John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which is to Come was published in 1678 and is considered one of the greatest works of English literature – possibly it was the first novel ever written. The Slough of Despond, into which the hero Christian falls early in the text, has passed into our general culture, and having lived near Slough in my adolescence, I can never forget that phrase.
The theme of self-improvement is, I think, of even greater significance today than the religious language in which is cloaked. The self-help movement – broadly released from its original religious moorings – has translated concern with the individual’s soul into a healthy fixation on the individual self, but the notion of self-improvement is based on Christian theology and ethics. I believe the rise of the individual self is the greatest flowering of Western civilization and the best achievement of Christianity – it mixes human dignity, the relief of personal suffering, and the best positive activism which most distinguishes people from the rest of creation.
But in the necessary secularization of the soul into the self, I think we are in danger of losing something essential. Human dignity is the starting point for a civilized society, but it is not its destination. “Life is like riding a bicycle,” quipped Albert Einstein, “to keep your balance, you must keep riding.” Riding forward. As individuals, as a society, as a civilization, we must move forward, or else we fall. We must improve, and the root of social improvement is the improvement of the individual.
Us. You. Me.
Improvement has many dimensions – improving our minds and intellect, artistic sensibility, practical skills, and our ability to negotiate the dangers and perils of life without falling into the ever-adjacent Slough of Despond. But above all – and this is the unfashionable bit, the bit that I would prefer to ignore, and that most people do too – improvement has a moral quality. It means becoming better people – for sure, better able to live life to the full for ourselves, but also for other people; to be open and generous; to connect with and help the people around us, including strangers; to become closer to our ideal self, the person we would like to become, the person we would admire more than we admire ourselves today.
The problem with the original Pilgrim’s Progress for a modern audience is that the pilgrim, Christian, was weighed down by an almost overwhelming sense of his own sin, his unworthiness. I find this morbid and unhelpful. I prefer to focus on what is good in us, and to seek to expand it. For sure, it is right to recognize when we fall short of a reasonable standard of behavior, to have a sense of shame and embarrassment when we do something retrograde. But to have a sense of what we are good at, of how we are constructive and a force for increasing happiness – our own and that of others – may be a more effective way to improve ourselves. Each of us can imagine our ideal self, and work towards becoming that person.
One of the best chapters in Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is titled Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday, Not to Who Somebody Else is Today. He starts with an astute observation:
“It was easier for people to be good at something when more of us lived in small, rural communities … in each of their domains, these local heroes had the opportunity to enjoy the serotonin-fueled confidence of the victor. It may be for that reason that people who were born in small towns are statistically overrepresented among the eminent.”
Later he comments:
“The world allows for many ways of Being. If you don’t succeed at one, you can try another. You can pick something better matched to your unique mix of strengths, weaknesses, and situation. Furthermore, if changing games does not work, you can invent a new one.”
He doesn’t say this, but it seems to be implicit – if we can’t live in a small town, we can create our own mental small town, in which we have a skill nobody else has to the same degree, or perhaps at all. This seems to me to tie up with another thought which has become a cliché, but which we so often lose sight of – we should focus on opportunities, not problems. In another trite but true saying, we should accentuate the positive and ignore the negative. Not focus on sin, but on our goodness. Make the good better, and the better into the ideal.
And then, there is the ever-present and usually-ignored wisdom of the 80/20 principle. As I’m sure you know, this means focusing on the most productive part of our life, our opportunities, our personal skills, our happiness, and – this is the crucial part – the way to produce the best results which is easiest for us to accomplish, to get great results with relatively little effort. This requires us to focus ruthlessly on what we are already best at, better than other people at, better at producing great results, for equivalent effort. To specialize in what gives us and other people the greatest happiness and other results in the most natural and grace-filled way.
Conclusion & Action Steps
My conclusion is that it will help us to be happy and fulfilled if we search for the sunlit uplands of self-improvement. Not because it is a duty or to get to heaven, but because it is the best way to live.
Be relaxed. Be happy. Be better.