Self-Improvement Has Made Me Worse Cover

Self-Improvement Has Made Me Worse

When Batman meets Superman for the first time in Dawn of Justice, you instantly know who’s in charge and who’s in trouble.

Source

After crashing the Batmobile and interrupting Bruce Wayne on his rogue mission, Superman tells him to ‘bury the bat’ and let it go, putting mercy before justice. Of course Batman doesn’t, swearing revenge.

Lately, I feel a lot like Superman in this scene. With a stern look on my face, I swoop in to try and fix other people’s mess, but don’t get much credit for it. This is a cause for concern, but not about those other people, about me.

A lot of us strive to become superhuman, but this pursuit has a shadow. It looms ever closer and if we don’t watch out, it’ll swallow us whole.

Despite our best intentions, self-improvement can make us worse.

When Mindfulness Isn’t Optional

Over the past three years, I’ve gotten really good at noticing things. Not just about myself, but others too. In fact, I now can’t not notice things.

I notice when 10 out of 10 people on the subway are on their phone, when the dude in front of me is switching only between his sports betting account and Tinder and when the guy four seats over wastes all his time instead of working. I notice people who are always late, always behind and always broke and I can pinpoint exactly what needs fixing.

Now, I finally noticed that all this noticing is driving me nuts. I’d love to say “I don’t mind” and mean it, but it’s never true. I do mind. I mind everything.

Mindfulness is a gift when it’s directed inward, but outward? Not so much. It’s a good thing to realize you’re biting your nails, but constantly observing other people’s behavior? That’s a curse.

Why?

Comparison Is the Road to Madness

Mark Twain remarked that “comparison is the death of joy.” But, and this is worse, it’s also the birth of misery.

Comparing ourselves is an instinct as fundamental as survival itself. If Gronk can outrun the bear, pick the right berries and get the pretty neanderthal lady, maybe you should be more like Gronk. In a modern society built mainly on and for individual freedom, however, this is useless.

And yet, every notice is a new chance to compare. He eats well, I should eat better. She wastes time, I’m more productive. Even if we rationally estimate our own abilities, comparing still hurts us, an Oxford study suggests:

“The findings potentially have implications for social interactions in the workplace as well as clinical disorders such as depression.”

Interesting, right? Confidence and clinical depression can have the same source: comparing yourself to others. Most of the time, the results of your comparisons don’t even matter.

You’ll land in a bad place anyway.

Judgement Is Never Just

Most people make poor choices. They don’t want to worry about money, or getting up early, or if what they do matters. They, however, would never consider these choices poor. That label is pure judgement on my part.

The problem is that with so much mindfulness, millions of mini comparisons, judgement itself becomes a habit. This is a common side effect of self-improvement. Since it’s all about getting better, you’re left with only two opinions of other people:

  1. They’re better than you.
  2. You’re better than them.

Whichever one you settle on, you lose. This is self-improvement’s dark secret.

The Price of Self-Improvement

When you constantly compare yourself and decide you’re worse, you spiral into depression. But what happens when you think you’re better?

Imagine you’re Superman. You don’t need to compare, you have actual proof: you can’t die, you know everything and you’re physically stronger than anyone. You’re the ultimate success in self-improvement.

Unlike most of us, Superman didn’t choose his superiority, but he paid the same price: loneliness.

Sebastian Marshall perfectly described it in an essay 6 years ago:

You know what I think it is? You won’t be understood once you step off into the abyss. The more you do it, the more people won’t understand.

The second guy I mentioned, the effort guy? He’s got coworkers right now he can commiserate with who understand him. The business idea I mentioned to him doesn’t exist right now and there’s a demand for it. His income is such that even with a low price point he could still make 2x-3x what he’s making now and fulfill a market need.

But then what? Then he’s the only guy doing this thing. No commiseration. People won’t understand him as much. And the more you do that, the more people don’t understand. If you keep taking all those edges that no one else will, pretty soon your neighbors don’t understand you, can’t understand you.

It’s just you.

The higher you climb on the mountain, the thinner the air gets. More success, fewer fellow climbers, until you’re left with only one truth:

You’re the best, but you’re alone.

The internet is full of posts telling people how they can become the best. Be more creative, more productive, more aware. But once you achieve that, once you’re better, faster, stronger, how do you blend back in?

Even if you become superhuman, you’ll still spend your life among mortals. How do you deal with that? I see no posts about this issue.

We’re so worried about acquiring power — over our minds, our bodies, our time — that we forget learning how to use it responsibly to serve the world we live in.

And so, often, by the time we get it, we’re victims of our own success.

Running From Mediocrity, But Where To?

It all happens slowly, of course. One day you opt out of binge drinking, the next you tell your friends to get their shit together and two years later, you run your own dev shop while they extended yet another semester.

You notice, you compare and through the years, you silently collect millions of judgements until you conclude you’re alone. You might succeed in self-improvement, but fail in being human.

This is the dangerous path many of us are on. I know I am. I must find a way to turn off my comparison machine, because it’s been running too long already. That’s the big, wicked twist of the story.

In that scene from the beginning, I’m not Superman. I’m Batman.

A lot of us are. The frustration from the loneliness of our path makes us bitter, impatient, and angry. So we abandon our true mission, one comparison at a time, until we can retreat only into our lonely cave of judgment. Not despite, but because we come out on top.

You may feel you’re ready to pay the toll of self-improvement, but you still might not like who you turn into. We think we’re improving ourselves, when actually, we’re becoming the villain of our own story.

If you run away from mediocrity, but right into malice, what good does it do?

On Sweeping

For Clark Kent, the option to compare went out the window when he was a child. The moment he pushed the first school bus out of the river, any doubts were gone: if he goes rogue, we all die. Lucky for us all, before putting on his cape, Superman turned his powers inward.

That’s what we must do and it’s much more important than how much power we have. The problem is neither other people’s indifference to, nor our obsession with self-improvement. It’s the comparison that stinks.

Be better for the sake of being a better you, not better than everyone else.

There’s not much to gain from Pomodoro timers and dollar cost averaging for the people who enjoy their lives precisely for the lack of those things. It just so happens that because I care about self-improvement, I care about you-improvement too. Because then we could nerd out together. But we can’t and so I feel lonely.

It is my duty to deal with that loneliness and make sure it doesn’t drag me down. There is no ‘other people’s mess’. Just my mess. Nothing to swoop in for. The dirt is in front of my own doorstep, waiting for me to sweep.

You have a dirty doorstep too. Only if we all sweep will our streets be clean.

Superman Is Dead

When the world asked him to, Superman turned himself in. When the world asked him to, Superman appeared in court. Knowing full well the rules did not apply, he abided by them anyway, for the sake of the greater good.

Source

In a sick twist of fate, meeting the renegade bat led to his doomsday. As the ultimate of human evolution, Superman paid the ultimate price. It’s what makes it so hard to get out of the trap: You can be a saint and still lose.

That’s why the movie is beloved by hardcore fans, but commercially, far from the success it should have been. We don’t want to see the hero do everything right and then die. We know life’s not fair, but we hate to be reminded of this reality.

And so, as he tries to build a new team of heroes in a post-Superman world, Batman is too late when he realizes it was never his turn to judge:

Alfred: “You’ve got a team here!”

Bruce Wayne: “Superman could bring this team together better than I ever could. His strength…”

Alfred: “Doesn’t matter how strong you are or what abilities you
might have…”

Bruce Wayne: “He was more human than I am.”

— Silence —

Bruce Wayne: “He lived in this world. Fell in love, got a job. Despite all that power. The world needs Superman.”

Finally, Batman learns a true hero is not defined by the superiority of his power, but by the times he chooses to wield it. This moment is called a Harajuku Moment. Coined by Chad Fowler, Tim Ferriss defined it in The 4-Hour Body:

“It’s an epiphany that turns a nice-to-have into a must-have. There is no point in getting started until it happens. No matter how many bullet points and recipes I provide, you will need a Harajuku Moment to fuel the change itself.”

We all need such a moment in our quest for self-improvement. You have to acknowledge you’re not a hero to start acting like one. I had mine when I read this quote in The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday:

“When philosophy is wielded with arrogance and stubbornly, it is the cause for the ruin of many. Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others.” — Seneca

Superman is dead. We must become our own heroes, or his sacrifice was in vain. I don’t know where you’ll find your Harajuku Moment, but you need one. Until then, until we learn to use our powers, the best we can do is ask:

What would Superman do?

Most of the time, he would probably just keep sweeping.

How to Find Passion for Work Cover

How to Develop Passion for Your Work

It was almost dark. The white Chevy was rattling along the road. I don’t remember who was driving. In the dusk, two road signs emerged. One said ‘Cancun,’ pointing straight ahead, the other ‘Aeropuerto,’ directing to the right. For some reason, we took the right when, actually, we needed to just drive on.

“Sh*t, we have to turn around. And our gas is low.”

In Mexico, there are few exits off the highway. Hence, they have something called a ‘Retorno.’ It’s a U-Turn, right on the highway. But they only show up every few miles.

Not sure whether we’d make it, we kept driving until we found one. We turned around, and, after a 25-mile detour, barely made it to the next gas station.

What’s the lesson here? We occasionally miss the forest for the trees and get lost. That’s okay. But it also means that sometimes, we have to turn around 180 degrees to get to our destination.

Today is about making such a turn, but one that’s much more important than the one I made five years ago in Mexico. It’s a turn that, once you make it, will fix the relationship you have with your passion and your work.

Stuck in Passion…

From 2010 to 2014 I was extremely passionate about entrepreneurship. I also made zero dollars as an entrepreneur. I generated hundreds of business ideas.

There was the lunchbox that heats up your lunch, the site that matches self-made lyrics with self-made beats from different people and the bakery that’s open nights. The vitamin popsicles for babies, the How I Met Your Mother sightseeing tours and of course the restaurant that runs on iPads.

Sometimes, I even took the next step. Like when I asked Milka if they let me resell the broken chocolate that never makes it out of the factory.

They didn’t.

We could have been so great together.

What was the problem? Besides passion, I had not much to act from. Always enthusiastic, never productive. I made the same mistake — the only mistake — all people driven solely by passion make:

I stopped. Over and over, I stopped.

Seth Godin calls this “thrashing” in Linchpin:

“Thrashing is the apparently productive brainstorming and tweaking we do for a project as it develops. Thrashing might mean changing the user interface or rewriting an introductory paragraph. Sometimes thrashing is merely a tweak; other times it involves major surgery. Thrashing is essential. The question is: when to thrash?”

When it comes to projects, any project, really, thrashing early is a good thing. You argue until every detail is set. Then you work until the deadline comes and ship. Thrash too late and you’ll never ship on time, sometimes not at all.

“The habit that successful artists have developed is simple: they thrash a lot at the start, because starting means that they are going to finish. Not maybe, not probably, but going to.”

There’s only one problem: You can’t thrash your way to your passion.

It’s just an idea we’ve been sold on so much that we never dared questioning it. In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport calls it “the passion hypothesis:”

“The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.”

This is a great problem to spend your time on, because you can do it forever. Unlike the user interface design for your food scanning app, it’s unsolvable. There’s no passion meter in our brains that tells us “yup, I’m 7 degrees more passionate about this abstract idea than this one.”

That’s why so many of us spend years, in my case four, being stuck in passion, and it slowly drives us insane. Ryan Holiday calls it “the passion paradox” in Ego Is the Enemy:

“If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then passion is a form of mental retardation — deliberately blunting our most critical cognitive functions. The waste is often appalling in retrospect; the best years of our life burned out like a pair of spinning tires against the asphalt.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough, we’re stuck at work too.

…Stuck at Work

Throughout my four years of passion thrashing I didn’t just not make progress, I also paid another, more subtle, but even more severe price: I was constantly unhappy with what I was doing at the time — studying for college.

“This isn’t what I want to do. I need to find my passion or I’ll be stuck in this career path forever,” I would tell myself. Of course it’s exactly this self-induced pressure that kept me stuck.

That’s what makes the passion hypothesis so dangerous, Cal says:

“The passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they’ll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do. The problem, of course, is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt.”

The result is Resistance, as Steven Pressfield labeled the invisible force that keeps us from getting things done in The War of Art. Constant Resistance against our current stop in life, against the people we work with and against the jobs we’re tasked with right now.

It happens to the best of us. Sometimes we’ve long found our passion, but are so busy thrashing that we can’t see it. We don’t hear our calling and so no work gets done. Take George R. R. Martin, for example. Brilliant guy, but, talking to Stephen King, he can’t help but admit his capitulation to Resistance:

“How the f*ck do you write so many books so fast? I think, ‘Oh I’ve had a really good six months. I’ve written three chapters.’ And you’ve finished three books in that time.”

This particular manifestation of Resistance is one of its meanest tricks. It tells us we’re the victim. Steve notes in the book:

“A victim act is a form of passive aggression. It seeks to achieve gratification not by honest work or a contribution made out of one’s experience or insight or love, but by the manipulation of others through silent (and not-so-silent) threat. The victim compels others to come to his rescue or to behave as he wishes by holding them hostage to the prospect of his own further illness/meltdown/mental dissolution, or simply by threatening to make their lives so miserable that they do what he wants.”

That way, we can continue complaining about the misery of our current line of work, without really having to do anything about it. “Yeah, work sucks, but…gotta pay the bills, right? I hope I soon find my passion.”

Damn. That’s one giant quagmire we’ve maneuvered ourselves into here. How the hell do we get out of that?

What If You Did the Opposite?

Maybe, like me and my friends, driving on that lone road in Mexico, all we have to do is turn around. Take the retorno. Drive in the opposite direction.

What if, instead of thrashing through different passions, you just picked one and treated it like a profession? What if, instead of moaning at work, you just pretended it’s your dream career?

What if you made a U-turn from passion to profession and vice versa? A P-Turn, if you will.

The great minds we learned from so far think it’s a great idea. And so do I.

Treat Your Passion Like Your Profession…

As we’re thrashing through our passions, we inevitably reach a point of confusion with each one. Welcome to The Dip. At this point, we’ve done all the brainstorming, the convincing and maybe even some planning or other busywork.

But then, we look at what lies ahead…and we poop our pants.

Let’s…not do that.

That’s why most of us are serial quitters. It’s like constantly switching lines in the supermarket: with each switch, you lose time and start over, ultimately taking longer than whoever just stuck with their queue. Seth says this isn’t limited to grocery shopping:

“There are queues everywhere. Do you know an entrepreneur-wannabe who is on his sixth or twelfth new project? He jumps from one to another, and every time he hits an obstacle, he switches to a new, easier, better oppor­tunity. And while he’s a seeker, he’s never going to get anywhere.

He never gets anywhere because he’s always switching lines, never able to really run for it. While starting up is thrilling, it’s not until you get through the Dip that your ef­forts payoff.

Countless entrepreneurs have perfected the starting part, but give up long before they finish paying their dues. The sad news is that when you start over, you get very little credit for how long you stood in line with your last great venture.”

But what’s the opposite of serial quitting? Turning Pro, if you ask Steve Pressfield.

“When we turn pro, everything becomes simple. We now structure our hours not to flee from fear, but to confront it and overcome it. This changes our days completely. It changes what time we get up and it changes what time we go to bed. It changes what we do and what we don’t do. It changes the activities we engage in and with what attitude we engage in them.”

The distinction is so clear that even the choice itself turns into a vivid memory, Steven says:

“I can state absolutely that the term of my life can be divided into two parts: before turning pro, and after.”

What’s more, we’re all pros already. Where? At the very same jobs we now hold and despise so much. How so? Steve made a list:

1. We show up every day. 
2. We show up no matter what.
3. We stay on the job all day.
4. We are committed over the long haul.
5. The stakes for us are high and real.
6. We accept remuneration for our labor.
7. We do not overidentify with our jobs
8. We master the technique of our jobs.
9. We have a sense of humor about our jobs.
10.We receive praise or blame in the real world.

Imagine what might happen if you just picked one of your many ideas, just one thing you like, and treated it like your paycheck depended on it. How much more likely would you be to finally make it through the dip — any dip — that brings you closer to your goals? A lot.

You might even start to like your job.

…and Your Profession Like It’s Your Passion

The attitude of a detached professional is in stark contrast that of the passionate amateur. Cal Newport calls it “the craftsman mindset”:

“I’ve presented two different ways people think about their working life. The first is the craftsman mindset, which focuses on what you can offer the world. The second is the passion mindset, which instead focuses on what the world can offer you. The craftsman mindset offers clarity, while the passion mindset offers a swamp of ambiguous and unanswerable questions.”

This mindset is exactly what you teach yourself when you work on your passion like a pro. And with it comes motivation. Lots of it. Daniel Pink knows why. In his TED talk, he explains why the carrots and sticks approach to motivation is dead:

“Our business operating system — think of the set of assumptions and protocols beneath our businesses, how we motivate people, how we apply our human resources — it’s built entirely around these extrinsic motivators, around carrots and sticks. That’s actually fine for many kinds of 20th century tasks. But for 21st century tasks, that mechanistic, reward-and-punishment approach doesn’t work, often doesn’t work, and often does harm.”

It’s true. We don’t like our jobs if all they do is pay the bills and that’s why we chase passion in the first place. We. Want. More. But what more? Dan knows that too. He proposes a new model, which he calls “Motivation 3.0,” in his book Drive:

“That new operating system for our businesses revolves around three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives. Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. These are the building blocks of an entirely new operating system for our businesses.”

Easy as A-M-P.

What makes these three elements so powerful? Well…

Autonomy

Besides annual hack-a-thons and Google’s 20% time, companies embracing a ROWE — Results Only Work Environment — really take autonomy to the next level, Dan says:

“In a ROWE workplace, people don’t have schedules. They show up when they want. They don’t have to be in the office at a certain time or any time, for that matter. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, and where they do it is up to them.”

What happens? According to Dan:

“Almost across the board, productivity goes up, worker engagement goes up, worker satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down.”

Mastery

If you’ve ever played a mind-numbingly simple video game, you’ve experienced the power of mastery firsthand within minutes. Take Tiny Wings, for example:

Tap…aaaand hooked.

The only thing you have to do is tap and hold the screen. And yet, the first time you lose, you must get better. To the pro, attempting to achieve mastery feels as natural as breathing, Steve notes:

“The professional respects his craft. He does not consider himself superior to it. He recognizes the contributions of those who have gone before him. He apprentices himself to them. The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.”

Purpose

The reason purpose overpowers passion is that passion pertains to what you want, while purpose emphasizes what you’re willing to give up for it. Ryan makes the distinction clear:

“Passion is about. I am so passionate about ______. Purpose is to and for. I must do ______. I was put here to accomplish ______. I am willing to endure ______ for the sake of this. Actually, purpose deemphasizes the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself.”

Since purpose knocks out our ego, it allows us to approach our work with a sense of realism, some distance and a healthy dose of intimidation from what we’re trying to do. In a nutshell:

“Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function.”

Which One’s the Unlock?

This is it. The foundation of the work ethic we all want so badly. Autonomy, mastery and purpose are what help us push through the dip — and part of the reason why we’ve fallen for the passion hypothesis in the first place. It dangles autonomy and purpose right in front of us, but it hides the most controllable aspect: mastery.

Mastery is a gateway to autonomy and purpose.

The assistant who masters scheduling may soon join business meetings. If she keeps doing well, she’ll get promoted. Suddenly, she has a team to care for. A task bigger than herself. Autonomy and purpose have naturally followed from mastery.

Wait a Second…

Did you catch it?

While this new model of Motivation 3.0 is built-in when you chase your passion like a pro, there is something else about it worth noting: None of these things indicate the type of work you choose. It doesn’t matter what you work on.

Autonomy, mastery and purpose are all about how you work, not what you do.

In Cal’s words:

“Working right trumps finding the right work.”

Or, in Seth’s:

“Transferring your passion to your job is far easier than finding a job that happens to match your passion.”

Since no job will magically shower you with passion and motivation can be found entirely in how you work, not what you do, you can find autonomy, master and purpose not just in your favorite job, but in any job. Even the one you have right now. And you can use mastery to unlock those you don’t already have.

As it turns out, turning pro works. Everywhere and always. Chances are, you don’t need a new job. You just have to do the one you have like you really mean it.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

I don’t remember the day, but I remember the decision. “I’m going to write at least 250 words each day.” I did that for six months. Then I wrote 1,000 words every day for a year. And then some more.

It was only when my passion for entrepreneurship degenerated into a daily writing habit that I finally started making progress. What’s more, it allowed me to stop complaining about college and take responsibility. Not just for studying, but for whatever my task is. No matter how menial.

When you’re a craftsman, all work serves a purpose.

Passion, profession, it all blurs together, because you always see work for what it truly is: an opportunity to get better. That’s the real power of making the P-turn. Unlike me in Mexico, you can turn around whenever you want to.

So why not make it right now?