Self-Improvement is a Hoax

“Here is the situation: the whole idea of self-improvement is a will-o’-the-wisp and a hoax. Let us begin where we are. What happens if you know beyond any shadow of a doubt that there is nothing you can do to be better? Well, it is a kind of relief. I am what I am, there it is. So you say, ‘Now what will I do?’, and there is a little fidget that comes up because we are so used to making things better — ‘leave the world a little better than when you found it’ sort of thing, or ‘I want to be of service to other people,’ and all such dreadfully hazy ideas. There is that little itch still. But if we realize that there really is nothing we can do to improve ourselves or improve the world, it gives us a breather in the course of which we may simply watch what is happening. No one ever does this. It sounds terribly simple, it sounds so simple that it looks almost as if it is not worth doing. But have you ever just watched what is happening, and what you are doing by way of reaction to it? Just watch it happen, and do not be in a hurry to think you know what it is. People look and say, ‘Well, that is the external world.’ How do you know? The whole thing, from a neurological point of view, is just happening in your head. That you think there is something outside the skull is a notion in your nervous system. There may or may not be. That this is the material world, is someone’s philosophical idea. Or maybe you think the world is spiritual; that, too, is someone’s philosophical idea. The world is not spiritual, it is not material, the real world is simply as it is.”

From Alan Watts, The Way of Liberation: Essays and Lectures on the Transformation of the Self (New York: Weatherhill, 1983), 69-70.

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5 Responses to “Self-Improvement is a Hoax”

  1. chronosynclasticteacosy Says:

    Emerson agreed: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

  2. Jeb Says:

    “No one ever does this.”

    Spent the last week doing exactly this. I have a new subject, not familiar with it, made a pattern match that I strongly suspect is utterly wrong.

    Rather interesting to sit back and run with it, watch what I am doing.

    As I am dealing in part with what is a scientific mis-observation, running with a potentially foolish idea may aid insight into how the subjects I am studying are joining up the dots.

    Slim chance they may be doing exactly the same thing, rather higher probability its at least in the same ball park.

  3. The Necromancer Says:

    @chrono: The transcendentalists were kind of ahead of their time in the whole self-help, personal spirituality realm. And they would be annoyed that I referred to in that light.

    @Jeb: Hey, if you can falsify your confirmation bias with careful self-reflection, so much the better…

  4. Jeb Says:

    Takes no care in early stage of a subject. Any pattern match in advance of evidence, the big correlation does not equal causation sign flashes on.

    I found the concept I speculated may exist in the culture I am looking at is indeed the case. It’s a model example of direct cultural borrowing as it turns out.

    But that’s hardly enough.

    Subjects interesting enough that if straying into was based on a faulty hit, motivated enough to continue.

    Keep an eye open, see if anyone made the same mistake in the distant past. That would be interesting.

  5. The Philosophy of Slack 9: Slack and Success | The Necromancer Says:

    […] the whole self-help and self-improvement craze. Taking a page out of Alan Watts, slack knows that “self-improvement is a hoax.” Better how? Better when? Better than […]

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