“Contentment is the greatest treasure.” — Lao Tzu
So many of us consume ourselves with self-help, myself included.
Literally as recently as last month, I still prided myself on reading 50 books a year “less than 10% of which were fiction.” And even as I swore off “bullshit business books” I kept pounding self-improvement ones, repackaged in ways that won’t embarrass you on the subway (not that I ride on) or the airplane (which I often do); remarketing the same messages but wrapping it up as “biographies.” They know what you doing with those. You’re pretending you can lift some lessons, become more like these people by reading a couple thousand word-summary of their whole lives.
I’ve known for a long time that it was just elevated escapism; distraction; procrastination — holding the thing at arm’s length by abstracting it into words. What I didn’t know was that it was all stupid.
And either I read one too many of these books, or I read just the right combination of good ones, at just the right time, but in my recent life I’ve realized: it’s all dumb. This isn’t what we should be reading — not the books, not even the articles.
We pride ourselves on this shit. We go years actually thinking it’s literally improving ourselves. But it’s not. Reading might, in general, but not when we read pithy lists with snazzy titles and books better off as doorstops.
I’d love to say it’s human nature, but really it’s cultural — and not even in a good way. Because short of churning out the sort of icons we think we’ll become, we just spend years agonizing over our perceived shortcomings. Even if we see improvement, the comparisons and external markers follow, and it’s a chase.
We always feel not quite adequate, not yet there. We like the pursuit; we pursue an ever-moving end-goal and then we call the whole thing “meaningful;” the real joy of life. But it isn’t.
Why is this cultural? A big part of it is commercialization. Companies started going into business selling goods, and in order to sell more, they needed to convince us we needed them. In order to convince us we needed, they needed to convince us we inadequate without.
“That’s not true,” you might think. “Working out, starting a business, and making money don’t cost me anything.”
Sure, bud. But don’t they?
Leo Babauta of Zen Habits proposes a “revolution of contentment,” saying,
“What if instead, we learned to be happy with ourselves? What would happen?… Think of how this might simplify your life. Think of how many self-improvement books you read, or listen to in the car. Think of how many products you buy to make yourself better. Think of how many things you read online, in the hopes of being better. Think of how many things you do because you feel inadequate. Think of how much time this would free up, how much mental energy.”
The urge to improve only makes you feel inadequate, or chasing shit that doesn’t even really matter.
What if instead, we learned to be happy with ourselves?
What if we, as Babauta suggests, we “explore the world of contentment?” And see everything it offers that we already seek.