The Perils of Personal Progress

There is a constant sense that you are missing something, that you are incomplete. That somehow, you are not enough.

Many people will happily confirm this for you:

“You are missing something. You are incomplete. You’re not enough.”

Some are trying to sell you something, but many of them have that same feeling too, and they don’t want to be alone.

You begin searching for that something that you’re missing. Your purpose is to get that something so you can eventually be “enough.” There are levels you’ll need to complete first, and this will give you a sense of progress. That thing you’ve been missing is within your grasp…

Then, after a lot of hard work, you finally get it! It’s here! You’ve arrived…

But you don’t feel very different from how you’ve always felt. Then you begin to wonder if there is another something that you’re missing, and people say, “You’re not quitting already, are you? You’ve come so far!” So you think, okay, perhaps I’m still missing something. I’m still not enough. I’m still incomplete. There’s more work to be done.

So you put your head down again and double your efforts, because you need to get that something. And if you keep working, you’ll get there someday…

Someday, you’ll have the right amount of money, you’ll have the right job, you’ll have the right possessions and the right body and the right thoughts and the right skills and the right accomplishments and the right spirituality and the right love and the right marriage and the right kids and the right life.

Someday, if you keep working hard and playing our games, you can win.

You can be better than everyone else.

# # #

While you’re playing our games, you must always view yourself as a member of one of three groups: best, average, or worst. If you’re one of the best, you must keep that spot. And if you’re average, or one of the worst, you’ll need to work much harder so you can be one of the best. Also, in each group, there are “good guys” and “bad guys.” You are, naturally, one of the good guys. In these games, people are your pawns, allies, and competitors. They are not fellow humans; it is Us vs. Them.

You only have a few years to play, so you must work quickly to become one of “the best.” You will spend all of your energy trying to make your life fit a certain image, while assuring others that you’ve nearly achieved it. Accomplishments will be your fetish, and everyone will applaud as you successfully make your way through each level. Your spontaneity and openness and joy will be replaced with seriousness — the seriousness that’s driving you to achieve this ideal life you’ve mapped out in your head. You must not slow down, because everyone else is playing this game too, and they don’t like it when you don’t take it as seriously as they do. Remember: Your life is to be conquered and won. Enjoyment is incidental.

But the progress you make feels like treading water. Nothing is ever enough to feel like you’re truly a part of “the best” group. A feeling of guilt sinks in with the growing suspicion that you are permanently in debt, that you’ll always owe the world for your existence. There is a cost to being here, and your struggle to justify your entitled existence on this planet doesn’t feel adequate. No matter how you play the game, it’s not totally clear whether you’re doing it right. You begin to wonder, “Do other people understand the rules? Is everyone just faking it?”

One day, you’ll decide that it’s time to buckle down and really commit to winning this game, once and for all. You’ll proclaim that it’s your duty to earn your place, and this is the noble way to become one of “the best.” Everyone will pat you on the back for embracing your insanity, and you’ll find yourself congratulating and admiring those who take the game even more seriously than you do. If only you could be so serious! You’ll convince yourself that this life is not supposed to be so fun or spontaneous. It must be won methodically, with a well-executed strategy. Each day requires sacrifice, and you must remind others how good you are at making these sacrifices in order to become one of “the best.”

And slowly, you forget, and you start to believe that this is all very real; that the outcomes of everything you do just have to be leading to an important… something.

But you’re not sure what that “something” is anymore. It’s changed its shape so many times, and you don’t even know if these rules will get you there.

Everything starts to feel like a game, even people. You tell someone you love them — not out of honesty — but because you feel like it’s the right thing to say, or because it will help you win some other game. Perhaps you can win your own game of being the nicest person you know. Or maybe you want to win the game of not being alone. You become a genuine fake. And when you actually feel real love, you dare not say it because of the problems it could create. You’ve been told that once you say it, you need to follow through, and that’s one more game you’ll need to win. For the rest of your life, you must align your feelings and behaviors with those words. Those are the rules! And what if your words are rejected? What if they laugh at you? You will lose that game, and you’ll need to start over.

And as the years pass, you completely forget that they are all just games, that you’re playing by rules that someone else made up. The rules are only important because we’ve all agreed to abide by them and wear ourselves down in the pursuit of becoming one of “the best.” Of finding our missing something.

You start to develop this dreadful idea that adults are refusing to allow themselves what they really want — to just play and laugh and help one another, without any of the seriousness that comes with the games. You start to think we’ve all conditioned ourselves to believe that the rules are everything, because none of us want to be average. We don’t want to die as one of “the worst.”

So until we can become one of “the best,” we will hold our heads high, and strike down those who stand in our way.

# # #

The games start to get old. They aren’t as much fun once you see you’re running through an endless cycle of bigger and louder. You know that participating in a relentless competition to be one of “the best” is crazy. You see that no one is better than anyone else; we’ve all just been growing in and reacting to different environments that are out of our control.

Still, we try to convince each other that these games are all heading somewhere really wonderful and important for us. So we keep playing and playing and playing…

It’s too late to stop, because you are afraid of breaking the rules. You’ve wanted to win these games for so long, but there are people who are ready to throw you into a lower group. And we pay them to enforce these rules, and tell us when we are losing the game.

A teacher writes in red pen on your paper, and you think “I’m a failure!”

A boss fires you, and you think “I’m a loser!”

A doctor says your body has turned against you, and you think “I’m diseased!”

A police officer shows up at your door, and you think “I’m a criminal!”

A soldier fires a gun, and you think “I’m the enemy!”

A priest reads from a book, and you think “I’m a sinner!”

All of them reinforcing the notion that you’re still missing something, that you are still not enough. That in spite of all you did, you still managed to fail. And above all, to fear what happens to those who aren’t one of “the best.”

So you fall back in line. You keep trying to beat the scam, while you attempt to mend your now broken self. Then one day, the games finally beat you.

And that’s the moment, when you can see the whole scene for what it really is, and… it’s funny. It’s crazy and weird… but it’s actually funny.

But now’s not the time. You must be reverent and solemn and serious and you must not laugh at our seriousness. You must shed a tear for your sins to show how sorry you are. You must wear yourself out and take our pills in order to get better. You must feel guilty about breaking the rules and admit that you’re a son-of-a-bitch. You must believe that your life is being supervised by someone who is always disappointed in you. You must numb yourself into oblivion with food and drugs and TV shows until you no longer remember what it’s like to be healthy or vulnerable or creative or loving. You must grind out your daily existence until your soul is crushed, and you become a wisp of the child you once were.

And you must remember that you cannot win these games, because these games will never end.

# # #

You are not missing anything. You are not incomplete. You are not broken. The endless search for something more, for that thing you’ve been lacking, is like looking behind a mirror. You’re chasing your own tail.

And you are not winning or losing any sort of game. There’s no true “progress” to be earned by you or anyone else, because you have always been enough. You are fundamentally acceptable as you are. You are IT. You simply refuse to accept that there’s nothing more to become, EVER, because that’s the culture you were raised in, and the games are very important to us. We let them define who we are.

Every hoop you choose to jump through gives you a sense that you’re moving forward, but your chase will never end — there will always be a new game waiting for you at the finish line.

Eventually, you have to figure out how to free yourself from the struggle of becoming something more. To let go and just… be.

Life is not supposed to be viewed as an endless competition, and it’s not supposed to be taken so damn seriously, no matter what anyone says. There is no “best” way to live, you can’t make mistakes (even though you can still be punished), and there is definitely no such thing as “them.”

This is all just a crazy dream. It’s a ride. And not one second of it has ever been in your control, no matter how much your ego rationalized it or how convincing your life appeared. Every moment has been uncalculated; there is no past to regret, and no perfect future to carefully plan for. There’s only now.

When you can really remember that and feel it, you start to let go of the struggle. You can stop playing games, and avoid the perils of personal progress. You can just be.

And that’s when your life starts being fun again. That’s when you can reclaim it as your own.

# # #

Many thanks to Alan Watts for inspiration and my shameless cribbing. [Photo by Dave Morrow]

Comments

  1. says

    Charlie, I appreciate your thoughtfulness and genuine words here, as always. I disagree, however, with the premise that we can either (1) see ourselves as not good enough and have to compare ourselves to others in order to play the game, or (2) believe we are “fundamentally acceptable as we are” and get out of this silly game of jumping through never-ending hoops. Why can’t we see ourselves as broken and imperfect, which we clearly all are, and still be secure and confident in who we were born to be? Its from that place that a sense of both humility and purpose can exist together. For us to give up on becoming something more would take all meaning and direction from life. We can remove ourself from the endless competition without giving up on what makes us human.

    • says

      “Why can’t we see ourselves as broken and imperfect, which we clearly all are, and still be secure and confident in who we were born to be?”

      I’m not saying you can’t understand and accept your limitations. I’m saying that — somewhere along the way — I noticed a bunch of the moves I’d made to “fulfill my purpose” and “improve myself” were just a massive ego stroke. That I’d been plotting something to establish dominance and become Charlie 2.0, rather than doing things out of a genuine spontaneous desire to do so. It’s kind of tough to explain. But that constant push to be “better” than our old selves and other people can become isolating and unhealthy, no matter how much humility and poise we do it with.

      • says

        Seems we are getting to a similar place through different means. I agree that our ego or society’s view of success can cloud or block genuine progress, but that doesn’t mean progress doesn’t exist. I believe a push to be better can be done outside of selfish motives.

        A good debate, for sure. Thanks for writing.

      • says

        I think “improving oneself” can be very troublesome waters because a lot of it is done simply to impress others or fit a cultural norm.

        For example, guys who obsess about getting a 6-pack. Few people really care about getting a 6-pack for themselves. They really care because society says that makes an attractive guy. They care because they think that will help them get women. All the motivations are based in seeking external validation.

        I’m beginning to think the only self-improvement that’s truly worthwhile are to

        1. Increase your own tranquility or health (you don’t need a 6-pack to be healthy)

        2. Increase your ability to serve society (If you have great work to share with the world, but you’re not confident enough to share it, it’s beneficial to the world for you to develop the confidence to bring this great work to us.)

        In a way though, #1 is really just #2 because if you increase your health and tranquility, it can help you better serve society.

  2. says

    Great post Charlie,

    In my old lifestyle, I was on the hamster wheel trying to get more stuff and get better. The more I achieved, the less happy I was. More and better, only brought more work and stress.

    The worst part of all this is that, there is a whole personal development industry that is pushing people to chase after very superficial goals.

    The Follow Your Passion bloggers, tell us to quit our jobs and try to make an income from our hobbies. I think it is pretty difficult to find meaning and fulfilment from pursuing hedonistic goals. Real satisfaction can only come through contribution, not trying to make our video game addiction profitable.

    The lifestyle designers (me) tell us to stop mindlessly consuming things and start mindlessly consuming experiences. Competitive travel becomes the rage as we all try to get more stamps in our passports or have the most authentic travel experiences.

    The passive income bloggers tell us to make dozens of useless websites so that we can make a few dollars per month from each site. It doesn’t matter that we are spending our precious time filling the internet with spam because someday the passive income will allow us to watch western TV in foreigner bars in exotic countries.

    What this all amounts to is that we are pursuing self-serving goals to stroke our egos, while doing absolutely nothing to contribute something of value to the world.

    I’ve always been a very business focused person looking for profits and success above all. Now, I’m realizing that this definition of success was given to me by society and corporations. It never provided any lasting fulfilment or satisfaction. In fact, if those were my goals, that success was counter-productive, and extremely destructive to the planet as well.

    It’s hard to be comfortable with who you are and stop chasing goals to impress others. I would be far worse at it if I were to live in my home city in Canada. There is just too much social pressure to conform. And make no mistake, we all are conforming to some tribe. (e.g. Tattoos and body piercings are not a sign of individuality when all your friends are doing it.)

    I just want to do good things in the world and make a small difference if I can, but it’s hard because that damn ego is always telling me that I’m missing something. I’m incomplete. I’m not enough. What’s the secret to enjoying the now?

    • says

      Very interesting. I appreciate you sharing these thoughts, John. I got sick of the lifestyle design crowd pretty fast for the exact reasons you laid out: scamming people into thinking they’re better for pursuing hedonism (aka “authentic travel”), not contributing anything at all apart from online scams that waste other people’s time and rake in a few bucks a day to pay for an apartment in Bangkok.

      I think most people genuinely wish to contribute something meaningful and not have their ego constantly compromising the sincerity of their efforts. But it’s tough — we’re all conditioned with the same bad thought patterns. I don’t have answers yet, I’m far from great at recognizing when I’m doing this stuff to myself. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know. It may be awhile.

    • says

      Why do we assume being comfortable with who we are and chasing goals are mutually exclusive? If life is merely a series of games, why would we want to reject or resent the games we have played or are playing?

      When we apply the Hindu perspective that life is a play, we find find that the play wouldn’t be engaging or entertaining if we didn’t lose ourselves in the play and the personas.

      Why must we think lifestyle designers lead us to mindlessly consuming experiences? Can’t we truly be enjoying the process of change?

      Is it possible to truly be selfish or selfless? I love Alan Watts’ take on The Nature of Selfishness.

  3. Tyler says

    The secret to “enjoying the now” is realizing there is no secret. Now is now. If striving for something makes you happy while you are striving, go on then, reach. I think Charlie’s point is that if you win/escape the Rat Race (of work/health/social status), and get ALL the cheese, you get to eat it sure, but then what? If you didn’t enjoy the race itself, your time was probably mostly wasted. The cheese probably ain’t what you thought it would be, and it certainly wasn’t worth the value of the time it took to attain it, unless that time itself was valuable. or something…

    “It doesn’t matter that we are spending our precious time filling the internet with spam because someday the passive income will allow us to watch western TV in foreigner bars in exotic countries.” – Classic line, I’ve been traveling a bit lately and have seen this full on – these people have categorically NOT solved it.

    I agree Matt, self-defined goals give me purpose to an existence with no inherent, out-of-the-box purpose. If you take all your cues of purpose from others/culture/society, you probably aren’t “doing things out of a genuine spontaneous desire” That being said, it seems pretty hard to separate it all out, and realize where my desires begin, and the things i’ve been told to desire begin; it’s so noisy up there.

  4. says

    I love this Life and Music video by Alan Watts.

    This is a great piece that dives deeper into the point he was going after.

    Just a higher set of problems. It’s weird how the satisfaction of achievement doesn’t last, always looking for the next thing.

    So how do avoid culture or society telling you that you’re not enough (and consequently selling shit to you)? That message is in books, movies, ads, on TV. You can’t just disconnect from everything.

    Do you have a set of reminders to keep perspective or other people that think the same way you can go to?

    • says

      Watch the last three minutes of this speech I gave earlier this year. I played that video at the end, I love it.

      And you can’t avoid it. It’s everywhere because that’s what drives the machine forward. I find myself getting caught up with the seriousness, especially lately. I do a lot better when I’m around people who can spot my bullshit and help me laugh at it. My closest friends refuse to take my seriousness seriously. Stick with people who make you laugh.

  5. Reggie says

    Great post Charlie! I have read it numerous times, trying to wrap my head around the concept. I recently found this quote from a graphic designer named Paula Scher.

    “If I get up every day with the optimism that I have the capacity for growth, then that’s success for me.”

    This really resonated with me and I thought it was relevant to your post. Thanks again for sharing.

  6. Stephen Frianeza says

    Interesting post. This is exactly how I’ve been living the past few years, always trying to improve and get better. In fact, for one of my college admissions essays I wrote exactly about my drive to continually improve. Perhaps I am too young (18) to understand how this way of thinking can be detrimental, but so far it has served me well and I am very happy that I have not been complacent. This post was eerily similar to my actual thought process for when I am faced with challenges. Maybe it is my athletic background but viewing certain things as a game has helped me focus and figure out what I need to do in order to succeed.

    In regards to what you said about not feeling different after achieving a goal, there are times when I do feel successful and I am able to simply let it go after. For example, after losing the last game of my high school basketball season, I was extremely happy. I had worked for 4 years trying to make varsity, then start, then make All-League 1st Team, then MVP, and I was able to accomplish all of these. When the season ended of course I was sad to not be able to compete anymore, but I was satisfied that all the individual goals I had set were achieved. Now just a few months later, I still play recreationally but I feel no need to go out and train to reach higher and higher goals because I was able to realize that that part of my life is over, and now I have other things in my life to focus on.

    Reaching for personal progress has been the driving force in my life, but I will keep your thoughts in mind if I ever feel like I am jumping through endless hoops.

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