Sam Holstein

Stop Trying To Improve Yourself

Often, it’s not about becoming a new person, but becoming the person you were meant to be, and already are, but don’t know how to be.

Heath L. Buckmaster, Box of Hair: A Fairy Tale

I’ve never been particularly motivated by money. I simply don’t care about money enough to hustle hard for it. As long as I have enough to afford takeout food and fun activities with friends, I’m happy.

For a long time, I didn’t accept this about myself. I thought I should care about money more. American culture tells us one of the most important parts of ‘being successful’ is having a lot of money, so we should care about how much money we earn. Many people internalize this message, picking careers which they like, sure, but more importantly, are likely to earn them six figures. I felt like I should care about money, but I just couldn’t seem to muster the will to “hustle hard” at work like everyone else. That I didn’t want to do this made me feel like an aberration.

During this time in my life, there were a lot of things I didn’t like about myself. I couldn’t seem to care about money enough. I didn’t dress in business casual enough. I didn’t work on my conversational skills. I didn’t hustle as hard as I should. I didn’t go to as many networking events as I should. I didn’t have the deal-making skills I should.

I spent years working on these flaws. I read dozens of self-help books and hundreds of productivity articles. I tried every tip, trick, and hack in the book to make myself more productive and “hustle harder.”

But no matter what I tried, it didn’t seem to work. It was never going to work. The problem wasn’t my conversational skills or hustling habits. The problem was I was trying to make myself want something I didn’t want. I didn’t want the money badly enough, and no amount of productivity tips were going to make me.

Once I accepted myself for who I am — someone who doesn’t care about money, and probably never will — all these problems that were plaguing me for years just went away. Now that I wasn’t trying to play the part of someone who cared about climbing a career ladder, my conversations became easy and genuine. Now that I wasn’t trying to make clients like me, I could wear what I want instead of feeling guilty for not wearing a blazer. Now that I didn’t need to hustle hard every day, I no longer went to bed feeling stressed and ashamed. Now that money was no object, I switched careers and followed my childhood dream of becoming a writer.

And then, unexpectedly, the problems I’d tried for years to solve suddenly solved themselves.

I spent several years trying to be someone I was not, and finally gave up — and then became the person I wanted to be.

Why do we try to be people we’re not?

People try to make themselves into something they’re not because the world is constantly trying to tell us we are not good enough as we are. People use their mouths to say “be who you are inside,” but their behavior says be the way I want you to be.

These are but three examples. There are a million more. And as a result, we end up receiving contradictory messages:

  1. It is better to be a certain way. It is better for you to value money, it is better for you to enjoy working out, it is better for you to be an optimistic person, it is better for you to be extroverted (or, at least, more socially able), it is better for you to dress in more fashionable clothing, on and on and on.
  2. It is better to be who you truly are inside. It is better for you to be ‘true to yourself,’ to ‘live your truth,’ to proudly and boldly declare to the world who you are and what you want without letting the world pressure you into wanting something else.

Those of us who are not born extroverted, attractive, and ambitious (most of us) are faced with an impossible dilemma. We are simultaneously told to be both who we are inside and the kind of person the world wants us to be.

Most of us solve this problem by gaslighting ourselves. We tell ourselves and the world we are being who we really want to be while simultaneously ignoring any desire we have that doesn’t align with who the world wants us to be. We try to find a way to change who we are inside, without acknowledging we’re doing it.

It’s no wonder so many people have trouble with self-help. It’s easy to drive to Michigan, and it’s easy to drive to Texas, but you’ll never get to Michigan or Texas if you can’t even decide to go north or south.

What should we do instead?

Instead of gaslighting yourself, be honest about what you want out of life. Not what the world wants you to want out of life, but what you want out of life. Do you really want to work in an office for the rest of your life, or is office work just a compromise you’ve made with the world? Do you really want to get married and have kids, or do you just actually just to have a life partner? Do you really want a house with a yard, or do you actually want to live in a shipping container in the middle of nowhere? If money were no object, what would you do with your time?

The best place to start is to look at your life and ask yourself which parts of it you consistently struggle with. If you consistently struggle to motivate yourself at work, perhaps the job you’ve chosen isn’t the right job for you after all. If you consistently struggle to care for your partner the way you should, maybe your partner isn’t as great a fit for you as you thought. If you consistently feel unmotivated to spend time with your friends, perhaps your friends aren’t the kind of people you want to be friends with after all.1

Making truly lasting changes in your life — the kinds that make you feel more fulfilled as a person — is eighty percent acceptance. Once you accept yourself for who you are and accept your situation for what it is, it’s usually easy to identify the changes that need to be made.

We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.

Dalai Lama XIV
  1. Of course, it is not necessarily the case that they’re the wrong partner or that it’s the wrong career. It’s just a possibility.
  2. Interestingly, what usually happens once a weird awkward person accepts themselves as a weird awkward person, the weirdness and awkwardness transforms into a kind of coolness. Self-conscious weirdness is awkward, but self-confident weirdness is cool.