I WOULD LIKE to begin with a confession — I made a New Year’s resolution for 2018: stay in better touch with my friends. As a US expat living in London, I can go months without talking to the people I care most about across the world. With a newborn baby and a permanent residency in the United Kingdom, this must change and I am committed to ensuring that it does. But February faded into March, and, despite some early successes, I could already see my resolve slipping away.
Of course this follows in a long line of such enthusiastic fresh starts spanning from losing weight, to learning to cook, to going out more, to stopping drinking. I must admit some of these have been more successful than others and, with the exception of sobriety, most fizzle out as the snow melts into spring. Far from finding these failures depressing, they provide me with a strange optimism — revealing that even as I age my ability to change and try new things is never fully extinguished.
This year, however, my New Year’s resolution took on an added pressure and increased urgency. I have more than mere willpower and good old-fashioned stick-to-it-ness on my side. I now have literally at my fingertips a mobile app that reminds me to write my friends and family. An audible ringing in my ear, it alerts my guilt to go into overdrive and motivates me to take pause from my busy day and reach out digitally to those I care about.
Shoring up my human connections feels like the least I can do in the face of a world spinning out of control. I cannot stop Trump from tweeting our way into a potential nuclear holocaust or our tragically irreversible slide into cataclysmic climate change or the fact that our most viable options to resist these modern terrors are usually little more than “lesser evils” themselves. However, I can WhatsApp my friends, share a joke, a small complaint, and cross it off my mobile to-do list reminding me that if only for today, I have become a slightly better person than I was last year.
This contemporary tension — where most of us live between small-scale personal empowerment and large-scale social disempowerment — makes Carl Cederström and André Spicer’s new book Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement timely and enlightening. It captures the alluring and often insidious desire to be better, especially in an era where things couldn’t seem to be worse. In their own words:
This book does not advance its own theory about how to become a better person, but rather reflects the desperation and frustration, the drama and humor, intrinsic to the search for self-improvement — the same search that millions of people engage in every day.
The book has an original and inspired hook. Rather than simply analyze attempts at self-optimization from the comfort of their ivory tower windows, these professors dove in and courageously tried a series of self-optimization strategies for themselves. The book is structured as a parallel travelogue of sorts between the two author’s concurrent experiments with self-improvement. What’s more, it chronicles in often brutally honest detail their relationship as they do so.
The obvious temptation would have been to merely satirize these admittedly extreme schemes to “optimize” one’s life. And at times, Cederström and Spicer’s book is nothing short of hilarious — a rarity in the otherwise all too often dry and unfunny world of academia. Chronicling his use of “Pavlok” — a wearable tech that electrically shocks its wearers to help them be more present and productive — early in the book, Cederström writes:
After breakfast, I Skyped André. He was in New Zealand on vacation and had just finished dinner. Unshaven, his long hair askew, he gave me a long lecture about productivity hacks. I found it hard to concentrate on him and tuned out after a while. Then I remembered my wearables. I took out my phone, opened the Pavlok app, and pressed zap. One second; two seconds. The shock arrived. I jumped out of my chair, letting out a scream. André burst into laughter.
With similar comic effect, Spicer reports on his personal investment into becoming a “Zen trader”:
To be a real trader, I had to develop a trading philosophy. And that was what I hoped to gain from the book I had up on my screen: Zen in the Markets, by a Chicago futures trader named Edward Allen Toppel […] I began reading about how the greatest enemy in trading was the ego […] To be a great trader, you needed to totally immerse yourself in the ultimate reality, which was the market. I had to become like a monk who, instead of contemplating a rock, focused his entire being on the market.
This is engaged research on steroids. Two prominent scholars decided to put themselves to the test and paid the mental and physical price.
However, neither Cederström nor Spicer is content to simply mock. If anything, their jadedness gives way to empathy and greater enlightenment. It is deeply moving to read about Spicer publicly undressing himself in the London tube as a way to overcome his body issues, or about Cederström discovering the pleasures of challenging oneself to live more leisurely. Cederström’s surprising reflections follow his attendance at a new age spiritual retreat:
Before going to the retreat, I had thought of spiritual training as a middle-class indulgence. But now, after I saw the pain that these people were suffering and how desperate they were to get better, I could no longer stand on the side and laugh.
It would be equally misguided, however, to take this fascinating text as an uncritical embrace of the diverse personal optimization movement. Throughout the book, the erstwhile collaborators — and close friends — spiral into a passionate mutual dislike for each other bordering at points on hatred. By the end of the first month, Spicer writes,
At about eight a.m. Carl skyped. He was lying on a couch under a blanket. He looked pitiful. I instantly started feeling better about things. This always happens. When Carl feels bad, I feel good. Buoyed by Carl’s illness, I continued writing. At four a.m., I clicked save. The book was done.
A shared exploration that started out as fun quickly descends into intense competition as to who could improve the most. Gentle encouragement gradually turned into outright mocking and one-upsmanship. The streak of masochism that commonly accompanies self-improvement projects was redirected into a Schadenfreude-tinged happiness at the other’s suffering.
Prominent reviews of the book in leading UK newspapers such as the Guardian and The Independent have not surprisingly zeroed in on the humor derived from this tension. They praise the misanthropic hilarity of their unconventional and occasionally conflictual partnership. Yet beneath this often perverse back and forth lies a profound critique. More than comic effect, it is a subtle but scathing statement about the alienating effects of our contemporary desires for personal betterment. It is a denunciation of the ways our hyper-capitalist society has made self-improvement just another thing that can be quantified and instrumentalized. A set of data-backed benchmarks that leads us to compete against each other and from which we can never finally measure up.
At its heart, Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement reveals how our 21st-century free-market culture has co-opted even our most genuine efforts to improve our lives. The discourse of “optimization” carries with it disturbing implications — linked to an unhealthy modern obsession to always be better and the best. Nothing is ever good enough and everything must be taken to the extreme. Such discourses resonate and have their roots in the disciplining realities of modern free-market workplaces pathologically fixated on optimizing their employee’s productivity and efficiency for maximum profit. Near the end of the project, Carl ponders its ultimate meaning, tracing it back to shared human fantasies of transformation, immortality (“the escape from death”), and capitalist advantage (“It promised to make you more productive and give you a competitive edge”). Yet these insights brought him little clarity:
As I was walking back home, I felt I had found some answers. But what was my motivation? Did I nurture a dream about being someone else? Was I afraid of dying? Did I want to boost my market value?
That same day in London, André had an even more profound realization: “Just after midday, my son, Julian, was born. This was the best day of the whole year and it had absolutely nothing to do with self-improvement.” This work adds to a recent wave of critical work challenging the penetration of capitalism and financialization to all areas of present-day existence. Political theorist Wendy Brown observes in her recent book Undoing the Demos that under neoliberalism, not only has the public sector been reduced but democracy and social relations have also become fully marketized. Just as troubling are the ways basic human emotions and impulses have been similarly infected by market logics. Happiness, according to sociologist Will Davies, is now an industry, one geared toward the maximizing of every potential moment of joy through continual and constant monetized consumption. Likewise, in my own recent book The Ethics of Neoliberalism: The Business of Making Capitalism Moral I explore the ways that our longings to be “good citizens” and help each other is increasingly turned against us. Employers and politicians put in and demand longer hours and make political sacrifices in an economy that increasingly asks everyone “to do more with less.”
The current popularity of attempts at personal development are rooted in both the neoliberal emphasis on individual responsibility and the desire to feel a sense of control in the midst of a fickle and unjust world. As Thomas Frank argued in The Conquest of Cool, the counterculture’s language of rebellion was co-opted from the 1960s on by commercial promises to transform the self. Cederström explicitly speaks of this connection,
As I was doing my second set of bench presses, I thought about Christopher Lasch’s claim that, in the early 1970s, as people lost hope in improving the world politically, they retreated into self-improvement. It was no small irony that our year of self-improvement was also the year when both Britain and USA had fallen apart politically. The gym was quiet and empty. It was the perfect place to forget about the troubles of the world.
With the “new dawn” of the financialized free-market 1980s, these discourses became turbo-charged, and the internalization of the “aspiration society” began. All you need to succeed is a good attitude and a willingness to work toward being your best self, professionally and personally. Yet as market optimism has faded in the face of unremitting crises and wage stagnation, self-improvement has remained as an appealing option for keeping hope alive. Personal betterment can be a crucial means for people to cope with a neoliberal reality marked by heightened economic anxiety and cultural upheaval. “If work is making me unhealthy, forcing me to work overtime on a zero hours contract,” one might reason, “then at least I can make myself physically healthier by doing my 10,000 steps a day and mentally healthier through mindfulness techniques.” It is what Laura Walsh in a recent article in Dissent Magazine has referred to as the new “coping economy.”
However, where there is financialization there is the intensifying pressure to maximize profits, so the improving subject can never be good enough, improved, or better. Now you must be optimized. You open every moment up to judgment when you are maximizing your life. Experiments with new ways of living are shadowed by fears that you should be doing more, and that you will fail to unlock your greatest self from within. Even the most virtuous experiences take on a destructive competitive edge — as spiritual seekers morph into spiritual competitors in a race to see who has suffered the most and who is closest to enlightenment.
This bleak vision of the present points though to the potential for a more progressive future. The longing for self-improvement reveals persistent and, yes, “desperate” desires for bettering our individual and collective existence. Further, the various experiments with self-improvement undertaken by Cederström and Spicer uncover how these radical desires can be pursued through local experimentations with different lifestyles. Rather than trying to save our souls, there are real opportunities to feel radically empowered through introducing radical principles of democracy and equality into diverse areas of our existence. While full-scale revolution may not be immediately on the horizon, it is never too late to try and “occupy” your own life.
Doing so can provide people with the opportunity to feel radically empowered in an age where this may seem impossible or futile. Yet this small slice of revolutionary optimism requires jettisoning demands for optimization and instead embracing an ethics of openness and experimentation. We need to stop trying to be our best selves and instead find ways to improve how we live together.
As he looked back at a year as a self-described “self-help fundamentalist,” Carl proclaims,
It was time to think less about myself now. I had kept the world at bay for most of the year. Never before had I read so little news, read so few novels, seen so few films, and spent so little time with friends. When I had written the academic book in a single month, I hardly spoke to anyone. When I trained for my weight-lifting competition, I spent every day in the gym. It was time to open the door, time to let the world in again.
Turning back to myself, maybe that is why this year it feels so urgent to reach out to old friends and family — to reach out and reconnect with others with the hope of turning our shared desire for self-optimization outward, into a radical discussion of how we might improve the world together, one action at a time.
Peter Bloom is an associate professor at the Open University. His essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian, and The Independent, The New Statesmen, The Week, The Conversation, and Open Democracy among others.