Photos: Getty Images/Tim Goedhart

HEALTH

Is desperately seeking self-improvement always good for us?

Two writers tried a different self-optimisation technique – from kindness to mindfulness to becoming a sexual kung fu master – every month for a year. They tell Hattie Garlick about their surprising, sometimes worrying, findings

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By Hattie Garlick on

“My jaw has shrunk back to normal size,” says Carl Cederström, a little mournfully, when I speak to him over the phone. This is because last year – and somewhat unusually for a lanky, softly spoken associate professor at Stockholm Business School – he dyed his hair, waxed his chest, bleached his teeth, spray-tanned himself and also spent $2,800 on plastic surgery to improve his chin line.

“And after all that, I posted before-and-after photos online, only to find that I’d crept up from a five out of 10 to a six out of 10,” he explains. There’s more. In a period of just 12 months, he also gave himself repeated electric shocks in order to write a book in a month, entered a weightlifting competition, became a raw vegan, tried chakra dance meditation and attempted to become a “sexual kung fu master”.

We are talking in the run-up to the release of his book, co-written with friend and fellow professor André Spicer, Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside The Optimization Movement. Throughout last year, he and Spicer picked a different area of their lives each month – productivity in January, body in February, brain in March and so on – and threw themselves into testing the numerous self-improvement techniques, philosophies and products that promised to make them masters in the field.

The results are hilarious, but often saddening and occasionally shocking, too, as Cederström and Spicer put themselves through toe-curlingly embarrassing and uncomfortable trials, only to fail with, mostly, miraculous good humour.

Spicer attends a Man Camp to transform himself into a “new warrior” and ends up dancing naked in a circle with the new name “Courageous Monkey”. He enrols in an intensive workshop that is emphatically not a cult, but one in which students are nonetheless told that everything about their life is “shit”, in order to “break down” their “inauthentic beings”.

He leaves each feeling no clearer or more comforted, only a little more confused and neurotic. “The trouble with self-optimisation,” explains Cederström, “is that, in all this emphasis to become better, you can lose sight of who you really are. The culture of self-improvement is so powerful these days that we don’t stop to ask why or if I want to become better looking, more successful… We just swap tips about how to do it.”

In June, for example, the two men set about optimising their sex lives. In pursuit of “orgasmic bliss”, Cederström is plunged into the seedy, below-stairs world of sex shops, has a memorable moment with a prostate vibrator and finally ends up “hurry[ing] down the street, half crying, then burst[ing] into a café and lock[ing] myself in the toilet. I washed my hands for what seemed like 10 minutes, breathing heavily, looking into the mirror at my twisted… face, feeling like a creep.”

The scene, I suggest to him, is symbolic of the wider self-help industry. On the one hand, it is great that, with the proliferation of sex guides and toys, people now have more avenues through which to explore and improve their sex lives.

On the other, the concurrent pressure to become the “perfect” lover puts a dark, damaging and deeply unsexy pressure on us all. The same might be said for our cultural obsession with optimising our health through clean eating (which Cederström flirts with in May), or our finances through positive thinking, our fitness through new gym crazes and generally becoming “our best selves”.

If there is no finishing line, there is no ultimate fulfilment from self-improvement

“Absolutely,” says Cederström. “All these goals sound reasonable. Why not try to be healthy or spiritual or financially astute? But the thing about self-improvement is it’s a neverending pursuit. It can absorb you entirely, to the detriment of everything else – your friendships, your family life, your sanity…”

If there is no finishing line, there is no ultimate fulfilment, either. As Spicer writes: “I had tried neurofeedback. I had tried meditation. I had tried brain food. I had tried mindfulness. And the only result of all these interventions was that I felt more stupid than I had before… I was sick of waking up every new month knowing I had to change my life. And I was sick of feeling guilty all the time because my life wasn’t changing.”

So, after a year of self-optimisation, which techniques and tools did Cederström loathe the most?

Speed-reading

In March, he tries mastering speed-reading techniques to master 1,000 words a minute, which would, in theory, enable one to read Proust’s doorstop novel In Search Of Lost Time in under 24 hours. “I found it… not at all helpful,” he says. “There’s a difference between reading and skimming. If you’re reading literature, then read properly. If you want to skim, maybe just try Wikipedia instead.”

Random acts of kindness

In October, trying to optimise his morality, Cederström comes across a movement called Random Acts of Kindness: “Smile at strangers, pick up someone else’s tab in a restaurant – that kind of thing.” He downloads an app and tries to follow their advice.

“Sincere kindness is so important that there was something terrible about this artificial version,” he says. “A friend was dying in hospital. I went to visit and I began to feel as if I could check that off my ‘acts of kindness’ list, as if kindness was something you could score points for.”

Positive thinking

 “Much of it, I found really damaging,” says Cederström. “A lot of the things I failed at over the year were near impossible. Positive thinking teaches you that it’s your fault. You failed simply because you didn’t think positively about it.” Conversely: “It paints the things I have achieved as the product of my magical ability in believe in myself, rather than a consequence of the fact that I was born a white man in a rich country.”

Clicks

In November, the pair attempt to optimise their profiles on social media. Spicer ends up being filmed stripping naked on the London Underground (Google: YouTube professor strips naked on the subway).

Cederström, meanwhile, submerges himself in the world of social-media selfies. “At first, it seemed like the ultimate in egotism,” he says, “but I started to realise that in this world, nothing exists except what other people think of you. The only thing that matters is their confirmation. But it’s confirmation of an image that is so stylised and removed from your real self that you are almost completely erased from the picture. I found that deeply troubling.”

Mantra

“In many ways, all the principles we tried over the year can be simplified into two mantras,” says Cederström. On the one hand, the tools and techniques for optimise your fitness and productivity all rely on an attitude summed up by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, who uses the following mantra to push him through long runs: “I am not a human, I am a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead.”

On the other, techniques to boost your spirituality use a mindset summed up by a yoga teacher Cederström encounters in the book, who asks: “Are you doing this thing because you really want to?”

“We’re being asked to look deep within and at the same time to treat ourselves like robots who can be reprogrammed and updated,” says Cederström. “Trying to be a good human in the modern world can be so confusing and conflicting.”

And which did he like?

Pomodoros 

An old technique, reinvented as an app, that structures your time into 25 minutes of uninterrupted work interspersed with five-minute breaks.

Idleness

A technique whereby you improve your quality of life by, well, idling. “This was my favourite task,” says Cederström. “It’s astonishingly productive for carving out calm and a sense of wellbeing.”

Crossfit

“It’s one of the very few tools I’ve carried on using now the year’s over,” says Cederström. “If you can bear the gym atmosphere and all the high fives.”

Mindfulness

“As a technique, I much preferred it to pretty much anything else I had to do in our spirituality month,” says Cederström. But beware: “It can easily become an extra task, something you feel bad about because you didn’t find time for it. And then, of course, it’s another source of stress…”

Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement, by Carl Cederström and André Spicer, is published by Or Books

@hattiegarlick

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Photos: Getty Images/Tim Goedhart
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