Why Has Self-Improvement Become So Popular?
To answer the question of why self-improvement has become so popular, we’re gonna need to first look at the evolution of the everyday super-human. They are the local heroes who show us that self-improvement is not just a millennial obsession or temporary trend. From Grandmas with fitness trackers, to corporate workers spending their vacation time on spiritual retreats, self-improvement seems to be a more integral part of our lives with every passing day. Buckle up, it’s one heckuva journey. (TL;DR at the bottom)
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by human potential. As a teenager, I was perplexed by just what it is that pushes people to do ultra marathons or run hills everyday. Where does the motivation to endure free climbing on the harshest peaks of Yosemite come from? Are the brains of those who achieve difficult things simply different from the brains of us mere mortals?
Back then, I thought that these people were simply anomalies. Human outliers. I wished that I was born like them; that I had their genetics and their god-given determination to keep pushing themselves beyond limits. To me, the ability for someone to be so unrelenting in achieving their goals was just a character trait that they were born with. Lucky f*ckers.
The Everyday Super-Humans
In the last few years however, my opinions about super-humans have changed. Everyday, more and more people I knew, regular lazy sods just like me, were jumping on the self-improvement train and turning their lives around for the better. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about.
Think about that middle-aged woman in your neighbourood who used to clock in at 250lbs (113kg), and rarely ever left the house due to social anxiety and joint pain. Brilliantly, through an arduous journey of strict diet and exercise, she has managed to shed all of her excess weight. These days, she spends her time inspiring others on social media, and putting 20-year-olds to shame as they cry tears of sweat at her Crossfit classes.
How about your neighbour? Who over his lifetime has consumed an Olympic-sized swimming pool worth of beer and smoked exactly 146,103 cigarettes. Word on the street is that he has sobered up and quit smoking altogether. I even heard that he runs 10 miles a day, and is learning to swim so that he can compete in his first triathlon.
Ah yes, and your old pal from Uni. Your former housemate and Chief Cannabis Conoisseur, Chris. When he wasn’t too lazy to walk to class, or scrounging for money in the couch, he was forgetting to take out the bins (again) or eating your precious leftover pizza. Nowadays, he is the CEO of a mega successful IT start-up in Estonia. Oh, and he has six-pack abs too.
So, Why Has Self-Improvement Become So Popular?
These days, it seems that everyone knows someone with a remarkable story like this. Understanding this explosion of positive behaviour has consumed me for the last few years. What changed? Did we fall through a crack in the fabric of time and space? Are we living in the Upside Down?
Perhaps these people were infected with some kind of self-improvement virus. One that allows them to unlock their full capabilities, shut down their excuses, and become elite. A kind-of zombie apocalypse, but in reverse. Where, instead of deteriorating into slow-crawling, incoherent subhumans, the infected were becoming empowered, accomplished super-humans. Most of the time I was still being a lazy SOB, though. Maybe I should have asked my neighbour to bite me. 🤔
Of course, I didn’t truly believe that there was such a thing as a self-improvement virus, but it was fun to think about. Upon reflection, the reason for this recent surge in self-improvement behaviour was obvious. It all started, of course, with the magical information superhighway that is the internet. More than that, it was our newfound ability to easily share our personal experiences, ideas, and knowledge with the world at gargantuan scale. Let me explain.
If you grew up in a small town where everyone only talks about farming, and the only books in the library are about snail anatomy or the magic of Petunias, I’m sure you had a tough time being exposed to better ways of life before the internet came along. These days we are bombarded with a plethora of new ideas, differing opinions and personal experiences that we would never have had access to before.
More importantly, those who are doing extraordinary things now have a platform where they can share their amazing feats. When it comes to the seemingly recent explosion of self-improvement behaviour, one could even argue that perhaps it is not simply the case that more people than ever before are hopping on the self-improvement train – but that now the people who were already on it are living in the spotlight, not the shadows. We see too the hardships that these people face, the everyday struggle, and we learn to expect it for ourselves.
Imagine, for example, you’re trying to organise an Ironman event without the help of the internet. No social media, no website, no YouTube, no cyberspace. Influencers do not exist. Yet there you are on a little island, desperately trying to let people know by fax or by pigeon what an Ironman is, and why they could love it. I mean, on paper it surely sounds awful. At the very least, it’s a tough sell without the ability for others to preview the experience.
In fact, during the very first Ironman triathlon in 1978, only fifteen competitors took part. Most were locals, or friends of the organiser. This year, with 43 official Ironman races around the world, it is estimated that 70,000 – 100,000 people will participate in the event. Not including the thousands of other independently organised triathlon events. Mind-blowing!
2. Shared Experiences
About seven years ago, I found out that a woman I used to see almost everyday in a local store I worked at, was a mega accomplished runner. Since the 1960’s, she had travelled the world competing in races and cross-countries. Running helped her to stay positive and was a constant throughout the many hardships she had faced in her life. She continued to jog five miles each day on a treadmill in her house at the ripe age of seventy-one. Sadly, I never got to ask her about it, as I found this out whilst reading her obituary.
At that point in my life, it wasn’t even on my radar that running could make you feel good, or be such a huge part of your daily lifestyle. I’m sure she would have had a majorly positive influence on me with her passion for running, but I never got to share in her awesome experiences. It makes me wonder: what other great knowledge did we miss out on that is now lost to the past?
These days, we can share our experiences with each other more easily, and in more depth. It’s possible for me to see into the daily life of a Pro Footballer and observe how he trains. I can share with you what it was like to have a near-death experience, or how I got out of an abusive relationship. We see the daily vlogs that tell the full story behind those before and after transformation pics. I can leave videos behind for my grandchildren, and belong to online communities of people with similar interests, despite being thousands of miles away from them. We are now a collective, experiencing the world together.
3. Common Knowledge
You know what they say about it. Common knowledge is not common. However, nowadays if we don’t know something, we can just look it up, and it’s helping us to live better lives. As someone with a classic addictive personality, I am a prime candidate for an opioid prescription gone wrong. Despite often crippling back pain due to nerve damage, I have chosen not to go the route of potentially very harmful medication, because I can see for myself how detrimental it has been in the lives of others.
By watching people similar to me talk about their negative experiences with conventional opioids, and through finding alternative strategies for nerve pain management online, I could make a better decision for myself.
Today, anyone can find the resources they need, no matter what it is that they want to do. To those who already possess the motivation to succeed but not the know-how, they can download free guides and watch endless YouTube tutorials. Others who have the expertise but lack the motivation or are too afraid to take action, often find their passions rekindled by supportive online communities of like-minded people, and opportunities to cash in on their craft via online marketplaces. This really is a huge reason why self-improvement has become more popular – it’s simply easier to start.
4. Shattered Perceptions of What is Possible
Did you ever hear the story of the first man to break the four minute mile? Of course we see it regularly today, but in the early 1950’s that kind of time was considered impossible. You see, for many years prior to Roger Bannister breaking the four minute mile for the first time, so many athletes had tried and failed, that experts and the general public alike thought it to be physically impossible for a human to run a mile in under four minutes.
However, not long after Roger became the first man to victoriously break the tape at a time of 3 minutes 59.4 seconds in 1954, a bizarre thing happened. A myriad of athletes began to also achieve sub-four-minute miles. In fact since then, his world record has been beaten over 1,500 times, and counting. What does this story teach us? To me, it says that once we see that the impossible can be achieved, it’s easier to believe that we can do it for ourselves too.
These days, we’re bound to be influenced by this kind of phenomenon, as we’re exposed to far more success stories than ever before. Gary Vaynerchuk once said something that made me understand how our online world really allows for self-improvement to become so popular. He said “if there’s anyone that ever looked like you that made it, then there is no excuse”. Couldn’t have said it better myself, G.
Watching others achieve things intrinsically makes us want to improve ourselves. I don’t know a single person that isn’t inspired by someone on social media or the internet at large, and the best part is that there is someone for everyone. It’s not just all about success either. Seeing others simply trying is also very motivating; which is exactly why I started this website.
Of course our online world has its own pitfalls too. For those of us who lack any drive and don’t know very much about how to achieve our goals, it can be a lot easier to instead fall victim to the dopamine-dens of social media or online games. Ultimately becoming so addicted to consuming that end up never actually doing. (Guilty!✋)
However, the negative and manipulative aspects of our online lives are being increasingly exposed (e.g. through documentaries like The Great Hack), and we are more aware than ever of the tactics used by corporations to steal our valuable attention. We all know that the most meaningful things in life often happen out here, in the real world anyway.
Besides, when you google search ‘how to stop wasting time online’ there are more than 56,700,000 results. So we know that we are being naughty little time-wasters, and we’re trying to fix it.
Everyday, we are exposed to new experiences and knowledge that changes our perceptions of what we can achieve. What we once thought of as super-humans, we now know are normal people, just like us. They are not different or better, they simply just kept trying. The digital world has helped us to be more honest with ourselves, and show us what is possible.
As our lives continue to become more transparent, and we get to see people’s entire backstory, not just their highlight reel. Daily reminders of the hard work, dedication, and knockbacks that inevitably precede success allow us to be more patient. The hoops that must be jumped through.
Now, we can anticipate these setbacks, and find comfort in the fact that we never struggle alone. Of course, it still takes hard work to achieve difficult things, but more of us than ever are realising that sometimes, it’s the tough things that make a life well lived. It certainly keeps things spicy.
(TL;DR version) Why has self-improvement become so popular?
1. Exposure – Each day we are exposed to the knowledge and experiences of others via the internet. This makes it much easier for us to learn new things, become inspired and collectively organise. We know what to expect.
2. Experiences – Experience carries a gravitas that knowledge cannot match. We can now share our experiences with others in more depth, and become a part of theirs. This makes it easier to find better ways of doing things, and learn valuable life lessons.
3. Knowledge – Want to learn how to build a website? There’s a course for that. Always wanted to track calories but found it too tedious? There’s an app for that. The sharing of knowledge has drastically reduced the barrier to entry for many people. It’s never been easier to start.
4. Perceptions – Being part of a global community has opened our eyes to our capabilities. If someone, somewhere in the world has done it, then you can too. Once we see that something can be achieved, we believe that it’s possible, and are more likely to try.
What did you think of this article? I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Please let me know in the comment section below!