Self-Improvement as Selfishness

Many times in my life I have tried to make an improvement to myself only to fail miserably — or rather only to give up. “Failure” would imply that I had tried my utmost, which almost never was the case. Instead I make a solemn determination to do something different, stick to it for a while, then give up. This might be a health issue (like quitting smoking; or lifting weights), a intellectual endeavor (improving my French; studying ancient history), or even a moral endeavor (being chaste; being kinder to people).

But always — or almost always, perhaps — these resolutions were undertaken for precisely the reason stated at the beginning: making an improvement to myself. That is, I wanted to be better: brighter, smarter, greater. It was self-seeking. I was doing it solely for myself, and not for others.

This is often difficult to see, because we do things in the name of other people. I might consider quitting smoking something I should do for my sake and for the sake of those around me. “After all, who enjoys the smell of stale smoke?” But really, I just wanted to quit smoking because then my teeth would be whiter, my skin healthier, and my energy more. I wanted to be a more brightly-shining me.

Similarly intellectual improvements, like studying ancient history, can be couched in misleadingly humble terms: “I want to learn from the wisdom of the ancients. I want to understand where my civilization comes from and how I fit into it. Who are we moderns to assume we have it right and our ancestor’s all had it wrong?” This is the language of humility, but not the attitude of humility.

The real reason I wanted the wisdom of the ancients was to be wiser than those around me. I was clever enough (I believed) to see that moderns constantly make huge, categorical intellectual errors that lead to all kinds of muddleheaded practical mistakes. By “humbling” myself before the ancients, I was getting a leg up on my contemporaries.

Even moral improvements… how easy it is to fool myself! I wanted to be kinder to people so people would like me more, not so that they would be happier. I wanted to be chaste because I thought it would give me greater intellectual and spiritual powers, that I would become a more glorious and shining me.

Now I believe that such endeavors, at least for myself and many others like me, are doomed to failure. For two reasons: First, psychologically, self-improvement for the self’s sake becomes contradictory the moment the endeavor becomes difficult. The self wants to be chaste — but then when that same self decides it wants to be unchaste, there is nothing higher to appeal to (except vague precepts, which rarely have the power to convince when one is in the moment of temptation).

Second, less provably but more seriously, such endeavors are doomed because they stem from improper motivation. The right thing done for the wrong reasons will, in the end, become the wrong thing. We receive either outright failure, or if we succeed we reap the fruits of our improper motivation in some other way. This is murky to the mind, but the heart understands very well. We know this in our hearts, we simply choose not to listen.

4 comments on “Self-Improvement as Selfishness

  1. […] can poison any attempt at self-improvement. What is the motivation behind self-seeking meditation? It is the […]

  2. […] this is a very simple sentence, and even I can manage a translation. As I was writing last week (twice, actually) about self-seeking vs other-seeking, I thought it was a neat piece of […]

  3. fsg says:

    I believe this to be your most original and profound post. Do you have any ideas on how to orient one’s motivations differently? What form could it take?

    Subjection to virtuous exterior rules is not an option in standard American modernity at least (no traditional communities or authorities).

    Practical exterior love for a spouse and progeny can be risky but has been tested by several thousand years, and appears to be one of the few ways left to leave egoistic vitalism. Charles Williams thought that we might orient our efforts towards substitutive love for other souls only related to us by spiritual ties. Both ask us to improve ourselves in ways we might not choose on our own. Perhaps a good thing.

    • outofsleep says:

      Thanks for your kind words. Your linking of “original” and “profound” prompted me to write a few words on that topic, which you can read, if interested, here:

      As for orienting one’s motivations, I think family must be one of the keys. Fighting for one’s homeland is another natural impulse that can lead to great good and noble sacrifice. But it also obviously can lead to great evil, and one must not feel betrayed by one’s homeland in order to do this.

      Gratitude is another key. Whatever one loves, one can be grateful for it. So even the bookish hermit (with no family and no sword), can open his heart in gratitude to the labor of great writers. One example.

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