In Defense of Radical Self-Betterment
Raising the bar on your psychological ambitiousness
Hi! Dan here. Every once in a while I run into a writer who creates a piece so comprehensive, so well-thought out, and so full of insights that I’m jealous, because I wish I was smart enough to have been able to write it myself.
This essay by Dr. Gena Gorlin is exactly that kind of piece. Dr. Gorlin is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Austin, and if you’re a founder, or a builder looking to embark on a journey of self-transformation—this is the definitive place to start. I’m jealous—but I’m also immensely proud that we get to publish it. Enjoy!
One of the most satisfying parts of my job as therapist and coach is getting to “catch” my clients in personality changes that have become so second-nature as to escape their notice.
Like when I’m sitting with a client who perpetually doubted her own judgment and sought constant reassurance at the start of our work together, and, 6 months in, I notice her expressing mild annoyance that her colleagues haven’t yet come around to her independently formed view of a prospective hire.
Or when, a year into working with a narcissistic patient who felt aggrieved by everyone in the world and never admitted fault under any circumstances, he spontaneously takes ownership of his role in fueling a conflict of which the other guy was the far more obvious instigator.
When I point out these changes, my clients’ eyes often widen, followed by a quiet half-smile of recognition and a musing to the effect of, “wow, yeah, that would’ve never even occurred to old me…”
What delights and impresses me about these moments is that I’ve gotten to witness the evolution that led to them: the imperceptibly gradual turning of the flywheel by which a client has diligently pried away old perspectives and ways of doing things and effortfully laid down new ones, again and again, in circumstance after circumstance, through setback after setback, until finally the new ones had seeped far and wide enough into the foundations of their psyche to have become the new default.
What I’m describing here is not mere habit change or mere attitude change; I’m talking about deep, enduring character change. The kind of change that runs against our grain, that defies all our psychological defaults, that only happens through an unrelenting, deliberate campaign of radical self-betterment.
I’m talking about the kind of change undertaken by radical-Islamist-turned-global-peace-activist Maajid Nawaz, who narrates his evolution from fighting for the violent overthrow of America to advocating for a “secular Islam.” His account reflects the kind of honest reckoning he has had to do with his previous self, whom he describes, for instance, as “[spreading] the very prejudice I claimed I was fighting.”
I’m talking about the kind of change exemplified by luminary psychologist Marsha Linehan, who details her journey from spending 21 months in a psychiatric hospital isolation ward due to severe, intractable Borderline Personality Disorder, to pioneering the world’s first and most widely renowned scientifically-based treatment for same—in a memoir aptly titled Building a Life Worth Living.
I’m talking about the kind of change by which Steve Jobs transformed himself from a “reckless upstart” into a “visionary leader” in the years after getting fired from his own company—a story told, not by Jobs himself, but by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli in their diligently researched biography Becoming Steve Jobs.
It is instructive that Schlender and Tetzeli wrote their biography partly as a corrective for the “one-dimensional myths about Steve” as an “unchanging half-genius, half-asshole from birth” that were “ossifying in the public mind” after his death. I suspect this discrepancy between Jobs’ public persona and his private story of self-transformation illustrates a broader cultural phenomenon: stories of radical self-betterment are hard to come by, not because they are rare, but because they are rarely told. It takes far less effort and imagination to depict a static “half-hero / half-villain” figure—an easily pictured archetype in the tradition of Jeckyll and Hyde—than to piece together the complex, winding, idiosyncratic, often unglamorous struggle by which a person chisels away at his or her own character over time.
As a therapist and coach for ambitious founders and other “upstarts,” I’ve both witnessed and lived that struggle in its many forms and iterations. I know how excruciatingly hard, and also profoundly rewarding, it can be. And I know it’s not limited to high-profile, larger-than-life personalities like Nawaz, Linehan, and Jobs.
But I contend it should be more common still.
This is not to say everyone should always be focused on radically bettering themselves (see “The case against radical self-betterment” below for some reasons not to focus on it). Like any ambitious project you might take on, the work of radical self-betterment is too costly to undertake without good reason. Nawaz, Linehan, and Jobs all underwent their self-transformations out of what they would have probably described as necessity: the necessity of resolving painful, even deadly contradictions in his approach to life, in Nawaz’s case; of finding a reason to stay alive, in Linehan’s case; of fulfilling his creative and aesthetic vision for the technologies he loved, in Jobs’ case. And each of them prioritized the changes that were mission-critical to achieving these aims, while learning to accept or compensate for character flaws that were less mission-critical.
The reason to care about your character is not because you need to prove anything to anyone, but because your character is your ultimate instrument for enacting the kind of life you want. So keep it as sharp as it needs to be in order to serve your chosen aims—and don’t obsess over the dull bits a minute longer than your aims demand.
If you do choose radical self-betterment as your path, what follows is a step-by-guide that will help you along your journey from start to finish.
Step 1: Articulate your vision
The first step to determining whether and how you want to change is not necessarily to start listing out problems or deficits you wish you didn’t have, though this may seem like the intuitive starting point. Rather, I suggest starting with a clear positive vision of what you really want out of your life, supposing psychological barriers weren’t an issue. Really take some time to envision your ideal case scenario. The kinds of exercises in this Life Vision Worksheet, which I’ve assembled and adapted from the much larger toolkit of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) values clarification exercises (see a sampling here), can be quite helpful. Questions to ask yourself include: What do you long to experience, and with whom? What kind of work would you find most fulfilling? Where, how, with whom, and at what scale would you ideally be doing that work? What do you yearn for most deeply in your relationships, your friendships, your home, your family life? What would be your happiest and proudest reminiscences about the life you’ve lived, when you’re 120 years old and writing your memoirs? What sort of mark would you most want to have left on the world, and on the loved ones who carry on your legacy?
Don’t hold back when answering these questions. If you feel a sense of trepidation, anxiety, even guilt or sadness when certain possibilities occur to you, those are good signs that you might be onto something.
In addition to any concrete outcomes you already know you want to include in your ideal life vision (like “have at least one kid” or “write a book”), make sure you also identify the kinds of activities or experiences you want your life to be chock full of—at whatever level of description you can specify them. These are like general “directions of travel” rather than discrete milestones along your journey, and they are what psychologists typically refer to as “values.”
For instance, I know I’ll always value “building intimate, mutually inspiring emotional connections with smart, ambitious people.” This has been a common denominator in many of the activities and interactions I’ve found most rewarding throughout my life, from therapy and coaching to academic mentoring to romance. I don’t know all the exact milestones I’ll need to hit in order to continue reaping these rewards throughout my life, but I know some of the character-building challenges I’ll need to navigate—such as saying “no” to an ever-widening range of professional demands that eat into my time pursuing this value, or cultivating a network of increasingly impressive people without getting intimidated or distracted from my purpose.
Once you’ve articulated some of your own core values, it might help to boil them down into a “personal mission statement”—a short phrase or image that sums up the essence of what you’re after in your life as succinctly and vividly as possible. This "personal mission statement" should quickly remind you, at a visceral emotional level, of the “truth North” you are pursuing, even through whatever difficult changes you need to make along the way.
For instance, my personal mission statement for many years has been “inspiring and empowering ambitious self-creation”—a purpose that animates me when I’m at my best, not only in my work, but in my marriage, parenting, friendships, and most private reveries.
While we can only guess at what Steve Jobs’ personal mission statement might have been, if he had one, some recurring and idiosyncratically Jobs-ian themes do readily suggest themselves: the mission to extend the reach of human agency by building “a bicycle for the mind,” for example, and even more fundamentally, to “make a dent in the universe”; or the advice he famously gave to the graduating class at Stanford to “stay hungry, stay foolish.” It is not hard to imagine how some mix of these iconic statements might have resounded in his own head and urged him to keep growing in pursuit of his insatiable hunger and "foolish" idealism—even when it meant reckoning with his own deficiencies as a leader, and, ultimately, making a big dent in his own character in order to do it. Indeed, the Becoming Steve Jobs biography quotes Jobs’ long-time friend Edwin Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and later President of Walt Disney Animation Studios, reflecting on how the profound changes in Jobs’ character over the years were intimately intertwined with his vision for the world: “I look at Steve as someone who was actually always trying to change, but he didn’t express it in the same ways as others, and he didn’t communicate with people about that. He really was trying to change the world. It didn’t come across as him being personally introspective.”
As to Linehan, she vowed early on, while still hospitalized and dealing with sometimes irresistible urges to cut herself, that “I would get myself out of hell—and that once I did, I would find a way to get others out of hell, too.” Of course she knew very little at the time about the details of her long, circuitous journey toward realizing that mission, or that it would eventually materialize into a goal of “develop[ing] a behavior therapy that would help highly suicidal people live lives worth living.” Yet that original vow, she writes, “has controlled most of my life,” giving it the purpose and direction she would eventually help so many people find for themselves.
Step 2: Identify plausible paths to ideal life vision
Now, what might it realistically take to realize your ideal life vision, in whole or in part? Obviously you won’t know the path in every detail, and there will almost always be multiple alternative paths you could consider. But usually there are probable steps and milestones you can identify, at least to some moderate level of specificity.
This is easier for some paths than others, of course: for instance, if you want to become a doctor, the path is fairly well-defined, at least to a point. If you want to become a writer or an entrepreneur, the path is much less “set,” with almost infinite permutations on how you could get there and in what form you could pursue it. But there are certain broad elements you can specify even just in virtue of this indeterminateness: for instance, you’ll need to get comfortable with risk; you’ll need to learn to navigate highly uncertain decisions and environments; you’ll need to get good at communicating and pitching ideas; you’ll need to develop a network of fellow travelers and potential collaborators.
Here again, don’t be too quick to rule out a given path because it seems too implausible or psychologically costly for you. You’ll be better equipped to make this determination once you’ve reviewed steps 3-5 below.
Step 3: Identify change targets
Having thought through the potential path(s) to your ideal life vision, ask yourself: is there anything I could realistically be doing to get on this path, or to speed or improve my progress along this path, if my psychology worked differently than it does now?
If the answer is “yes” (or even “maybe”), then the next question is: what would need to be different? And how much time, energy, and capital would this change require?
For instance, perhaps you determine that you’ll need to overcome your dysfunctional relationship with creative work in order to write that book you’ve always wanted to write; or that you need to develop a more secure attachment style in order to build the more uninhibited and mutually rewarding relationships you seek with your partner and kids.
Perhaps, like Marsha Linehan, you need to learn to love yourself and the fact of your existence for its own sake, rather than staking your worth on the approval of others or on whatever prerequisites you’ve learned you must satisfy before being allowed to pursue your own “life worth living.” Maybe you’re “drowning in an ocean of self-loathing and shame, of feeling unloved and unlovable, and of indescribable emotional agony” like 18-year-old Marsha, or maybe you just shy from setting boundaries or asserting your own needs on occasion because you feel it would be “selfish.” Either way, you may need to firm up your self-love if you want to muster the will to fight for your own ideal life vision.
Or perhaps you need to develop greater agency over your own life and mind, so you can more often take the driver’s seat rather than assume the role of a helpless passenger. This is so pervasive a theme that it features prominently in the stories of all three of our earlier protagonists: Linehan, who went from being “a victim of [her] depression to being a choice-maker,” learning she has “control over what [her] mind can do” and can “slow down and decide” how to react in times of difficulty; Jobs, whose early life and career were hobbled by uncontrolled outbursts of anger and impetuous decisions he would later regret (as when he infamously denied paternity of his own child in 1978); and Nawaz, who had to overcome the “Islamist narrative of victimization” largely by reckoning with his own responsibility for perpetuating the kinds of violence and prejudice he claimed to be decrying.
Or perhaps you need to gain some self-credibility before you can fully trust yourself in the driver’s seat of your life. As I’ve written about here, here, and here, we build or undermine our own self-trust over time by how honestly or evasively we deal with reality. This is again so pervasive an issue that each of our three self-transformation warriors had to grapple with it in some form. The theme of facing reality looms large in Linehan’s personal journey and, consequently, in her therapy: “in order to change who/what you are,” she writes, explaining the tenets underlying her concept of “radical acceptance,” “you must first accept who/what you are. You have to accept reality in order to change it. Reality is what it is…. In order to have a chance of winning the game, you have to be in the game, playing the cards you’re dealt.” And it’s not enough just to accept reality once; “you have to do it over and over and over. You have to practice turning your mind toward acceptance” of reality.
This is the kind of self-honest reassessment that any ambitious growth and change requires—and the more you practice it, the more you internalize it as part of your character for use in whatever further inquiries you might pursue.
To the extent that you haven’t fully internalized one or more of these “big three”—self-love, self-trust, or agency—as part of your character, you’ll likely find this interferes with your ability to pursue whatever ideals you’ve articulated. By contrast, when dealing with more concrete psychological hangups, like a fear of public speaking or an impulsive streak, you can often set up your life in ways that minimize their impact or even leverage them as strengths, without having to uproot them entirely. For instance, Steve Jobs’ biographers describe how his “ballsy brashness” came to serve him well as a negotiator, once he decoupled it from old insecurities that would skew his judgment of what was truly non-negotiable.
Step 4: Develop accurate self-awareness
Once you’ve identified change targets, you need to develop self-awareness. As Linehan reminds us, “You have to accept reality in order to change it”—and you cannot accept that which you do not know. We need an accurate, uncensored awareness of our inner and outer worlds, however undesirable they may be, for the same reason that an architect needs an accurate, uncensored awareness of the physical landscape and raw materials she is working with. We cannot hope to build a better-suited self without first getting intimately acquainted with our own inner and outer landscape, including the psychological “raw materials” we’re starting from. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed,” as Francis Bacon famously quipped; and the same goes for our second nature—that is, the habitual patterns of thought, emotion, motivation, and action that constitute our character.
The tools for building such self-awareness are vast and varied. Most involve some form of written self-reflection on what you’re feeling, thinking, and doing, when, and why. Here is a “self-coaching worksheet” I’ve assembled that combines a bunch of widely used self-reflection tools and exercises, repackaged in a way that resonates with me and my clients. Of course this isn’t the only way to do it, and it’s not going to work for everyone. Some might have more success with free-form journaling, or thought records, or any of the countless mindfulness meditation or mood tracking apps, or talking to a coach or therapist, or any combination of these. Whatever your chosen method of systematically observing yourself, you’ll want to review your observations in aggregate once in a while, so you can start identifying patterns in the data: for instance, what are the recurring feedback loops that keep you thinking, feeling, or acting in ways that don’t clearly serve your purpose? What are the chains of events that get you to that same point each time? What actual or apparent needs do these behaviors serve, and where are those needs coming from?
Eventually you should have enough data to start identifying certain common underlying mindsets—implicit beliefs or attitudes about yourself, others, or the world, whether consciously endorsed by you or not—that both explain and are further reinforced by the feeling, thought, and action patterns you’ve observed in yourself.
In the Becoming Jobs biography, for example, we see multiple instances in which the young Jobs gets frustrated with his team members’ performance and responds by shortchanging them the very resources and support they would need to improve their performance, thus further fueling his frustration and perpetuating the cycle. The underlying mindset, if I had to speculate based on similar patterns I’ve observed in my clients, might have amounted to something like “people either get it or they don’t”—a kind of fixed mindset applied to the talents and capabilities of others.
The biography also notes several instances in which Jobs demonstrated increasing awareness of this pattern, as when he observed and admired the more patient and deliberate management style by which Catmull led Pixar’s creative team to greatness: reflecting on whether Jobs ever explicitly acknowledged Catmull’s influence on his own management approach, Catmull recalled how Jobs “said he valued what I did, and knew it was very different from what he did.”
Consider giving your own names to the mindsets that show up most often for you or seem to wreak the most havoc; for example, the “guilting parent” mindset, or the “helpless victim” mindset, or the “people are impossible” mindset.
Step 5: Conscious re-assessment
Having identified the mindsets that show up for you most often or in the most impactful ways, you gain the power to separate them out for dialoguing and critical inspection. Instead of automatically letting them run your life, you now have the opportunity to reassess them in the light of day, ultimately forming a considered judgment of where you actually stand on them.
For example: do you believe, in your honest, considered adult judgment, that you are fundamentally helpless to affect your life circumstances? “Helpless” to do or effect what, exactly? How do you know? Are there any respects in which you’re not helpless? How do you know?
Sometimes it may help to identify where your mindsets originated: for instance, whether your view of yourself as a helpless victim was an overgeneralization from early traumatic experiences you truly were helpless to control or prevent, or a message internalized from your early caregivers. Whether you can trace your mindsets back to their developmental origins or not, just know that such origins exist; and that they need not define you a moment longer than it takes you to scrutinize the resulting mindsets afresh.
You might find, upon self-honest scrutiny, that some of your mindsets are defensive narratives rather than sincerely held beliefs. For instance, perhaps your “I’m a helpless victim” narrative is just a front for an underlying fear that your problems might actually be your fault. If in doubt, you can try pulling aside the part of you that feels fundamentally helpless, just as you might pull aside a child who keeps getting in fights at school and blaming the other kids. Ask yourself, as you might ask the child: between us, how much do you actually believe this story? Like, would you swear to it under oath, or bet a lot of money on its being true? Or is there perhaps some other possibility that feels truer, though you’re afraid to think about it?
If this does surface some hidden fear, like that you’re at least partly responsible for the problems in your life, then that becomes a premise you can scrutinize. For instance, are you actually responsible in some way? How? If so, why doesn’t this feel like good news, given what it means for your power to improve the situation going forward? If it feels like a threat to your self-worth, what standard of worth are you judging yourself against? Do you actually endorse that standard, upon reflection? Or would you love yourself as much or more for stepping up to take responsibility for your life, as for evading it?
A common mistake at this stage is to stop at “intellectually I know X belief is false, but emotionally it feels true.” This is a normal state to slip into when you’re first trying to remember and apply an alternative perspective in the wild, but if you don’t feel at least slightly emotionally compelled by the new perspective even as you contemplate your reasons for believing it, then odds are you’re not fully convinced of it yet. Keep reflecting, and see if you can take whatever it is you “know intellectually” and make it viscerally real to yourself.
If what you “know” is that you’re “capable of persevering through challenges”: what are the specific memories and moments in your life that best exemplify this fact about you? The ones that fill you with fierce and tender pride, even if tinged (as such memories often are) with the pain of loss and longing? Travel back to those moments and really take them in; the sights, the sounds, the stomach knots, all of it. What hard choices did you make at that time? How did you muster the courage or wherewithal to see them through? Now is the knowledge of your capacity to persevere through challenges becoming emotionally real to you? Or are there perhaps real questions or competing hypotheses (e.g., “I can persevere even through unexpected challenges” versus “I can only handle the routine and familiar ones”) that remain?
This process is rarely a one-shot deal, of course; more often it will take the form of a diligent self-educational campaign. For more charged and complex issues, it may take weeks or months to go from competing hypotheses to a dominant working theory to a firmly held view in which you have unconflicted emotional buy-in.
Crucially, reaching this last step is not a prerequisite to taking action. On the contrary, the data you need in order to clarify and gather confidence in your hypotheses will often be the sort you can only get from lived experience, which you can only give yourself by testing out your competing hypotheses in action—e.g., by working on your book for at least 10 minutes daily, despite the internal resistance telling you it will be too painful or hard; or resisting the urge to check up on your kids again, despite the fear that this will backfire.
Step 6: Gather corrective experiences
Firmly deciding where you stand is just the beginning. Sewing this new conviction into the fabric of your character takes a lot more work. Even after having emotionally convinced yourself of your agential powers once, thrice, a thousand times, you’ll still find your “victim mindset” showing up in a million new guises, rearing its ugly head every time you think you’re past it, showing up in full regalia every time you find yourself in a different context than the ones where you’ve successfully discredited it in the crucible of lived experience.
The only way we become convinced of anything “all the way down” is by repeatedly staking our own safety and comfort on its truth. That’s why taking action in the presence of conflicting emotions is a linchpin of virtually every form of psychotherapy. Though it goes by many different names—from “corrective emotional experience” to “behavioral experiment” to “exposure” to “opposite action”—the essence is the same. If you want to believe you can handle a difficult conversation, don’t just try to think your way into believing it; take your fear by the hand, and go have the conversation. Let your fear see what you’re capable of, and it will ease up its warnings the next time around. Some would describe such an act as “faking it till you make it,” but I see it as the opposite: it is acting on what you know. This, I submit, is the essence of integrity. Don’t let an outdated emotion fake you out into playing the victim, when you have the accumulated wisdom to know better.
While it is difficult to guess at another person’s intention in pursuing a given experience, Job’s experience of working with the Pixar creative team did appear to serve just such a corrective function in reshaping his “people either get it or they don’t” mindset. As John Lasseter, one of the lead animators at Pixar, is quoted saying in the biography, “Watching our collaboration, seeing us make ourselves better by working together, I think that fueled Steve… I think that was one of the key changes when he went back to Apple. He was more open to the talent of others, to be inspired by and challenged by that talent, and also to the idea of inspiring them to do amazing things he knew he couldn’t do himself.”
Likewise, Linehan writes of how surrounding herself with people who deeply, genuinely loved her, even while still emotionally convinced she was unloveable, helped erode this belief by degrees. Of someone who feels trapped in a loveless hell, she writes, “they are like someone walking in a mist. They don’t see the mist… [Yet] each moment of love adds to the mist, adds to the water in the pail. By itself, each moment of love may not be enough. But ultimately the pail fills and the person who has been in hell will be able to drink that water of love and be transformed. I know. I have been there. I have drunk from that pail.”
If you seek out these needed experiences consistently over time, your feelings and thoughts of helplessness will eventually cease occurring to you, or at least will occur to you far less frequently and with far less of the emotional intensity they used to command. Like my clients from earlier, you’ll be genuinely surprised when a friend points out just how much more confident or in control you’ve been sounding or acting lately.
This is the road to character change. It is a long road, but it is a scenic one—with at least as many delightful detours as painful ones. And you are always in charge of deciding where and how fast to go.
Step 7: Track progress and (re)calibrate expectations
Ok, so you accept that it’s a long road and a winding one, but you may still want some idea of how long it will take to enact certain changes—especially if those changes center on time-sensitive life goals like “writing a book” or “starting a family.” How can you estimate the time it will take, or know whether you’re making enough progress?
On the one hand, there are loose averages that can inform your starting predictions to some extent. For instance, most therapies for specific psychological disorders like depression or anxiety offer significant symptom relief after 12-16 weeks, and effect significant and enduring change in more general personality traits—like emotional stability and extraversion—after an average of 24 weeks. That said, therapies targeting more global and pervasive personality pathologies, like Borderline Personality Disorder, tend to take closer to a year to get sustained results, and often require more intensive work by both patient and therapist.
Then again, these averages come with enormous error bars. No single aggregated statistic can tell you how or at what rate you can expect the tectonic structure of your personality to shift and rearrange itself, given your particular history and dispositions and aims and challenges—certainly not better than you can tell by observing your own progress and pitfalls over time, and updating your model accordingly. There are just a few broad principles you can be sure of.
First, your progress will be non-linear, with numerous lapses and backslides along the way. Former smokers make somewhere from 6 to 30 quit attempts before successfully quitting cigarettes. And that’s for one discrete (albeit highly addictive) behavior; you can expect higher numbers, all else being equal, in proportion to the complexity and ambitiousness of what you’re trying to change about yourself. You’ll be better equipped to handle these inevitable setbacks if you can build them into your predictive model, along with plausible plans for getting yourself back on track. Some of my clients find the “lapse vs relapse vs collapse” distinction helpful in this regard.
Second, while the work of radical self-betterment never really “ends,” there are plenty of incremental progress markers you can track and celebrate along the way. For instance, if you’re trying to reengineer your character around a core belief in your own agency, your incremental change goals could include:
- “A 10-fold decrease in how long it takes to go from passive ruminating to active problem-solving after a setback” (6-8 weeks)
- “At least one major life decision made without first seeking reassurance from my parents” (3-6 months)
- “Feeling nervous excitement rather than dread as my dominant emotion when presented with an unexpected work opportunity” (12-16 months)
Third, you will inevitably face all manner of discomfort and resistance along the way, and it will sometimes be hard to distinguish friendly fire from enemy fire: the discomfort of fighting for our values despite what feels like great risk, versus the discomfort of betraying them to escape that risk. Be alert to the difference between these discomforts—between what I call “growing pains” and “stagnation pains”. As you get better at recognizing and distinguishing them, you can practice embracing the former and flinching at the latter.
With all that said, the best and most direct metric of your progress, of course, is whether you are getting more of what you want in life. Are you making headway on that ideal life vision you articulated? Are you actively writing that book? Are you getting more joy and fulfillment from your relationships? Are you scaling your company successfully thanks to your improved leadership? These are the ends to which radical self-betterment is the means, remember; so keep them close, and don’t let anything replace them as your rudder.
The case against radical self-betterment
With all of this said, there are compelling reasons why more people don’t pursue radical self-betterment, or don’t end up sticking with it even if they try.
It's really, really hard. (Plot spoiler: this is not actually a good reason not to do it, though it can often feel like one.)
Changing your character in a fundamental, enduring way is one of the hardest things you can do. It means waging a war on inertia, on entropy, on all the homeostatic forces and dynamical systems whose sole function is to keep you in an unchanging equilibrium. Most people either underestimate how hard it is, or write it off as impossible—or more likely oscillate between the two. And if they’ve internalized any of the various shades of fatalism or determinism with which our culture is well-saturated, they are that much less likely to believe themselves capable of changing through their own efforts, and thus less motivated to persevere in them. That’s why internalizing a belief in your agency—your fundamental capacity to solve your own problems and shape the basic course of your life through your own efforts—is among the most game-changing changes you can pursue.
We are actively discouraged from doing it.
The idea that people should raise their psychological ambitiousness would be highly controversial among my fellow psychologists. And they’d be right to worry, given the real risk of adding fuel to the fire of the perfectionistic inner drill sergeant that brings so much psychological misery to so many of us already.
Where I’ve come to differ from the psychological establishment is that I don’t think the drill sergeant should have a monopoly on the ambitious pursuit of excellence. If we listen past the angry, nervous clamor of our inner drill sergeant, what we will often find is the voice of our inner builder: the part of us that wants to live in a beautiful, abundant world of our own design, as guided by our own highest values and ideals. Building that world demands excellence, yes; but it is an excellence defined by nobody’s standards and pursued for nobody’s sake except our own.
As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s the builder, not the drill sergeant, who genuinely cares about excellence; for the builder’s excellence is in service of the particular life she wants to build, whereas the drill sergeant threatens you with “excellence” as a vague, arbitrary dictate you have to appease before being allowed to build your own chosen life in the first place.
People try to “better themselves” for the wrong reasons, or just because they feel they “should”—and burn out harder than if they hadn’t tried at all.
The reason to care about your self-betterment is not because some inner drill sergeant, be it the voice of God or your parents or your boss or society or even this article—commands it. Such reasons have never compelled anyone to change themselves in any deep, enduringly positive way, and nor should they. You’re the only one who has to live with you forever; so your character is nobody’s business but your own.
By the same token, if you ever find that “working on your character” becomes a distraction from pursuing your valued goals, rather than a means to them, you’re probably better off ceasing and desisting.
The tradeoffs may not be worth it.
Only you can decide, in the context of your particular life and goals, what changes are and are not worth pursuing. Even if you find yourself afflicted by a lack of self-worth or a trauma-induced victim mindset, you may reasonably judge that it’s not necessary or worthwhile to try to uproot it entirely: it may be enough to gain awareness of the ways it pushes you around, so you can override it in the moment and not let it control what you actually say and do. Just as someone might reasonably choose to live with a chronic illness rather than opt for a costly experimental cure, so you might reasonably choose to live with some residual learned helplessness or self-loathing rather than go through the costly process of reengineering your psychology. This may be a perfectly valid choice, so long as you recognize that it is a choice, and that there are real tradeoffs involved.
Loving the growth: a source of stability through change
Elsewhere I’ve written about how the “builder’s mindset” rejects the dichotomy between “outcome-focused” and “process-focused” approaches, recognizing that the process by which we build our chosen life is inseparable from the outcomes we seek. This applies in spades to our efforts at radical self-betterment: it is not just for the sake of some distant future reward that we undertake this project. It is for the joy and thrill and fascination of exercising our nature as the kind of being that aggressively seeks to better itself; and it is for our love of that being as it already exists within us. That love is not so unlike the love a parent feels for a child: it is a love that encompasses all that we are, and all that we are striving and struggling to become.
If we can love that striving, struggling part of ourselves with all our might, then nurturing and tending to our character becomes a natural expression of our love. And even as we envision and set our sights on a much better future version of ourselves, there are many ways to enjoy the promise of that future even in the here-and-now. With every small act of facing a fear we had previously avoided, we bring new, previously off-limits situations and opportunities within our reach—thus both experiencing and strengthening our commitment to a life of courage. With every mental reframe of an “I can’t” into an “I don’t want to right now”, we expand the choices within our reach—thus both experiencing and strengthening our commitment to a life of ever-growing agency.
And even as we guide ourselves over and over through the inevitable lapses and neurotic self-doubts and self-sabotaging patterns, there’s a deeper part of us that knows who we really are and why we’re doing all this. We are the builders of our own better future. And in fighting for that better future, we get to live in it today.
Dr. Gena Gorlin, is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a licensed psychologist specializing in the needs of ambitious people looking to build.
The Stable Diffusion prompt used to create the cover image for this piece is: a caterpillar becoming a butterfly omnidimensional electroluminescent wire by matisse