When it comes to self-improvement, we have much to learn from our ancestors and other cultures. What is more, self-improvement practices provide powerful barometers of the values, anxieties, and aspirations that preoccupy us at particular moments in time and expose basic assumptions about our purpose and nature. By Anna Katharina Schaffner
Self-help today is a multi-billion-dollar global industry, one often seen as a by-product of neoliberalism and capitalism. Far from being a recent phenomenon, however, the practice of self-improvement has a long and rich history, extending all the way back to ancient China. For millennia, philosophers, sages, and theologians have reflected on the good life and devised strategies on how to achieve it. In The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten Timeless Truths., focusing on ten core ideas of self-improvement that run through the world’s advice literature, Anna Katharina Schaffner reveals the ways they have evolved across cultures and historical eras, and why they continue to resonate with us today. Reminding us that there is much to learn from looking at time-honed models, Anna also examines the ways that self-improvement practices provide powerful barometers of the values, anxieties, and aspirations that preoccupy us at particular moments in time and expose basic assumptions about our purpose and nature. Dr. Badrinath Rao, Professor at Kettering University and Attorney at Law, speaks to Anna about her new book, Badri: The title of your book is The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten Timeless Truths. Contrary to one’s expectations, this is not a conventional self-help book. You do not offer tips for self-improvement. Instead, you explore the trajectory of self-improvement over the centuries and trace the evolution of ten overlapping themes in the self-help literature. What was your motivation for writing this book?
Anna: I have been interested in psychology and personal development all my life. And I have read my fair share of self-help over the years. As an extreme introvert, who often feels socially awkward, and as someone with a stern and sometimes unkind superego, I’ve always been looking for cures for these conditions. I also grew up with a really strong internalised belief that we can and must improve ourselves. A Protestant work ethic extended to the self – the idea that we should always work on ourselves seemed completely natural to me.
But at some point I began to question this assumption. And I also realised that most of our self-help is deeply ideological: it is not just harmless advice literature. It powerfully shapes our aspirations and our values and our behaviours. And it does so at scale, because self-help is a massive industry, worth almost $40 billion worldwide.
Self-help is always based on very specific conceptions of selfhood, our purpose, on agency, responsibility, and on how we see the relationship between the individual and society. Take Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, for example. It is essentially a culture war text, much more about philosophical and political assumptions about human nature than it is about imparting self-improvement advice. This is true for many other self-help texts, too, although these assumptions tend to be less explicitly stated.
Also, the imperative to improve ourselves, constantly to be working on ourselves, is an incredibly strong cultural expectation in our times. Many of us, including myself, have internalised it unquestioningly. But where did it come from? Was it always like this? And, if we drill down deeper, what does self-improvement actually mean? What is our current understanding of the self, and what counts as improvement, and why? Why, for example, should it be considered an improvement to become more extroverted when we might naturally be more introverted?
These were the kinds of questions that motivated me to write my book. As a cultural historian, I was of course also really interested in what changes and what remains the same when it comes to self-improvement advice. What we can learn from our ancestors and other cultures.
Badri: In your book, you say you have found no single means of self-improvement, a strategy guaranteed to work for everyone. You conclude it does not exist. Instead, you discuss ten most valuable and enduring ideas about self-improvement. Are you suggesting that there is nothing much of substance beyond these ten ideas? Should we concentrate on just these ten ideas and ignore everything else?
Anna: The ten ideas I explore are: 1) Know yourself, 2) Control your mind, 3) Let it go, 4) Be good, 5) Be humble, 6) Simplify, 7) Use your Imagination, 8) Persevere, 9) Mentalize, and 10) Be present. They have naturally suggested themselves as the core themes that run through the self-improvement literature of the ages. These ten core themes just came up again and again in the vast body of ancient wisdom literature, philosophical and theological texts, and modern self-help books I read. Most advice literature touches on at least one or more; I have not really come across texts or practices that would not fit into one of the ten categories. I think that most self-help psycho-technologies, old and new, fall into one of these categories.
Badri: You state in your book that the idea of self-improvement has undergone a great transformation over several centuries. In the ancient philosophies of both Asia and the West, self-improvement was all about a gradual process of self-cultivation. The emphasis was on cultivating virtues and building our character. In a stark contrast, self-improvement today is mostly about enhancing our personality, and less about building our character. We are told to pursue self-optimization and self-efficiency. The underlying premise, as you point out in your book, is that, like machines, we can upgrade ourselves. How did this change come about and what do you make of it?
Anna: Yes, I think this shift is very noticeable. In the ancient wisdom traditions, in the theological and philosophical literature of the past, there was a very explicit emphasis on being good in an ethical and moral sense – as you say, Badri, related to the virtues, to building character, to being a good person. In the past, there was a big emphasis on altruism and on developing the self in a way that allows us to contribute better to our communities and to the happiness of others. In the twentieth century, the emphasis shifted from being good in an ethical, pro-social sense to becoming good, or rather, better, at something in a more competitive sense. Becoming a better communicator, a better sales-person, a better lover, a more productive worker...
The metaphors changed as well. Nowadays the brain-as-computer metaphor is ubiquitous. We talk about reprogramming ourselves, upgrading, fine-tuning, rewiring, cognitive overload, switching off, psychological malware, behavioural glitches, etc. These are, however, really damaging metaphors because we are not computers. We are complex organisms, interacting dynamically with our environments. We are messy and needy creatures, with desires and histories that shape us. We are embedded, encultured, and embodied beings. We are in no ways like machines. And to model our self-help technologies on machine-like entities is really damaging.
Badri: I have a related question. You say in your book that our engagement with self-improvement and the changing contours of this preoccupation says a lot about the aspirational values of different historical moments. It also reveals changing conceptions of selfhood. The literature on self-improvement is always embedded in wider cultural paradigms. It offers views on what constitutes a good life. Having mapped the trajectory of self-improvement over centuries, what can you tell us about our shifting concepts of selfhood?
Anna: The main change in self-narratives and self-conceptions across the centuries is that in Western societies, we now see the self as autonomous and isolated, whereas in the past and in many Asian societies, the self is understood as essentially relational. Our dominant narrative is the individualist narrative of the self that casts her as an independent agent, in control of herself and her environment, with a relatively fixed identity. Other conceptions of self-hood are more fluid, placing an emphasis on context, interrelatedness, interbeing.
However, I think we are now witnessing a return to an emphasis on our interconnectedness. The individualist model of selfhood is clearly in crisis. Maybe even its death-throws. COVID-19 has contributed to this, but many other factors, too. The crisis has been brewing for a long time. We urgently need to reappraise older and alternative models of being.
Related questions are: Do we think of the self as good or bad? As primarily rational or emotional? As powerful agents able to exercise free will or as shaped by internal or external forces? Do we think of ourselves primarily as material or spiritual beings? Do we see ourselves as lone warriors, out there in hostile territories to secure our own advantages? Or as embedded parts of communities, or of specific ecosystems, or nature as a whole?
Badri: Self-improvement is a highly contested concept, particularly in its contemporary versions. Critics argue that the self-help industry, with its emphasis on competition, efficiency, and optimization, fosters neoliberal values. Some say the self-help industry is all about aligning people to capitalist values and the whole enterprise is as a sophisticated ploy to further the neoliberal agenda. Do you agree with this view?
Anna: Yes, I am very familiar with the academic critique of self-help. In parts it is justified. But in others it is not. A key problem I see is that we cannot just condemn and dismiss an entire genre as though there were a monolithic corpus of self-help out there. It’s like saying “the novel is bad”. Just as there are good novels and bad ones, there are insightful and problematic works of self-help out there. The academic critique of self-help is also predominantly based on works from the 1980s and 90s, in which neo-liberal values were indeed more dominant. It is true that texts like Tony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within etc. do mainly promote effectiveness enhancement techniques and self-optimization strategies designed to make us more productive.
But self-help has moved on, while many academics have not. There are now very different works out there, many revolving around mindfulness-based techniques and more holistic or metamodern worldviews, suggesting we learn to become more pro-social, that we learn from animals, eco-systems, from our ancestors, and from other cultures. This new kind of self-help is based on the realization that our individualist-competitive models of self-hood are in crisis.
I agree, though, that a certain type of self-help that really crudely puts all responsibility for our fortune or misfortune on our own shoulders, and that disregards social, psychological, and biological factors and how they shape us, is highly problematic. Works that suggest we have infinite agency to shape our own fate imply that it is fully our own responsibility. Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret is an example of highly problematic self-help of that kind. Texts of that ilk tend completely to disregard structural social problems, and to pathologize and personalize what may be wider social ills.
Badri: Self-improvement is as old as humankind. You point out that as a genre, self-improvement started when Samuel Smiles published his influential book Self-Help in 1859, 162 years ago. There has been a plethora of self-help books, courses, training programs, and so on. Yet, we see a great deal of selfishness, apathy, violence, rudeness, alienation, and inability to relate to fellow human beings. Do you think self-help really works?
Anna: I think some self-help ideas have survived the test of time because there is merit in them, otherwise they would have disappeared over the course of the centuries. I strongly believe we all have the ability to make small, incremental progress on specific issues that are our personal challenges. But I do not believe in magical transformation, and in quick fix solutions. More in a steady, Kaizen-kind of approach. Where every little step forward matters, and no improvement is too small to count. Where we accept that sometimes, we’ll take a step back, and persevere nonetheless. I think becoming better, seeking to overcome our challenges, is a life-time project. Perhaps the ultimate life project. One that is as difficult as it is beautiful and meaningful.
As for the second part of your question, Badri, have we made progress as a species? In some ways yes, in others most certainly not. I’m tentatively optimistic though that we are seeing the beginning of the end of the selfish, competitive, Western-style individualist model of self-hood, and this phase-shift is already reflected in many recent self-help books, and many other books and practices and initiatives besides.
Badri: You say in your book that self-improvement is an act of defiance against whatever forces we may blame for our perceived insufficiencies: nature or nurture, genes or the environment, God, karma, fate, or the constellation of the planets. The belief in self-improvement is an assertion of agency in a world where it is all too easy to feel powerless and adrift. Yet, anyone wanting to embark on self-improvement faces a bewildering variety of options many of which, you point out, ranges from the rigorously evidence-based to the wildly esoteric, from performance enhancement–driven approaches to manuals telling us simply to do as we please. Some self-help techniques train people to be more like machines, while others seek to persuade us that we need to learn from nature. Some teach techniques for controlling our minds, and others that advocate abandoning control and letting ourselves go. Given this welter of confusing approaches, where does one start?
Anna: The starting point always has to be self-knowledge. Know thyself is my first chapter for a reason. We need to grasp our own patterns, desires, fears, strengths, weaknesses. How our pasts have shaped us and how they continue to do so in the present. Only then can we decide on what we need to improve, and why, and how. Everyone has unique challenges and unique preferences and talents. The trick is to find out what works for us – rational mind-control strategies, dipping more deeply into our imagination, being more present, simplifying, letting go of certain desires and preconceptions… I hope that readers will be drawn to one or two chapters in particular, find a theme that really resonates with them, and this will then be their own unique starting point. It will be different for each person.
Badri: Self-Improvement is predicated on the idea that human beings can enhance themselves through effort, perseverance, and training. This idea is part of America’s national culture. Yet, as you point out, we still have capital punishment in the US. The death penalty is grounded in the idea that the nature of an individual can be completely determined by a particular act, and that no genuine self-improvement is possible. How can explain this paradox? Do you think we should abolish death penalty globally?
Anna: I think the death penalty is barbaric and should be scrapped everywhere in the world. And, yes, it is in direct contravention to America’s extremely strong belief in the possibility of self-improvement as something available to everyone, and as a kind of sacred duty. It is a striking paradox indeed that the nation with the largest self-help industry on the planet is also one of the last Western nations that holds on to the death penalty.
Badri: Confucius in China and Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth-century German philosopher and Enlightenment thinker in the West, both maintain that self-improvement is imperative for the greater good of society. However, as it is practiced today in the US and elsewhere, self-improvement is all about enhancing oneself, often at the expense of society. Would you say this is a perversion of a great idea? Is there a need for revisiting the goals of self-improvement?
Anna: For me, the ultimate aim of self-improvement is to be able to direct as much energy as we can outwards – to other people and worthy projects. So it is about making sure that our energy is not used up internally, in unconscious battles and inner warfare. It is about reducing the extent to which we are driven by old patterns, about not being a puppet of our shadows. For me, improving the self is therefore always already a pro-social act. The improved self is quite simply more in control of her reactions and therefore more able to give to others, and to contribute more powerfully in the outside world.
Badri: Last, you argue that our attitude toward self-improvement can have far-reaching consequences not only for ourselves but also for society. What, according to you, are the manifest and latent consequences of our views on self-improvement?
Anna: I think that not believing in the idea of adult development and self-improvement would have terrible and dangerous social and political consequences. We would cease to invest in education, Bildung, up-skilling, and in talent development. We would believe in a fixed and predetermined amount of human potential. We would simply give up on many people – including smokers, addicts, and the obese. We might decide they are not worthy of limited medical resources. We would not believe in rehabilitation. Such a society would be a pretty dystopian one.
Badri: Thank you so much, Anna, for sharing your insights.
Anna Katharina Schaffner is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent and Director of Perspectiva’s Emerge project. Her most recent book is The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten timeless truths, 2021