In one sense, “self-improvement” is an oxymoron: If your “self” is who you fundamentally, authentically are, how can you possibly improve it? And should you want to in the first place?
These days, anyway, those questions aren’t strictly philosophical. Amazon stocks 67,586 self-improvement books, which suggests that one, there’s quite a number of people interested in learning how to better themselves; and two, that the same approach may not work for everybody.
This morning at the Fast Company Innovation Festival, three experts on mindfulness and habit change made exactly that point and offered some advice on finding the self-improvement strategy that’s right for you.
According to Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, it all starts by acknowledging a distinction many of us miss: “Where is this about acceptance”—the “self” part—“and where is this about kind of upping your game?”—i.e., “improvement.” Any efforts to change the way you work or behave, Rubin suggested, may fall flat if they aren’t true to who you already are.
If that’s the paradox at the heart of “self-improvement,” it’s precisely what strikes skeptics as oxymoronic. As the clothing designer Eileen Fisher, who joined this morning’s panel along with Rich Pierson, cofounder of the guided meditation app Headspace, pointed out, “A lot of people don’t like that idea that they need to improve, that there’s something wrong with them. That actually isn’t really true.” The goal instead is “to help people uncover their truest selves and to bring their fullest potential to their lives and to the workplace.”
“Authenticity” has inched toward buzzword status in recent years, but like most terms abused through overuse (including “self-improvement”), it underscores an otherwise obvious truth that’s still fairly new to the business world. Leaders haven’t traditionally felt much compunction to be “their truest selves” in the workplace. They just had to lead. But as the business world comes more and more to prize human qualities like emotional intelligence and soft skills, authenticity seems to be trading at a higher value, too.
That’s pretty handy when it comes to self-improvement, Pierson suggested. It’s unlikely you’ll make any lasting change if you don’t know why that change matters—and it needs to matter to you. For those who want to try meditation as a means of self-improvement, for instance, Pierson pointed out there’s no substitute for firsthand experience. Personally understanding its benefits is far better motivation to do it than just being told over and over that meditating is good for you.
Rubin said she’d heard that quite a bit from “so many smart people.” But after five or six months of diligent, daily meditation, she said, “It was just doing nothing for me.” So she quit.
Meditation offers a great case study in why self-improvement schemes are often so polarizing. We’re repeatedly informed that we should be taking up this habit or abandoning that one, with little regard for personal difference.
On one hand, there really may be quantifiable benefits to a certain habit change. In Fisher’s experience, meditation “gives you a little space between things. It gives you a chance to stop and make choices.” Scientists agree: University of Pennsylvania researchers have found that certain “landmark” days, like New Year’s or even Mondays, tend to clue people into decision-points they may otherwise skim over.
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the habit that makes Fisher more mindful has no effect on Rubin, whose research on the subject suggests that there’s no universal technique for everybody.
The challenge, Rubin said, is to understand “When is this futile and when am I just giving myself an excuse [to quit]?” Even that can be a moving target, she concedes, but if you can figure out something that’s meaningful to you, as Pierson points out, you’re more likely to stick with changes that actually work. Rubin suggests asking two questions:
- Whom do you envy? “Envy is a very uncomfortable emotion,” she explains, “that tells you something about what you wish.”
- What did you like to do for fun when you were 10 years old? “If you liked to do it when you were 10 years old,” says Rubin, “you probably enjoy the adult version at work or at home.”
These questions can help you get your core passions and priorities straight—then discard the rest. But it still might be worth giving things a try even when you aren’t sure they’re for you. After all, that’s the best way to find out.
Pierson added that the U.K. was a deeply “cynical” market in which to launch a meditation app, but it took hold nonetheless. Headspace racked up $38 million in new funding last year and now boasts some 9 million users. Sometimes it’s less a matter of personal preference than of patience, he suggested: “There’s a big issue with the self-help movement . . . it’s all about how quickly can I get you rich? How quickly can I get you to sleep? I just don’t think these kinds of changes take place in the kinds of time frames we’ve been sold.”
Rubin, for her part, remained circumspect. “Some people like small incremental habits, and some people like big radical change.”