Why the Paradox of Self Development is Bullshit and How you Can Accept yourself and Grow without Conflict

April 21, 2021

Critics of those that spend their lives working on themselves often cite the so-called paradox of self development.  It goes something like this:-

"There’s a paradox with self-improvement and it is this: the ultimate goal of all self-improvement is to reach the point where you no longer feel the need to improve yourself." - Source

The idea is that the ultimate goal of self-development is to get to a point where you can love yourself, be content with what you have and not continually be in a place of lack where you feel that you need to strive to attain some kind of goal in order to feel complete.

I don't disagree with certain aspects of this argument, but I also think it's a fairly one dimensional take on a nuanced topic.  

In this article, I'm going to argue why I think the self development paradox is bullshit and that acceptance and improving yourself can co-exist, but only if you have the right mindset.

How do we live a Happy and Enjoyable Life?

In Flow, Csikszentmihaily describes various tests that he performed to understand in what situations humans are in a state of enjoyment and happiness.

We might think lying on the beach, not having to work and just generally relaxing without a care in the world would lead to a happy life.  However, according to Csikszentmihaily, this is far from optimal... 

Instead, he found that we derive the most enjoyment when we're in a state called Flow; a state that's created by focusing all our mind and attention on a specific task in hand such that we forget everything else around us.  

His groundbreaking work revealed that we enjoy being fully focused on a task, even moreso when we feel a sense of meaning or purpose from the work that we're doing. 

He also talks about the importance of cultivating an autotelic personality. People who possess autotelic traits (such as curiosity, persistence, low self-centredness, and a desire to perform tasks for intrinsic reasons) are skilled at finding ways to derive enjoyment from a vast variety experiences that life throws at them through various techniques that increase engagement.  Autotelic people really enjoy living.

Having studied his work deeply, I was left a few key takeaways:-

  • Focusing your attention wholeheartedly on tasks is enjoyable
  • Enjoyment of tasks, work, life can be cultivated by developing traits of an autotelic personality
  • This enjoyment exists independent of the result, or the goal of the task, but in doing the task itself

Herein lies my main complaint about the so-called self development paradox. 

While, I agree, that self acceptance is critical to living a good life, I don't agree that striving to achieve, improve, and develop positive habits is necessarily in conflict with it.

A shallow interpretation of self development is such that we work on ourselves to achieve a result.  It's like saying the only reason we work 16 hours a day on our startup is because we want to achieve financial freedom, change the world, leave a legacy and so on.  In other words, every hour you put into your company is for shit unless the end result is a success.  And, I'm not denying, there are many people that have that kind of mindset.

But with a deeper interpretation and understanding of self development, instead of fixating on a result, we realize that a life that includes doing challenging things, testing ourselves, cultivating growth, focusing our minds and generally creating value for the world is a far better life than a life with none of the above.  

Have you ever had a day where you've just nailed everything?  You did you reading, daily writing, killed yourself at the gym, worked on your craft (whatever that may be) and just did difficult things.  How good does that feel at the end of the day?  It's an incredibly rewarding experience.  You've spent most of the day focused on productive tasks and you go to bed proud of your effort. That's been an enjoyable day and you go to bed happy.

Self acceptance is in complete alignment with doing hard things, if you realize that doing hard things is enjoyable in and of itself, rather than simply doing it for an external result.

And that's the difference between being caught in the so-called "self development paradox" and using self development to live a great life.

So you're saying to Ignore Results Completely?

In reality, of course, it's a continuum.  

On the one end you have a process mindset and on the other a results mindset. We all exist somewhere along this continuum.  It's not practical to completely ignore the results of our labor; life is a competition and we need to get results to flourish.

What I'm saying is that rather than treating the positive habits, work, exercise routine as suffering to achieve a result...realize that the action itself is contributing to the enjoyment in your life in many ways that are above and beyond the end result.

And if you just hate doing everything that you do, then ironically it might be time to learn about the traits of an autotelic personality to improve your skill of enjoying life.  

Or you can just float through life with no real meaning or direction, which is what the proponents of the self development paradox are doing, I guess?

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