Improving Ourselves to Death

New YOrker offers a series of quickie overviews of books on self-improvement, periodically spiced with sharp observations on the trends in self-improvement. Here’s one of the reviews:

“In a consumerist society, we are not meant to buy one pair of jeans and then be satisfied,” Cederström and Spicer write, and the same, they think, is true of self-improvement. We are being sold on the need to upgrade all parts of ourselves, all at once, including parts that we did not previously know needed upgrading. (This may explain Yoni eggs, stone vaginal inserts that purport to strengthen women’s pelvic-floor muscles and take away “negative energy.” Gwyneth Paltrow’s Web site, Goop, offers them in both jade and rose quartz.) There is a great deal of money to be made by those who diagnose and treat our fears of inadequacy; Cederström and Spicer estimate that the self-improvement industry takes in ten billion dollars a year. (They report that they each spent more than ten thousand dollars, not to mention thousands of hours, on their own quests.) The good life may have sufficed for Plato and Aristotle, but it is no longer enough. “We are under pressure to show that we know how to lead the perfect life,” Cederström and Spicer write.”


The New Yorker authors note this self-improvement thing is heavily influenced by culture and era, and they go back ten years to show a different idea about self-improvement (wishful thinking, basically, from The Secret).

It’s not that self-improvement is all that new, but what we view as self improvement does change over time.  Note the differences between Benjamin Franklin’s system of self-improvement and our modern approach:

“It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into.”

INcidentally, my favourite commentary on the virtues Franklin chose is what he has to say himself about his failures in the pursuit of order:

“My scheme of Order gave me the most trouble… Order, too, with regard to places for things, papers, etc., I found extremely difficult to acquire. I had not been early accustomed to it, and, having an exceeding good memory, I was not so sensible of the inconvenience attending want of method. This article, therefore, cost me so much painful attention, and my faults in it vexed me so much, and I made so little progress in amendment, and had such frequent relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the attempt, and content myself with a faulty character in that respect… for something, that pretended to be reason, was every now and then suggesting to me that such extreme nicety as I exacted of myself might be a kind of foppery in morals, which, if it were known, would make me ridiculous; that a perfect character might be attended with the inconvenience of being envied and hated; and that a benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself, to keep his friends in countenance.

In truth, I myself incorrigible with respect to Order; and now I am grown old, and my memory bad, I feel very sensibly the want of it. But, on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it; as those who aim at perfect writing by imitating the engraved copies, tho’ they never reach the wished-for excellence of those copies, their hand is mended by the endeavor, and tolerable, while it continues fair and legible.”

The self improvement he sought was focused on 13 virtues he determined to work on through out his life. They included: Temperance, Industry, Frugality, Sincerity and Justice, as well as orderliness.

So did Marcus Aurelius.recommend the examined life, and so have many others before and after him.

I always am suspicious of any program for self improvement which requires spending money and buying stuff as part of the first step.

I am likewise suspicious that our culture tends to substitute improved accessorizing for improving our personal virtue and habits.

But now I am wondering about the cultural aspects of self-improvement as well.

Having just finished the lecture on being vs doing cultures in David LIvermore’s Cultural Intelligence series, I was struck by how very ‘doing culture’ our modern self-improvement courses programs are, which makes sense.  Livermore explains:

“Our upbringing and culture strongly influence the importance we
attribute to taking care of ourselves, being productive, and striving
for work-life balance. All cultures value time, but it’s what we do
with our time that is strongly influenced by our cultural backgrounds. ”

There are being cultures and doing cultures, and they influence how a culture views the role of
work and the use of time.”

Another explanation I found online:

“Here are some very broad characteristics of doing cultures:

  • Status is earned (e.g. the work you do in your job). It is not merely a function of who you are (e.g.  birth, age, seniority).
  • Status is not automatic and can be forfeited if one stops achieving (e.g. you quit your job).
  • Great emphasis is placed on deadlines, schedules etc.
  • Tasks take precedence over personal relationships in most cases (e.g. your family may not like it but they understand if you have to miss a family birthday party because you have work to do).
  • People are supposed to have a personal opinion, which they are expected to verbalize.

And here are some very broad characteristics of being cultures:

  • Status is built into who a person is. It’s automatic and therefore difficult to lose.
  • Titles are important and should always be used, in order to show appropriate respect for someone’s status.
  • Harmony should be maintained, and therefore direct confrontation or disagreement is to be avoided. Saving face is highly valued.
  • Relationships often take precedence over tasks. Much time is spent on greeting and farewell rituals or getting to know someone before agreeing to do business with them.

Of course, most cultures are a mix of both doing and being.

But, in general, they tend to lean more towards one extreme than the other.”

Me, I’m more in the being camp and always have been, I just didn’t have a name for it.  Other people had a name for it. They called it lazy.  I reject that now and henceforth and shall explain to those people they are being cultural imperialists and exhibiting a hegemonic hostility toward my ‘being’ culture.

(You may also like The Sheep that Shopping Shaped)

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