Beginning the case against the current societal obsession with self-improvement is already attended with a problem of my own guilt and failures. The very notion of critiquing society, rather than oneself, is a refusal to take upon what is dubbed in psychological terms the “internal locus of control”. Someone with an internal locus of control believes that they are responsible and able to control events in their lives, which in turn makes them more optimistic, conscientious and productive, whereas externals, believing their fate to be largely out of their hands, are more neurotic, lazy and unproductive. Self-improvement channels and authors often view people within this binary, clearly privileging the internals over the externals.
The issue cannot be so clear-cut, however, because anyone’s judgement on the issue of the locus of control is itself affected by one’s own locus of control. It affects how one thinks and perceives the world, such as one’s political beliefs: on a very general and simplistic level, the right tends to be more internal while the left is more external. One can interpret the Peterson–Žižek debate (one between a self-help guru and a cultural critic) along this axis. Peterson tends to espouse the vital importance of having an internal locus of control, evident from his teaching that everyone should clean their room before attempting to change the world, whereas Žižek tends to consider things from the other side, confronting Peterson with the question: “What if in trying to set your house in order, you discover your house is in disorder precisely because of the way the society is messed up?” Žižek goes on to clarify that he does not believe that people should forget about their own houses, but that there is not a necessity for a binary between societal and individual problems.
Having an internal locus of control may be the best way to be productive, according to psychological studies, but just because something is useful or practical does not mean that it is right. Common sense dictates that people are always controlled by both internal and external forces. Someone who believed their life and their successes and failures to be entirely under their own control would be unhealthily delusional, incapable of seeing reality. Unfortunately, this level of delusion is encouraged by some self-improvement coaches, who often attribute no positive qualities to externality. An inability to accept any negativity is criticised as a societal ill in Byung Chul-Han’s book The Burnout Society (Müdigkeitsgesellschaft), where he describes how, due to our current orientation towards constant achievement, we have become exploiters of ourselves. Similarly, the binary between internality and externality as purely positive and negative is a highly left-hemispheric way of thinking, as McGilchrist describes in his book The Master and His Emissary, which McGilchrist believes reduces the human experience to absurdity.
Self-improvement in its worst iterations typically functions on such black-and-white binaries, purporting to effect transformations from one negative state which it implies the consumer is currently in, to the privileged, positive state which it implies the coach occupies. Common sense again reveals that self-improvement is a continual process, never a mere one-way transformation. But the self-improvement industry does not always allow for nuance, subtlety or the acceptance of imperfection. This can be a strategy for exploiting consumers. The worst self-improvement coaches entrap an audience by enforcing unhealthy, perfectionistic binary expectations upon them. This not only creates an audience where otherwise many may have been content with their imperfect yet ordinary lives, but, when people inevitably, humanly fail to enact fully the transformation that was promised them, may force them to continue buying or consuming the content from the same coach. Consumer capitalism creates a demand where none existed previously.
Self-improvement, the desire to be a better human being, has been the endeavour of philosophers since ancient times and is obviously integral to the human experience. Modern self-improvement coaches do not begin to approach the enormity and importance of this question with the requisite humility, however. The aims of modern self-improvement are faulty and simplistic, and consumer capitalism garners a lot of attention for the most foolishly self-assured to spread their generalised, simplistic judgements. Such a great deal of the trouble and chaos of today is caused from people telling others what to do or making out as if they know what others should do to improve their lives more than anyone else. Life is far too complex, everyone’s individual situations, histories and aims far too different for most advice — however much it might have helped the coach in question — to be applicable on a widespread basis.
The self-improvement industry in an ideal world would not exist, because it is a paltry imitation of ethical philosophy. Many self-improvement coaches would do well to try to replicate some of the intellectual humility of Socrates, popularly known for the phrase “I know that I know nothing” (although he did not precisely ever use those words, which is another thing that we think we know but don’t). Asking people questions rather than providing them with answers would be far more conducive to their real wellbeing. Unfortunately, questions are not very marketable. They are also not necessarily conducive to productivity. Yeats’ dictum that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” is an unfortunate truth of the modern world, for those who are certain that optimising productivity is the way that everyone should be living their lives rarely ever question their premises and are, of course, very productive in telling others what to do. Socrates, meanwhile, never wrote anything down.
Adopting a total Socratic ignorance may lead to quietism and complete inaction, which would problematise my writing of this article. I may be committing the very mistake that I am accusing self-help coaches of doing, of believing that I know better what other people should be doing with their time. But I don’t, and I don’t claim that I do, and I acknowledge that self-improvement may be useful for many people. On the other hand, I think the unquestioning value that some self-improvement coaches ascribe to self-improvement, and the absurd notion that people are only good so long as they are improving and productive, is ultimately harmful and needs to be challenged more urgently. We need to learn to accept the negative side of externality, the idea that we may not be totally under our own control. The modern obsession with productivity is as dangerous as the 19thcentury’s obsession with utility. We have not yet learnt the lessons the Romantics taught us: we still lack Keats’ “negative capability” and Wordsworth’s “wise passiveness.
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