Today’s post is about the small word “self” that is regularly used in this blog and which is part of the name “Lean Self” as well as of the term “self-improvement.” As you will see, it is a lot longer than my usual posts. This is also a test how you would like longer posts.
Before I go on, let me tell you what made me write this post. Recently, I discovered a fascinating book. It is “Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book” by Walker Percy. Although it is somehow outdated, it was both disturbing and enlightening to read this book.
Instead of providing a review of it, I want to mimic its method and try to find some disturbing observations and questions. Hopefully, these questions will help you to get a better understanding of this blog as well as of your self – whoever you are.
When talking about self-improvement, as it happens regularly in my posts, I make a tacit assumption. This assumption is that the “self” we all want to improve is obvious to everybody.
“What is that self?” is indeed a simple question without a simple answer. Just as “Who are you?” is very simple. Surely, you can answer with your name to the latter question, maybe add some details about your family background and your current job. I suggest to dig deeper and try out some possible answers to both questions and their implications. As a starting point, you will find some examples below.
Choose any combination of the following view points to draw your own picture:
- You are your mind. What happens if you are victim of some disease that abruptly our gradually reduces your mental abilities? Are you still the same person if your conscious self dwindles away?
- You are your body. What about your skin, which regularly replaces itself within some weeks by exchange of cells? What about you before and after a haircut? What if you accidentally cut of a finger? Are you still the same person? What if you lose a leg or become paraplegic? Is your self changing, or is just the same self as before learning to cope with the new situation?
- You are your soul. This answer is cheating. You are replacing one term that needs explanation by another one that is clearly reaching into metaphysics. Just look up Wikipedia: “The soul […] is the incorporeal and, in many conceptions, immortal essence of a person, living thing, or object.” If you say “You are your soul” that basically means “You are the essence of yourself.” Even if you use the term without religious connotations, you end up with circular reasoning.
- You are the sum of all your actions. What if you decide not to eat the sandwich that lies in front of you? You might say action includes “non-actions” as well. Now, would that mean you are the sum of all your actions and non-actions? What about unintentional actions? What if you try to evade an accident by jerking the steering wheel of your car and kill somebody because of that? Was that your own self who killed the accident victim? To make it even more complicated: What if you sneeze and therefore have the same accident? Did you intend to sneeze? Or was the underlying action defining “you” only that you drove that car, the rest of the story just coincidence? Coming back to non-actions: did you have a safe driving course shortly before the accident or not? Had the accident been avoidable by investing into the continuous improvement of your driving skills?
- You are your habits. This is just a variation of “you are your actions.”
- You are defined by your values and convictions. Do you really know what your values are? Maybe they have been implanted by others through manipulation or brainwash? And your convictions, what if they change? Let’s say you have been anti-abortion until recently but are now pro-choice, after you had some difficult discussions with your girlfriend? Is that the same “you” we are talking about? Speaking of girlfriends (or boyfriends), how do you like the next example?
- You are defined by all the people around you, by the relationships and contacts you have. What if that pro-choice girlfriend leaves you when she hears about your anti-abortion past? What if you move to a new city and leave all your friends and family behind? What if your dog dies? Are you still the same person, the same “you”?
- You are your public appearance. Would that mean, you are what people can read on your facebook page? Have you really been truthful will all that you told in the public?
- You are your job. Does that mean you are your LinkedIn profile? What about optimizing your resume for a new job application (I’m not talking about cheating here)?
- You are the sum of all your skills and abilities. What if you learn something new? Are you still the same person? Is that “self” the same self as before? What about unused skills you cannot recover again? Is something lost of your self?
- You are your past, present, and future. Ok, so what? Would that definition help?
- You are your own personal brand. That leads to circular reasoning, just look at my post about finding your own brand. It starts with “I am …”
- You are what you eat. What if you change your diet?
- You are what you possess. Have you considered how many of your possessions are inventory waste?
I could continue that list ad nauseam, and I am sure you could add some points to that list as well. Just as in the examples above, every addition could be deconstructed with the right questions. Paradoxically, the more you search for your self, the more it will evade you.
We could end the discussion here. If there is no useful definition, then we do not need the term at all. Unfortunately, the question is important and surely as old as humanity. But why is the question important? I see three main reasons:
- Your self is something you have to come to terms with.
- The search for the self, although never ending, raises the challenging questions that enable personal growth.
- If you want to achieve self-improvement, you should have at least a working definition of your own self.
So here is my working definition: Your self is what you choose it to be. I do not mean that in the self-help mumbo jumbo way which suggests you can be whoever you want to be if you try hard enough. (Or think hard enough, following the so-called law of attraction.)
On the contrary: the choices you make when defining your own self are your very own definition of self. (OK, call that a circular argument if you want 🙂 )
Pick some of the above examples if you like. Come up with your own points. Do not fret to change the definition at any point in time. Just be sure that at the time you want to work on improving yourself you have a general idea you can work with.
It is not important that others have their own definition. Which does not mean you should ignore what others say about you. That can be important and valuable input. It means that only you are reasonably close to be an authority on the topic of your self.
If you want a blueprint for your own definition, you can follow the first three of the five principles of Lean Self:
- You define value. What are your values? Have you fully understood them? Maybe start with a root value analysis.
- Eliminate waste. Based on your values, you define what your waste is. By identifying and eliminating waste, you shape your self.
- Empower yourself. At the root of this lies that you choose your own self, as stated above.
What to you think? Just leave a message below.
PS: If you have read the “About Lean Self” page, you already know that I’m deeply skeptic about the whole self-help industry. Of course, that is ironic because you could put Lean Self into the same section of a book store. I am fully aware of this irony and look out for possible ways to address critical points when they come up.