Written by Jan Wilker
A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of self-improvement. How many steps have I walked today? How many calories have I burned or eaten? How long were my deep-sleep phases last night? How many likes did I get for my last run? Self-improvement is everywhere and more and more people aim to optimise all spheres of their lives.
If you Google “how to become the best version of myself” you get 300 million answers with endless livehacks, tips, strategies, to-dos and not-to-dos. An entire industry has been growing around the inherent desire of self-improvement. It is about selling tools, software, dietary supplements, books, coaching, personal training and ultimately the dream to become the best version of yourself – fitter, healthier, smarter, more attractive and successful!
Today technologies permit us to track our life and analyse nearly all aspects of it. Life gets quantified and measured in meters, hours, calories – we set goals for ourselves and try to achieve them every day. Suddenly, the subject turns into an object. Monitoring your own progress can be very motivating or even addictive. Smartphones, watches or other ‘wearables’ help us to understand how much we sleep, walk, cycle, read or eat, becoming our watch-dogs, personal trainers and 24-hour coaches. This provides new health-tracking opportunities, an unprecedented boost and new spin to the recurrent desire of self-improvement.
The increased use of self-optimisation tools can be seen both as a symptom and accelerator of more competitive societies. In the words of the author Michel Houellebecq, what we see happening is the “extension of the area of struggle” to different interlinked areas of life: profession, friendship, sexuality, health, culture etc. For example, if I am fitter and more attractive I might also get a better job!
However, does the continuous struggle to optimise ourselves make us happier people with more fulfilled lives? What is the ultimate stimulus for our persistent “run” – is it to do something good for ourselves, or rather to please or become better than others?
Self-optimisation can lead us down a wrong path, which is to believe that we can be self-sufficient, achieve our goals and grow on our own.
My experience living with mentally and physically handicapped people taught me that personal development is not mainly about becoming self-sufficient or autonomous in a narrow sense. My mates with down syndrome were not capable to learn how to write or read properly, however, they had immense emotional intelligence. They taught me that often it is much harder and much more important not to just do things on your own but to assume your vulnerability, accept your limits and sometimes ask for help. Growth and development is not predominantly about achieving progress yourself, but doing it together – in all areas. Efficient solutions to complex challenges are always collective, building on team-work, mutual respect, trust and support: multilateralism overcoming Trump’s “America first”, young people engaging in youth organisations to prevent social exclusion, etc.
The essential benchmarks and success indicators are not visible via smartphones and are never only in our own hands – they are in the bonds between people and communities.
We cannot grow or improve just on our own and we have to accept this. We very much need the support of others, their friendship and love. Robinson on his island was definitely very fit and skilled to survive. Nevertheless, his life was also very lonely and sad, making him nearly go completely mad.
Our goal should not be to become millions and billions of Robinsons. Societies full of people who believe they are or can be optimal by themselves are worse case scenarios. Instead, we have to acknowledge our individual imperfections and fully engage in collective improvement. There is so much to do and so many opportunities to build stronger friendships and respect by thinking and behaving more collectively, making our families, friendships, communities and societies better for everyone.
This is not a call against neither trying to become the best version of yourself, nor using technologies to get fitter and healthier. It is a call to be a critical user of these tools and never loose sight of what is essential in life. The essential benchmarks and success indicators are not visible via smartphones and are never only in our own hands – they are in the bonds between people and communities. Therefore, let’s not get too much into our own bubbles. Let’s open up and engage with others. Here is my personal story on this matter: I used to plank regularly for a few minutes at my job in the Youth Forum by myself at a corner of the office, because it was so good for my back, neck and mind. Then, one day came the idea and courage to make this a collective moment. Since then everyday at 4 pm everyone in the office who wants, is planking together. It is still good for everyone’s heath and mind, but also a great moment for the team, making the office a better place to be and work together.
Let’s be courageous, engage and make our personal struggles become joint efforts. We will not regret it. We have a world to win – let’s unite!