Do you really want to improve?

Or is it just for others to be better?

“Do not be sorry, be better.” — Kratos, God of War.

As you may have been able to discern by the title and subtitle of this post, I wish to talk about those who claim to want to improve, but seem not to, and those who going around telling others they need to be better, yet demonstrate a severe lack of self-awareness when it comes to this.

Actually, no I’m not, because I will not debase myself and indulge in a whinging and moaning session…I must be better. They are, however, still good questions worth exploring further, which we will do now.

Do you actually want to be better? Because if the answer is no then you might as well stop there. Should you answer yes, however, the next questions should be along the lines of: what is “better”?, what does it mean to improve yourself? And these are important questions, because if we don’t define our goals, how will we know what we’re aiming at and if we’ve reached them?

Or as Seneca wrote:

“If a man knows not which port he sails, no wind is favourable.”

The thing with improving yourself is that you set an ideal as to where you want to be, and this ideal acts a bit like a judge for when you aren’t acting in accordance with your aim. You have to ask yourself honestly where you want to improve and just how many of you are willing to go over your faults, flaws and deficiencies with a ruthless fine-tooth comb?

I understand why people don’t like looking at their weaknesses, shortcomings or errors because you can start to feel pretty bad about yourself pretty quickly and then think why bother? However, sometimes one does need to feel bad and for this to act as a catalyst as all in their world is not right as it currently stands. And sometimes one needs to not feel as terrible about themselves as they do. It can be a difficult balancing act at times to decipher which one, and I cannot give you the answer.

I feel like Morpheus — “I can only show you the door, you’re the one that has to walk through it.”

Let’s take a further look as to why some people are not better.

Given we are creatures of habit and how we generally fear the unknown, the allure of security and familiarity is sometimes too strong for people to resist or break out of. We don’t want to change for the better, it could go wrong (for starters) and we want it easy. It is less strenuous to remain comfortable in one’s ignorance, than to be seeking constant improvement. It is too much effort and not worth the hassle and you would rather not put yourself in a vulnerable position asking such questions. Life is difficult enough as it is. Society and its people are constantly telling you your flaws, and you’re sick and tired of being told how inadequate you are and why you are not good enough. So, “why bother?”, am I right? I mean, what is the benefit to all this “improvement”? It may seem like a whole lot of stress and effort for little or no reward.

The self-help industry lives off of people trying to better themselves, but there are a number of snake oil salesmen and women out there offering the “keys to success/life” that do not know what they are talking about.

I remember Alain de Botton talking about the self-help section in bookstores being basically broken up into two sections, the “how to make a million dollars in an afternoon” lot and the “how to improve your self-esteem” crowd. The irony being how contradictory these two are. I mean, you’ll certainly need the second book after reading the first one! I wish that people would be more aware to the deception in the pursuit of self-interest with the self-help genre, but even I am not immune sometimes.

So, enough of my little gripe with the self-improvement mob. As I’ve said before, it is very easy to point out faults in others, to point the finger and put the blame on someone else. How many times have we heard someone say, “I’m perfect, I’m great — it is him/her that needs to change or improve or be better!”? To which my usual instinctual response is, “have you looked at yourself first?”

Thanks to the rise in social media, public perception is a currency a lot of people trade in. So, naturally, one has to ask, does it just sound/look good to say you are improving yourself? i.e. is it just for show? Y’know, say a few token words, post a few inspiring quotes, take a picture of latest go-getter book you’ve just read, do a quick video on a topic utilising “advice” and “wisdom” you’ve come across or experienced…forgive my cynicism, but I’ve seen too many insincere people espouse hollow words from their empty souls for superficial benefits.

So, Martyn, it seems like you’re advocating for people not to try and improve themselves. You talk about all the reasons why people won’t; the temptations, the distractions, the excuses. And even if someone does want to be better, that there are a lot of pitfalls and pseudo-advice out there — so how do I know what can really improve me? And I haven’t even given any credence yet to the argument of CAN you even pull yourself up by your own bootstraps? (which warrants consideration, but there isn’t enough space here for a proper discussion of it). I’ll tell you why, no, let Ralph Waldo Emerson tell you:

“Greatness is the perception that virtue is enough.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

That’s right, virtue is a reward in itself. Living a life of virtue is living a good life. You make yourself better, you make those around you better and onward and outward to the wider community. Not only for today, but tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. The external rewards may not always be there, but the internal rewards are boundless. Sometimes improving is a result from no longer doing detrimental things. Surround yourself with the right people, with good people who will help you achieve and grow. Ask yourself, what keeps happening to me that is less than optimal, and what control do I have over that and how can I go about rectifying it? Who do you want to be? What are my moral obligations? How can I reduce the amount of suffering in the world? Every little bit counts and it all starts with you. Honestly, have you really got anything else better to do?

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” — Marcus Aurelius

Originally published at https://www.martynfosterwriter.com on February 19, 2021.

Writer, former postgrad psychology student and accountant. Pursuing the philosophical life and trying to help others live well.