André Spicer Desperately Seeks Self-Improvement
Like a couple of lab rats, professors New Zealander André Spicer and Swede Carl Cederström have subjected themselves to every conceivable test in pursuit of perfection, hoping to become better human beings, smarter, more productive, more loveable. The Independent’s Andy Martin finds out if they succeeded.
Cederström is co-author, with Spicer (professor of organisational behaviour at the Cass Business School in London), of Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement, a book the like of which has never been done before – and almost certainly will never be done again – in which two white-coated professors use themselves as their own lab rats to work out if our obsession with self-improvement has any verifiable results.
In alternating diary entries, over 12 months, intrepid explorers of the outer limits of self-optimisation, they try out drugs, new technology, physical and mental training, and assorted sex accessories. With a view to re-engineering themselves into better human beings, smarter, more productive, more loveable – to becoming more like gods (especially when wearing the “God helmet”) – and nearly killed themselves and their own friendship doing it.
Cederström and Spicer were intent on testing out everything to the maximum, to the point of self-destruction, madness, and melancholia. All self-improvement exacts a toll. Even upping the amount of pleasure in your life involves a measurable increase in punishment and pain.
Spicer trained up in a few weeks to run a marathon. Together they try out every quick-fix fantasy under the sun. And several religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism). Not to mention the wisdom of Ekhart Tolle (The Power of Now). They wear magnets and magic watches and give themselves electric-shock treatment. They chant Hare Krishna (which has a positive and calming effect, oddly enough). They climb mountains (literally). They chain smoke, stuff themselves with burgers in the name of hedonism, and they go vegan and drink nothing but water and cleanse themselves rigorously.
At the end of it they have conjured up a unique book, described by Steven Poole in the Guardian as “an absurdist masterpiece”. Now they are in New York to talk about their experiences. So maybe some of these techniques really work. Contrary to their original intentions, they might actually encourage people to try out some of them.
Philosophically, Cederström and Spicer finally converge on the sentiments expressed by Mark Manson in his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. More than anything, in their repeated bursts (almost like a pomodoro) of insane hope followed by despair, they remind me of the manic-depressive dialogue of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot: “We are happy. (Silence.) What do we do, now that we’re happy?”
Spicer is also the author of Business Bullshit, which was published in September 2017.
Original article by Andy Martin, The Independent, December 8, 2017.