Is the Pain of Self Improvement Worth It? Absolutely.

A man with his hands in the air standing in front of a sunset.

It starts today.

Why should I improve myself? That question seems almost absurd. Most people consider “self-improvement” to be intrinsically good. Everyone should better themselves! Why even ask?

But there are many growing pains and uncomfortable experiences that accompany your journey. The process of self-improvement is usually disruptive to social life, and to the pleasures you enjoy on a daily basis.

Many people fall into a state of homeostasis (equilibrium), in which their life-satisfaction is balanced between the pain associated with attempts to become better, and the expected value of the potential gains. In other words, the expected discomfort required to improve yourself is equal to or greater than your confidence in the possibility of a better future.

This zone is not usually desirable. People with low motivation (who tend to have little confidence in their potential) may find that the costs associated with a tiny bit of effort out weigh the gains, and discover themselves stagnating without improving at all.

The self-improvement cycle WILL throw you out of that comfortable equilibrium. For some, the joys derived from the process of personal growth are enough to counterbalance the pains. That is rare. These are the people that float easily through their trials, winning with effortless grace.

But you and I are not those people. So, it is probably not worth the effort.

A swimmer swimming breast stroke in the pool improving himself.

“Change your thoughts and you change your world.”

Norman Peale

I want to kill that mentality. Why? Most people have the potential to become more successful than they believe is realistic. But most of us do not work efficiently; we are not good at improving ourselves.

Our low estimation of ourselves comes from repeated exposure to our own failures. But most of these failures stem from lack of pain tolerance and motivation, not innate unworthiness. The result is that we lock ourselves into a cycle in which we do not dedicate enough effort to make success possible and then under value potential improvement because of a perceived high probability of failure.

A tiger that represents personal strength.

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers.”

Amelia Earhart

For those people who can build up enough energy to improve themselves, the cycle follows the subsequent pattern: They experience a brief spurt of energy that overwhelms the cost of discomfort. But they quickly slip into equilibrium once again. They are now sitting comfortably at a higher level, and they are satisfied temporarily with their current position.

Life is a marathon, not a sprint. An occasional spurt of personal development here and there may make you a slightly better person. But, it will be significantly less effective than maintaining a growth mindset. Self-improvement is a life style and a life philosophy. You live and breath it; it never goes away. If you successfully implement it, your accomplishment will multiply and your expected return will increase due to the increased probability of success.

Furthermore, most people do not find the satisfaction they were looking for when they set out to change one specific thing about themselves. Why? Even if you succeed, you get used to your new level. But there is always something you can improve. Sooner or later you will want to change that too. This is partially because we grow accustomed to changes in our environment and personality. For example: people who win the lottery report the same levels of happiness several years after becoming millionaires. People who are paralyzed report the same level of happiness years after their accident. This is called the Hedonic Treadmill.

An additional source of discomfort that follows brief successes is the “what changed?” question. Some people ask themselves, “If I deemed it worthwhile to become better in the past, what justifies my failure to undertake the journey again?” You begin to feel that you were once a better person, but are now too weak to improve. I believe this is one common source of midlife crises. That shadow hangs over the heads of people who are ambitious, but do not dedicate themselves to consistent self-improvement.

Why is it better that I improve myself? Why not take refuge in cognitive dissonance and fall into equilibrium? How could I determine what problems I should tackle? I will attempt to answer that last question in the next post(s).

For now, I will content you with my response to the question, “Why should I try to be better?” That question is really asking, “Is the pain of self improvement worth while/rewarding?” As the title indicates, absolutely!

But first a bit of pseudo-anthropology.

Each person shares several characteristics with all other human beings. Two of these are “rationality” and “sociability.”

People reason.

A man standing on a mountain in front of a sunset after a journey of self improvement.

“It always seems impossible until its done.”

Nelson Mandela

You think, feel, consider problems, find solutions, and analyze the world around you. That is why you are reading this post. From philosophers to theoretical physicists to the fourteen year old girl reading celebrity gossip blogs, people use their imaginations and intellects to learn and think and find their place in the world.

And yes, reading about celebrity gossip does count as thinking-unfortunately.

People are social.

A family holding hands in front of a sunset.

You want to create memories with friends, form romantic and friendly connections, share your interests with other individuals. It is very rare that a hobby or goal stands wholly on its own, independent of your community. More often than not, when you picture yourself triumphing over some difficulty, you imagine the context to be social.

Your mind uses its rational faculties to rank itself among social hierarchies of various sorts. Young men measure themselves against competitors in domains such as attractiveness, wealth, etc. Young women do the same. There are many such hierarchies, including intellect, financial wealth, artistic, etc. Some psychologists call these competitions “games.”

We live in a landscape of moral decisions.

Human beings cannot help but rank everything we experience in hierarchies. The reason? Human beings are moral creatures in the sense that every decision we make is based on consideration of "better and worse." Some philosophers call these considerations “good and evil.” We will keep to a more naturalistic analysis. The key point is that every human action follows a qualitative decision.

As such, every decision is moral. Why? Let me ask you this question: why do you choose to do anything? Because you deem the reward for your decision to be good. You are implicitly stating that it is better for you to take one course than another.

Whether you believe in universal morality or ethics, we decide our lives on these principles. No acting person is an acting nihilist. I am not saying that our personal morals are rational. I do not know. But they are an innate character that allows us to live. More importantly, their existence allows for our triumphs and our failures.

Our understanding of the world is subject to this method of organization. We catalog knowledge, memories, and all other information available to us via these qualitative hierarchies.

We understand our life through narrative.

A man walking through the city alone.

We remember our story through the landmarks provided by our movements along these ladders/hierarchies. We understand our lives as a story in which the drama plays out in our battle to fulfill our goals. Intelligence, kindness, bravery, promiscuity, wealth, power, even humility, are all ladders we might fight to ascend.

Insecurity wells-up due to fears inspired by the dangers of participating in these fields of play. The young man who finds himself unable to talk to women is suffering from exactly this phenomenon. He is afraid she will reveal to him that he is worthless by rejecting him. Of course, that reality exists in his mind not hers. These insecurities constitute one of the forms of the “discomforts of improving” mentioned earlier. Insecurity only exists in the context of society.

One common response to such discomfort is externalization. The person tries to defeat their insecurity by making it a “none issue.” The young man afraid of showing vulnerability to women might say, “I do not need a relationship. Society created my want. I will ignore the desire.”

Other ways of addressing the same issue might include objectifying women as both the stereotypical “nice guy” and “jack ass” do. The former makes the girl a caricature, a “princess” that ‘owes’ him fealty in return for his love. The “jack ass” transforms her into a utility.

A man sitting at a train station suffering from depression.

For the gift of life, the only true thanks was in living fully, and facing death with honor.”

Janet Morris

There are multiple ways of circumventing insecurities. People are experts at employing dissonances. But rarely do the lies we tell ourselves satisfy. The person who employs them feels like a coward. They are aware that they have failed themselves even if they deny it.

Now, there is another type of discomfort: actual pain. The factor that holds us back is not social discomfort, but mental or physical suffering. We do not call our failure to surmount these difficulties insecurity. We call it laziness.

Insecurity and laziness are the two categories of weakness.

Note that in both cases, the person actually desires a positive end for themselves but finds the discomfort is too great to endure. The assertion is economical: the pain associated with self improvement outweighs the value of success.

That is almost always not true. It is just another lie we tell ourselves.

Part of the reason we find this imagined rationale difficult to ignore is that we did not evolve for a world in which we have the resources to choose our destiny. The emotions that guide our mental circuits are not calibrated to the modern age. They are calibrated to a time in which people had very little control. To survive, ancient hunters and gatherers needed to be efficient. It was pragmatic to wait until discomfort prompted by their subconscious forced them to action.

This is why it is easy to make decisions based on discomfort, than the potential for success. The first is an emotional state that feels very real; the later is an imagined reality produced by our reason. You are designed to let your sub-conscious make these decisions for you. You are a conservative when it comes to fighting for yourself. In a world of lions and bears, being audacious and bold is risky.

We overcome our brain’s heuristics (short circuits that help us make snap conclusions) by the use of our reason. That is why you are here. Human beings are one of the few animals, if not the only one, capable of doing this.

We live in a world of plenty, in which we can afford to make decisions using our intellect. It is often ultimately beneficial to make such long term resolutions. But equally as often the economics of our subconscious mislead us.

A person standing on top of a cliff at sunrise.

Put your heart, mind, and soul into even your smallest acts. This is the secret of success.

Swami Sivananda

Look to society for evidence. Cowardice does not restrain successful people. They are willing to take risks; they are capable of being vulnerable. They have defeated their fear; they have overcome their weaknesses.

You must ask yourself the question: is my comfortable equilibrium worth more to me than improvement? The answer is almost always no.

And yet, many people fail to take the next step. They contentedly float through life without satisfying their dreams or their ambitions. They never truly decide to become better.

I can provide my opinions on why people fail to improve themselves. I can tell you that your achievements will be worth the pain. But such arguments are not necessary. You already want to become better. Everyone does.

What must you do to move from desire to momentum?

You must change your values. Rethink the purpose of your life. Believe that your struggles will be rewarded. You must hold that the pain will bring you dividends, benefits to your whole life-not a one time bump in satisfaction that quickly dissipates.

You must act on the faith that your life can be better, that you are worth the effort. Arm yourself with the knowledge that others have taken similar steps and never looked back.

You must be brave. It is the only way forward. Take a step. The footing might not be sure, but you will feel the thrill of action. You will begin to understand what strength feels like. Disrupt your equilibrium. We call such efforts “transcendent.”


Chalk on the road that says "you got this."

Thomas Carlyle:

“Permanence, perseverance and persistence in spite of all obstacles, discouragements, and impossibilities: It is this, that in all things distinguishes the strong soul from the weak.”