Harris O’Malley on looking within and disregarding the things we cannot change in order to become a better us.
Ok, folks. It’s intervention time. I spend a not inconsiderable amount of time checking the metrics on my site. I see which pages get shared the most, which ones people check out the most often and which people keep coming back to. And I’m going to be honest: most of you are sabotaging your own self-improvement.
I write a lot about what it takes to get better at dating, and the cold, hard truth is that social success is dependent on being a better person overall. Dating is a holistic activity; the problems you have in your dating life are reflected in your every-day life. Whether you want to be a player and rack up dozens of sex partners or find the love of a lifetime and settle down, the secret to success is to build a better life.
The problem I keep seeing, however, is the number of people who’re looking for that one thing. They believe in that one thing that’s holding them back from the life they know they could have. It’s that perfect outfit. It’s losing weight and getting the perfect body. It’s the right car, the right lines, the right dating profile, the right job, the right apartment. They’re the ones who say “I can’t date because I don’t have X”. They’re the ones who worry about women who’re “out of their league” because they don’t have the right face or the right life. It’s the people who think that if they just get more dates, more girlfriends, more sex, their lives will be better.
They’re looking for that magic feather, that ineffable object or goal that will propel them into the life they’ve always dreamed of.
They’re the ones who will never improve.
If you’ve thought to yourself that you need this one thing to make your life perfect, then you’re ruining your own self-improvement. It’s time to let go of those magic feathers and start looking into what it takes for real self-improvement.
The Transitive Property of Cool Doesn’t Exist
One of the biggest mistakes people make is the idea that there’s anything – anything at all – that’s going to unilaterally change and improve one’s life. Let me give you an example from my life:
Recently I’ve found myself drooling over a muscle car – specifically, the classic 1964 Mustang. I’m not much of a gear-head – I couldn’t tell you the substantive differences between slip differentials or the benefits of a force-air cooled engine – but there’s something about classic American muscle that makes part of me sit up and purr.
Of course, I’ll freely admit to being something of a poser; I love the exterior, but you’ll pry my satellite radio, GPS and seat-warmers from my cold, dead hands. So when I read about Revology taking classic Mustang exteriors and restoring them with modern engines and automatic transmission, bluetooth connectivity and power seats…
Ignoring the question of how I’ll be able to afford the 6-figure price tag, the idea of this car makes me feel warm and squishy and uncomfortably erect. I can imagine every facet of life with this baby – cruising down back roads across the country, pulling into a gas-station as denim-shorted, crop-topped beauties give me the eye… Except: not really. As much as I lust after this car like I’ve lusted after few things1 owning it won’t materially change my life. It won’t make me magically cooler through the transitive properties of ownership. I’ll still be me, just with a different car than the one I drive right now. Unless I make a point of bringing up my car every time I talk to somebody or never travel more than five feet away from it, nobody will even be aware that I have it. How’s that going to affect how people see me?
But hey, I’m actually pretty happy with my life right now, car lust aside. Let’s take a different approach and look at a more common magic feather: six-pack abs.
Toss a rock into any crowd and the odds are good that you’ll hit a guy who thinks that getting Brad Pitt’s Fight Club body will improve his life. This is one of those beliefs that’s continually sold to us as a sacred truth: get abs that could double as a washboard and your life will change for the better. Having six-pack abs will make you into someone who’s confident and outgoing. Having six-pack abs will make you effortlessly sexy and charismatic. Having six-pack abs will make you more adventurous.
Now, ignoring certain realities – like the fact that six-pack abs are mostly controlled by genetics and they only become noticeable through a combination of dehydration and dangerously low body-fat percentages – how, exactly will this transformation occur? How are these women you will be effortlessly seducing know that you have a six-pack? Unless you’re going around pulling a Situation every five minutes, nobody is going to notice that you have them.
But let’s be generous and assume that you’ve figured out just the right combination of clothes that will show off your physique without making you look like an asshole. Why will anyone care? How will it make you any different than you are right now? What about having a different build will make you a different person? How will it change your personality? A buff shy guy is still going to be hanging in the corner, afraid to talk to people.
You can apply this test to just about anything that you can think of that will change your life. How much will it directly affect your life? What will actually change if you get that “cool” job? Will it be more than just not living paycheck to paycheck, or will it mean that you’re a different person? Will that muscle car mean getting around town more efficiently, or that women will assume that you’re a better person than someone who owns a Volkswagen Golf? What will having a girlfriend who makes your friends jealous do for you? Will it make a difference to your daily life or will it just prop up your ego?
How Magic Feathers Sabotage Real Self-Improvement
The key to any magic feather is simple: it changes you without effort on your part. It’s the idea that this one thing will somehow transform you in the ways you’ve always wanted… as long as you don’t stop to ask yourself how that transformation will happen. We’re just given the cause and the effect: get thinner, and you’ll be a better person. Get this look and you’ll be cooler. Live this lifestyle and you’ll be more important, more socially desirable. Rack up more lays and you’ll be more respected by your peers.
The mechanics of this transformation are always conveniently ignored, because they get in the way of the fantasy. On its face, it seems obvious. Exercise isn’t going to give you a different personality. Dieting doesn’t make you charismatic. Your basement studio apartment doesn’t make you less socially skilled than a corner penthouse. Having money doesn’t make you less socially awkward or inexperienced. It’s pure magical thinking – achieve this goal and everything will just fall into place. You may as well just put pictures on your dreamboard or cross your eyes and wish really really hard; it will have the exact same effect.
Which is to say: sweet fuck-all.
It’s nice to fantasize about how things could be different, but by assigning any one object or goal the power to fix your life, you rob yourself of the ability to effect actual, meaningful change. You’re assigning responsibility for these changes to your future self to magically make it happen instead of taking steps to do it in the here and now.
More to the point: magic feathers can’t change you. If you were going to be doing something, you’d be doing it already. The things you’re doing – or not doing – now are the things that are clearly the most important to you. If you were going to be making changes to your life, you wouldn’t be fantasizing about the thing that will do the work for you, you’d be finding ways to make it happen. Saying that you need that perfect body in order to get the social life of your dreams shifts the responsibility from making those changes off of you and onto to the thing that you don’t have. Either that magic feather represents giving yourself permission to achieve something – in which case you don’t need the feather in the first place – or it’s simply “magic” and will never work in the first place, leaving you unsatisfied and looking for the next magical cure. When I was trying to be a professional artist, I collected book after book about digital art and how to market myself as an artist. What I wasn’t doing was sending my portfolio to art directors and editors. In the bad old days, I spent years of my life telling myself that I needed to learn this skill or perfect that goal in order to become the kind of guy who was good with girls. All that time trying to find the magic trick that would make me cooler and more desirable was time I wasn’t spending practicing talking to women.
The more you assign your magic feather importance to your desired goals, the more you ensure that you’ll never actually achieve those goals because there will always be something else standing in the way of your self-improvement.
You Are Never Complete
Part of what makes the magic feathers and fetish objects so appealing is the illusion of permanence. You get this one thing – whether it’s six-pack abs, that leather jacket, that tattoo, whatever – and you’re done. You’re locked into your new life and it’s champagne and blowjobs forever as angels float down with a banner reading “A Winner Is You!”
Except that’s not how life works. There are no endings in life; you are never complete because you never stop existing. Getting a perfect body, for example, doesn’t mean that you now have it forever without effort. You have to maintain it obsessively or you’ll go back to where you were before… and that’s without the simple fact that time and gravity ravage us all in the end. Muscles turn to flab without maintenance and social skills dull without use. You can get downsized from your job, you can have your landlord decline to renew your lease, your car can be wrecked or repossessed. If you’ve based your self-worth on external factors – your body, your cool car, what-have-you – then you have made lasting self-improvement impossible. You have, at best, a temporary boost that will inevitably fade. No matter how desirable your situation may be, it can be taken from you at any time.
Worse, even the mere pleasure of possessing that magic feather goes away. By charging an external object with your future happiness, you’ve essentially set yourself up for future disappointment. Humans have a great talent for habituation; we get used to just about anything. This is known as hedonic adaptation; the more exposed we are to something, the more used to it we become, which robs it of the novelty and satisfaction that comes with it. To go back to my dream Mustang: part of what makes it so cool is that I don’t have it. It’s different from my current car. But once I actually have it… it would be just my car. No matter how “cool” any one thing may be, once it becomes part of your daily life the pleasure that comes from possessing it fades quickly. You end up on a cycle of continually looking for the next thing to make you special, never able to rest because the satisfaction and cool factor is as fleeting as tears in the rain.
True Self-Improvement Comes From Within
The classic problem with magic feathers is that everybody forgets this simple truth: they’re a placebo at best. If they affect any change, then it’s because they’re a way of giving yourself permission to do something you’re already capable of doing. They can’t make you somebody else.
Right now, I want you to perform a mental exercise. I want you to imagine what life would be like with your particular magic feather – that job, that body, that car, that apartment. How will this make your life different? Not just the end results – people will like you more, you’ll be more confident – but why it will be different. If you’ll be more desirable or charismatic, then why will you be more desirable or charismatic? Will it be because you feel like it will empower you to be different? Or will it simply do the work for you?
And once you have a firm grasp on the ways you imagine your life improving, I want you to ask yourself: how can you achieve this result on your own? Magic feathers aren’t about self-improvement, they’re about fulfilling a need. They are about feeling a void within you that you have convinced yourself needs an external solution. It may be simply a way of giving yourself permission to do things that you already want to do and simply committing to doing the work to become the person you’ve always wanted to be. It may be recognizing that what you think you want isn’t what you actually want. Or it may mean learning to accept yourself as who you are instead of who you think you’re “supposed” to be, to find ways to be your best, most authentic self, which will make you far happier and more satisfied than some illusory persona.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that pursuing self-improvement is a bad thing. Wanting to be fitter and healthier is a desirable goal in and of itself. A better, more satisfying job is something to strive for.
But don’t mistake the goal for a magic cure-all. Magic feathers don’t work. The key to true, lasting improvement comes from within.
This article originally appeared on Dr. Nerd Love
Photo credit: Getty Images