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Self Improvement Is Societal Improvement

Source: Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal: Our obsession with self-help is actually fueling global inequality — Quartz

My take on this story

I don’t know why I bother with editorials like this one. I know going in that they are going to make my head hurt from frustration. I suppose it’s because I’ve always felt I should expose myself to views that are different from my own. I do that partly so I can maybe learn something new or alter my own perspectives and I do it partly to learn about what others are thinking and feeling to better understand them. That brings me to this editorial.

Don't Steal Fire

The author feels that a push toward self-improvement, especially that embodied by those who make a business out of selling self-improvement books and programs and especially those in the technology sector. Mostly though, the author just has a problem with a person who pushes themselves to be better. I believe their perspective begins with a flaw in their understanding.

The goal of self-tech isn’t simply self-improvement. It’s about unlocking your personal utopia to change the nature of humanity and transform the world.

No. It’s about just what it says it’s about, improving oneself. The motivation for this is not singular. I like to improve myself but I’m not looking for some personal utopia and I have no illusions about changing the nature of humanity. Frankly I encourage anyone who thinks they are going to change the “nature of humanity” to take a class in evolutionary biology. The author sees a dichotomy between the world as it is and self-improvement.

But the aggressive solipsism of this genre serves to obscure social and political issues. Donald Trump spews bigotry; Paul Ryan tries to kick 24 million people off health care; our prison system continues to chew up thousands upon thousands of lives—and self-tech barely notices.

Oh, so much in this one little nugget! First off, self-improvement isn’t solipsistic. The author seems to think that a desire to improve the self means that a person cannot see anything outside of themselves. By virtue of trying to improve their own self, their own lot in life, they by necessity (according to the author) must and do ignore everyone else and every other problem in the whole wide world. Somehow your desire to better yourself means you don’t notice that Donald Trump says some pretty nasty and outrageous things and the only reason Paul Ryan supports any kind of legislation is to harm others and that’s your fault because you want to improve. Of course that also completely ignores the truth of the Ryan bill which pretty much keeps Obamacare intact.

It’s no surprise that self-tech writers worship those in power; it’s the logic of the genre. If success is a predictable algorithm, hackable through skill and knowledge, then it follows that those who are most successful are also most skillful and knowledgeable.

Again, the author demonstrates their lack of understanding, or at least their inability to actually think a problem through using logic. No, again, no. Just because someone is successful does not mean they are the most skillful and knowledgeable. It can, but does not of necessity mean that.

“The highly accomplished were paragons of perseverance,” Angela Duckworth writes in Grit. “No matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination.” That may well be true—but…

Oh, there’s a but. Yes, and the but they give contradicts their own notion about the “most successful”.

…what about people with ferocious determination who aren’t successful? What if you’re born into poverty, or get post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing a sexual assault, or get shot by a cop because you’re black? What about people like Bill Gates or Donald Trump or Chelsea Clinton who, regardless of their determination, got where they got in no small part because they inherited money, social position, and power?

What about them? Such people are fortunate to be sure, but they are not success. By the author’s own thinking these people didn’t succeed at anything. The author confuses having things with being successful. To succeed means to achieve a desired result. Those who have because it was given to them have not succeeded. Holding them up as contradictions is a false comparison.

I’m pretty sure you can guess how the author concludes this piece.

Or, alternately, we could take some of that Promethean fire and redirect it toward building a bonfire that’s big enough for everyone to gather round. Trying to hack individual success for select transhumans is both immoral and futile. We’re social creatures; if you want to be a better human, you need a better culture to live in. And so, if we get to utopia, it won’t be via success tips from self-tech-primed billionaires. It’ll be by caring for those who are least successful in our families, our communities, and our country.

Yes, that’s right, the answer to the horror that is self-improvement is communism and trying to improve yourself, for the sake of yourself, is immoral. Don’t look at the successful and try to be like them. Don’t show determination or grit. Don’t improve because it’s a zero sum game and when you do, someone else must go without.

Utopia doesn’t exist. Not in the way that leftists want it to, dream it will, think it actually can. Decrying self-improvement is simply a defense mechanism for a person who doesn’t feel confident in their own success nor in their ability to do better. They fear that their best isn’t good enough to realize the dreams they have. They doubt they have the “grit” it takes and life is a scary place.

How can a person who cannot take care of themselves take care of someone else? There will be some among us who, no matter what they do, cannot reach the same levels of success as the man next to them. Some flames will always burn brighter. The way to spark the ember in someone else is not by allowing them to steal the fire from their neighbor though. The only way to really create that bonfire the author describes is to make sure you, personally, individually, are a flame burning hot and bright.

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