What André Spicer Reveals about Self-Help
New Zealander André Spicer and Swede Carl Cederström, business-school professors in a field called “organisation studies,” recently set out to chart their progress, count their steps, log their sleep rhythms, tweak their diets, record their negative thoughts – then analyse the data, recalibrate, and repeat, and more, in their recent book, Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimisation Movement, a comically committed exploration of current life-hacking wisdom in areas ranging from athletic and intellectual prowess to spirituality, creativity, wealth, and pleasure.
Spicer and Cederström want to understand the lengths to which people will go to transform themselves into superior beings, and to examine the methods that they use, Alexandra Schwartz reports in an article entitled, ‘Improving Ourselves to Death’ for the New Yorker. In their previous book, The Wellness Syndrome, the authors followed health nuts who were determined to meditate and exercise their way to enlightenment.
This time, in the spirit of George Plimpton’s brand of participatory journalism, they’ve become their own test cases, embarking on a year-long programme in which they target a new area of the self to improve each month.
They bulk up at Cross Fit, go on the Master Cleanse liquid diet, try mindfulness and yoga, consult therapists and career coaches, sample prostate vibrators, attempt standup comedy, and attend a masculinity-boosting workshop that involves screaming and weeping naked in the woods.
Even their book’s format – entries of the diary that each keeps to record and reflect on his endeavours – is relevant to their mission, considering that daily journaling is recommended in Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers.
Many of the tasks that Spicer and Cederström assign themselves have a double-dare quality whose cost-benefit value seems questionable, like memorising the first thousand digits of pi during Brain Month in order to improve mental acuity. But others inspire the same niggling whisper of self-doubt as Instagram posts of green juice: Should I be doing that, too?
“In a consumerist society, we are not meant to buy one pair of jeans and then be satisfied,” Spicer and Cederström write, and the same, they think, is true of self-improvement.
We are being sold on the need to upgrade all parts of ourselves, all at once, including parts that we did not previously know needed upgrading.
Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour and the founding director of ETHOS: The Centre for Responsible Enterprise at Cass Business School in London.
Original article by Alexandra Schwartz, The New Yorker, January 15, 2018.
Illustration by Nishant Choksi.