Self-Improvement: What It Is And Why We Care

We like to talk about this concept we call “self-improvement” a lot. On the face of it, it’s a relatively simple and easy concept to understand: we are improving our selves. End of post!

…except it’s still a little bit vague what I mean by that, even in my own mind. Let’s forget about defining the “self” for a moment and just talk about “improvement”. By what standard are we judging improvement exactly? It’s not usually that clear cut. I might think adding delicious bacon to this dish is an improvement, but a vegetarian would beg to differ. Or to make it more personal, I might become a more assertive person, but to other people around me that might be relatively more off putting than allowing them to always get what they want.

Ultimately improvement ends up getting defined by my own standards. That’s one possible meaning of self-improvement: it’s my own improvement thank you very much! This is still only a partial answer, because we’ve passed the buck to the process that is setting our standards. I suspect that in many cases, we have an idealized vision of a human being in our minds, and we are trying to make ourselves look more like that vision. This can be a great motivator, and if human values are widely shared it will produce a great person. You could think of this as the virtue ethics model of self-improvement.

In one of the first conversations with Eliezer, he implored me to stop being vague about “personal growth”, and instead say “I learned X so I could accomplish Y”. That construction made a lot of sense to me. I could point to a lot of concrete things I had accomplished as a result of my self-improvement, but this way of thinking was more strategic and goal-oriented. It got me thinking about what my objectives were in life, and what I needed to get there from here. This is the consequentialist model of self-improvement.

Only You Can Put The Self In Self-Improvement

So we actually covered the “why” before the “what” – we are embarking on a journey to become our idealized self, or to accomplish great things in the world. Where exactly do we get started? And what does self-improvement mean anyway?!

I find it useful to contrast self-improvement with just plain improvement. Suppose you encounter a new problem in your job. Your boss tells you to solve it. You have no idea how to go about it initially. You will probably flail about, maybe ask someone, or figure it out somehow. You now have a new skill – congratulations! You may or may not ever need to use it again, but you have improved your neural network, you have created new functionality (at least temporarily).

The relevant feature of the above example is that the improvement was essentially forced on you by external constraints – solve this problem, or solve the problem of finding another job. It is clear that humans are adaptable, capable of learning new skills into adulthood, of encountering novel problems and coming up with solutions. If you throw a human into a new environment, we will do our best to survive and reproduce, and that will require us to reshape our very selves.

To me, what really puts the self in self-improvement is that it is internally motivated, and internally directed. There is a lot of research out there about having an internal locus of control, the belief that we are in charge of ourselves and our destiny, that we have agency and can affect the world around us. (Incidentally this results in better life outcomes, as you would expect from such a philosophy.) I have seen amazing growth come out of responses to external circumstances, don’t get me wrong. But those same people are in relative stasis when their conditions are stable. The self-improvement perspective sees those periods as an excellent opportunity to engage in directed goal-oriented improvement, when external circumstances are not occupying all of their available bandwidth.

Framework and Methods

This has been a brief introduction to my philosophy of self-improvement, arising out of an internal, agentic motivation to achieve greatness. In a very deep sense self-improvement is goal-agnostic. Whether you want to save the world, take over the world, make lots of money, or have lots of sex, these tools can be used to get you closer to the things you care about. Discovering your goals – your actual goals, not the subgoals you assumed would achieve your actual goals and became ends in themselves – is a critical step in the process, and deserves a post (or sequence) of its own.

The next post is going to be about my general framework for thinking about self-improvement. This is getting one step closer to the object-level steps you need to take to start seeing results. With a framework in place, I can then start to discuss the specific strategies I use when approaching a new problem. Stay tuned!

  • MalcolmMcC

    > “This is the consequentialist model of self-improvement.”

    I seriously dig that. It fights the productivity porn model, where you just seek out things that make you feel growthy.

    Anyway, this looks awesome. I’m gonna follow.

  • Melissa Pilar

    I am happily enthusiastic to make this connection with your blog. I shall follow along♥