Yet today, the opportunities (at least for the most privileged) have grown enormously, and so have our ambitions. We feel a growing pressure to succeed, become a better, more rounded person and change the world (and all at the same time!). With these sky-high ambitions, we feel an increased pressure to become an idealised version of ourselves. To become worthy of the title ‘history-makers’.

Alongside this ever-increasing ambition is the growth of social media and its opportunity to compare ourselves to others. As we gaze on the lives of our friends we often forget they’re not their actual lives, but an idealised version. We see their achievements, celebrations and best moments and, comparing ourselves, we naturally feel inferior.

And so we experience the perfect storm of feeling inferior to others while cherishing unattainably high ambitions, leading to a dissatisfaction with ourselves and the desire to improve.

Actually, I think these twin feelings — a recognition of the possibilities for humanity and disappointment with the reality of who we are — are not new. For time immemorial, we’ve strived for perfection, all the while knowing our inherent imperfections. Self-help is just the secular manifestation of an age-old, almost universal impulse to improve ourselves. Much of the history of religion is the account of people striving for a higher standard of humanity — be it under the guise of karma, holy righteousness or Torah law-observance. In the secular West we’ve done away with religion, but the desire to improve ourselves hasn’t been lost.

So if we’re striving to improve ourselves and constantly aware of our flaws, are we condemned forever to feel a nagging dissatisfaction? I discovered the answer at university. I had spent much of my teenage years striving to be the best I could be. But never felt satisfied with myself despite my considerable efforts at self-improvement. I encountered Jesus through a friend, and learned I was way worse than I thought I was — it wasn’t simply a question of tweaking a few things. I was in need of deep improvement, not in the area of skills, talents and achievements, but I required a transformation of heart — a wholesale change of direction, purpose and way of life. All of my efforts at change and self-improvement were not enough to change me to meet my own standards, let alone God’s.

And yet in Jesus, I had both the problem identified and the remedy revealed. He is the living embodiment of perfection. He showed me that whilst I would never be perfect through my own efforts, he is able to make me the person he is calling me to be. As I became a follower of Jesus, he changed my identity — he gave me a new nature and a promise that, one day, I would become the perfect person he intended when he made me.

[1] Viv Groskop, ‘Self-help books set to fill publishers’ coffers in 2014’ in The Guardian (28 Dec 2013)
[2] Melanie Lindner, ‘What people are still willing to pay for’ in Forbes (15 Jan 2009)
[3] Nielsen Book Research: 2015 in Review, Nielsen, 2016
[5] Kathryn Schulz, ‘The self in self-help’ in New York Magazine (6 Jan 2013)

Jeremy Moses

Jeremy Moses
Jeremy is an Italian, Swiss, Indian, Iraqi, Jewish Londoner who has worked for multi-nationals and startups, and now helps lead a church.

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