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Improving Ourselves to Death (www.newyorker.com)
281 points by kawera a year ago | hide | past | web | 101 comments | favorite

I'm a little frustrated at the tossed-off reference to Plato and Aristotle at the beginning - "The good life may have sufficed for Plato and Aristotle, but it is no longer enough." - because I feel like that ignores the fact that both Plato and Aristotle, along with a lot of philosophers, actually had a lot to say about physical fitness. Plato was a champion wrestler, and both he and Aristotle viewed physical education as a fundamental component to living the good life. Xenophon quotes Socrates saying this:

"For in everything that men do the body is useful; and in all uses of the body it is of great importance to be in as high a state of physical efficiency as possible. Why, even in the process of thinking, in which the use of the body seems to be reduced to a minimum, it is matter of common knowledge that grave mistakes may often be traced to bad health."

The whole article feels a little too mired in presentism, and ignorant of the history of self-improvement ideas.

>Plato was a champion wrestler

And the name Plato is a nickname -- meaning "the broad/wide one" given to him for his broad shoulders because of that training and physical appereance. Real name: Aristocles.

It's funny to consider that one of the canonically great philosophers in history is known essentially by the equivalent of his WWE wrestling name. It's like if in the future there were classes taught on the philosophical ideas of "The Rock".

Some other amusing related stuff: so, Plato, was called for for the ancient greek word for broad/wide.

Modern english words that stem from the same root: plateau, platitude, plat, plate -- via French and Latin (plattus) from Greek (platis "flat, wide, broad").

Well, the first Pope was literally called The Rock (Peter). Jesus appointed him by saying "you are The Rock, and I'll build my church on this rock".

Exactly what he meant has led to centuries of debate between protestants and catholics.

“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”

― Socrates

I think about this phrase regularly (and thank you, because I couldn't remember it precisely anymore). I left a [very] physical job and started to get a bit soft; this is one of the meditations that sprung me back into action.

There's still another, immature, nagging thought that maybe this is what they taught their young pupils with other ends in mind. It's just through the modern, more lofty lens we view these philosophers with that we attribute much more noble intent to such aphorisms. It's a bit cartoonish to think so, but it amuses me.

I don't think the point of what was written is to say that physical fitness is unimportant and that philosophers thought it was just for jocks. It's rather that we're currently facing an emerging culture of striving for perfection that wanders somewhere between insanity and oppressiveness, that it's often used as a marketing ploy, and that it's perhaps (ironically) not very healthy.

I don't know what it's like where you live, but it's cultish where I am. People aren't just trying to improve themselves, they live for it. It's stifling. I figure it's not quite as bad away from Silicon Valley.

You can't just be a person who likes to try different foods, you have to try all the different foods, accumulate Michelin stars (of food you consume, not produce, of course), learn how to use a sous vide, etc.

You don't just go to the gym, you go to the $250 gym. In your $500 gym outfit. You go every day. And every night. For four hours. You go on a serious food cleanse, etc. etc. Your body is chiseled.

You don't just go to therapy. You go to CBT. You do scream therapy. You do MDMA and LSD therapy (I don't know if that's a thing, I made it up). Go meditating. Go to Burning Man. You're one with the universe. You get the idea.

I'm not going to rewrite the article, but the behavior is real. It's "work hard, play hard", no, work hard, everything hard, to the extreme and logical conclusion. Physical fitness is just one small part of the culture.

I think the author, who admittedly sweeps through a lot of strange generalizations on classical history in this article, is just using the idea of Aristotle and Plato "not being enough" to illustrate the delusions of consumer culture. We are no longer satisfied with pure virtue but instead have to buy things to display our success.

I do agree that self-help writers have a strong tendency to completely ignore Aristotle or do some terrible injustice to his self-improvement philosophy, but I'm not sure if it's really happening in this particular article.

Unneeded consumption is not unique to this period. Cynicism could be seen as an attack on modern consumerism.

I don't see how the comment about Plato and Aristotle implies anything about their attitudes towards physical fitness. It seems like he's just using it to contrast people striving for a good life with people cannot satisfied without the "perfect" life.

They spoke of the pursuit and acquisition of virtue as the highest good man can achieve, yet everyone seems to conveniently ignore that these days and pursues bodily goods instead.

Very Interesting read. I'm someone who has been reading some self-help literature for the past year. Topics include Mindfulness, Buddhism, Stoicism, Social skills, Positive psychology, Habit forming, Assertiveness. I'm in my early 20s, and I justify this phase as un-learning the coping mechanisms/bad habits I formed in my childhood/teen years. Well intentioned but highly critical parents damaged my self-esteem; I also suffered from loneliness. And self-help books have helped me. I don't see myself continuing to regularly read as much self-help as I grow older. But I think it's important early on in your life trying to unlearn bad habits and learn good ones.

I could write this out word for word and it would be true for me as well. Generally, I think interacting with self help stuff is bad and can lead to being overly self critical. But when you take a hard look at your self and truly acknowledge that you aren't being who you feel like you are, what else is there to do?

From an insider's perspective (I work in self help), there are a couple of hidden things that contribute to you feeling self-critical that aren't your fault.

1. The field is very competitive and so everyone in the field hypes up their success stories. It's easy to go in to a self help book thinking it will work 100% of the time. The truth is that it probably only works 10% of the time. 10% is great unless you were expecting 100%. So failing is normal. And the most common cause for failure is simply discovering change is a lot of work and you'd rather put that effort somewhere else.

2. The vast majority of free self-improvement articles are written by content marketers with zero personal experience. They are essentially writing book reports about different famous people. It's actually a little worse than that--many think up the title and framing, and then farm the words out to Upwork (this happens even for articles you find on Inc.). The downside of this is that the advice has never been tested, not even on the author. So the readers hype themselves up and then find out that the actions they've been given just flat out don't work ever.

3. Otherwise well meaning professionals in this space get obsessed with problem solving. And as a result they talk at you like you have a problem. That's not their call though. You need to be in charge of deciding whether you are happy with your weight or not, or wealth or productivity. I walked out of a Mobile Health Conference once because I was so disgusted by the parade of thin speakers who were talking about how awful fat people are. But it comes up in article titles too--many of the proposals I see are framed as a chance to fix you. I politely talk them into a different framing.

So those are three things our industry does to unintentionally make people feel bad about themselves.

> there are a couple of hidden things that contribute to you feeling self-critical that aren't your fault.

This is the start of 100s of self-help books. Mainly, IMHO, because it's such an attractive pitch, not because it carries any truth.

Are you saying self-help books criticize you because they think it's in their business interest?

Authors may try that. But thankfully, you feeling bad isn't actually good for their business.

All of my data on headlines in my publication says the articles always do better if they are framed in the positive rather than in the negative. I'm constantly telling authors not to say they're out to fix you... rather we're here to help you achieve some positive fantasy of who you could become. Almost any topic could be framed either way. "Stop procrastinating vs. The secret of intense focus."

And I've deconstructed a number of top self help books (Tony Robbins, Quit Smoking the Easy Way, Tim Ferriss). They all use a structure of inspiration and social proof to convince you that the change is possible.

Maybe my favorite example book structure is a book about waking up early called The Miracle Morning. The entire first half of the book is a sales pitch for the advice that comes in the second half of the book. At first I thought it was funny that I was half way through the book and I still had no idea what the steps of the Miracle Morning were. But that sales pitch had wormed its way into my subconscious and that made following the steps a lot easier.

All those authors used positive framings and avoided any negativity other than to acknowledge how you might be feeling about yourself when you decided to buy their book.

I enjoyed reading your comment, but I think the GP meant that many self-help books start by saying "if you feel self-critical, it's actually not your fault".

If the self-help content you consume in order to improve yourself makes you feel worse about yourself you consume the wrong content... It's almost like saying that food in general is harmful because the fast-food you eat makes you fat.

You will notice over time how Stoicism is actually philosophy, it grows on and with you through the years. I know you did not mean it deeply but it is not self-help, no need to leave it behind after you finish your readings; and it's okay if you see it as self-help too though, no dead classical greek dude will come after you to question it :-)

It seems like most people come to this sort of thing to improve their lives. If your life is already fine, learning for the sake of learning is great. Most people whose lives need changing are stuck in habits and, speaking from experience, learning can come to replace the time spent on bad habits.

Which seems great, but it never gets applied, and your life continues to have the problems you set out to solve. It's easy to get stuck in a loop: If I just click through to this one article, maybe it'll have the answers...

Personally, I had a breakthrough in the last few weeks when I did the following:

* Instructed Firefox to not save history. Not being able to immediately jump to my go-to distractions with two keystrokes helped break the cycle, and not having sites in history adds just enough friction to keep me away. I also make heavy use of reader mode. This means I'm better able to focus on what I do end up reading.

* Switched to Microsoft Launcher, removed the Bing box, and installed DuckDuckGo. Stories disabled (they're getting rid of it soon anyway), JavaScript disabled. The abundance of sites that completely fail without JavaScript is a great habit breaker.

* Stopped saving articles to Pocket. Now I decide in the first paragraph if it's worth reading now, which is different from deciding whether it's worth reading. Farnam Street (https://www.farnamstreetblog.com/) has been tremendously helpful here because it's almost all good. Still, it's easy to get stuck in a loop reading it. Too much of a great thing is just as bad as too much of a good thing. If I were advising myself four weeks ago, I would suggest reading only the 10,000 or so words of their page on mental models: https://www.farnamstreetblog.com/mental-models/

* Started using Thunderbird's feed reader. It's more tedious to manage feeds, which keeps me from piling every new site I find on to it.

* Mindfulness meditation. I'm not very practiced at it, but saying (in my head) "break the cycle" while focusing on my head helps a bit.

* I make extensive use of Evernote's Windows 10 app. It's fast, and having a place to put ideas I have and read saved stuff keeps me away from the browser. This is one thing I want to have as fast as possible. The longer it takes to access the system and structure my ideas go into, the less likely I'll do it, and the less likely the thought will survive long enough to record.

Basically, I choose my frictions. I put orange cones around the stuff I want to avoid and try my best to clear the way to things that keep me moving forward.

There's a lot of very bad pop-sci books on this topic. Do you mind sharing the ones you read and recommend?

It's not "self help", but anything by Alan Watts will help you think of "self" in a very different way.

And again, not self-help, but I love recommending Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew B Crawford, for reconsidering your relationship with work and finding joy in your career. The full book is worth reading, but this essay link gets the gist of it.


I'll offer a dissenting opinion on the book. I read it, enjoyed it, but thought "this should just be an essay". Then I found the essay and feel it communicates the essential point.

I mostly stopped reading non-fiction books because of this. You have to wrestle through seven chapters of introductory bullshit because the author gets to the point, just because a blog post doesn't sell for $20.

I wish there was a culture where good essays would actually sell for $20. Something with a "perceived value per word" review score maybe.

I find the same thing even with critically acclaimed "Thinking Fast and Slow" or "Power of habit". On the other hand sometimes blogposts may not be exhaustive enough. IMO roughly 60-100 pages is the perfect format – you don't need to overly simplify the topic (like in blogpost, newspaper article) but you don't need to repeat yourself 10 times over (like in 300-400 page book).

"How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie - It's a classic in that genre. https://www.amazon.com/How-Win-Friends-Influence-People/dp/0...

Charisma on Command channel for social skills. https://www.youtube.com/user/charismaoncommand

Personally I also really like a lot of the talks from Tony Robbins when it comes to emotional intelligence and personal psychology. I listen to them on youtube while I'm cleaning fairly often. He can be a bit over the top and rambly for some people though and I do disagree with some things. But it's a good starting point on what to think about.

"Full catastrophe living" by John Kabat Zinn is pretty good.

Without doubt I would start with:

'No more Mr. nice guy' -- Robert Glover

Thanks man! I just bought this audiobook based on your recommendation and started listening to it tonight. It sounds good so far.

I've heard this book recommended a few times but your comment made me pull the trigger and buy it.

Recommending this book is somehow my way to thank the author.

While most self help books try to motivate you, this one explains with clarity why a large amount of people are stuck in life despite being smart and hard working individuals.

Very Buddhist in nature, but I've really enjoyed everything I've read from Jack Kornfield. "A Path with Heart" is a good place to start.

> trying to unlearn bad habits and learn good ones

"The second half of a man's life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half."

- Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I agree there is certain period in one's life retrospective actions and corrective measures should happen. There does cause harm to not getting out of it and put them in practice. I had such a period as well learned everything you just said above. I even thought I'm somewhat enlightened, but when I put myself in test, I have failed. Then again, failure is still part of corrective actions. One never stops learning and self improving.

There is no such thing as self help. It's what you do, outside information can only be a guide. And the only way to truly change is to put yourself in a new situation with responsibilities, and allowing yourself to fail till you get it right.

Also the only difference between an extrovert and introvert is when they empathize with themselves. And the problem with the "introverted approach," is you are thinking about who you think you are versus through the eyes of those around you. None of you will ever have all the infromation as to who you are. Instead shift your focus on how to help move the conversation between people subjects and shared experiences, instead of question response, etc... Hard to do that when your concerned about your internals mind, when that is only a vapid simulation of who you think you are.

> There is no such thing as self help.

I think you're being overly pedantic and semantic here.

> It's what you do, outside information can only be a guide. And the only way to truly change is to put yourself in a new situation with responsibilities, and allowing yourself to fail till you get it right.

I don't think they're saying that the outside information is anything more than a guide. Many self-help books encourage just that - to put yourself in new situations, however newly equipped with tools to better work through the new situation. And of course those tools only become your own once you fully live through them, but I think it's a poor criticism to say that self-help books aren't useful or helpful. In that regard no book that aims to share knowledge is helpful. E.g. you should learn to program entirely on your own then, with no books or guides.

You can save time by learning from the mistakes of others. I see no point in failing myself if I can do it right the first time by relying on expert guidance. For some things I do a single major mistake could leave me crippled or dead.

>You can save time by learning from the mistakes of others.

Only barely. For important life decisions/paths, people only learn from their own mistakes (and often not even from those).

Heck, Computer Science as a field itself forgets its own collected wisdom every new generation hits the market, and re-invents BS that other eras have tried and buried with another fad name.

What's even worse, those "self-help" books are full of contradictory, snake-oily, and plain wrong information, and can even put people on BS priorities and give them a false sense of what it means to be happy/successful etc. Which is one reason people reading those books keep reading those books and going to those seminars -- they're not meant to get you somewhere, but to keep those believing them hooked forever.

There are exceptions, sure. But not 100.000 exceptions, and there are more than 100.000 such crap works.

>>You can save time by learning from the mistakes of others.

>Only barely. For important life decisions/paths, people only learn from their own mistakes (and often not even from those).

>Heck, Computer Science as a field itself forgets its own collected wisdom every new generation hits the market, and re-invents BS that other eras have tried and buried with another fad name.

Your last statement sounds like it's in favor of "learning from the mistakes of others" in that we could avoid re-inventing failed "BS" if we learned from others' mistakes. Are you saying that the idea that folks in CS re-invent work which has previously failed is evidence that it is not possible to learn from the mistakes of others?

>Are you saying that the idea that folks in CS re-invent work which has previously failed is evidence that it is not possible to learn from the mistakes of others?

No, I'm not dealing in absolutes ("not possible").

I'm merely saying that the reality that "folks in CS re-invent work which has previously failed" is supportive argument in how people in general don't learn from other's mistakes.

Of course it IS possible. It's just that it's rare.

Speak for yourself. I have certainly learned enough from the mistakes of others to avoid many major mistakes in both life decisions and computer science.

> Heck, Computer Science as a field itself forgets its own collected wisdom every new generation hits the market, and re-invents BS that other eras have tried and buried with another fad name.

But how many of those people who are re-inventing what other eras tried already were aware of what those inventions were? That is, my point is that most often what is re-created is because the re-creators weren't aware of the past.

A therapist can really help in this area as well.

Couldn't agree more. The biggest difference between therapy and your regular doctor is that you get an hour with your therapist - so if you have specific problems or goals, you can get a lot of time with them to chew on those issues. Whether you find a solution or not, you leave therapy feeling like you've made progress, which is vital for emotional health.

tl;dr - I made it about two paragraphs in before I started skimming. It's a rambling an uninteresting rant against the self-help industry, which ends with a recommendation for another self-help book. I fail to see what point the author is trying to make.

What is life but a struggle to become the best person one can be? And who cares if the quest kills us? We're all going to die anyway. What else were you going to do with your short life?

I can't say I'm familiar with this "self-help craze", as the author calls it. The only "self-help" book I've ever read is How to Win Friends and Influence People - an oldie which I can recommend.

I read every word of it and agree with you. Also, the irony that most, if not all of the books mentioned end up pedaling another kind of 'self help' seems to be lost on the author.

Unlike you though I have consumed quite a number of self-help books for the very reason you stated: striving to be a better person seems like a worthy pursuit.

I also disagree with her statement that morality tends to get short shrift in the self-improvement literature. Whether intended or not, often the effect of such self-help programs is that one becomes, at least marginally, more understanding, patient, tolerant and accepting of others, in addition to oneself.

> tl;dr - I made it about two paragraphs in before I started skimming. It's a rambling an uninteresting rant against the self-help industry, which ends with a recommendation for another self-help book. I fail to see what point the author is trying to make.

An essay of this length should communicate something that is not necessarily digestible into a single point. In fact, it's arguable that a good essay cannot be summarized into a single point, and that the entire article needs to be taken as a whole before the full nuance of what it's attempting to convey can be understood. Sometimes "the point" is difficult to articulate and that, in my opinion, is something to be desired across all artistic forms.

I see this sort of criticism on the internet very often, as if people expect writers to create digestible, elementary essays that they can only vaguely engage with and still walk away with something to agree or disagree with. Personally, I demand more of both the writing I read on the internet, as well as myself.

Not to defend this particular essay too hard, but the conclusion does the exact opposite of recommend another self help book. Literally the final paragraph is the shrugging off of self-help books entirely.

As a writer, I disagree with the excuse 'Its an essay it is supposed to prove a point'.

There was no 'Hook' in the first 5-7 paragraphs, heck I couldnt really tell what the point of the article was.

This IMO was a poorly written article. I thought the points that were made were real, but didnt go back to whatever the heck the main point was.

Wonder who's kid the author is.

I agree with you, poster. I'm baffled as to why you felt you needed a throw-away, though. If you don't think you can speak in earnest within this community, it probably isn't healthy for any of us to be here.

Back to your point, though, I think that the mark of an effective essay on the Internet is whether or not it drums up interesting conversation. This one has.

> I agree with you, poster. I'm baffled as to why you felt you needed a throw-away, though.

I know, this isn't a political topic, we should be able to have a reasonable discussion :)

In any case, I like a good long-form essay on occasion - this one definitely failed to 'hook' me in the intro.

How to Win Friends and Influence people is still my favorite book on self improvement so far. I'm big on improving myself and I've read a lot on the subject, and often make some suggestions to others. Part of the problem is different people need different advice.

But there are also a lot of scammers/bad advice in the genre that people are wary of. I think specifically because I often listen to self improvement, educational, and entrepreneurial videos on youtube I get a lot of ads for it. Promises that if you just follow their system you'll be rich, in perfect health, adored by all...and they'll let you know their secrets for the low price of $100/month. Even with good intentions sometimes the advice is just to be ridiculously optimistic and some of it is just about wishful thinking. Sorting through it all to find the good stuff can be hard for people. Although internet reviews do help somewhat, I think people get a bit tired of trying to find the answers that work sometimes.

> What is life but a struggle to become the best person one can be?

That's one way to look at life. There are many others.

What is life but to raise kids? What is life but to have interesting experiences? What is life but to pursue pleasure? What is life but to have relationships with other people? Etc, etc.

Self improvement is just one goal that could make life meaningful. There are plenty others, and certainly not everyone is interested in self-improvement, or finds it necessary, or even possible in general (you could get in shape but does that really make you a better person?). For example, Ben Franklin tried to self-improve his virtue, but found that has effort didn't succeed.

And anyway, why are you so important that you need to focus so much effort on being better? You can if you want, but why do you need to?

"Never criticize, condemn, or complain". Does that apply to forum comments on the internet too? I also read Dale's book and wonder about this. I generally agree with you btw.

Only if you're trying to win friends :P

Fortunately this author and I will most likely never cross paths socially or professionally.

> What is life but a struggle to become the best person one can be? And who cares if the quest kills us? We're all going to die anyway. What else were you going to do with your short life?

This. But as with many things, I think it's a balance between the two extremes. As the author argues, an obsessive never-ending pursuit for perfection can be unhealthy. But never striving for anything doesn't make for a very interesting or fulfilling life either. We are both "perfect the way we are" in one sense, and also completely imperfect with much room to grow.

To me the optimal path seems to be at an elusive balance between being content with what you have right now, and yet always striving to become better: the difficulty is that this is kind of a contradiction. No one wants to get to the end of their life and feel like they spent all their time looking ahead and never appreciating the present. But I've also found from experience that resting on my laurels and abstaining from continual self-improvement has also not led me to happiness and satisfaction. Quite the opposite, really.

Just the process of pursuing excellence is in itself a valuable thing that seems to give most people a huge sense of purpose and fulfillment. The question I think is at what point does this become obsessive/unhealthy, or detract too much from enjoying one's live in the present moment.

I know I will likely catch a lot of downvotes for this, but I found the teachings of Jesus to answer questions of how to run life. As well as the Proverbs of the old testament, and many other scriptures.

Seek and you will find. When I get stuck, I found in the past I would look for excuses on why something isn't working, or why is this happening to me, or when will this end. But when I started to actually "seek" I always found an answer. It may take time and effort, but I always found it.

It's like smoking, drinking or drugs. If you want those things, you seek them out until find them. Why not do the opposite? Seek a way to change how you feel about them.

This worked in my family life too, I was very tired, and I blamed one of my kids for something (he actually did it, but I was brutal in my accusation) he fired back and we started fighting. At the end of the fight, I was angry because he couldn't admit his error. Despite this, I sought an answer in my mind and heart on how I could have changed the outcome. Me, not him.

I was so angry, even hurt by his disrespect, but I kept looking and looking. Then it hit me, a very obvious answer, if I had talked to him quietly, he would not have fought with me about how I treated him.

I found an answer. Then I applied it. I told him I was sorry for accusing him so harshly, and that I should have come to him more reasonably. That was it. I couldn't change what happened, but I got to replay the event halfway. A while later he came to me and acknowledged his own error, but I didn't demand this of him.

Seek an you will find is a generic answer though, as you can seek things that are bad for you as well. But then wisdom must come into the picture no matter what.

Once you have studied enough self-help stuff, you will find that distilling them down, they all end up in a similar place. Change yourself, you have control over this, and it will change your life. Just be careful what guidelines you use to change by.

TBH, and I say this as a pretty staunch atheist, Jesus sounds like he had a lot of his shit sorted. Most of what I've read about him is just him being fair and advocating respect of everyone involved.

In my experience most people that claim to be "Christians" don't follow Jesus' basic teachings. Even the most staunch and dedicated will often fumble through an excuse as to why they don't do what he said to do.

Paul wrote about people that did not follow Jesus or the bible as following God naturally. (in Romans) One of my neighbors is a Buddist and he's a great to have next door. (cleared the snow from my driveway a few times without even me asking)

I have been personally shamed by the good behavior of other people outside my own "faith" group, including atheists. The Jordan Peterson video linked in a near comment pointed out the need to be challenged and take on responsibility, and have difficulties. I think the only way I was able to change some things about my religious beliefs was to hear the criticisms of my "sect" openly and face them.

My big religious change came when I was publicly confronted and shamed by a member that had left the group I was in. I started to fear disobeying true leadership in Jesus more than a man with authority. (being shamed, and wrong at the same time sucks) Proverbs says the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.

Well, I no longer follow men blindly, and it's funny what you see in Jesus when you have no religious baggage telling you what he meant...

Between about 1000 BC and 0 AD it seems as if humans worked out how to get along in life. I'm on your side in following Christian scripture but I think you can use any of the major texts that emerged during that time and get reasonable results.

In fact my main beef with self-help programs is that they tend to regurgitate a lot of basic lessons that already exist in ancient texts in cleaner and more direct forms, such as Matthew chapters 5-7 in the New Testament (aka the sermon on the mount). I certainly found this to be the case with the type of new age precepts that seems to be popular in training classes for corporate employees.

I'd go even further and say human beings have worked it out multiple times - the little bit of Buddhist literature I've read, or, from the Chinese angle, the Dao De Ching (Tao Te Ching) both contain a lot of wisdom. I'm sure other cultures have worked out part or all of it too.

The sad thing is so much good stuff is out there, however people often don't listen, or take it to heart.

Have you read any classical history ? Thucydides records death camps in his history of the peloponnesian war.

It does not follow that people necessarily behave, even when they know better. We still have that problem today.

I do the same thing with Jean-Luc Picard from The Next Generation. WWJLPD?

"Most of what you've read about him" is not equal to "most of what he said".

The most charitable source for this is probably Lewis's trilemma, which argues Jesus was either correct (he's the son of god), he's evil, or he's deluded.

More polemically, you have anything written by Christopher Hitchens on the subject.

I think he was deluded about being the Son of God, but that doesn't mean we should throw out the ethical precepts he advocated. A life lived by the major tenets espoused by Jesus in the Bible - treat other people the way you would want to be treated, be compassionate to people who screw up, take care of people who are less fortunate than yourself - would be a good life. Not surprisingly, those are tenets that are common to most ethical systems, whether they are religious or philosophical.

Remember, he said we were all children of god. It was the hero-worshippers of the day that turned him into a special person. I don't believe he claimed to be any more than the rest of us.

If you do what Jesus said to do, doesn't that make you a follower or a student of his teachings? (the greek word for student is often translated as disciple)

I find it interest that just claiming a title is meaningless if you don't follow the rules associated with that title. But if you follow the rules and don't claim the title, what does that mean?

Thank-you for sharing your story.

You'd probably appreciate the lectures of Dr. Jordan Peterson. Clinical Psychologist. Award-winning lecturer. He loves to bring in Biblical references into his teachings.

"A Good Father Helps You to Become Your Best Self" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JA5iEKvHNxk

That was pretty cool, thanks for sharing that, I think I started down a rabbit hole with Jordan Peterson youtube clips. :P

Glad to hear it! I love listening to him - he sincerely has improved my life through his teachings.

I'm a christian, but I'm probably more interested in my personal stoic philosophy first.

What is God? Is God a programmer?

What language was our universe written in?

I find Atheism an excuse to skip these question. I think Agnostic is significantly a better way for Atheists to approach problems.

I'm starting to believe in Simulation Theory, and that a nerd like me created a universe. Thats our Christian "God".

I think you have it backwards:

Atheism is saying "I don't know."

Agnosticism is saying "I don't think it's possible to know."

Most religions are saying "I do know - it written in this book."

Being an atheist does not preclude you from searching for answers, it just means admitting that we haven't found them yet. Agnosticism and religion are excuses to either pretend we can't know, or that we already know.

> I find Atheism an excuse to skip these question. I think Agnostic is significantly a better way for Atheists to approach problems.

I know we're getting somewhat off-topic here, but... That's an odd remark? Being an atheist for me is not "an approach", is what I am - I simply don't believe in a god or whatever (anymore). That wasn't a conscious choice (although I was really conscious of it happening), but more of an observation: "huh, I guess I'm an atheist now."

There's absolutely nothing wrong with being inspired by Jesus, the problem is only when people disregard all other inspiration other than the "main one" they have chosen. Christian teaching is good in a lot of ways, but it's also completely lacking in other ways.

People should be inspired and take the best from Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, the Hindu gods, ancient philosophers, modern philosophers, self-helpers and all other sources they can find. When people believe they have found the truth they are destined to never find it, because they stop looking.

Truth is never found, it is a never-ending and eternal process of discovery that should last until death. A lot of people stop living way before they die.

What do you feel is lacking in "Christian teachings"?

A main one would be a focus on the internal world (self-image, thought processes, confidence, inner peace), Christianity is often too focused on acting correctly instead of thinking correctly/crafting a good personality in my view.

Buddhism is stereotypically more focused the other direction. Christian mediation isn't really a thing for example.

Please note that I don't want to get into a stupid pedantic discussion about what Christianity may or may not contain/touch on, my point is simply that no single source will ever contain all the wisdom there can be found - which I don't think can be disputed by intellectually honest people.

> I don't want to get into a stupid pedantic discussion about what Christianity may or may not contain/touch on

Except that you clearly don't know all the teachings, so pre-dismissing anyone helping you learn the parts you think are missing seems short-sighted.

That being said, you are partly right... In general, Christianity answers the question of "What do I do?", while Buddhism answer "How do I do it?" But there are internally-focused teachings throughout the New Testament. The Old Testament was more what you describe than Jesus' teachings.

Sadly, when you conclude that anyone who disagrees with you must not be intellectually honest, it makes me feel you are not very far along ANY spiritual path. Even though again, you are partly correct... your approach to all of this is very ego-driven, and it doesn't sound like you are open to much in the way of discussion.

A discussion about whether everything knowable about the universe is already known/that a single source can contain all the wisdom there is?

You're right, I'm not really open to discussing about that and I'll stand by my statement that people who reject new wisdom are intellectually dishonest.

I don't see how being open to new wisdom and science would make someone less spiritually enlightened. However I'm very interested in hearing why you (seem to) think so, that is fascinating to me.

This news story is off the front page, so I hope posting a comment here isn't considered so off topic anymore that it matters. But even something as simple as the "sermon on the mount" is incredibly deep spiritually as well as intellectually. Go read it (it's short) and consider that the list of "physical todos" is always related to some kind of internal concept. I don't think the two can be divorced.

Consider the simple concept of saying "thank you" to someone. Even if you don't feel like it or believe it to be useful or necessary, it can have a profound impact on the inside of the person hearing it.

I would posit that all physical acts start and end with an internal effect, either or both on the doer and the receiver (if there is one).

The law of the old testament is often accused of being a forced list of empty physical requirements. But consider what Jesus said about the law and the commandments, that there are two great commandments, love God and love your neighbor. And then said "On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets."

Not only did he state that the most important things you can "do" are things we cherish as purely internal, they are only useful if expressed externally. And then he responds all criticism of the old testament law by stating they "depend" on the love of God and our neighbors.

A proverb says something like "being hit by a friend is better than love that is hidden." I proved that having love for my wife was utterly meaningless in any way shape or form if I didn't somehow make her feel it too. And the only way I could do that is through a physical act.

Internal only reflections without external expression is selfishness.

But to leave this with one more thought, Paul wrote "...whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things."

Maybe there is more the teachings of Jesus than is popularly known or shared?

The underlying problem with a lot of folks isn't that they aren't productive enough. They've got plenty of trait Conscientiousness - working hard and getting things done isn't the problem.

The problem is pairing it with too much trait Agreeableness. If you can easily work hard and you easily say yes to other people's demands, you'll always be busy sating the insatiable hunger for more work at your expense. The solution isn't to become a better worker, though there's plenty of advice for how to do that. The fix is to learn how to avoid doing things not in your interest.

For fairly obvious reasons of self-interest, there aren't many people out there telling you to look out for number one. Especially for people with self-interested and highly authoritarian parents that taught their children to live up to a high standard and not push back against their demands.

> Duckworth doesn’t think you need talent in order to become, as another of Duhigg’s books puts it, “Smarter Better Faster,” and neither do any of these other experts. According to their systems, anyone can learn to be more efficient, more focussed, more effective in the pursuit of happiness and, that most hallowed of modern traits, productivity. And if you can’t, well, that’s on you.

The thing that really gets me about self-help stuff (and a lot of clinical psychology, for that matter) is that there's very little consensus about what actually works, yet the followers of any given approach are generally pretty quick to blame you if their preferred method doesn't work for you. In the face of a failed attempt, a goddamned laundry list of previously unspoken caveats and requirements appears to "explain" how you failed the method rather than the method failing you.

I dunno about the no-consensus thing. It's kind of like saying "there's very little consensus about how to do frontend development with javascript." Well, perhaps in one sense, but in another sense there are some obvious paths (proven frameworks whether Angular, React, Vue, etc, proven and well-documented patterns/approaches - SPA, REST, etc), best practices, and things to avoid. And context matters, of course. When would it not? Surely life is not less complex than software development.

A couple things which I believe there are consensus about, at least within the clinical psychology field:

Exercise is the most obvious thing that comes to mind. And getting into nature. And meaningful relationships.

Cognitive behavioral therapy generally seems to have good results.


Coffee is good for you (just kidding, that one flips back and forth every week).

I choose to believe coffee is good for me on faith :P

Here's a related article some may find interesting if you like this one: https://www.theawl.com/2011/04/inside-david-foster-wallaces-...

It's about the writer David Foster Wallace's annotated self-help library. I think it's fascinating to see the energy with which someone who is brilliant consumed low-brow self-help literature.

Alas it seems like it did not work in the end.

When you're in such a bad spot you'll look to anything for a way out.

Most critiques of "self-help" books ring hollow if you've actually read any of the lampooned works. I feel that authors of such critiques are mostly trying to make themselves feel superior to those hapless plebs who are ready to throw themselves prostrate in front of this year's fad guru.

Count me on the side of the plebs. I've read numerous "self-help" books, including many of the ones named in this piece. And nearly all of them have useful information that has aided me. I recognize myself as deeply flawed. I would be a fool to not look for information on how to deal with that from those who have learned something about it. Are there charlatans with bad information? Sure. Does that mean I should disregard everyone with something potentially useful to share? No.

> Knight, who favors the shouty, super-caffeinated tone of a spin-class instructor, calls herself a “bestselling anti-guru.” She is particularly proud of the best-selling part, and it’s easy to see why her approach appeals. The phrase there is nothing wrong with you takes up two full pages of her first chapter.


> Then the book became a best-selling sensation. Brinkmann now lives the life of a successful European public intellectual, appearing on TV and radio and travelling the world to lecture “on the big questions of modern life.”


I agree with the sentiment of the article. I find it interesting from a meta-analytical perspective, too. As the above quotations demonstrate, even when aware of the sinister, deep nature of the hamster wheel, the author perpetuates their own forebodings. The pattern is being unable to see value or usefulness without highlighting the material end; do we want to stoke the fires to encourage more of the same under a different brand?

There's some reference to the Stoics, aye. That's a good place to start. I'd suggest this book: The Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (https://www.amazon.ca/Guide-Good-Life-Ancient-Stoic/dp/01953...)

One of the secrets the Stoics have uncovered, I believe, is to practice will-power so that we can identify and resist craving. Simply saying "stop it", or "re-think the system" undermines the reality that billions upon billions of dollars and our smartest minds are, at this very second, applying our most advanced technologies to further expand this soul-less, insatiable machine which we've created.

I think there’s a major distinction between actually improving yourself, and posting about improving yourself. One is true self improvement, the other is insecurity.

> 2017 was a pustule of a year, politically and personally; the general anxiety around the degradation of American democracy made it hard to get much done.

If you're the type of person to make excuses for your lack of personal achievement due to the Twitter ramblings of politicians, then I have news for you: you're never going to be successful.

Productivity as a term reminds me of collaboration. Just like collaboration isn't teamwork, productivity isn't <fill in the blank here>. Haven't figured out the analogy yet.


I am often seduced by the promise of productivity porn. The "if I can just get my system right, everything else will be easy" promise. But it rarely actually makes me produce more.

productivity isn't progress

Good one thanks. I was thinking achievement but progress is better.

Right, but progress isn't progress either. It went from meaning a journey to being a goal ...


I think part of the issue with the self-help approach is that it's trying to solve a problem that results from changes that are systematic and fundamental to the way humans live, and thus which need to be solved at the level of civilization, not the level of the individual.

In other words, individuals can mitigate the effects of these structural changes for themselves, but probably not ultimately resolve them.

While our shift to more or less utilitarian principles and capitalism has yielded large gains in increased production and higher quality of life, we've lost a great majority of the social structures, practices, and institutions that used to infuse life with meaning.

I've been reading a great deal about this recently in the work of Georges Bataille--when you contrast archaic forms of civilization with our own, some of the differences are striking--while we have much better living conditions, our ancestor's lives were generally much richer in structures that produce meaning (ritual, religion, monarchy, family, village...), and I think humanity is still struggling with their loss. Batialle points out how the biblical phrase "man does not live by bread alone" is really a truism about humanity, whether or not you're religious.

Replace "bread" with "material" and you largely have uncovered the problems of modern society--if you examine your familial and personal relationships you'll recognize that, subversively, so many of them are still attached to the acquisition and expenditure of material and are necessarily subordinate to economic mechanisms, and that pretty much all of man's meaning today is reducible to some form of accumulation, quantity, and possession (i.e. getting 'likes' on facebook--even in the digital world, the metaphor is material and centers around accumulation of a phony resource). Man desires sovereignty, but when he reduces himself to nothing more than a means (i.e. a thing that produces and acquires) and builds all his relationships around this principle, he doesn't actually share in any sovereignty--he makes a mechanism of himself.

I think this sort of dynamic is at the root of a lot of contemporary individual unhappiness.

If you take your time with it, reading philosophy will often yield many insights that I find help one not only grow as a person, but better understand one's being in the world. Actually, philosophy was really the original form of self-help for the ancients--only more effective, because it had attendant belief systems and thus was a set of practices suffuse with meaning (i.e. isms, stoicism, platonism, etc.--self-help books generally don't provide an 'ism' and ultimately don't provide a framework for maneuvering through the world, but rather provide ad hoc techniques which crumble quickly when not predicated on an underlying system for understanding phenomena). Old philosophical self-help wasn't merely a collection of tips on how to make your way through capitalist, isolating, hyper-technical systems without offing yourself--which is really what most (NOTE: NOT ALL) 'self-help' amounts to.

The author sounds a bit defensive. She's portraying self-improvement as robotic self-optimization. What she's really doing is pointing out that there are "get x quick" schemes for self-improvement, just like every other thing. Big surprise!

I've been reading happy by Derren Brown and really enjoying his take on how we keep thinking in stories and put us as the hero, when no such story exists, and failing often means very little if you think of it as a positive outcome

Tldr: quit your job and move to an island nation with savings & income from your harvard-educated husband; it's much less stress inducing!

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