I wake up.
I open my eyes and get up.
Once again, I set out looking for a way to be better and freer today.
Day after day, in this search of self-improvement, I always find myself choosing between various approaches, strategies and mindsets. Sometimes guided by the fashions of the day, I open the latest trendy self-help book and read. At other times, I question whether that was, after all, the best I could have done. Such books usually sound too good and too easy. Their prescriptions are cheap and their descriptions of the good life devoid of any personal meaning. Indeed, most self-help books rarely sound like they apply to me with all the pain and suffering inside my soul.
So, at those latter times, I easily wave goodbye to motivational videos and speeches. Greatness does not move me anymore. Excellence becomes mere entertainment, not at all the way ahead. Watching freedom and success turns painful and highly unrelatable. A sense of being lost manifests itself whenever I dare face perfection in the eyes.
Nonetheless, the time is not ripe for despair. So I do not stop my search, but this time I decide to focus less on what is good and more on what is bad. After all, if hope and dreams of a distant and unknown heaven have proven disempowering., then maybe fear of the depths of hell will be a better guide. Ultimately, imperfection is the name of the human condition much more often than perfection.
I was reading a book (Breaking Night) these days and that experience got me thinking how much more relatable chaos and disorder can be when compared to order. We are used to getting motivation out of people’s successes, but too often those just seem unattainable by us for whatever reason. Maybe our personality is different, perhaps we don’t have enough money or we don’t know the right people. Vain excuses, the self-help books would usually say. Yea, perhaps. But maybe not. And then the whole project of self-improvement and motivation would come crashing down unable to deal with the actual real world.
The problem is, of course, that humans and life itself are imperfect. We sometimes make bad decisions and at times we do have excuses indeed. Sometimes excuses have to first be lived with and worked around before they can ultimately be forgotten. And sometimes “excuses” are nothing but an honest reflection on an unjust life. The point is, stipulating and requiring perfection in order to attain it in the first place is foolish and unproductive.
Yet, perfection sells. It is stories of success that go viral much more often than stories of failure. We are more interested in what the rich do and have little time for the poor. However, if you are nearly broke or have never invested in your life, what good is it reading about Warren Buffet? Would it not be more productive to understand the multitude of ways real poverty can strike?
Apart from mere productivity, isn’t it also wiser to preempt grave mistakes before you dedicate yourself to high pursuits completely?
In some sense, most people long for the same few noble goals and value the same few high ideals. Love, freedom, equality, knowledge, wisdom, happiness, success. Yet, so few of us out there have really achieved any of them, let alone all. The import of most self-help literature is to simply amplify and intensify this longing for a perfect life without ever warning of the potential dangers lying ahead.
The result is frequently a needless repetition of history, the same mistakes done over and over again. It is hard to never fall if spend your days just looking at the sky. Yet, that’s kind of what we are doing. We remind ourselves and fix our attention to the end goal states of happiness and freedom, but we stand oblivious to the much closer (i.e. attainable and likely) state of disarray.
Here is an important question: how much of the good in your life have you truly earned? The home you go to in the evening, the job you work, the relationship you have, the sanity you enjoy, the habits that draw up the silhouette of your days, how much of them have you consciously designed versus mindlessly inherited by way of fortune?
If you did not design the existing good in your life, can you honestly claim insight into how it came to be or how it even works? In other words, can you recreate the good in your life from scratch?
The more I read and understand, the more palpable the wave of luck and fortune that I have ridden and which has guided me so far. Reading books like Breaking Night serves as a reminder that much pain I have been spared simply out of happenstance. I could have been tempted harder and I could have ruined it all. Maybe drugs could have been the end of me if I faced the choice sufficiently often. Maybe resentment. Maybe foolishness. Or maybe laziness.
The point I am making is not that it’s impossible to overcome these destructive urges, but that to do so requires training and insight which many of us lack. We were never truly faced with a world of everything falling down and breaking into thousand pieces.
That by itself is nothing to be ashamed of. Yet, it is a fact worth reminding ourselves of when we reach out for the next book on how to be a millionaire by tomorrow, think positively, be ever present in the moment, etc. If we know not the basics of our imperfect lives, why up the stakes further and attempt to attain perfection? If we haven’t built a rock solid foundation, what use is it planning for skyscrapers and Eiffel Towers?
As I mentioned above, self-help books usually feel highly unrelatable and of little motivational value.
Little by little, I have slowly begun to explain to myself why.
Firstly, the problems self-help books are concerned with are seldom the problems most people have. There is a giant disconnect between actual and aspirational thanks to the positive good-feel vibe of the genre. Authors and marketers love to tell you to do this or that great thing while you stand there and say to yourself “yeah, cool, but how’s that gonna pay the bills?” or “sure, but what if you were in my shoes”. Moreover, the tendency to speak in short and motivational quotes often results in total disconnect from the human world. It’s just not that helpful or profound to hear variations of “just be perfect today” (e.g. be grateful for everything, always work hard, no excuses, take complete responsibility, etc.) when you have never been or never will be so.
(To be fair, there is clearly value in holding high ideals. But one shouldn’t get lost in admiration of the ideal to the point of losing grip on reality)
Secondly, humans are much closer to hell as opposed to heaven. It is easy to read a book on things going wrong and relate deeply (compare to a book of success where things go effortlessly well). We intuitively know disorder is in some sense normal, or at least unsurprising. Forget to pay the bills one day and you have no electricity or internet anymore. Oversleep once and get in trouble with your boss. Forget to take your medication today and risk reigniting the sickness. Say one unthought through and offensive word to a lover and lose him/her forever…
In so many ways, we are all close to a life of ruin. Thus, few horrors or disasters are beyond our imagination or ability to feel. The shadow of death is always upon us and we know there won’t be a happy ending to life. Such is the human condition and this is why overtly positive self-help books are often unrelatable. Not because they are positive per se, but because they approach the very negativity in life with nothing more than a wishful denial.
Finally, it’s an important fact about human nature that hopes are less potent than fears. Heaven finds it more difficult to lure us into movement than hell to freak us out and make us run. In other words, the most reliable way to make us chase a high ideal is to let us first experience its absence.
The implication is clear: we should not expect motivation to come wrapped in positivity. Rather, we should expect it as the result of a new found understanding of our life. An understanding that naturally would show us that in many areas we have been rather lucky. Lucky in circumstance, but also in thought (I have realized the benefits in many of my thoughts long after I have adopted them on way less than full analysis of their merits. Indeed, who of us ever grew up with a complete understanding of the reasons behind the laws, norms and traditions he/she came to follow and respect? Consequently, how many of the benefits can any of us ultimately claim as earned and deserved?).
Such motivation, springing forth from a pursuit of knowledge of the causes behind our own prosperity, is indeed truly amazing. It not only fills in the gaps of our knowledge of the basics of life. It also makes us less dependent on luck and chance. Moreover, it allows us to extrapolate the lessons learned further out into the future for the sake of greater prosperity and success. There is a reason why no one ever succeeds without knowledge of and attraction to the history of their field.
Furthermore, such motivation is only a part of a bouquet of amazing experiences that come with understanding chaos and knowing how to conquer it. Not only does it ground our own progress in reality (by knowing which of our many decisions mattered and why), but it also warms our hearts with gratitude that things are not what they could have been. Moreover, it does actually motivate us to work and study harder so we can guarantee ourselves an ordered life. Ultimately, this is what paves the way for progress above and beyond our current life as well. If we have learned how to lay the foundations properly, we can then construct floor after floor with practically no end limits.
However, this construction process is not guided by an obsessive attempt to reach the sky. Instead, it is a result of making sure the whole edifice does not collapse whatever the circumstances.
In conclusion, the take home message is this: understand what already works in your life and know well how and why others ended up worse off. Chances are, there were many who used to be in your position, striving towards many of the same ideals as you do now. Then something happened and they lost it all. You do not have have to repeat a miserable life already suffered by plenty of others.
In a way, all of the above is common sense which we have been led to forget by the self-help crowd. We already know full well that practice often teaches better than theory and that adversity contains many deep and valuable insights. In both cases, this is because we are forced to face the reality of chaos and the causes behind it. Moreover, we see first hand how the loss of a certain idea, a thing or a person can lead to disasters. By way of contrast, we come to see how order came to be in the first place.
So, if motivation is what you are looking for, go ahead and freak yourself out.
Hope, dreams and success are great, but we are tempted to perceive them as we do a work of art — something to be admired from without, passively and without any action.
Fear, however, cannot fail to move us. And while extreme fear coming from a direct experience of hell might well lead to destruction, safely induced fear (the one you get when e.g. you read or witness directly how somebody in your shoes inadvertently destroyed their life) can reliably be the best way to self-improvement and satisfaction.
You have reached the end of this article. Thank you for reading! If you liked this article, please share it with your friends or leave a reply down below! And if you would love to read more articles like this one, you can subscribe to the weekly Young Meets Free newsletter.