Improving Ourselves to Death

This article went viral, getting tons of up-votes: Improving Ourselves to Death: What the self-help gurus and their critics reveal about our times.

These passages stood out:

In our current era of non-stop technological innovation, fuzzy wishful thinking has yielded to the hard doctrine of personal optimization. Self-help gurus need not be charlatans peddling snake oil. Many are psychologists with impressive academic pedigrees and a commitment to scientific methodologies, or tech entrepreneurs with enviable records of success in life and business. What they’re selling is metrics. It’s no longer enough to imagine our way to a better state of body or mind. We must now chart our progress, count our steps, log our sleep rhythms, tweak our diets, record our negative thoughts—then analyze the data, recalibrate, and repeat.

Finally, there’s the economy. Survival in the hypercompetitive, globalized economy, where workers have fewer protections and are more disposable than ever, requires that we try to become faster, smarter, and more creative. (To this list of marketable qualities I’d add one with a softer edge: niceness, which the gig economy and its five-star rating system have made indispensable to everyone from cabdrivers to plumbers.) Anything less than our best won’t cut it.

The viralness is demonstrative of a sort of reactionary yearning by both the ‘high-IQ right’ and the ‘high-IQ left’ of a return to simpler times, irrespective of political orientation. Even left-wingers agree that modernity is possibly corrosive. This critique of modernity is one of many themes of viral articles on Medium and The New Yorker. Even though technology is entertaining and convenient, it also can lead to a constant and self-imposed need to self-improve, due to envy (which is made more acute and pervasive by social media) and the social and economic pressures of modernity. I think less intelligent people may be more content with mediocrity, but smart people find themselves wanting to improve yet have to reconcile ‘being average’ in an economy and society that prizes individual merit and exceptionalism, which is probably why such articles go viral.

From the post Deconstructing a viral article: In Praise of Mediocrity:

There’s a huge demand for articles about coping with being average. America’s culture of individualism and a competitive economic climate sets unrealistically high expectations for most people, so learning how to cope with merely being average or ‘good enough’ is an important skill.

Smart people are not immune to envy and status-seeking though.

Related to Catholicism and neo-reaction, this also ties into a critique of the Protestant work ethic. Much of post-industrial Protestantism and the ‘American Dream’ is predicated on the belief that individuals can redeem themselves through ‘grit’, determination, and ‘rising above’ adversity. But an increasingly technological and winner-take-all economy makes biological and economic factors possibly more important than willpower alone. As it turns out, successful people are not successful because they worked really hard (although many successful people work hard), read a self-help book book of vapid affirmations, or have a lot of willpower–but maybe due to having an high IQ, or having a lot of family connections and wealth, or just plain stupid luck. Maybe instead of trying to optimize our lives, we should try to just enjoy it.

But isn’t a need to self-improve a driving factor for innovation? It is not inherently bad, but it should not control your life. You should not beat yourself up for not fulfilling an unrealistic idealization of perfection. Not everyone can be like Tim Ferriss. You take 500 people who did what he did many maybe two succeed and the rest are mediocre. Luck, whether it’s the birth lottery or being at the ‘right place at the right time’ (such as buying Bitcoin in 2009-2015), plays a bigger role than many want to accept. What about the 10,000 hour rule? Practice makes better, but not perfect. In other words, wanting to improve is good, but one should have realistic expectations of what is possible.