Confessions of a self-improvement addict – and how I learned to let go
They say that everyone has at least one addiction, so allow me to confess one of mine.
While some secretly guzzle chocolate, or take refuge in the Jack Daniels, I go straight to the “popular psychology” shelf in my local bookshop and binge on paperbacks offering to change my life in six simple steps.
There was a time I could feel physically high opening the cover of another irresistible promise – Instant Confidence or How to Win Friends and Influence People – yearning to replace the troublesome parts of myself and find a foolproof new persona.
But one day, seeking another hit in Waterstone’s, I learned something unexpected from the Victorian grand-daddy of the self-improvement movement. Born in 1812 in East Lothian, Scotland, only a few miles from my own home, Samuel Smiles (what an unforgettable name!) had been a doctor, activist, newspaper editor, industrial secretary and biographer before he hit the big time with Self-Help.
“The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual,” he proclaimed grandly in the opening paragraph of his run-away best-seller. “Exhibited in the lives of many, it constitutes the true source of national vigour and strength.”
Interestingly, it hit the bookshelves on the same day in 1859 as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, but sold more copies in its first year than Darwin would sell in his whole life, with international sales now cumulatively exceeding several million in 40 languages.
Small wonder: while Darwin suggested homo sapiens originated in the primeval swamp, Smiles told stories of men (and a few women) who had worked their way to dizzy heights of human achievement – and assured his readers that perseverance and graft could get them there too.
It’s what we all want to believe, isn’t it? That if we keep trying harder, pushing for the next big goal, we can create the life we dream of. But what if the relentless effort with which we fill our days turns out to be the very thing that’s preventing our happiness?
The unnerving truth is that it didn’t ultimately work even for Smiles himself – because, not long after the publication of Self-Help, this champion of the Victorian work ethic pushed himself so hard he had a stroke.
Psychologists now agree that crude willpower, like oil, is not an endlessly renewable resource. And when it runs out it can be terrifying, as I discovered in my late 30s when, like Smiles, I came close to a breakdown - working furiously towards the life I thought I should inhabit.
Sitting at my desk one sunny morning amid piles of papers and mounting journalistic deadlines, I realised I couldn’t force myself to type another word. I had broken my willpower and it made me reassess everything.
Exhausted with the perpetual slog of self-improvement, I stopped pushing, blew those deadlines, and decided instead to spend a year in recovery, learning to let go. I began this a little over-literally by jumping off a Cornish cliff, and subsequently strapping myself to the wings of a biplane – an adrenalin laxative for my constipated mind.
It was briefly cathartic – it’s hard to be anywhere but the present moment when you’re plunging through mid-air - but I soon realised that the really fruitful risk-taking would be emotional rather than physical.
So I set off on a journey at home and aboard, seeking answers to my new questions:
- Will my work halt if I stop trying so hard – or could playfulness improve productivity?
- Can I learn contentment, or do you either have it or not, like hair colour?
- If I can’t self-help my way to a balanced life, who can I ask for support?
My teachers and role models turned out to be a mixed bunch, ranging from clowns to naturists, free-range schoolchildren to Benedictine monks – even my pet spaniel. Some I spoke to had dropped out of the rat race altogether, but others had found a way to tango playfully with the everyday pressures we all face.
From a Swedish commune to a South African street project, from an experimental school to a retreat in the New Mexico desert, I discovered their common message was as life-giving as it was unexpected.
As psychotherapist Carl Rogers put it: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change”. It is no exaggeration to say this epiphany has altered the course of my life.
After more than a year exploring the lost art of letting go, I found that I was less self-critical, more playful, and therefore more productive – who could have predicted that? And far from being a navel-gazing exercise, it gave me the courage and confidence to become father to an adopted son – the hardest and richest thing I’ve ever done.
Ten years later, I’m no longer binging on self-help books – though I did end up writing one myself - and my experiences have given me a particular empathy for coaching clients who are hard on themselves or stuck in some way.
I also have an enduring soft spot for poor old Samuel Smiles – whose stroke mercifully wasn’t permanent, but who continued to give himself a hard time over the patterns that had led him to it.
“I was habitually careless of my health,” he would recall in his autobiography, after learning to read and write from scratch. “My physical power was getting wasted faster than my enfeebled digestion could repair it… why did not I stop?”
It’s an excellent question with huge modern relevance – and thankfully we don’t have to wait till we’re on the floor to ask it. In later life Samuel Smiles’ was a much wiser and calmer man, easing off the work ethic to enjoy walks in nature and breaks with his family. Nowadays you might say he discovered mindfulness.
As the Christmas holidays approach, let’s take at least one leaf out of his self-help book. Let’s not forget to stop.