Throughout many periods of my life I have engaged in a hard-and-fast course of self-improvement. I subscribed to motivational YouTube channels, I bought a new journal and promised myself to write in it, I did everything all the people that type in ALL CAPS and emojis on Twitter told me to do. And you know what? It kinda worked. I became better at something or another. Maybe I went to the gym more, maybe I was reading more, maybe I took more time out for my (now) wife. I saw improvement, just like the name “self-improvement” suggests.
But self-improvement did not make me a better man. No, in fact, the pursuit of it the way I did was a vain attempt to mask up a lot of chronic issues. This is not merely because a lot of what is preached in the “rise and grind” atmosphere of self-improvement world are the dreaded quick fixes that we adamantly rail against on our podcast. Even sincere attempts for improvement yielded the same results. Instead, it relates to our conception of identity and how it morphes whenever we start something new.
It’s easy, particularly so as a man, to begin to identify ourselves with our hobbies and roles. If you pick up woodworking, you add woodworker to your list of myriad titles. If you become a father, you do the same. This isn’t a negative action in the slightest. However, the danger arises when we dive head first into these new “identities.” They consume our life. We subscribe to “dad culture” or “blacksmith culture” whatever that may be. We do it because it gives us a sense of purpose, belonging, and tangible change. A bumper sticker on our car reminding us that there is a “baby on board” tells the world “I’m a Dad, and I’m proud of it!”
Often times, we assume this culture less because we want to consume it and more because we see ourselves as having undergone substantial change. More importantly, we like perceiving change in ourselves It’s almost as if we changed our dating scheme from BC/AD to BC/AC (before change and after change). We delude ourselves into thinking we are now new men.
In assuming these new identities, we fall prey to thinking that this (and finally this) will eliminate the negatives in our lives. We get excited at the thought of change – any change, direction or not – and easily convince ourselves that all of the goodness of this new activity will erase all of the badness in my life. We convince ourselves that we are changed men – permanently and irreversibly. When I get married, I’ll stop doing X. When I start going to the gym, I’ll finally be able to kick X bad habit. And while hobbies and goals can certainly help, it’s not a 1:1 ratio of success. It doesn’t guarantee anything, and that’s where so many men (myself included) fall short, backsliding into bad habits they’ve accumulated.
Because of that, you easily become complacent and when you fall, you fall all the more harder AND drop your new healthy hobby. I’ve been there. In my mind, a man that maintains a journal doesn’t look at porn; whenever I would relapse then, cognitive dissonance saps my willpower as I try to come to terms with why that didn’t fix my problem. So I quit, just like so many people do with their New Year’s Resolutions. I wasn’t content with actually journaling – I desired more. This guilt continues until a new fad pops up on my feed and we begin the cycle afresh, losing my mind in the process.
We shouldn’t undertake things expecting the changes that we see promised in Twitter advertisements. Going to the gym will change your life but it doesn’t mean that you will be less nervous talking to the cute barista. Getting married will change your life but it doesn’t mean you’ll become a man sober in word and deed. Be prudent and do not deceive yourself. It is often the small, hidden things we do which lead to the greatest changes. Building a decade of bad habits will not disappear with any 21-day cleanse or change. 30 days of journaling cannot solve your pornography addiction. Do not deny that you have a lot of problems but instead dwell in the reality of your brokenness and faults. Meditate on the full extent of the issues you may be trying to mask or eliminate. Living in truth is the wise and courageous thing to do, after all. Then, and only then, can you begin to create significant change in a slow and steady manner.
Self-improvement did not make me a better man because I went into it with the wrong ideas about the outcome. I would build a head of steam and inevitably fall flat when I ignored the passions which have taken root so deeply in my life. My house was not in order. Consciously or subconsciously, I thought of it as a cure-all instead of what it actually is: a hobby with some real, verifiable results in specific areas of my life. But self-improvement is still a hobby and you cannot pursue a hobby 24/7. The pursuit of virtue is not a hobby, nor is it a mindset. It is the constant maintaining of a healthy soul and spirit that transcends any singular action, hobby, or goal.
And at the end of the day, whatever new activity you are undertaking, always remember – it may not change your life as much as you hope it will. Be prudent and be sober.