I recently realized that “personal growth” is like a treadmill. For years, I associated personal development and my striving to be a better person with some kind of moral high ground. Now, I’m really questioning that certainty.
It began obliquely. My recent quitting of caffeine has left me calmer and more grounded, feeling happy just being who I am, going about the day. I feel less of a compulsion to listen to podcasts or to talks on youtube, searching for another hit of dopamine disguised as a piece of content. I’m writing less in my own journal, processing way less. I have started to feel like reading for pleasure, rather than for a quest to become an amazing human — to be knowledgeable, to be well read, to be wise and in control. I’ve begun to see that I crave stimulation, coupled with the sense that I’m doing something important, productive, or towards “being better.”
Coming off caffeine, I can see how this is an “installed” compulsion — this is programming. As I feel the memory of its catalyst fade out of my body, I begin to see “personal development” for what it is — an extension of materialist capitalism. There’s always more to do, always more to be. Personal development, as a concept and an industry, is just an appendage of this greater gestalt. We love it because it’s shiny — it makes us feel like we’re really getting somewhere. But where does it all end?
I have read too many books in this general area, as well as listened to all kinds of other content, and at no point have I ever heard about an exit plan. When does all the spiritual hustle cease? What’s the end result of “self-help?” There’s been no wisdom offered, no strategy for bringing this striving for personal betterment to a close. It’s always assumed that it will go on indefinitely, and that this is a good thing — noble, righteous, laudable. People love to show it off. The more you strive, the more striving points you get on Instagram. Personal development is more a fashion show than genuine soul work.
What our thought leaders also don’t talk about is how exhausting it all is. And I’m no wuss. I like to work. “You should see all my journals,” I used to declaim proudly to my friends. Now it all seems extremely boring, pallid. Embarrassing, even. Definitely not a fun vibe to be around. I don’t want to process so much. I just want to live my life. I now look with envy to some of the people I know who’ve never kept a journal, relishing their sheer immersion in life’s ups and downs, their immaculate lack of self-analysis. For their issues, I used to prescribe journalling and quiet self-reflection. I always found it frustrating when they seemed to politely forget my suggestion and continued on with their lives in their same old ways. Now I am starting to see the wisdom in that.
Self-reflection is good from time to time, and maybe those friends could still use a pinch of it. I think it’s a critical ingredient at key junctures of life, so I’m not one to hastily throw away what’s perfectly serviceable. It’s the obsession with self-improvement and self-betterment I’m taking aim at here, a compulsion fuelled by the culture-at-large in the form of endless content, the experience economy, approved stimulants, and the comparison trap of social media.
The tragic part of this charade is how easily this quest is dubbed as “spiritual.” There isn’t a damn thing spiritual about it. Since when did “spiritual” become about chasing mirages, and indeed in such a public way (#2020goals)? The spiritual aspect of life is not a place of endless self-improvement, at least not in my universe. Does a forest endlessly strive to be a better forest? How do you feel when you go sit in a forest? Good or bad? That’s because the trees are just chilling. They just ARE — trees being trees. Sure, they grow — from small trees to big trees. Still trees!
Ever met a person like this? A person just being a person, without pretence or agenda? How refreshing — and rare — was that? And would you say that upon reflection they seemed spiritual in some way? Just a little bit?
It’s fascinating to realize that what keeps me from changing drastically is often one little Jenga piece of habit — in this case, my caffeine use — which was acting as a kingpin for the rest of my compulsive habits. Once I pulled it out, the rest of the mess came tumbling down. Coming off caffeine, I have begun to see my daily activities as somewhat comical. I realized I had been acting from a very serious place in my life, obsessively treating life as a problem to solve, as a series of issues to fix, using the conveniently provided cultural tools at hand to aid my quest.
My attitude was somewhat like this: the more content, podcasts and books I consume which are ostensibly about “becoming a better person,” the more thus I will better. I will become the person I want to be, eventually, somewhere down the road. I am officially calling bullshit on this. What if this instead: you will never become that person? What if it really is a carrot on a stick? And what if that’s a fucking great way for people to make money, good intentions and all?
Sound cynical? Pause a moment. It’s actually the most freeing thing to realize that you don’t need to be anyone else: “What if I don’t need to do any of this to be a good person? What if who I came into this world as, warts and all, is a fully functioning spaceship, fully seaworthy for these king tides ahead?”
It’s not just books and podcasts — it’s serial Ayahuasca ceremonies, microdosing for productivity, going vegan. It’s getting shredded at the gym, becoming Instafamous, retiring early, having gifted children, getting published, getting therapy, doing 5-MEO-DMT, driving a Tesla, learning 5 languages, selling your company for 20 million dollars — on and on, ad infinitum. Something inside is saying in a silent voice:
“I have to do all this stuff to be me, to really be ME. I have to do all this striving to be good, to be loved, to be happy. If I strive, one day I’ll be happy. Even if I struggle now, one day it will all work out. In the meantime, everything must always be at the highest standard possible, all the time, and always improving, because otherwise I’m a failure.”
Here’s the mic-drop question: what is this endless striving covering over? What wound is being conveniently hidden out of sight by the constant quest to be better? This gets subtle too — while doing the dishes, listening to a podcast: what is your true motivation? Is it to simply enjoy yourself and enjoy the conversation? Or is it because you feel the need to improve yourself?
My compulsion toward improvement has always been about love. I wanted to love myself, but I had certain wounds that for years I wasn’t able to see and heal properly. Quitting the caffeine, reducing my use of technology, and being in a long-term relationship have helped me start to feel into these shadows. At the base of it, my seeking always had to do with the fact that I was ignoring my creative, soul-level requirements — namely, to make music. That’s the one thing I’ve always wanted most to do with my life, and the one thing it’s been hardest to do consistently, regardless if I was getting paid or not to do it. It’s been hard to do for many reasons, but most of them have to do with me, not anyone else or some external circumstance. Mostly it’s about self-belief, and self-affirmation, and feeling like it’s okay to just be me, a simple artist. That being the best artist I can be is enough. The love thing again.
Because I was unable to address this core wound, I distracted myself with personal development. It felt like the right thing to do — to always be questing after some new frontier of realizations, discoveries and declarations. Lately though, as in, the past 4 or 5 months, I’ve felt progressively less interested in all of that. Meanwhile, my life seems to be simplifying down into large chunks of time where I am making music in that way I’ve longed to do. And consequently, all this seeking stuff feels passé. The more music I do, the more I let myself be me, the less I even think about self-help. The more I just let my soul urge me toward action, the less I require someone else to give me the secrets to happiness. Could I really trust these experts and gurus fully anyway?
I feel more free, with the sense of relief growing everyday. But I also am concerned about this dynamic playing out on a cultural level. This unquestioned seeking of betterment is the same thing as the capitalist necessity of continual economic growth. We know where that’s leading us now — it’s bankrupt — morally, culturally, environmentally, spiritually.
The question I have for you is this: If you’ve been doing this kind of work for years, proudly moving forward on the train of self-improvement, but you don’t feel any kind of lightening up, or sincere joy in life coming from that, then will you stop and consider…is this working? Is there another way? Could this be a trap, a pattern to get stuck in for years?
This programming is removing our capacity to choose activities because we plainly just want to — because it feels good. There’s a difference between “feels good” because it’s covering over this wound, and genuine curiosity. Curiosity and play feel light and easy, while the “feels good” of personal development is like getting traction going up an icy hill.
It’s also fucking with our ability to be appreciative of life, to live in a prayerful state of gratitude and reverence. If we always must be better, then there’s no time to just sit in that forest for a few hours. There’s no reason to be grateful when there’s all these issues to solve, or things to learn about. But this prayerful state is “being spiritual,” at least to me. And there’s nowhere to get with that. There’s nowhere else that’s better. There’s no future you who is superior and happier than you now.
The urge toward personal development is actually just an extension of the Peter Pan phenomenon, very cleverly disguised. Peter Pan lives in never-never land, and refuses to grow up. He lives in a magical realm of optionality and never has to commit or follow-through. When we chase endless improvement, we’re doing a Peter Pan, because we’re putting off the inevitable. For creatives like myself, the inevitable is turning pro, committing to a daily practice, and becoming a craftsman. Becoming workaday, not special, not perfect. Good enough to do good work. For other people, it means shriving off all the distractions and devoting oneself to a common cause, a vision greater than the individual’s ego gratification. Of course, it’s way easier to not move through this portal. The momentum of neverland is often too strong, and we stay addicted to stimulation and novelty.
The point really is this: the whole personal development cycle has got to end somewhere. And there is an end. It looks like a gate, a threshold, and you can’t take this old questing self with you when you go through. It’s great for a while, but it gets old fast, and won’t work in that new realm. That old person has to die in order for you to make it through, because you’re more focused and immersed on the other side, and you don’t have time for another workshop when you’re on the straight and narrow with yourself, doing your sacred work.
As Jamie Wheal has recently been saying, in as many words, we need you to grow up now and get on board. We need you back in the fray with us as we figure this whole Earth thing out right now. We need you wounded and we need you broken. We need your full attention on your sacred task, that one thing you came here to do. This is a message as much to myself as to anyone else:
You’ve got something to do here. You’ll never be perfect. You’ll never be happy trying to be perfect. Why not give up the ghost you’re chasing? There’s life here now to enjoy, and beauty to revel in. And there’s something real and authentic to your soul that lights you up. We need you to put down your books and writing, your workshops and endless questing for realizations. We need you just as you are now, immersed with your full attention, on your real task. We need you to grow up and step up to your gate. Move through now. We need you.