July 7, 2020

Are you working on Self-Improvement or Self-Indulgence?

“In a world of stressful lack of control, an amazing source of control we all have is the ability to make the world a better place, one act at a time.” ~ Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers


Creating moments of stillness throughout the day. Thinking regularly about death and mortality. Resisting my compulsion to be busy and productive all the time.

Building an awareness practice on a foundation of mindfulness meditation. Making more time for the people and activities I care most about. Fighting FOMO, the ever-insidious “fear of missing out.”

These are a few of the practices that have helped me build more fulfilling days. These practices don’t require me to make radical changes in my life. The fact that they integrate with my existing circumstances rather than demand that I create entirely new ones is part of the reason they’ve proven sustainable.

They work, in other words, because they don’t depend on anyone or anything else. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I have at least a little control over how I see and spend my days.

This focus on individual well-being is important. As the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche observes in In Love with the World: A Monk’s Journey Through the Bardos of Living and Dying, “People everywhere try so hard to make the world better. Their intentions are admirable, yet they seek to change everything but themselves. To make yourself a better person is to make the world a better place.”

It’s critical, however, to distinguish between two approaches to self-improvement:

>> The approach that seeks to better the individual in order to be a better human being, to be there for those around us, and

>> The approach that seeks to better the individual at the expense of those around us.

In the latter, we convince ourselves that because we cannot control other people, we should dismiss them entirely and focus solely on our own well-being. We should seal ourselves from them. We should immunize ourselves to their pain and struggles, using our limited time and energy to make ourselves stronger, more resilient, and more fulfilled.

At a certain point, the worthy undertaking of self-improvement has become self-indulgence.

On paper, these two approaches appear easily distinguishable. Yet what begins as an earnest attempt at the first approach can all too easily slide into the second.

How do we recognize the slippery slope between self-improvement and self-indulgence?

To make this conversation a little less theoretical, consider one of the practices I describe in my book, Reframe the Day: the importance of making more time for what matters to us.

It’s one thing to ask whether we can find more time to do what matters most to us. It’s another to ask whether we should.

People in our lives depend on us for all sorts of things, even if we don’t always want to do those things. People around the world face enormous challenges, as does the planet itself. Without taking away from anyone’s suffering or minimizing anyone’s situation, having the time and ability to pursue and invest in our personal development, whether through podcasts or books or invaluable communities like this one, reflects a position of privilege.

Why should we have the privilege to reflect on our lives and spend time crafting our days to make them more fulfilling? Why aren’t we using every spare moment to volunteer for a meaningful cause or serve others in some form or another?

In other words, how do we make time for what matters to us in a responsible way? How do we find a pragmatic balance between pursuing what we care most about and upholding the obligations of life—not just the daily to-do list and what we’ve been assigned, but our commitments to our spouse, our children, our parents, our friends and family, our colleagues, civic society, and those in need?

Here’s another example. Throughout the multi-year process of writing my book, I wrestled with the tension between what I’ve found I love doing (writing and publishing) and what I feel like I should be doing. For me, that “should” takes different forms, from volunteering to campaigning for a political candidate I believe in, but it’s always about contributing some form of public service.

Instead of writing this article from a comfortable apartment in London, where I live now, shouldn’t I be back in Washington, D.C., using my resources and connections to advocate and agitate for a stronger social safety net? Who am I to tell an exhausted single parent working multiple jobs for minimum wage that what she really needs is not a raise but rather to spend more time doing what she cares about?

Sometimes, these tensions lurk even closer to home. The steps we take to build more fulfilling lives, and the routines and habits we construct along the way impact the people around us. Those impacts are generally positive, but not exclusively.

On one hand, it’s impossible to maintain the strength for the sacrifices and struggles required for our collective future if we don’t take some time to build a fulfilling foundation for our individual future. Yet a commendable intention to spend time in more fulfilling ways, for instance, can easily turn into an obsession.

It’s easy for me to become overly focused on checking all the boxes that are important to me (meditation, writing, reading, and so on) every day. That takes a toll on others, too—not just in the time I spend on these goals and routines, but in my resulting irritation if they get interrupted.

Perfection is an impossible standard, especially on the scale of a lifetime, but any successful self-improvement undertaking can make it tempting to pursue. Therein lies yet another instance of the ever-present tension between self-improvement and self-obsession.

Can we resolve these tensions? Should we?

Getting the balance right is tricky. If you’re running a large nonprofit organization that’s improving the lives of millions around the world, but you’re neglecting to spend time with your own children, are you getting the balance right?

If you work for a large oil and gas company that’s pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and spreading disinformation about climate change, but you spend your weekends volunteering to clean up the park across the street from your house, are you getting the balance right?

If you’re so busy and overwhelmed organizing people to vote that you don’t take any time for yourself and snap at your loved ones and demean your employees, are you getting the balance right?

If you decide to write a book about building more fulfilling days because you genuinely think it can help people reflect on their own lives, but you do so at the cost of thousands of hours that could’ve gone to getting involved with a local mentoring program or just spending more time with your partner, are you getting the balance right?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. I don’t know the answers, nor am I sure there are any. I don’t have any way of resolving the tensions between what we want to do and what we have to do, between what fulfills us and what’s expected of us, between our obligations to ourselves and our obligations to those around us.

In many ways, navigating these tensions is the whole point of life. Whatever the case may be, feeling these tensions is a good thing. We need to feel them, especially if we’re on this journey of self-improvement because these tensions serve to guide us. We need to sit with them. We need to explore them. We need to interrogate them to better understand where they’re coming from.

If we veer toward one extreme, we tip too far in the direction of self-indulgence and self-obsession. If we veer toward the other extreme, feeling them can remind us to spend a little more time taking care of ourselves.

Resolving these tensions is impossible. Life is, and should be, a constant calibration and recalibration. The sooner we accept that, and the more often you remind yourself of it, the closer you’ll come to finding a balance that works for you, and those around you, each and every day.



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