Tuesday December 12, 2017

These authors dedicated a year to self-improvement. Here's what they learned

Authors Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer set an ambitious goal to take on self-improvement, month by month for a whole year. They share their experience and insight in their book, Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement.

Authors Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer set an ambitious goal to take on self-improvement, month by month for a whole year. They share their experience and insight in their book, Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement. (OR Books)

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From Fitbits to so-called smart drugs enhancing brain function to articles on how to break bad habits, we live in an age of self-improvement.

It's a burgeoning, profitable, multi-billion dollar industry that can at times lead to a an unhealthy obsession 

Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer spent a year immersing themselves in the business of self-improvement.

Carl Cederstrom

In April, Carl Cederstrom decided to learn French and committed to doing an interview in French, live on air. He says he struggled through it. (Niklas Bjoêrling )

"We'd been interested in self-improvement and optimization culture for a relatively long time and also wrote our previous book on the topic and people pointed out, when that book came out, The Wellness Syndrome, did we have any first-hand experiences of this ourselves?" Cederstrom tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"And the truth was that we didn't really have any experiences at all." 

Each month dedicated to a specific pursuit

Cederstrom and Spicer both became willing guinea pigs, exploring a range of techniques and technologies involving everything from trying to learn a new language and boost memory power, to attending a new age retreat and even undergoing cosmetic surgery. 

Andre Spicer

Andre Spicer says he learned stand up comedy and performed at the Edinburgh Festival. 'I got precisely two laughs,' he says. (OR Books)

In their book, Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside The Optimization Movement, professor Spicer and associate professor Cederstrom dedicated each month to a specific pursuit.  

In July, they focused on pleasure. 

 "I'd been a vegetarian for 16 years and I picked up eating meat again — some of which was good, and some of it was bad," Spicer recalls of that month.

"And then I went on an all junk food diet and spent my time playing video games."

"Many of my friends would find that deeply pleasurable. I found it rather unpleasurable," Spicer says.

Attention experiment

In the month of November dedicated to attention, Spicer approached talking about body image and judgement in a public way, by stripping down to his underwear on public transit.

Cederstrom says we now live in an age where self-improvement is synonymous with being morally good.

 "We could really see how self-improvement is something we all take for granted. Why would you not want to become a better person?"

This is how society is organized today, Cederstrom says, "around principles of competition and a very individualistic notion of doing your best."

'This was all sort of meaningless'

After a full year of pushing themselves to the limit — and a year that saw their friendship placed in serious jeopardy —Spicer says he learned something valuable from the experience. 

Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement

What lengths would you go to for self-improvement? (OR Books)

"In some ways, we began to realize that maybe this was all sort of meaningless in some ways.  Like it all was just pointing at the absurdity of self-help," Spicer tells Tremonti.

"As soon as you kind of stopped trying to improve yourself, there's this kind of return to the way you were almost beforehand — the kind of old habits kicks back in."


Listen to the full conversation above.


This segment was produced by Calgary network producer Michael O'Halloran.