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Why Personal “Growth” and “Success” Always Leave You Unfulfilled

Embracing a New Story for Peace and Contentment

Image Credit: Jacob Lund

We all want to be better.

Better could mean more successful, more attractive, wealthier, or healthier.

Or it could mean nicer, more compassionate, a better spouse, parent, or friend.

However, no matter what it means, there is a catch. A glitch of sorts…

In the end, so long as you’re trying to be better in ANY way, you will ALWAYS feel like something is missing.

And this is a hard conversation to have, because we’re all attached to being better in some way.

You likely recognize it as a voice inside of you. The one that whispers to you that there’s gotta be something more or better?

The glitch is that no amount of improvement, growth, or development are ever going to quiet that voice. Growing and improving yourself will never give you true fulfillment and inner peace.

Does that mean you shouldn’t focus on self improvement at all? I don’t know. That’s up to you.

But I do know that being aware of these limits is a good first step toward imagining something different…

Improving Yourself Has Become an Obsession

“Commit to CANI! – Constant And Never-ending Improvement.” – Tony Robbins

There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” – Ernest Hemingway

You probably want to improve at least a few things in your life. Maybe you want…

  • …to be more successful – to make more money or be more famous; or
  • …to be healthier – to eat better and have more energy; or
  • …to be a better person – to be a better parent, spouse, or friend; or
  • …just to be happier.

And you’re not alone. I have spent my entire life trying to be better in one way or another.

As a kid, I tried to be smarter and more popular. I worked hard to be better at basketball and other sports. I spent years trying to lose weight and earn more money.

I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to be happier and make a bigger difference in the world. To create more meaning for my life.

We’re taught as kids to study more and work harder. You’re pressured to be more popular, prettier, and more successful.

As an adult, you try to be a “better person”. You try to be nicer, more giving, and more compassionate. You convince yourself that these are worthwhile ways to improve yourself.

In other words, you and I live in a world obsessed with improving ourselves.

And many ‘gurus’ will tell you (or at least imply) that self improvement is the source of happiness. I’ve heard people say that personal growth and development is the purpose of life.

But there’s a different possibility…

Beyond Good and Evil (or at least Good and Bad)

At some point in our lives, most of us realize that pleasure is not the same as happiness.

We all enjoy eating delicious food, watching television, or having great sex. And yet, we eventually learn that food, TV, sex, and other pleasures don’t bring us long term happiness or meaning.

Once you realize that pleasure isn’t enough, you start looking elsewhere.

In the first stage, you look outside of yourself. You imagine that a perfect romantic partner might make you happy. You work hard at your job or business in hopes that your career will fill that need. And you might even volunteer.

In the second stage, you start looking inside of yourself for ways to be happy. You try to improve your mindset and deal with your inner demons. You attempt to choose to be happy, rather than relying on something outside of you.

You might be at this second stage right now. And this is where happiness often gets linked to personal growth and improvement.

For instance, Mark Manson, a popular self-improvement blogger, had this to say:

“…progress, by definition, is what drives happiness – the progress of ourselves, the progress of others, the progress of our values and what we care about. Without failure there is no progress and without progress there is no happiness.”

And he’s not the only person who believes this. Tony Robbins has a similar view:

“If you aren’t growing, you are dying. It turns out that happiness that is true and lasting is quite simply this: progress. Progress = Happiness! If you are growing, and giving, you will be happy. If you are moving forward in your life, if you are progressing personally, professionally, emotionally, spiritually – you will be happy. It is only in stagnation that we wilt like a flower.”

These are popular opinions. After all, we live in an age that values the individual, freedom, and liberty above all else.

But then again, why wouldn’t you want to be better, healthier, happier, or more compassionate? Those all sound like great qualities, right?

Why Being Better is Great, But Never Enough

By definition, being better is good. (That’s the circularity of any ethical judgment, really.)

It’s admirable to work on being healthier, more compassionate, and more successful. And as I mentioned before, I often enjoy helping people achieve those things. So go for it. But keep this in mind…

When you try to be better or to improve yourself, you’re starting with a troubled question:

“What Should I Improve About Myself?”

You can’t try to improve yourself unless you’ve already asked this question. And yet, just asking this question entraps you in 2 big ways.

First, though, a quick warning…

Leaving the path of good/bad in this instance is NOT easy. And it doesn’t happen quickly.

You will worry that if you don’t grow, then you’ll be “stuck” or that you’ll “stagnate.” That without trying to get better, you’ll just sit on the couch all day.

But when you feel that fear (or sometimes anger), stop and explore it. What are you really worried about, and why? After all, if you weren’t attached to needing to be better in the first place, what would the problem be with getting “stuck” or “stagnant”?

And that’s the root of the first problem…

Problem #1: The Lack

All self improvement and personal growth must start with the question we posed above:

“What Should I Improve About Myself?”

It’s impossible to ask this question without starting with a lack. This question requires you to believe that something isn’t perfect or ideal right now. More specifically, something must be imperfect about YOU. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be self improvement or personal growth.

Perhaps you think it’s a more objective judgment. You believe “I could definitely be better in some ways.”

I get that. I’ve almost always felt not smart enough, attractive enough, popular enough, nice enough, or loving enough. And that’s just the short list.

That’s why I’ve spent my entire life improving and getting better. It’s also one of the reasons why I’m pretty “successful” in most areas of my life.

But improvement assumes that you’re moving toward an ideal. After all, how do you know whether you’re improving or growing, unless you can tell that you’re getting closer to something?

You know because you imagine an ideal way of being. That’s an ideal that you’ll never get to, of course. Even if you don’t expect to achieve the ideal, you’re still imperfect and incomplete.

And deep down, you know that this is the source of your unhappiness and discontentment…

You cannot completely accept yourself while also trying to improve.

Moreover, if you start from a lack, then you will also end up with a lack. Change assumes that you’re starting somewhere – that you’re changing something.

It’s the same for growth, progress, and improvement, which are simply different types of change. If you carve a stone into a sculpture, then you’ve changed the stone. But the stone still remains, just in a different form.

You can become more successful or more compassionate. But in the end, you still lack absolute success and compassion. You’re still incomplete and imperfect.

And so any pleasure you gain from growth or improvement will be temporary. To be completely happy or at peace, you would need to always be improving. You’d need to never regress. Neither of those things is possible. You can experience happiness while you’re improving and growing, but it’s temporary and incomplete.

Krishnamurti once said it better than I can:

“There is progress in self-improvement, obviously, which is the determined effort to be good, to be more this or less that, and so on. As there is improvement in refrigerators and airplanes, so also there is improvement in the self, but that improvement, that progress, does not free the mind from sorrow. Self-improvement is progress in sorrow, not the cessation of sorrow.”

Whenever you improve something about yourself, you feel a little bit of happiness. I lost 5% body fat in 11 weeks and felt pleased with myself about it. I was happy with my growth as an entrepreneur when my business hit $100,000 in monthly revenue.

But all that happiness was temporary. True peace and contentment doesn’t come from fixing or improving yourself. It comes from not being imperfect or broken to begin with.

There is a different way, but there’s also a second problem…

Problem #2: The Self

“What Should I Change About Myself?”

Apart from starting with a lack, this question also assumes that your self or your ego is real.

This might sound a little bit crazy if this is new to you, but you don’t exist in the way that you think you do.

“You” are a construct that you’ve built up from “your” experiences. You think of “your self” as thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations.

And most strongly, you tie “you” to your body. Even your spirit or soul is “yours.” “You” have had thoughts and emotions. “You” have had experiences.

But “you” do not exist – not the “you” that is your ego or self. Even if you believe in consciousness, that’s not something that you can improve like a traditional “self”.

This “you” – your ego – is what you try to improve and grow.

Why do you create this self and try to improve it?

There are psychological reasons for this. As an infant, you first experience self-awareness through a “social mirror”. You recognize emotions, sentience, and intentionality in other people. And through that recognition, you believe that “you” have the same characteristics.

A little bit later in childhood, you develop object permanence and symbolic thought. These psychological abilities allow you to suppose that “you” exist apart from your experiences.

You become aware of your “self”, but as an image and an ideal. Being aware of your “self” means that you are no longer present to your experience.

Instead, you focus on an imagined, ideal self as you could be.

This is all a bit technical. And to be fair, there isn’t a consensus on development of self awareness. But the point is this…

When you develop your sense of self, two things happen.

First, you are no longer entirely present.

Second, your immediate experience is now judged against an imagined ideal. And this happens in the context of the people around you. You no longer feel completely connected to them, and you imagine also that they judge you.

And it usually gets worse as you get older. You become less present in the moment. After all, being completely present means no growth or improvement, since you aren’t focused on the past or future. You also feel more disconnected and more imperfect. You get scared of people judging you, of failing, and of being embarrassed.

You build your entire identity upon being imperfect and not good enough.

Eventually, you find ways to compensate for your imperfection. Growth and improvement are the primary ways. You feel better when you “fix” yourself, because you feel less broken.

Unfortunately, holding onto any notion of self prevents lasting contentment and happiness. So where should you start?

Three Alternative Paths (other than Self Improvement and Personal Growth)

I love helping people achieve more success. But at some point, it’s not enough.

Even self improvement is not enough in the end. That doesn’t mean you need to give up those things. You might decide to or you might not.

Along the way, though, you might decide to also pursue peace and fulfillment. If you do, here are three ways to get started…

Path #1: Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is the act of bringing awareness and acceptance to your self.

Dr. Kristin Neff has become the default modern expert on self-compassion. But the concept is present in almost every major spiritual text, from the Bhagavad Gita to the Bible.

Self compassion is not an end by itself. Because it requires that you accept your self, it won’t really help you lose your self.

Still, it’s a useful tool and place to start. Self compassion will help to combat the problem of lack. You will start becoming more aware of how you feel imperfect and not good enough.

And as you become more aware, you will be able to start letting go of those imperfections.

How to Get Started: Start with these exercises from Kristin Neff. Exercises #5 and #6 are my favorites.

Apart from the exercises, start sharing more of yourself. You probably need to start small with this. Start telling people things you’re embarrassed about or ashamed of.

It sounds scary (and it is), but sharing will help you to see that you’ve been harder on yourself than anyone else is.

Path #2: Tracing the “I”

Ramana Maharshi was an early 20th century Indian “sage” of sorts. He didn’t write much, but a few people who knew him were able to capture some of his teachings.

“Tracing the I” is an incredibly simple practice that he “developed.

How to Get Started: All you need to do is to continually ask yourself “Who am I?”.

That’s it, but it applies to any and every time during your life. For example, if you feel tired, then ask yourself “Who feels tired?”. Obviously, “I feel tired.” Then ask yourself “Who am I?”.

And each time you ask the question, actively try to answer it. In every case, the answer is the same – “you” are not really there – even your “consciousness” is not you.

“You” as your ego, history, and collection of experience – do not exist.

By engaging in this process, you will start (little by little) to lose your self. And in the process, you will also lose the need for personal growth and self improvement.

Path #3: Play

Above all else, play.

The studies on play are incontrovertible. It makes you happier, healthier, less stressed, and an all-around better person.

But perhaps most importantly, play is the time you’re mostly likely to lose both your “self” and the need for improvement. It’s the time when you’re so immersed that you no longer even ask the question.

How to Get Started: Researchers generally agree that play has 5 characteristics. But you don’t need to know any of that.

Because you already know what play is. You might forget to actually do it, but you don’t need a tutorial.

And finally, there’s this…

Bliss and Peace are Already Yours

Growth and improvement are illusions.

You imagine two versions of yourself. One is you as you currently view yourself – incomplete, imperfect, and broken. The other version is an ideal you.

Over the course of your life, what’s insufficient changes. But one version of your self is always lacking and the other is always ideal.

Neither version is real.

Your perceived lack drives your need for personal growth and personal improvement. You believe that if you grow and improve, it will make you happier and more fulfilled.

Bliss and peace, though, are already yours. They are present for you so long as you are willing to acknowledge them.

Maharshi had this to say about it:

“The fact is, you are ignorant of your blissful state. Ignorance supervenes and draws a veil over the pure Self which is bliss. Attempts are directed only to remove this veil of ignorance which is merely wrong knowledge. The wrong knowledge is the false identification of the Self with the body and the mind. This false identification must go, and then the Self alone remains.”

For Maharshi, the Self is not you or your ego. For him, the Self is not even consciousness.

And you can experience the Self, peace, and contentment only by letting go of the need to change, improve, and grow.

Where Are You At in Your Journey?

How do you not feel good enough?

Do you practice self-compassion, and if so, how is it helping you?

Are you afraid to let go of self improvement and growth?

Or do you know that your drive to be better is what’s keeping you from peace and fulfillment? 

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