Smithsonian Institution PD

Self-Optimization: Taking the in out of Insanity

This article was originally published in Business Punk (in German) 5/2018.

Meta warning in advance: This is an article about optimizing self-optimization. Taking it seriously only works with a hefty dose of self-reflection. or a second helping of red wine, or both.

The other day, a magazine at the newsagents tried telling me to live my life in an enkelgerecht way. (A concoction of German words, meaning sustainably, but saying nothing more than a raised index finger.) A simple program for writing text notes offered me “instant access to a minimal world where you can better isolate your thoughts and focus on your words.” And at least once a month someone wants to teach me that “no” is a complete sentence, and one should utter it more often, unless of course as a reply to trainers trying to sell their no-saying seminars. Colouring books for adults want to help me feel more Zen, and—wow, who would’ve known that I can find my t-shirts faster when I roll them up instead of folding them? A skier on a mattress grins at me lasciviously, promising me “the best possible rest,” and every downtown bookshop has this one table, a caricature of itself, piled high with books about mindfulness and minimalism.

The self-optimization industry (full disclosure: I’m kinda part of it, being an ex-therapist) is lurking in every corner like an army of Sesame Street Lefty characters whispering or, far more often, screaming: “Hey you … wanna get better?” You can be anything; the sky is the limit: more productive, more fun-loving, a better communicator and more relaxed, healthier, low-carb. An even more perfect father, a more loving girlfriend.

All of this is, generally speaking, ok. After decades (or, depending on scale and culture, centuries) of self-improvement culture, one could assume that the streets are full of happy, relaxed, well-balanced, friendly people.

But there’s grumbling and whining coming from all corners as if all those be-a-better-you messages roll off us like condensation off the hipster cold-brew. Whence this discrepancy between promises and reality? Obviously, there’s a lot people can complain about, but not about a low degree of suffering. The optimizers know this and flood the bookstores. Hundreds of self-help books pop up out of nowhere, bundled with whimsical Say No! coffee mugs, which join their buddies after a few weeks. Cupboard in the tea kitchen, rear left, right next to the pedometers and diet shakers.

How to Improve Improving

OK, Mr Maul, but we’re not here for whining. Is there a better way? How can we do it better? This a legitimate question I’m sure not just my clients, but you – the reader – also have. You might suspect that self-optimization does not work because you simply cannot optimize everything. Or that you’re not “ready” yet. Or that you might need to buy yet another book by yet another author.

But sadly (please remember the warning from the beginning of the article), that’s not how it works. The real fallacy is that people assume that a goal exists, i. e. some state of being which one can imagine for oneself, work for or even wish for, and then, finally, everything will be fine.

But there is no ideal state, neither in the singular nor even in the plural. Instead, there are processes or phases that, occasionally, feel ideal. The squirrel climbs the highest tree to pick the very very very best nuts, but upon reaching the top it realizes: there are even bigger trees! The local optimum feels like a maximum until we see what else is out there. And the self-optimization booklets, well-intended or not, lead us from one tree to another, always in search of the best.

Finding the right tree is by no means the key to optimizing one’s self. It is about going on, keeping at it, climbing up and down. Sitting up there is easy. Sticking to a low-carb, pescetarian or sugar-free diet for a whole week? Well done. Been going to the gym every day for three months? Awesome. But it’s pretty exhausting, isn’t it? My meditation teacher told us: If you stop meditating for just one day, you’ll have to start all over again, and every time it is going to be as difficult as it was the first time. Unfortunately, he’s right. The real task is not to keep at something. It is the starting over.

And then there’s the question of meaning. Why am I doing all this and for how much longer? For a lifetime? Just to get better, just to finally be as happy as everyone else in their über-awesome Instagram pics? Sloterdijk wrote in his somewhat indigestible doorstop “You Must Change Your Life!” about the importance of life praxis, of discipline. The more easily digestible basic message is scary and thus is often ignored: Don’t change (it) once, keep changing (it). Every. Single. Fucking. Day.

Which is by no means easy. Changing yourself needs work, discipline and action. Thinking, wishing and hoping is all nice and well, just like those hands in cable-knit sweaters enclosing a steaming coffee cup on magazine covers. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t help.

Monkey Legs, Monkey Mind

Once more from another perspective: the job of your legs is walking. Your mind’s job is thinking. Thinking is easier than walking. That’s why a lot of people think around aimlessly all the time. They think, wish, want, and then fall for the umpteenth saviour, promising them the solution to their suffering in “Three Easy Steps.” But no matter how many rhinestones you decorate, your dustbin with it’ll still have to be taken out.

Just a few days of skipping gym and muscles will degenerate, because who the fuck cares? “Who needs us?” they’ll say while relocating their energy towards your belly before disappearing. At heart, we’re no different. Our habits, mental and emotional processes, which we have taken so much pains to build up, start wasting away the first day we stop using them.

Carded at the Identity Checkpoint

And in the end, it’s all about one thing: control. I want to be happy. I want to be rich. I want to experience this or that state of being. Wanting to control the uncontrollable is doomed to fail. Take your boss, who just won’t behave like you want him to. At some point, we give up and say, “oh well, it can’t be helped, he’ll never change” and refill his mug of mulled wine at the office Christmas party. An even bigger hurdle for the desire to take over control is life itself, because the fact that it is impossible to control is precisely what characterizes it. My biology teacher once said that there is a word for an organic system that no longer moves: dead.

Secondly: To optimize yourself means above all to optimize one’s self. The (possibly desperate) attempt to become a new self can hardly be more than a nice try. “It’s all about comparing one’s insides to other people’s outsides.” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird)

And aren’t our peculiarities what define us? A dear colleague of mine has been living on a diet of chips, peanuts, jelly babies, chocolate and coffee for decades. And he is healthy, fit and surprisingly socially compatible. I’m almost always a quarter of an hour early for appointments. Even the subway, which is supposed to bring me to my destination exactly on time, feels like it’s going too fast and torpedoes my new self, while the new me wants to be just on time or – like the others, the cool, the daring – maybe five minutes too late.

Optimizing within the limits of your identity is not only easier than building a new identity – it’s actually the only way, if you, like most of us, have only one life at your disposal.

A Wise Conclusion?

The magazine’s editor suggested that I conclude the article with an “intelligently presented list of genuinely useful tips.” With a reminder of the introductory warning, here are my current top two self-optimization slogans:

  1. Seagulls poop on the rock in the surf.
  2. Be a squirrel.

The rock reminds us that wishing to become rock solid, to achieve a certain state, is silly. Those who is firmly rooted are at the mercy of the world. And the squirrel? Tree up, tree down, collect some nuts, look for a new tree, jump around. Once you’re in this flow, it can actually all feel pretty good, kind of … alive.