Forgetting others in the quest for self-improvement

‘Work hard and you will achieve. The only barrier to success is your own imagination. You can be whatever you want to be, you just have to want it badly enough.’

These kinds of feel-good clichés have become mantras for the modern era.

From The Secret and Angela’s Ashes to the Biggest Loser, popular culture celebrates the idea that with hard work and determination there is nothing we can’t overcome. Today it seems we are all masters of our own destinies. Give us lemons and we’ll give you lemonade (and make a killing from the lemonade stand in the process!).

While this positivity might be creating a generation of go-getters, it has dangerous consequences. For, if the dream life is deserved, so too is the nightmare. Structural inequality is not only ignored but legitimised through this 21st century narrative.

This focus on individual responsibility is not new. Indeed, it is the foundation of capitalism and classical liberalism. In the free market, some individuals will flourish, while others will flounder. Individual enterprise is encouraged and rewarded by the state.

In the United States, these notions of economic freedom came to be represented by the narrative of the “self-made man”. Without the class system of the United Kingdom, Americans saw their new nation as the ultimate meritocracy. No matter who you were, or where you came from, you could achieve and the state would reward you for your hard work. It remains a powerful cultural symbol implicitly linked to the American Dream.

Mass consumerism and the advent of the fitness and lifestyle industries have breathed new life into these narratives. The individual today is not only rewarded for their hard work; they can be transformed almost by sheer will power.

After all, how can we be persuaded to pay for that personal trainer if we’ll never get that killer six pack? We are assured that we can have that beach body we’ve always wanted, we can have that dream home, we can find the perfect partner … all that’s needed is the right attitude (and deep pockets!). Spending on what would have once been considered indulgences is now essential in the continuous quest for self-improvement. You can be a better person, you just have to imagine it and pay for it.

Many lament the rampant narcissism and individualism of the modern era, but surely this is not surprising when we are told that the individual is so powerful it can transcend anything. It seems a preoccupation with the self is not only essential if we are to get ahead, but also necessary if we are to be all that we can be.

It is difficult to build a sense of responsibility and care for others when the wealthy are assured that they are the rightful beneficiaries of their hard work, while those who are struggling are painted as the authors of their own misfortune.

Lazy leaners. They didn’t want it badly enough. They didn’t put in the hard yards.

This myth of meritocracy ignores structural inequality, masking the ugly truth of capitalism in feel-good, new-age packaging.

The sad reality, of course, is that some people work tirelessly hard in jobs that are underpaid and undervalued, and never get ahead. Of course, all people are of equal worth, but it does not follow that all people have equal opportunity to succeed. Unfortunately, factors like where you were born, who your parents are, and where you went to school do still influence your future prospects. The role of the state should be to redress these imbalances, rather than reward the lucky few who have either triumphed against the odds or been born into privilege.

The responsibility to care for those less fortunate is an essential part of the social contract, yet virtually absent from public discourse. It seems in our obsession with self-help we have forgotten about helping others.

The sad irony here, of course, is that individuals who place such a high premium on self-interest and self-reward will always be unhappy. The quest for self-improvement is never ending.

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was so consumed by his own image, it destroyed him. Unless we as individuals stop looking at our own reflections, genuine happiness and fulfilment will continue to allude us.

This article was first published on ABC’s The Drum on 27 June 2014. 

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13 thoughts on “Forgetting others in the quest for self-improvement

  1. Thanks for this insight, Robert. I’ve always felt that the rise of new age, self-help pop philosophy and economic rationalism/neoconservatism have also had a kind of symbiotic relationship, sometimes openly so, in the get rich quick Anthony Robbins Mode, but also in more subtle ways. Both movements definitely grew exponentially during the same period and were/are inwardly (selfishly) focused, rather than socially generous.

    But I do feel there’s been a bit of a push back and a lot of repair done in that regard for most of the last decade. Australia and the UK are both experiencing an ugly period at the moment, but surely the move towards community that was epitomised in social movements after the GFC (even in the recent backlash against the LNP budget), show that a coming together is not just possible but happening. I’d like to think so.

    As a side issue, I think, unfortunately, at times, we’ve unwittingly assisted the rise of individualism, even while actively opposing the neocons, by embracing identity politics for too closely and for too long – far beyond the necessary stage of empowerment – to create isolationism rather than intersection between groups, as a community. This has often been to our own detriment, where we are caught up in rigid constructions of ourselves, which are also narcissistic, to an extent, even if they have served a somewhat beneficial social and political purpose. Just a thought.

    • Thanks Benice and interesting thoughts about the links with identity politics. I agree with you and I think part of the problem is the focus on single issue politics, rather than engagement with other disenfranchised groups to address structural barriers.
      All the best, Rob

  2. Great article Robert.
    Structural inequality is unworkable, not simply from an ethical standpoint, but from an economic one. The rapid rise of automation over the next decade or so will kill off jobs involving repetitive work, while greatly enhancing national productivity. Those who control production will have abundant capital, while large chunks of society will be without work.

    Unless we want to put half the nation on the dole, we will need to be proactive in allocating resources to jobs that enhance society – not just production.

    This is the exact opposite of the priorities of this Abbott born-to-rule government, which sees society as a labour pool to be managed at low cost. Their approach promotes social instability and, as it weakens the market, is ultimately counter productive.

    • That’s all well and good. All the Liberals have to do is change the Unemployment stats like Labor did but even more so to hide real unemployment. Does one hour per week of casual work really mean you are employed? And just because you study (earn or learn) does that really mean you wouldn’t rather have a job, if one comes along. Yes and just because your wife works why cannot you be included on the statistics as unemployed? Yes the Government has for a long time been playing with the meaning of unemployment. So much so that the graphs on TV are really like comparing Apples with Oranges. It is no longer possible to compare 2014 unemployment stats with those of the 1970s as the definition is way different.

  3. It seems that the green-left’s love affair with the false dilemma and envy is alive and well. There is no problem with wanting to be a better person and those who choose to better themselves should not be made to feel like they are doing someone else a disadvantage. Nor should those who are structurally disadvantaged blame someone else who chooses to improve themselves.

    The poor aren’t poor because the rich are rich, nor can you have a healthy society without individuals who wish to achieve their own goals. They are not incompatible nor are they exclusive ideas and that is the problem with your argument. It ignores the realities of humanity. We are humans of equal worth, but we simply are not humans of equal output.

    • Lars, I think the key to this is in your phrase ‘false dilemma’, but this doesn’t come from the article published – it’s in your interpretation. Those like yourself who are critical when a light is shone on structural disadvantage create this false dichotomy or false dilemma by making one big assumption – that pointing out the inequality is an attack on anyone who has been able to better themselves because of this system.

      Clearly there’s nothing wrong with people wanting to better themselves and if they do so without harming others, then good luck to them.

      Clearly those who choose to improve themselves shouldn’t be blamed for structural disadvantage. To cast such blame would not only be misguided but pointless in improving the situation.

      The question it think the article poses is what can be done for those left behind by the system and the popular discourse (which is much like the American dream) which supports this system?

      But I don’t think the intention is to pit two teams – the rich vs the poor – against one another in some kind of dichotomous battle. It’s actually about making the system work for everyone.

      I’m also curious about your point regarding humans all having equal worth but not equal output. Aside from wanting to take this from the simple to the compex by talking about how different kinds of output are valued differently, I have a question – which do you think is more important and should be valued more by society – “worth” or “output”?

      • Wow, not only great post, but great comments.

        Regarding worth vs output, it seems we all agree that every person is of equal worth. But if we only hence measure on one’s output, what of those who are simply unable to achieve as much e.g. Downs Syndrome, paraplegics, etc.

        Are they hence the architects of their own perceived lack of worth through output?

        Also in the article, should end with “will continue to elude us” – but I’m sure you’ve already noticed and kicked yourself over that 😛

  4. So… are you planning to drop your gym membership, stop paying for PT sessions and take down your Facebook photos showing your six pack? To do otherwise reeks of hypocrisy. For your actions to align with the views you express here (and to avoid being a clueless cog in the style of capitalism you purportedly lament), perhaps you should redirect the money you spend on your own appearance towards helping others. Your rhetoric betrays a disturbing emptiness otherwise.

    • That may be true (don’t know the guy), or he could just be blessed with an easy to manage physique. Either way, taking him totally out of the equation, what are your thoughts on the subject matter?

    • Hey Lib Dem – I’m not offering myself up here as perfect. Of course, I feel the pressure to ‘self improve’ as well. I’m making the point that this is a broader social and cultural problem, one that we need to address as a society (but for the record, I don’t have a six-pack!).

  5. Reblogged this on What are your legs up to today? and commented:
    Wise words and really good reminder. Reading this has me think outside of my perspective of self improvement as a method of achieving good health. It’s so much more. From my inherited position of privilege, I need to remind myself to cherish what I do have, be less concerned with what I don’t have, and get out and enjoy life by living simply and giving back more than I get. Is that not what true health is? #healthienotselfie #solesports #eatgoodfood #drinkwater

    • Thanks Stu! It’s a balance isn’t it. On the one hand, I think it’s good to focus on good health and fitness but at the same time, viewing the body as a contant site for improvement can lead us to forget the great things in our lives and to forget about improving the lives of others. Rob

  6. Pingback: Individual improvement threatens, cautions flagship US statement - iForeignAffairs

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