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Three types of self-improvers, and what you can learn from them

three people representing different types of self-improvers: one meditating, one stressing, one chilling

There are three types of self-improvers. You can learn more from the other types than you can from doing more and more of what you’re already doing.

To me, it seems obvious that you should try to improve your life as much as possible. Everything else being equal, it’s clearly better to get happier, more productive, smarter, wealthier, and healthier. So you should deliberately try to do so. But not everyone thinks like that.

I think there are three camps when it comes to self-improvement1

  1. Those who think like me. Optimise everything, all the time. Don’t focus on one particular tool, but draw on everything to make the best life possible.
  2. Those who think that one particular thing is way more important than anything else, so you should maximise that. Take Buddhism. Life is suffering, so you should accept it and get meditating.2
  3. Those who like to improve, but don’t think about it all that much.

I’m going to call (1) Optimisers, (2) Maximisers3, and (3) Moderates.

What Optimisers are like

Optimisers tend to be the more hyper and anxious type. Always trying to use every minute available. Worrying they’re missing out on stuff. Trying to calculate trade-offs. Worrying they’re not enough.

They devour non-fiction books and YouTube videos, and listen to podcasts on 3x speed. They spend time on Twitter, LinkedIn and self-improvement sub-reddits.

They reflect on how they’re doing their jobs, and get frustrated by inefficiency. They try various productivity techniques, and procrastinate by reading about how to beat procrastination.

They drink lots of coffee and try to eat high-quality food. They use a heart-rate monitor for exercise, and follow a programme, usually alone. They meditate for the extrinsic benefits, rather than to reach enlightenment.

They justify buying things based on the return they’ll get, and pay for expensive technology, courses, and premium apps. They invest their money.

What Maximisers are like (through the lens of Buddhism)

Buddhists are earnest and purposeful. Their emotions pass like clouds. They might experience nirvana, but it’s not a goal. They don’t have an ego, so they don’t worry about themselves.

They read long, dense tracts by Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley, and are well-versed in the sayings of the Buddha and The Bhagavad Gita. They’re not on social media.

They view work as a means of getting the money required for basic needs, rather than a means of self-actualization. Procrastination isn’t really a thing – it’s just another emotion that comes.

They eat vegan food, smoke weed, and take psychedelics. They do yoga. They meditate a lot.

They don’t spend much, nor do they try to amass money.

What Moderates are like

Moderates are mostly chilled. They might get FOMO about a social event, but won’t worry they haven’t optimised their morning routine.

They read both fiction and non-fiction, but rarely take notes. They listen to podcasts in whatever the default app is on their phone, at 1x speed. They’re on Instagram and Facebook if they’re older, and Snapchat and TikTok if they’re younger.

They work hard at their jobs, but don’t worry too much about the process. They do the work as it comes, and procrastinate by going on social media.

They drink smoothies and eat lunch from whichever sandwich shop is closest to their work. They pay for a decent gym and like group-based exercise. Meditation is mostly too much effort.

They buy things they want, without worrying about whether it’s the optimal investment for every $ spent. They let their money sit in a low-interest savings account.

But what about all the other people?

OK, so there are plenty of people who don’t fit into any of these categories, not least the roughly half a billion people who live in extreme poverty in 2022.4 But also my dad, who eats bacon twice a day and never reads anything longer than a football team sheet.

But chances are if you’re reading this, you spend some time on self-improvement, and you fit more with one of the categories than the other two.

If you don’t, please let me know by sending me an email with your thoughts.

Why does this matter?

Because, if you strongly identify with one of these groups, you can probably learn more from the other groups than you can from doing more of what you already do.

Thinking along the same lines will likely only get you small improvements. But thinking outside of your usual ‘box’ might produce big insights.

Here are some examples.

What Optimisers can learn from Moderates

Optimisers are liable to burn out because of all the time they spend worrying about whether they’re doing enough, or doing things right.

They might never be able to spend a whole day watching TV without feeling guilty, but if they try it and nothing bad happens, they might learn to enjoy the downtime they do take a bit more.

What Moderates can learn from Optimisers

Some Moderates could quite easily be happier, healthier, wealthier and so on if they applied just a few of the Optimisers’ strategies.

Sure, they might not need the extra money they would have if they’d invested their money rather than letting it be inflated away – but they could usefully spend it if it were there.

Or they could use the extra resources they gain to do something for other people.

What Optimisers can learn from Maximisers

Optimisers can spend so much effort working on themselves that they forget the purpose of it all. Attaching yourself to something larger than yourself usually feels good, whether it’s religion or a favourite sports team.

Having a clarity of purpose can also help with motivation, as your resources are more focused on one area than if you’re trying to do multiple things at once.

What Maximisers can learn from Optimisers

Buddhism might be true, but it might not be. You could get to the age of 80 and wonder why the f*** you spent most of your 20s sitting in silence. You might never reach nirvana.

Trying to work on a few other things might open your eyes to something you come to regard as more important.

And even if meditation is the only way to deal with the pain of life, you might be able to lower the pain a bit if you work on your health.

Why this is getting harder

We’ve all heard a lot about politics getting more polarised, and how social media feeds mean you only ever see views similar to your own. I don’t think it’s exactly the same with self-improvement ‘tribes’ yet. But it’s heading that way.

More and more of our world is being shaped by algorithms. And the algorithms are getting trained on more and more of your data. So if you start in one of these camps, you’ll likely see more and more content related to that, and relatively less of the other views.

And what to do about it

It can be hard to listen properly to people that come from very different mindsets. But it gets easier with practice. So instead of watching more of your favourite productivity YouTubers, scrolling more Instagram, or reading even more Stoic philosophy, try talking to a friend or family member who thinks differently.

Over time, consider altering the content you regularly consume to learn more from the others. Sign up to some of their newsletters, read their subreddits, follow who they follow on social, and watch things they watch on TV.

It might not be quite as comfortable in the moment, but you’ll get more out of it.

Footnotes

  1. These are broad characterisations based on my reflections, rather than grounded in any science. Like most things, it’s probably more of a spectrum, and you can move around on it. But just go with me for now.
  2. It doesn’t have to be Buddhism, but it helps to make the example clearer. Also note that Buddhists are similar to Optimisers, it’s just that they focus on one thing, rather than multiple things.
  3. I’m using Buddhists as one example, but it could be any religious/spiritual philosophy
  4. According to Our World In Data, accessed 9 March 2022.