Self-improvement is a laudable goal. It’s as inseparable from tech culture as efficiency hacking or Soylent (these may be two sides of the same coin). Admittedly, I’ve been caught up in the same fervour and have become obsessed with it. Except, I have gone the wrong way and it has been impacting me negatively.
I’ve always been a sensitive overthinker. This piece of me, combined with the high bar I’ve set for myself, occasionally becomes a bit of a self-criticizing nightmare if I let thoughts linger on too long.
Here is the extrapolated list of things I have been accused of over the years: being too opinionated, being too quiet, being too aggressive, not speaking up, speaking too fast, being intimidating, too negative, being unapproachable, being warm, being snobby, being open, sitting angrily, and being a show-off. And, without critical thought, I tried to problem solve for all of these. Solving problems is what I do for a living, so why not turn it inwards?
It reached a peak for me earlier last month. I was frustrated by all the comments by my personality. None of them had highlighted any issues with my continued output. I felt unwanted and increasingly isolated and it started to affect my work, my physicality, and my personal life.
My hike in Sweden was a welcome change of pace. It was 100km, if I so chose, to think about what was happening around me. It didn’t happen the way I envisioned, as per usual with my solo trips. Instead, I listened to a couple of books written by a journalist I adore, caught up on some podcasts, and occasionally walked hours of the trail without any entertainment except the muffled steps of each of my feet being placed one ahead of the other.
As I arrived at each cabin at the end of the day, familiar faces who I passed by or who passed by me earlier greeted me warmly. We sat together in the common areas after our hikes, ate dinner, talked about our lives, and played card games. In the morning we parted ways, never knowing for sure if we’d see each other again.
On the last leg, I had dragged my cranky self up my last mountain slope ending the trail after 87km. Pulling out my rectangle grin, I wandered around the last cabin enjoying the most basic of human comforts: a shower and a cold-ish beer. I turned on my phone for the first time and received an avalanche of e-mails and text messages from my friends. I spent an hour responding to them and feeling grateful for the love and then turned my phone off again.
As I sat, I watched as hikers trickled into the cabin. Some of them nodded towards me as they walked by and some stopped to have a quick chat. After my beer, I was adopted by a group of seven women, who told me they admired by gumption to hike the trail myself, and was shepherded to dinner. They introduced me to another couple of families who told me our their own hikes over dinner and humbly explained traditional Swedish foods. The rest of the evening was spent enjoying the company of another group of hikers. Completely unfettered by the delusion of self-improvement, I felt more present than I had in a very long time and all my anxieties and worries disappeared.
The person who I identify with was reaffirmed by my trip. No one thought I was too anything and they’re still talking to me now. I let subjective opinions about my personality get in the way of myself and what I’m interested in seeing in my life. No one has the right to decide how you should be and you shouldn’t let anyone do it.
Alan Watts has a good talk about this… he notes that we punish ourselves when we don’t achieve whatever goal we set. We’re so obsessed with ‘better,’ whatever that means. He points out that if we knew what that meant, we’d just be that. It would be that simple. He ends his talk by challenging us to watch what happens:
When you do that, you give yourself a chance. Your own nature will begin to take care of itself... because you're not getting in the way of yourself all the time. You will begin to find out, that the great things you do are really happening.