Why Self-Improvement Rarely Works For Most People

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In an interview, Jordan Peterson was asked why just a few people actualize self-improvement even if it’s what everyone wants. He said,

“You are constantly in situations where you could do the right thing if you are willing to take a risk of relatively moderate size, and you know that you could take the risk and you know that you should take the risk but you don’t… Then the thing that you don’t oppose grows a little bit and you shrink a little bit, and that starts a loop.”

This is the biggest challenge to self-improvement explained in two sentences. It’s accurate, it’s true, and we can all relate to it.

As pessimistic as Murphy’s Law may seem, it’s true: “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” Improving yourself is hard work. Things rarely work out well on their own if we don’t work hard on them. This is why the foundation of any form of positive change is radical responsibility.

As Mark Manson explained in a recent video titled Mark Manson’s 3 Rules for Life, “You are responsible for everything in your own experience, even if it’s not your fault.” This was his first rule.

As Mark explained, the concept of radical responsibility comes from existentialism. Or to be more specific, from Jean-Paul Sartre, arguably the best-known philosopher of the twentieth century. One of the major points Sartre tried to put across is that in every moment that we are conscious, we are choosing. We are constantly making choices, not only of what to do but of how to look at things.

For instance, if somebody says something that pisses you off, part of the reason you’re pissed off is that you chose to interpret what that person said in a way that pisses you off. You chose to listen to and pay attention to the person that pissed you off. You also chose to have values that caused it to piss you off.

This constant choosing of perception in every moment, according to Sartre, is a massive load on us mentally and emotionally. We are often terrified of it.

Hence, instead of taking on this responsibility all the time, we find ways to give them to other people. “It’s not my fault, he made me do it,” we might tell ourselves. Or, “My boss made the rules, not me. I was just following rules when I did it.” You can probably relate to this. We all love to come up with rational blames for our faults.

In addition to our tendency to shift blame. Sartre also explained that we often look to other people to adopt their values, principles, and belief systems. This is a much more subtle way we shift responsibilities. It’s saying, for instance, that your dad was a doctor, and your dad’s dad was a doctor, now you also have to be a doctor. It can be likened to living for other people, rather than for yourself. Sartre referred to this as “living in bad faith.”

The first step to self-improvement

The flip side of living in bad faith is what Sartre called Living in authenticity.” And it has to do with consciously making the right choices based on your principles and values in every moment, and also being aware that you are making those choices.

It means finding out your values and being willing to choose to live in alignment with them whenever the opportunity comes, even if it means being socially punished for it.

As Mark Manson explained, practical responsibility is the first step to any form of improvement. You can’t improve something if you don’t believe that you are responsible for it. You cannot change if you don’t see that you’re capable of something different. You can’t change if you don’t think you’re empowered to make different choices. In his words,

“Until you have that perception of personal responsibility… there is no improvement.”

The responsibility/fault fallacy

The biggest hangup people have about taking responsibility is the assumption that if you’re responsible for something, then it means it’s your fault. A mistake that Mark Manson refers to as the responsibility/fault fallacy.

If, for instance, you get hit by a bike, that’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility to recover from any wounds you may have gotten from the accident. An unknown person can leave a newborn baby at your doorstep, that’s not your fault. But it is your responsibility to take care of that baby.

Variations of this scenario play out in our lives all the time. We are often responsible for things that we are not to blame for. And understanding and accepting this, as upsetting as it can be, requires courage, and it is fundamental to improving yourself in every aspect of your life.

Taking the responsibility to grow

We are all constantly getting chances to grow. That opportunity you just got to turn down a bad habit was your chance to grow a little bit stronger, but you failed to take it. That occasion where you needed to speak up concerning an unfair matter but didn’t was a chance to grow, but it felt like too much risk.

We are obsessed with motivational talks and self-improvement articles because they make us feel like we are growing. They make us dream bigger and bigger, flooding our brains with dopamine, but at the same time, we constantly reject any chance to make actual improvements. Why?

Well, it’s much easier to dream big than to take even the tiniest action towards growth. As Jordan Peterson said,

“It’s easier to rule a city than to rule yourself.”

Achieving your ideal self isn’t one grand transformation waiting to happen. It happens every day with those tiny steps you fail to take when the opportunity presents itself. Everything that can make you who you want to be is already happening. James Clear sums it up perfectly in atomic habits:

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity. This is one reason why meaningful change does not require radical change. Small habits can make a meaningful difference by providing evidence of a new identity. And if a change is meaningful, it actually is big. That’s the paradox of making small improvements.”

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