December 5th, 2018
It started with the internet. Every time she was online, it seemed like Bénédicte Kinkolo was served up another story about some successful person doing something great: running a business, winning awards, making millions of dollars.
Kinkolo, then a second-year student at King’s College in London, ate it up. She knew she wanted to be this kind of successful, though she wasn’t yet sure at what. Maybe emulating the people she read about — their habits, their routines, what they thought about before bed — would help her figure it out. She dove into self-help literature, began waking up early to do yoga and meditate, color-coded her schedule. Bent on maximizing her time as much as possible, she made a daily to-do list and followed it rigidly; she downloaded productivity apps that would alert her when her time on a task was drawing to a close.
One day before finals, Kinkolo recalls, she was running around the university library, gathering books for a paper and ticking things off one of her apps, when she missed a step and fell down a flight of stairs, fracturing her ankle. At the hospital, as doctors and nurses shuttled in and out of her room, she continued to work from her laptop, lest her app remind her that she was falling behind.
Her breaking point wouldn’t come for several more years — but this summer, after finishing college and then two graduate degrees with the same frantic productivity, Kinkolo, now 23, finally burnt out. She’s currently taking a break, living with her parents in her hometown of Paris as she figures out what she wants to do next, and leading a very different lifestyle than the one she’d imagined. She doesn’t make lists or use productivity apps or meditate each morning. “I never expected in a million years that I would take a break,” she says. “It’s the weirdest and most difficult and most challenging thing that I have done in my life.” During her time off, Kinkolo has worked with a therapist to try to change her perspective on “success” and her relentless pursuit of goals. “It got to a point where I didn’t have any agency anymore,” she says. “I was letting the lists and the apps and the routines run my life for me.”
In recent years, self-improvement efforts like Kinkolo’s have spawned a behemoth of an industry. The U.S. self-help market was worth nearly $10 billion in 2016 and is estimated to grow to $13 billion by 2022. The appeal is easy to understand: It’s exhilarating to think you can follow a prescribed routine to optimize your time, your resources, and yourself.
“Life is complicated, but self-help makes you feel like there’s a solution to all your problems, right there in that five- or 10-step guide,” says Jeremy Montemarano, a clinical psychotherapist in Spring, Texas. “Most changes in life require time and processing and, in the case of mental health, working with a professional. So it’s tempting to pick up something that promises to bypass all that, probably at the fraction of effort and cost.”
That temptation is often compounded by social media and articles offering a carefully edited window into someone’s high-powered schedule. “When you have more access to other people’s lives, even though you know they may be curated, it’s easy to create problems that might not really be there because you think you’re behind,” Montemarano adds.
In some cases, a deep dive into the world of self-improvement can end up feeling counterproductive or even harmful. And butting up against this world is a counterculture of people who have given up on it entirely in search of something simultaneously less taxing and more fulfilling.
Ironically, one of the biggest pitfalls of embarking on a self-improvement quest is that it can stunt any real change — it’s easy to hide behind routines and habits instead of tackling bigger things. Kinkolo bowed out of her obsessive to-do lists and routines when she realized that her days lacked meaning. “I liked that my days had structure, but it got to a point where what I was doing was mindless,” she says. “I became more obsessed with checking things off a list than thinking about the work I was doing.”
“Self-help can be a distraction or an escape from relationships or creating meaning in your life or community,” says Perpetua Neo, a psychologist and executive coach based in Brighton, England. “For example, when people procrastinate, it may not be because they can’t focus or don’t know how to manage their schedule — they could just hate their jobs. But they’ll deny themselves that because they think it might be too late or hard or embarrassing to change, so they’ll read about ways they can stop procrastinating instead.”
Sometimes the problems being masked are more serious. After becoming a mom for the first time, Shereen Thor, an executive life coach in Los Angeles, felt unsettled by her constantly shifting emotions. “One day I would be fine. The next day I would be crying. The next day I would be raging,” she recalls. “Since I had been a generally optimistic and emotionally stable person until then, I thought it had to be me.”
Believing that changing her attitude was the key to getting out of her funk, Thor leaned on her coaching colleagues, who used their typical strategies to help her out. When she wasn’t feeling better, Thor’s husband convinced her to see her doctor; during that visit, she learned that the issue was actually postpartum depression. “Coaching is often based on the premise that you are responsible for your own results, so with this premise, I blamed myself for my inability to get it together,” Thor says. “I honestly believe if I wasn’t a coach, it would have been an easier path.”
That’s not to say that all self-improvement efforts are futile. “Obviously there are many layers to self-improvement, and I would never be against someone organizing their time so they can do more valuable or meaningful activities with it,” says Svend Brinkmann, a Danish psychology professor and author of the buzzy anti-self-help book Stand Firm. “I just think people turn improvement into the purpose of their life and spend too much time worrying about how they can optimize themselves and their schedules” — especially because it’s a quest with no clear ending.
Scientists who study self-improvement stress that not all change is created equal. Jack Bauer, a psychology professor who studies personal growth at the University of Dayton, recently led a study about the types of stories people told themselves about their own important life events and how those narratives affected their well-being. “There were many stories that talked about self-improvement, this idea that the self can go from bad to good or from good to better,” he says. “And we found that it’s not just any self-improvement that relates to happiness and well-being, but self-improvement that’s focused on personally meaningful activities and relationships, things you would do because you love them or connections you would pursue because you love the person. Improving yourself for the sake of self-image or status doesn’t make the same impact.”
Clearly, not everyone can take a sabbatical to think about what they really want. But even taking a few minutes each day to evaluate why you’re pursuing change can bring richer, more meaningful personal growth, Bauer says. Maybe you’re into self-improvement because you believe you can grow in some specific and important way and want to learn the tools to get there. Or maybe it’s because you feel that your life is very far from all the “successful people” whose daily lives have been pushed out into the world for our consumption.
Taking a critical eye to your own projects and routines can help you figure out if you’re doing them for truly productive reasons or if you’re doing them to get closer to some arbitrary goal that has little connection to what you truly want or need. There’s good in taking time to change, reevaluate, reassess, and strive to be better — it’s human nature to want to improve. The question is how much do you really need to?