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The best form of self-help may surprise you

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In a culture obsessed with optimization, we've forgotten that the best way to live.

When I was in high school, I spent hours in Barnes & Noble. I would roam the fiction section, reading the first chapters of book after book, searching for one that sucked me in. Once I found it, I’d wander over to the coffee shop and read the first few chapters while I sipped a latte, just to make sure it was the book.

Once I was sure, I would go to the checkout counter to buy it. I vividly remember the small section of books near the front, classified under “special interest.” There were always a few financial advice books, some parenting and baby books, and at least a dozen self-help books. To my teenage mind, this was the boring section — the section for adults who had forgotten the joy of reading for pleasure.

Last year, I stopped in a Barnes & Noble to look for Christmas gifts. While wandering the fiction section, looking for a book for my then-11-year-old, I was shocked by how small the fiction section had become — and how many rows were now dedicated to self-help and self-improvement, the “boring adult books” I had looked down upon in my youth and now struggled to get through Audible versions of, in a herculean effort to become “my best self.”

There’s even a fancy new name for self-help: optimization. Business school professors Carl Cederström and André Spicer wrote an entire book about their year-long journey into the depths of self-optimization, which the New Yorker highlighted in an article exploring the booming industry and what it says about our culture:

“In a consumerist society, we are not meant to buy one pair of jeans and then be satisfied,” Cederström and Spicer write, and the same, they think, is true of self-improvement. We are being sold on the need to upgrade all parts of ourselves, all at once, including parts that we did not previously know needed upgrading … There is a great deal of money to be made by those who diagnose and treat our fears of inadequacy; Cederström and Spicer estimate that the self-improvement industry takes in ten billion dollars a year. (They report that they each spent more than ten thousand dollars, not to mention thousands of hours, on their own quests.) The good life may have sufficed for Plato and Aristotle, but it is no longer enough. “We are under pressure to show that we know how to lead the perfect life,” Cederström and Spicer write.

Where success can be measured with increasing accuracy, so, too, can failure. On the other side of self-improvement, Cederström and Spicer have discovered, is a sense not simply of inadequacy but of fraudulence. In December, with the end of their project approaching, Spicer reflects that he has spent the year focusing on himself to the exclusion of everything, and everyone, else in his life … He doesn’t feel like a better version of himself. He doesn’t even feel like himself.

Everyone, it seems, has been sucked into the optimization movement in one way or another. Last year my Facebook timeline was flooded with friends Kondo-ing their lives, throwing out everything and embracing minimalism. I tried it too — and found that Kondo-ing my life was both unrealistic and unhealthy.

But the floodgates were opened. From Kondo, I moved on to other self-help (or sorry, self-optimization) strategies. I opened an Audible account and listened to the first few chapters of several books, attempting for a few weeks to change myself for the better through positive thinking, then shifting to becoming my best self through meditating on death, and finally deciding that what I really needed to learn was how not to give a [redacted].

None of these books added any richness or meaning to my life, nor did they magic me into my “best self.” But they did gift my family with consecutive months of inconsistent routines and erratic emotional availability.

In my (mercifully short-lived) quest to optimize myself, the one thing I learned was that focusing on self-optimization is ultimately just a shiny new form of self-absorption. Much like our culture, I mistakenly thought that I could make life better for the people I love most by learning how to give them the best — no, the perfect — version of myself.

But I ended up giving them nothing at all, because I was focused inwardly rather than outwardly, absorbed with my own manufactured desires instead of attuned to my family’s actual needs.

Once I realized that, I gave up on self-optimization and settled on doing what I should be doing — working hard to take care of my family. And I found that by focusing on them instead of myself, everything else fell into place.

Sure, I have areas where I’d like to improve, and I’m working on those. But I’ve let go of the fantasy of finding “my best self” and embraced the reality of being myself, and living my best life by caring most about those who make that life worth living.

That’s the best kind of optimization there is.

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