Thursday, January 3, 2013

How Self-Improvement Will Destroy You

A very non-serious .gif by Monkey for a serious post by Seal. What a silly Monkey.

When I was seven years old, I started my first to-do list. I was quite simple, with only three items I wanted to accomplish every day.

  • Put away my toys
  • Make up my bed
  • Help parents clean the apartment

Ten years later, when I was seventeen, the list grew to more than a 100 items. It was no longer a daily list, but a resolution for life. I titled it “Goals in Life”. It included travel destinations, languages to learn, running record times to break, things to become . . .

  • Travel to Nepal, Africa, France, London
  • Learn French, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese
  • Run 6 minute mile
  • Run 20 minute 3 mile (standard xcountry race)
  • Draw in 20 sketchbooks (I gave myself 6 years)
  • Read all of Shakespeare
  • All Greek Mythology
  • Collect stamps
  • Wrtie a novel
  • Make a film
  • Learn how to brew my own beer
  • Learn how to make my own cheese

The list went on, page after page. If you can’t tell, I was a very serious person who wanted to accomplish very big things. But at the heart of this list, there was something terribly wrong.

Although I read all of Shakespeare’s work in both junior college and in Berkeley, I couldn’t really use my knowledge of Old English and Literature in my everyday conversations. I hated Greek Mythology. I started a stamp collection, but I don’t even like collecting stamps. I managed to learn conversational Japanese and French on my own, but I have a high resistance to learning tonal languages such as mandarin. I don’t seem to have an ear for it. My friends make better beer and cheese that I did, so why not bum some off of them instead? And as I ran everyday and got close to breaking into 7-minute mile, I suffered an injury that put me out most of the x-country season during my senior year. I never did break that 6-minute mile or 20 minute 3 mile. And although I accomplished quite a lot from my giant list and I was generally happy, when I completed a task and crossed it off my list, the joy didn’t last as long as I thought it would. The experience of accomplishing a goal was tinged with a bit of disappointment. Since I didn’t want to think of what that would mean, I’d hurry onto the next task. My obsession with x-country record time was replaced by the next item on the list. At one point it was literature/ narrative theory at Berkeley, and now it’s art and film.

At the heart of these goals and resolution lists, I couldn't leave myself alone. Under the guise of self-improvement, I had rejected myself. Somewhere along, I believed that who I was at the core was not good enough and I needed to improve. I was thoroughly convinced that if I had accomplished certain things, it would sure to make myself feel worthy. I was busy trying to become someone else. I constructed a parallel life: someone that knew French, Spanish, Mandarin, and Japanese, someone who was a dedicated and revered marathon runner, someone who was cultured in Shakespeare and Greek Mythology, someone who could entertain her guests with beer and cheese made from her own very backyard.

“Self improvement” became self-rejection, a mad haste to becoming someone other than myself. I was always either “squeezing myself into a narrow version of revered behavior or crashing and rebelling against everything that constricted me.” No amount of goals I accomplished, no amount of tasks crossed off, satisfied me. “I had to keep doing more and more to silence the part of me that knows my actions were based on fear of what would happen if I didn’t try so hard” (Geneen Roth).

Stephen Levine, a meditation teacher once said, “Hell is wanting to be something and somewhere different from where you are.” If that’s true, then I spent a good number of my life in hell.

For a long time, I did this with art too. I signed up for workshop courses, made myself watch art videos everyday, draw everyday, paint everyday. I was so busy “climbing up the art career” until one day, I had pain and tightness in my wrist and tiredness in my eyes and I was forced to do anything else except for art. That same year, my aunt passed away. I hadn’t seen her for 20 years. There were so many words left unsaid.

I took a walk to my favorite coffee shop and had some warm chai. I didn’t realize that on that particular day, there was a festival at Japantown. So I sipped my chai and watched the kids playing taiko drums as the wind blew wisps of hair around my cheeks.

We are so afraid that if left to ourselves, without structure, without goals and resolutions, that we won’t accomplish anything, that we will falter and give in to laziness. Most resolutions are created out of fear, force, shame, or guilt. They are focused on “self-improvement”- the belief that something is broken and needed fixing rather than “self-actualization” – the unleashing of your already abundant amazing self and embodying your potential. Trust, that left to yourself, you will not destroy what matters most.

Ten years more, at age 27, I stopped making these resolution lists.

So what would happen if I didn’t try so hard?

I paint and make films. I just stopped counting how many sketchbooks I’ve filled up by a certain time. I do yoga and I jog, but I stopped counting how many calories I burned, how long it takes to run a mile, or how many times I go in a week. I learned enough Japanese to telecommute with my boss at SEGA in Tokyo, Japan, but I still don’t know how to write Kanji so I’ll get Google translator to help me with that. I gave away my stamps to an elementary kid who might have appreciated them more than me. If I do end up picking up Mandarin, great. If I don’t, that’s fine too. For my parties, I buy beer from my friend who is currently going to Beer School and cheese from the local green market ~ I’m never disappointed.

Our society has a very odd way of rewarding self-improvement and New Year’s Resolutions. We never question whether they are right to begin with. I’m not thoroughly against resolutions or goals. I think they are important in that they provide some sort of trajectory to aim for. As well as they are truthful tools to get you closer to self-actualization.

For example, you can begin from where you are. What are my goals? Say, to get a job at a top studio as an art director. What prize are you hoping to receive when you accomplish that goal? Is it fame? Financial reward? Or Creative reward that comes with a big studio? Is it rest from “having to find another job ever again”? or is it the freedom to choose your projects? Do you even like managing other artists (this comes with the responsibilities of being an art director)? So if you were able to narrow down your true desire from your goal, say you want to be an art director at a big studio so you can choose your projects and work with other inspiring top level artists . . . (you don’t really need a big studio or title of an art director to accomplish this true desire) what you, in fact, really wanted is freedom and creativity. Unless you can uncover your deepest desires, goals are elusive from one task to another. But if you ask questions about your goals, their true motives, and  they are very specific towards embodying your full potential; they can become your greatest tool and compass towards the theme of your life - the meaning you are trying to make with your life.

Whether you are just starting out or writing your resolutions for the 100th time, the biggest caveat, is that goals and resolutions should never be created out of fear or punishment (ie, if I don’t exercise, I’ll gain weight), but goals should be born out of trust in becoming and self-care (I like the feeling of moving my body and having strength in my limbs, so I’ll exercise). It shouldn’t be “Draw everyday (because if I don’t I won’t become somebody special, I won't create at all, other artists will pass me up, I won’t get a job, or I won’t have anything to contribute,” it should be “I enjoy the process of creating a visual physical thing from ideas, I love putting my imaginary worlds unto something visible that I can share with other people so I will draw whenever when I can.”

Here at Monkey + Seal, we’re a big fan of goals’ close cousin: themes. An extended explanation from out last post: whereas goals cover measurable units (running 3x a week), themes are broad strokes that highlight the values that are important to you (living a more a healthy lifestyle). With goals, you can get easily disappointed when you run 2 days and fail the 3rd day while with theme, if I fail to run at all in the week, there are many other actions I can take to fulfill the theme of living a healthy lifestyle, I can drink more water, get more rest, eat low cholesterol diet, walk around the block during lunchtime. The same thing could be said for the artist. Instead of “draw everyday, write everyday, or paint everyday” I now “incorporate a more creative life in my moment to moment,” that could mean anything from sipping chai while observing the sounds of steam milk, coffee grinding, and laughter at a cafĂ©, taking photographs outside my window, catching up on the latest film and discussing its cinematography and color, to walking around the block while hashing out the ending to my film.

So what are your themes for this year? For 6 months? This month?

What is your true north?