I’m a Self-Improvement Junkie and Here’s Why
I am a self-improvement junkie, there I said it.
“Life is a progress, and not a station.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
A small, six letter word. One that can have such varying meaning depending who is using it. Yet, being more than what we see in the mirror today has been a universal effort for a long while.
We constantly strive to be healthier, prettier, happier, thinner, smarter. Essentially, anything ending in ‘er’ we want. Every year, New Year’s Eve comes around we have a chance to really look at where we are (as if we can’t do that any other day of the year). We then come up with lists of ambitions for the year ahead, all of which we are excited for, at least for the moment.
This year it will be different. We think to ourselves. This year is my year.
It seems like now, amidst the Covid-19 chaos, self-improvement is at the forefront of the conversation too. Now, we are all at home, we have more time to exercise, write, create, teach, learn. We have more time to get better, essentially is the narrative.
This obsession with getting better made me wonder, how did we get here? Where does this fascination with getting better come from? Why are we not happy at being exactly where we are and staying there? How come we strive to move forward instead of staying exactly where we are?
Better in Medicine – Why I’m a Self-Improvement Junkie
The body of an 3000-year old Egyptian mummy, Pharaoh Ramses V, is thought to hold the origins of a harrowing story. That story is one of millions of deaths, numerous attempts at cure and finally a happy ending, I mean, after nearly 3000 years. The protagonist of this story? A little virus called Smallpox. It was Smallpox that was thought to be evidenced on Pharaoh Ramses V’s head all those years ago.
A tell tail sign of the virus were showcased on his head in the shape of circular pustules, the notorious symptom of this deadly disease. The virus, in it’s existence, killed 3 in every 10 people it took hold of. It induced high temperatures and is thought to have some damaging impacts on organs which ultimately led to death. The impact of Smallpox was catatrosphic. In the 20th century alone, it is thought to have killed around 300 million people. For context United States of America is currently home to 330 million people.
In 1796, a smart chap called Edward Jenner was experimenting with this idea of a vaccine. To get to this point was of course a triumph. Jenner got here from a whole host of small, measurable advances in science over the years. The combination of passion, curiosity and perhaps, betterment, led to this revolutionary discovery. Like any great idea, it’s really the sum of a whole host of thoughts previous to it. Namely, from a lady called Mary Mortley Montague who, in 18th century, became infected with Smallpox. Her brother contracted the virus 18 months later and sadly passed away. Furious and presumably totally petrified, she leant on some news she’d heard about something called inoculation. Around the time Smallpox was decimating the population and causing alarm for people all over the world.
However, a letter to the Royal Society of London detailing the technique of inoculation seemed to be, at least for now, the answer to problem. Montague was persistent, she wanted her son to be inoculated and subsequently ordered that her daughter be inoculated too. That was the start of a series of experiments. Experiments that led us to Edward Jenner.
Jenner, a keen scientist, was interested in a wide range of matters concerning medicine. He had though, for many years over head stories that dairymaids would become immune to Smallpox because they had contracted Cowpox. Cowpox was a zoonotic (meaning contracted from animals) disease that was a much milder version of the highly contagious Smallpox. Ever the scientist, he wanted to understand the legitimacy of this claim. Jenner hypothesised that the Cowpox could be used as a deliberate infectant to protect people from Smallpox. To test this, he went about finding his first test subject.
Cowpox to Smallpox
Sarah Nelms was a diary maid. She had just contracted Cowpox and as such had fresh Cowpox lesions on her hands and arms (much like those of Pharaoh Ramses V). Edward, presumingly with consent, transferred the lesion matter from Nelms’s arm to a young boy by the name of James Phipps. The boy suffered a fever but recovered. Then in July of 1796, Jenner inoculated the boy once more, this time with the Smallpox virus. To his prediction, and pretty miraculously, the boy remained disease free.
For context, this was the disease that was causing devastation across the globe. However, on that day in July of 1796, a young boy had just been given the virus and he was right as rain. This was the revolutionary at the time and ultimately led to the eradication of the Smallpox virus.
From 300 million deaths in the 20th Century alone, too now, in the 21st, zero. Better, at least in medicine, means lives are saved.
Why I’m a Self-Improvement Junkie
In our lives, it feels like the weigh isn’t that heavy. If you don’t make it to the top of the ladder you so desperately want to climb well, so what? When you don’t work out three times this week, are you really going to be that bothered? Don’t read the book on your reading list this month, who cares?
In our reality – Self-Improvement Junkie
However, I think it does bare some weight. The weight is the promise we make with ourselves. Our ambition to get better is part of who we are and what we value in this world. If we stood exactly where we were, for the rest of our lives, we wouldn’t know progress. We wouldn’t have the exhilaration of getting better. We wouldn’t experience the joy of commitment and staying true to our word.
How great does it feel when you try hard at something and get the result you wanted. I remember fairly vividly trying to master keepy uppies (or kick ups as they might be better know). Essentially, the aim is to kick the the ball in the air consecutively without letting it hit the floor. It took me forever.
Night after night, morning after morning. I would let the ball drop, kick, drop, kick. Eventually it would be kick, kick, drop, kick. Until it was kick, kick, kick. Looking back I don’t know why I was so obsessed with mastering that. Why I cared so much about being able to do at least 25 kick-ups in a row. Part of the answer is the sense of achievement we feel.
I still have it now, when I get a ball at my feet and start, it’s sensational.
Getting better fulfils us
“ Success without fulfilment is the ultimate failure.” — Tony Robbins.
Fulfilment//: the achievement of something desired, promised, or predicted.
I’m not quite sure where the sense of purposeful, defining work came from. My parents seem fairly happy with working a job, 9–5, not progressing and concentrating on other things. Our generation, at least the people I know, feel this sense of unbearable confusion.
We start at some job we stumbled across and we feel like the shoe doesn’t quite fit. It doesn’t feel like it’s quite our place in the world. It feels daunting and this sense of unease comes over us… is this my life? We become deflated and question everything.
Then I think back to a time where I have felt a massive sense of fulfilment. It has always flowered from being underwhelming in the beginning, failing and then getting it right. Getting better. Seeing ourselves, through our own eyes, progressing is a sense of belonging, a sense of achievement. It fulfils us. That’s why I love self-improvement, that’s why I’m a self-improvement junkie.
Getting better sparks curiosity
“You have the potential to be anything you want.” — Fran Watson
Part of the wonder of progress is the curiosity it sparks. It’s that feeling you get when you look at someone like Jeff Bezon, Elon Musk, J.K. Rowling and think… could I do that? Am I capable? It’s floating through all the Instagram accounts, Netflix documentaries, podcasts and thinking: “you know, maybe one day I could achieve that”.
Getting better allows us to dream and sparks a curiosity inside of us. As we step up the ladder, we look down to where we were and think: “woah look at me now”. We might feel a little uneasy, maybe a little shaky, but eventually we stand tall as if this is exactly the right place for us.
Then suddenly, we look up.
We’d maybe never actually thought we could get this high. Maybe we thought this would never happen to us. Success was never actually going to happen was it? Getting better makes us more curious about where we are going.
It sparks a sense of excitement in us that maybe, just maybe, we are capable of anything. That’s why I’m a self-improvement junkie.
Getting better teaches us about ourselves
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” ― Oscar Wilde
As we strive to become better we learn a lot about ourselves. A byproduct of trying to improve, we learn about how we work. We learn about how we learn. If nothing else comes from the pursuit of trying to be better, you will indeed learn about yourself.
For example, you will learn about:
How you deal with set backs
What is your attitude when you are winning
How you deal with mental pressures
What motivates you / what demotivates you
There is something almost romantic about the pursuit of being better for no other reason that to become more self-aware. Learning about ourselves, in my opinion, is one of the quickest ways to become happier.
Getting better is the building blocks of evolution
Survival of the fittest is a species getting better. Normally the fittest, healthiest, deadliest animal survives and adds to the gene pool. That gene pool then creates a new generation of animals and the cycle repeats.
Getting better is nature. The species evolves and gets better. That might be smarter, fitter, healthier, prettier. Ultimately, better.
Take pesticide-resistant insects for example (odd choice I know but bare with me). There was a time, when pesticides were first introduced whereby a large proportion of insects would be wiped out. Much to the farmers delight I imagine. The vast majority of the insects would shrivel up and die. However, some wouldn’t. Some would possess a gene or a mutation of a gene that would allow them to weather the ‘pesticide storm’. They might have been a little damaged by the pesticide but they survived.
They can then mate with the other insects that survived and build up a new colony of insects. When the pesticide came again, some will have been wiped but now, with the gene pool stronger, the majority survive. This repeats until the whole species are resistant to the pesticide and the farmer is left looking for a new pesticide to buy.
The insects became better.
We were designed to get better. To do more, to push the boundaries of what we think are possible in order to find the the truth. Getting better is part of our history and will always be part of our future.
“The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.” — Confucius
For me, the pursuit of becoming better is important. It allows you to dream, to learn and to achieve. Becoming better has it’s place through history, it’s the building blocks of evolution.
Better is something to obsess over, surely we should all squeeze as much out of life as possible?
Being better isn’t the problem. The problem, potentially, is what you are striving to be better in.