The Unbearable Madness of Being: Improvement Imperative

Why do we obsess about—and in fact embrace—notions of eternal busy-ness? That was the question that was raised in the first article in this series. One aspect that I outlined was the role that technology has played in providing constant access to near-ubiquitous information. This article continues those themes, exploring our eternal obsession with improvement.

As human beings, we have constantly driven to be better. And our track record so far has been pretty good. And yet, many of us our driven by a nagging sense of not being quite good enough, of falling down and failing to rise to our level of absolute potential. The voices at the back of our brain mutter an eternal nattering of ‘not good enough’, ‘not fast enough’, ‘not smart enough’, ‘not fit enough’ and, most insidious of all, ‘not perfect enough’.

The quest for perfection has deep roots, as does the on-going effort of self improvement. Benjamin Franklin was an early self improvement advocate, outlining in his Autobiography the thirteen virtues that he wished to perfect in himself. Although he eventually, at least, recognized that the attainment of perfection was impossible. A long line of self-help literature attests to the willingness of writers to keep suggest solutions for attaining perfection, and the presence of a large and eager public that keeps buying them.

A significant aspect of this improvement imperative, and a treacherous one, is the idea that we are not actually good enough, smart enough and capable enough to be in the positions we find ourselves in. This concept, labelled ‘Imposter Syndrome’, suggests that as individuals we run the risk of attributing our success more to luck than to hard work, qualifications or capabilities. These feelings of inadequacy are in part rooted in perfectionism, and the frustration of failing to realize unrealistic and attainable goals; as noted in a brilliant HBR article by Manfred Kets de Vries, the implications is that “…perfectionism often turns neurotic impostors into workaholics.”

Workaholism is its own inexorable vortex of psychic doom, of course. The compulsive focus and attention to work, despite receiving little enjoyment from doing so, has been cited as afflicting anywhere from 10% to 23% of the population. Relentless focus on work, inexorably squeezing out anything that doesn’t look productive or useful, becomes the means by which workaholics seek to attain ever greater and yet often unrealistic and unattainable goals. Described by some as a macho ‘badge of honour’, workaholics measure themselves by the number of hours spent, the number of weekends sacrificed and the timestamps of their emails. And yet, as Anne-Marie Slaughter points out in a controversial article in The Atlantic, women are no less susceptible to the myths of the perfectionist workaholic; the logic is that if you are committed enough, focussed enough and purposeful enough, you can have it all. In a dangerous attempt at rationalization, Seth Godin argues that the difference between workaholism and all-consuming-purposeful-work is fear and the need for control. Dangerous, in that it paves the way for workaholics to put a purposeful gloss on their addiction, but nonetheless an intriguing effort to frame the motivations of workaholism.

Arguably, underlying much of the improvement imperative where it is a debilitating distraction is fear, as well as its ever-present companion of stress. While stress can be perceived as motivating, and the core mechanism of stress evolved as a useful means of attention and alertness to factors that threatened our survival, stress can also be chronically debilitating and corrosive. As argued in a recent New York Times article, stress and status are intertwined (where status as a socio-economic concept can relate to financial well-being, power or social influence). Where stress becomes toxically debilitating is in the face of a lack of control. The less we feel in control of our fate and circumstances, the greater the corrosive influence of stress on our health, in terms of both physical and mental well-being.

This creates an interesting dynamic when we look at the influences of stress through the lens of imposter syndrome, workaholism and perfectionism. Theoretically, we are the authors of our own goals. We set our personal targets and work assiduously to attain them. What presumably starts in freedom, however, loses its perspective and instead becomes inexorably restrictive and inescapable. We find ourselves imprisoned on a treadmill of our own making, with no perceptual way to get off. The relentless drive for perfection and status means that we feel unable to make alternative choices or exercise control over our destinies.

The more we have, the more we want. The more capable we are, the more we strive to be better. A fascinating article by Greg McKeown challenged readers to step back from striving for perfectionism, and to instead endeavour to just be average. For those who see themselves as talented, who value status and who savour being one of the elite, that is an intimidating and threatening suggestion. Within it, however, lies the possibility of greater freedom, by not having to know everything, do everything or be perfect at everything.

Perfectionism is a choice. What we do is a choice. Where we focus our attention is a choice. Finding satisfaction requires careful deliberation in what we choose to do, why we choose to do it and the goals that we set for ourselves. That means that there may be pursuits in which we do, in fact, desire to excel. At the same time, however, there will be others activites where we merely dabble, where we exercise our curiosity, where we simply strive to be competent. And, of necessity, we should also be able to consciously choose incompetence; to not know how to do something, and to be perfectly fine with that reality.

A brilliant book, published some time ago, tackled the twin subjects of improvement and happiness head-on. Entitled ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikczentmihalyi, it argued that happiness was the product of being immersed in a task that was within range of our capabilities, but still required us to stretch in order to be successful. We don’t have to be good at everything, and we don’t need to constantly get better in all things. We need to embrace improvement in the things we care about, where improvement is about progressively stretching our skills and perspectives, not being obsessed with single-minded perfection.

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