Self-improvement is embracing your messy, imperfect life


This article resonates with me, but I don't think it would have when I was in my twenties. It's the kind of thing you come to realize after longer years as an adult and you see patterns play out in radically different life contexts, and then you start to grok who you really are in ways that aren't available when you've been an adult for less time then you were a child.

What I've learned about procrastination and escapism is that a lot of it is driven by neurotic feedback loops involving some meta-narrative I have about myself. But narratives are not reality, and while I'm busy overthinking those things I'm no use to myself or anyone else. Some of these tendencies are hard-wired in me, but by recognizing the pattern I can nudge myself back towards the present moment in which I am not perfect, but occasionally do good things.


Realizing I'd sat there doing essentially nothing for years out of fear of making the wrong choices was a huge wakeup call. It turns out most choices don't generate much inertia: you can always change course.

You only get so much time. Inertia from decision paralysis grows exponentially the longer it goes on. But you get a lot of time. The brain struggles to grasp it. If you're 55, you could have as many years left as I've had in total, and I figured out in my 30s what most people only figure out on their deathbed.

The best time to make a call is now. My call was to focus on music around 2017, and the last 5 years have seen more progress than the 15 before it. I was doing CI/CD on my life without even realizing it with similar results. As with software development, there are mistakes, but I'm practiced at and confident with fixing them and getting on with it.


Wow you described exactly what I'm starting to feel in my late 20s. Especially the point about neurotic feedback loops.


Don't be like this person. Literally, throw away all the video game machines you own and take an extremely long walk in Tibet if needed. This is a cautionary signal. If you relate to this, you're going to throw your life away.

I was responding to a sub-thread but it got deleted before I could finish. This is what I think about this:

Someone said: >> it could be hurtful to people to attempt to archive by getting sucked into cycles of attempting to break a neurological predisposition

That's rather well put.

From the outside, some people are an abyss, permanently dominated by this type of cyclical thinking, in which getting out of the abyss creates new and interesting forms of drama. And the attraction of that gravity well to newbs who haven't e.g. been long-term alcoholics or locked up for suicidal tendencies, is precisely the fact that it gives one a temporary satisfaction (even worse, maybe, a way of lording it over others) of having addressed a particular neurotic trait, while substituting a load of other negative traits in exchange.

Nothing good ever comes out of the speech where one has repressed a particular neurosis by coming to terms with it in some crystalline fashion. It's a speech either designed to scam others, or to scam oneself.


So, in plain English, what you're saying is to not obsess over fixing neuroses because it's an addiction in itself that leads to other negative traits?


Long walk in Tibet. Sure, that's one option.

Personally, I got married and had kids. It's great. Has been for over a decade.

Never needed any far-flung travel plans or ayahuasca or Eastern religious philosophy.


> by coming to terms with it in some crystalline fashion

I’m not sure I get you. There are certainly ingenious speeches but there are genuine ones, too (probably not speeches but genuine acceptance). See “Radical Acceptu” by Tara Brach.




"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans" - Allen Saunders


No, that's just called learning how to socialize when you're semi-autistic. It's not and shouldn't be a rallying cry for people who can't/never get their shit together.


You're reading a lot into my comment that has nothing to do with what I'm saying, and you're doing an obscene amount of reductive generalization of "people who can't get their shit together". FWIW I am very successful personally and professionally, I was just trying to be honest that my internal landscape is not always perfect and it turns out that's not a showstopper or something I need to beat myself up about.

If you feel that's empowering losers or whatever, feel free to continue your judgement of them. I am not here to tell anyone what will work for them, we're all individuals so YMMV.


I don't understand your comment. What are you saying "no" to?


"No" - the parent poster's obsession with their own neuroses which drive feedback loops toward overthinking their own (previously mentioned) neuroses, are not a sample from which the parent can draw conclusions, even if those conclusions encourage them to be a bit less neurotic. Self-analysis is great, but when it becomes a form of auto-immune disorder, the entire vehicle - where self-analysis becomes central to one's understanding of self - needs to be jettisoned, because it's fucking selfish, childish and stupid.




Honestly, if I learned one thing about self-transformation it is that it's quite personal, so I don't want to call the author wrong per se, but the article does not reflect my experience at all.

The times when I experienced the most drastically successful change when I realized that there really is nothing stopping me from entirely changing my identity and self if I so desired.

Obviously, this only works for things actually intrinsic (you cannot hit your target weight over night, but you very much can be a person who cares about their body starting right now and never go back) but holy shit, if you actually believe in your ability to do this, it is god damn effective.

Again there are shitty strategies for this (extrinsic goals, perfectionism, diet books, goals without systems) and it requires a healthy foundation of internal self-confidence that might take half a lifetime to build, but I still don't see the kind of defeatist attitude of the article helping anyone.


Firstly, I love your approach and if it works I am happy for you!

However, how can we be sure that a person can actually change even some parts of ones identity?

It seems to me that most people assume that our brains can be molded at will, simply by repeating some intended behavior. I'm not saying that this is impossible, but I highly doubt the extents to which this works.

There are so many variables at play, that it is unlikely for any mechanism to simply pick up the "good parts". At most, I would assume that we can learn things cognitively, and some muscular patterns.

Being able to change wants and desires at will however seems almost unattainable.

Doesn't keep me from experimenting with it, though :) And I'd love to hear others opinions on this!


> Being able to change wants and desires at will however seems almost unattainable.

Operant conditioning makes this very attainable. Depending on how long you've had these exact wants and desires, how much you've thought of them, and what exact conditioning program you design, you may even get results in a matter of hours (unlikely though without spending a ton of time on it, it usually takes me at least a week). Keep up (and space out) conditioning and you eventually won't need it.

Initially you probably won't go from "I always would/wouldn't want to do this" to "I always wouldn't/would want to do this" - typically, you'll have super short periods where you have your old want/desire, and then you rapidly switch to your new want/desire. But it doesn't feel disingenuous or anything - it's a natural switch due to the conditioning. Over time the period with your old feelings shrinks. Combine that time with varying conditioning (maybe a different-feeling conditioning program, or even something random that happens in your life and conditions you), and you may be able to entirely eliminate those short periods.

Here's an intro:


In my experience identity (how you think about yourself) is the easiest thing to change. I did it several times in my 38-year-long life, mostly accidentally. Habits are much harder because by default you do them automatically, without thinking. I'm not even sure identity is an independent "thing". IMHO it's an emergent property based on things you do and think and it changes from one moment to another. Habits on the other hand are definitely real and persistent.

> Being able to change wants and desires at will however seems almost unattainable.

I don't think you need to change them. If I'm addicted to video games and wasting my life my root want and desire usually isn't "I want to play more games". It's "I want to feel I'm good at something" or "I don't want to think about myself as a failure anymore" or "I don't want to think about my life falling apart". These are all good things. You don't need to change the desires, just the way in which you achieve them.


Desires and wants change all the time for you already. Try this: The next time you desire something, focus on that desire. Stop talking or doing anything else that might distract you from this focus.

The desire will rise and fall away as you focus on it. Your mind will move on to other things.

You may come back to the same desire in an hour or the next day, but my point is that you can see this desire leave you as you focus on it.

You can’t get rid of desire permanently, but you can recognize that you are not the one in control of your desires. They rise and fall on their own. This is liberating because, with practice, you can lose attachment to these desires when you feel them.

This is one of the goals of certain types of meditation.


Your diffuculties arise from the way you talk about the problem.

You ask how you can be sure that a person can change their identity? Your question already presents a mechanism that naturally doesn't work. What is implicit in what you're saying is that changing somehow involves taking something out and putting something completely different in. As in taking out one set of desires and replacing them with some other desires. That is certainly not what happens.

To change some of your desires is to understand them and understand how they arise. That's very related to how you talk to yourself and what expressions you use and where they implicitly lead you. That is the way you speak imposes a certain view of the world, what it consists of and what is possible within it. (That's not to say that you would suddenly be able to fly but there is a whole human domain that you might start discovering from the inside as a human being rather than looking at yourself from the outside as a collection of organs).


I love self-improvement. There’s many in this camp of “you’re perfect the way you are”. I don’t agree at all. I believe more in Kaizen, the idea of changing for the better. It’s similar to the ship of Theseus paradox where you slowly replace each plank on the boat, is it the same boat?

Knowing about your short comings is the key. Knowing you are lazy will help you be more productive. Knowing you’re depressed will help you break the cycle.

People typically say they wasted certain years of their lives. I would also say the same thing. I was stuck in terrible loops of internet addiction and playing too many video games while doing the bare minimum at work.

These cycles didn’t break themselves because I embraced my mess. They broke because I became aware of them in comparison to my larger life goals of getting married, having kids, getting a prestigious tech job, and retiring early.

Many of those behaviors still cast shadows of my life many years later. But the secret to it all is that I can become aware of them when they happen and disrupt my pattern to put me back on track towards my life goals. That way I’m not a total waste man most days, and do something worthwhile instead.


"you’re perfect the way you are" and "acceptance" are poorly phrased and easily misunderstood.

As the article tried to explain, this is about making peace with ourselves and handle feelings of self-rejection, guilt, shame and so no.

Then the healing begins.


Agreed. Unless you have the context of the authors journey from their book or other works, it can read both ways. Usually it’s the whole “I embraced my mess when I became aware enough”. How do you become aware enough without first trying to change? Catch-22 in my opinion. That’s why I think changing for the better sometimes starts with no awareness, but rather a feeling inside saying you need to make a change (Japanese concept of Yugen)


Consistent reflection is a huge force multiplier, but it's sadly underrepresented in self-improvement because it's not sexy or fast. Yet it's the only sustainable solution.

You can't fix what you don't know. Once you find out what's holding you back, you can put a plan in place to address it. This is a slow , iterative process - but it works.

Shameless plug, but this is my free program to cultivate regular reflection:


Introspection is a superpower.


Awareness is self-perpetuating. That definitely makes it a superpower.


The only problem with Introspection is that there is no end to it.


That is something to introspect on. :D


I blitzed through the author’s book 4000 Weeks (on audiobook) earlier this week and it was excellent. It addresses many of the objections to commenters here better than might fit into the Guardian article.

One of the main points I took from it is that a failure to acknowledge your limits can actually undermine what you’re trying to achieve. For example, deferring the things that truly matter to you (personal projects, time with family) until you’ve got a hold of your endless todo list will lead to a life perpetually yearning for a fantasy future where everything is somehow under control.

Similarly (my example), fixate on finding a romantic partner to the point where you make yourself miserable until you succeed and you may find your despair makes it harder to connect with new people.

The key message for me is that this day today is your life. Work hard towards your goals but remember to enjoy that journey.


> The key message for me is that this day today is your life.

I read a similar line during the first lockdown. It was some random comment on reddit but it made a strong impression on me.

"This is also life". Perhaps it's not the ideal version of it, but you can't just sit there and wait for the planets to align. I ended up having many good moments in 2020 and 2021. I didn't get to do what I planned, but it was just as well.


> Work hard towards your goals but remember to enjoy that journey.

Milan Kundera had something similar to say about this in his novel "Immortality" (1990). There's a difference between a road (used to go from point A to point B, e.g. a highway) and a path (inviting to self-reflection, philosophy, and mindfulness). Most people live their lives going from point A to point B to point C, etc. Spoiler alert: don't think you're immortal. Be mindful. Enjoy the path.


Off topic, but I see that everyone involved in the photo used in the article gets a mention, even the model whose hand is pictured. Yet when a film like Dune is reviewed, or a new spacecraft lands on another planet, not a single engineer or 3d artist or software developer's name is mentioned, even though what they have done is far more difficult and impactful. It's time we recognised the people who make these amazing things happen.


A corollary to this is advice my boss gave me, “while you’re trying to get to tomorrow, remember to live today.”

It’s easy to get into a cycle of constantly pushing things off in the hopes of a future where everything is fixed.

If you take time to take care of yourself now, you’ll be much more efficient in the long run.

In my own life, I’ve had to accept there are things I can’t control and I have very real limits on what I can do. I want to be better than I am now, but the pace will always be slower than I want. If I remember where I was before, and see where I am now, I know change and progress looks different up close and it does in hindsight.


Who said that my life is messy? Imprefect, for sure. But messy?

Nah. The author clearly thinks everyone lives a shitty life where he/she is being looked down on all the time. Life doesn't work that way, we aren't living in the 16th century anymore.

You pick your place in this world or someone will do it for you. Accepting your flaws is good, but you also have to accept your virtues. If you aren't aware of them, then how will other people be?

I realize that this article is written for people in first and second world countries. But for someone who lives in a third world country, "the struggles" mentioned here will be either laughable, or downright discriminatory.


If you read carefully, the article meant that by accepting 'the hard truth' you have more chance to change.


“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

Paradoxically, accepting that you’re just not a confident person and you’re always going to feel a little off around other people will begin to make you feel more comfortable and less anxious around others.


There is a reason why that's a paradox.

I am anxious around people who I don't trust. Accepting that will not change how I feel around them.


>Accepting that will not change how I feel around them.

But perhaps accepting the fact that you're more innately less trusting than the average person could (assuming that's true, of course)?


In my experience change was only possible when I was able to practice rigorous honesty with myself and another person. It's easy for me to hide in self-denial and commit to myself that I can be better, but without really being truthful about the parts of me I want to change and why, it never worked.

I wouldn't advocate for specific strategies or methods to other people, but I've found combinations of mindfulness, therapy, and support groups to be the most useful for me. It's all about building healthy habits and honesty about the parts I want to change.


This seems like the opposite of being disciplined and actual self improvement. There’s a nuanced difference between healthily dealing with your flaws and accepting them as a way to excuse inaction. I feel like the attitude in this article is part of a greater cultural trend of justifying flaws rather than working to correct them. The “fat acceptance” or “healthy at every size” movement is similar, where healthy mental attitudes slowly turned into “ask your doctors not to weigh you and to give you weight free medical care”.


It depends on how you want to live your life I guess.

There are benefits from being 'disciplined' and correcting your flaws for sure.

But sometimes you just want to let go, not have your entire life be something you must do or must correct. You won't be good at everything and you will have certain bad habits and things about you and while it's good to try to improve and work on yourself, it's also bad to just live in a state where you are constantly trying to discipline yourself and improve because you are somehow not worthy of the one life you have to live and therefore have to spend it entirely trying to be someone else, someone better.


The article isn't saying you should be happy with you who you are and then never change.

Come on.


From the article:

> “There’s a quiet power in forgiving our flaws, missteps and perceived shortcomings,” says Madeleine Dore, author of I Didn’t Do the Thing Today: Letting Go of Productivity Guilt, out this month. “Often when we accept ourselves, we’re more likely to get the best from ourselves, because we’re better placed to look at what we need to thrive, rather than change.”


...that quote doesn't say "never change." It says that "look[ing] at what we need to thrive" is a "more likely" way to change, rather than trying to "look at what we need to...change."


It's not (at least not to an absolute degree) but I dont know if you are aware of the shtick of this author: "All self-help books suck, except mine because I tell you to dial down any hope and be happy with your mediocrity". Big meh.


What worked for me was to stop comparing myself to others.

Yes someone else makes more, has a bigger house, etc.

But someone else has less.

As long as I have a safe place to live, I can't ask for more.


I wholeheartedly disagree with this defeatist attitude, which is supposed to magically lead to change more than actually planning and actioning chance itself.

Nowhere in life change happens without trauma. Get good at trauma and you'll get good at life.

I suggest to learn one's own limits through suffering and systematically repeated failure. It's the only way to build not only a map of current yourself, but also a trail towards your future self.

Time is ticking, memento mori, the beatings will continue until morale improves.


> Nowhere in life change happens without trauma.

I found that shocking to read. It's a million miles from my experience of life. That sounds horrible. Perhaps you've found it true, but please stop saying it like it's true for everyone, a fact of life. I can't even imagine how you could believe such a thing, well, it works for you or something, I guess. Also, saying that then complaining in the same breath that someone else is defeatist! is hard to swallow. That sounds a cold, hard world that you live in. Good luck. I don't think it's the only world, by any stretch, though. Although I'm sure I misunderstand you - that's a very foreign language to me, everything about it is strange. Beatings, suffering, trauma.. :-(


I think you're responding to the use of the word trauma. OP is correct, but perhaps OP should have used a different word.

We don't make progress unless we take risks and move outside of our comfort zone. Sometimes, those risks don't pay off, and the result is painful in some way. Maybe that pain is "traumatic", maybe not. Certainly, if the risks don't pay off, then we need to be willing to live with the painful result. This necessarily requires an understanding that pain is OK, and that accepting the risk of pain is a necessary part of growth.

A lot of people like to fantasize about being on the other side, about having already undergone that personal growth. Fantasy is easy, but it's not a replacement for the real thing, and engaging in too much fantasy will give you feelings of guilt and/or resentment for not actually being on the other side. There are two healthy directions to deal with this: you either give up on the fantasy and accept being where you are (i.e. what the article advocates), or you fully accept the costs and risks that are needed to get there, so that you can actually start on the journey to get there.


Moving outside of your comfort zone is not inherently painful. Sure it may be uncomfortable or scary but it certainly doesn't imply trauma. I interpreted OP's comments as trauma being the causative factor for change to occur, not that change results in trauma.

"Fully accepting the costs and risks needed to get there" sounds like you're preparing for a hike to the antarctic or something. Not all changes have to be this dire.

Deciding to get fit is not really a sacrifice. Rather, it is turning certain disciplines into habits. If you have enough leverage to force you to do that, there is no pain or trauma involved.


Thousands of ancestors did not fight for comfort only for me to whine and complain "more". Embrace the comfort zone, for a heavy price had been paid for it by humanity!


You both seem to be on opposite ends of a spectrum. I agree with OP in that living implies a certain amount of suffering… at some point, life stops giving you things and starts taking things away. That is an inevitable consequence of being alive, and it fucking hurts to loose your best friends, or your parents. But you still can choose for yourself what you make of that.


No. That happens since you are born, you leave the comfort of the uterus, then eventually you cannot suck more your mom's tits, a new baby comes in and you are not longer the smallest one, you have to go to kindergarten,etc, etc, all those are pretty challenging/traumatic events when adjusted by age and then the changes keep coming. By all means not all changes are bad or even difficult but constantly through life you will have plenty of them. One thing I have learned in life is that you need to control very carefully your comfort and pleasure, too little and life is miserable, too much and you become indulgent, weak willed, afraid of change and you stagnate. Most humans live in the "too comfortable" spectrum (this not only means being materially comfortable, it may mean not trying to change, playing it safe, not daring to do things), so one or two whips courtesy of life could work wonders.


OP and commenter have experienced opposite ends. Commenter wants to make sure that one’s life experience isn’t extrapolated to everyone else’s and generalized. You can relate more with OP than commenter but they are your individual experiences. Doesn’t mean they’re uncommon. It could be that commenter’s experiences are rarer. Commenter’s ask is to not treat OP’s, yours or even their own life experiences as inevitable facts of life.


It's the pain that is inevitable, the suffering is your reaction which you can control.


It depends on how lucky you are. Some people just have to work hard to get where they want to go. Some are just handed everything they need.


Hard work and trauma are not the same. A good days work should leave you feeling tired, not beaten down & broken.


Some are just handed everything they need yet still fail. I started out in life with advantages, although didn't realise it at the time. Went through a series of dead end jobs, a failed business, a few failed relationships, ended up on the street.

My real luck came along when someone gave me a chance to get back on my feet and start afresh with the benefit of all that experience and the knowledge of what can happen. I realised that, previously, I was just unmotivated to do what was necessary to achieve anything in life, I was coasting along and not really trying.

I do OK now, I work hard and make sacrifices, don't waste money and invest all my spare income. Not exactly rocket science, I just wish I had started sooner.


You are the defeatist: you seem to think people cannot get better without suffering.

The article just states that to actually be better, a good starter is to remove the useless comparison with an idealized future self, because it brings no good and it’s actually harmful.

At no point to actually stop trying to be better


Very often, the desire to change arises from experiencing major pain (of which trauma is one kind).

But this is not always the case. The impetus for change spans the spectrum of human emotions including dissatisfaction, pleasure seeking, existentialist realizations and envy/peer influence.

Trauma is definitely not a pre-requisite for change. It may be the most observable external cause to the effect, but that doesn't mean it is more useful than the rest.

The people I know who reinvent themselves the most are those driven by joie de vivre and a sense of self-expression.


That sucks. Compare that to squares who didn't get bullied, straight B student, listened to parents advice and guidance, didn't abuse substances, got a degree, did 9-5 and got a house from it. No trauma needed.


Most sibling comments are already pointing out how sad this idea is, but I’ll add this: apparently you to refuse accept that acceptance can “magically” lead to change. On the other hand, I claim that acceptance (of reality) is the Only way to change! For a (deep down) very simple reason: if you want to change reality, you have to start from reality. This means accepting it. Living in an imagined world leads to no change.

This is (one of) the core ideas of buddhism-related philosophies. I suggest you give those a chance!

>Nothing in life happens without trauma. That’s Not True. If you accept reality and see that some change is Right, you Do it. No trauma. This is a Fact, and again, dealing with facts and accepting what is true is very liberating.

And look man, I’m in a pretty confused situation myself right now, but we all trying to figure out what’s best!


It's not defeatist at all. It's just being real.


I think a major problem with the self-improvement books I've read is their emphasis on habits.

Depending on where you are, a positive habit may be useful for getting you out of a hole but ultimately consciousness is not about acting or reacting stereotypically. It's about having the option to do things differently.

Consciousness, or self-awareness, is the real key to improvement, and it's actually an anti-habit.

e.g. rather than relying on the force of habit for daily exercise, one eventually comes to realise and to experience repeatedly that being fit is not only better than being unfit but it feels better too. No self-coercion is then subsequently required to maintain fitness


Experiencing something repeatedly and feeling the need to keep doing it sounds an awful lot like a habit. I think the idea that you've developed some absolute control through consciousness is the final stage of a habit. You go from forcing yourself to go to running practise weekly, to internalising that you are a runner and nothing could stop you from going.


By all means call it a habit if you wish but do distinguish it from a bad habit which I would define as something which makes you feel good without actually being good for you.