The Case for Better

My internet pal Justin Wehr recently pushed on a point that I considered so obvious as to be completely incompetent in its defense. This then, is an attempt to build the case for constant improvement. The case for the fact that you should work to be better than you were yesterday every single day of your life.

It’s worth establishing, to start, what we mean by better. Striving to be better requires being fully aware of difference between the improvable things in your life and those that can’t be. You can’t change your genetics, or the factors that we consider to directly flow from that, nor are you able to change the things outside of yourself. A 5’4″ overweight man will never make himself into the most physically attractive mate for a woman who favors skinny men over 6’4″ with a different skin tone. Part of getting better is realizing and accepting that reality.

The thoughts, comments, and actions of others are thoroughly beyond our direct control. (It is, however, worth realizing that by changing the way you act, you can in time shape the way you appear to others.) But if you’re going to get angry any time someone disrespects or disagrees with you, you’re going to live a hollow life as other peoples’ rag doll. Thrown around by the impulses of people who rarely think of you at all, you’ll be subject to endless turmoil and frustration, and that’s no way to live.

Essential to this idea of better is this idea that the thing you can control is the way you live. It’s not only within your control, it’s essentially the only thing you control, so why do you think it’s okay you treat it like garbage? There’s a seldom noticed point that I consider relevant: the smaller a person’s area of control the more seriously they take the maintenance of it. Hoarders are generally people who feel they control nothing in the world, or the whole of it. Someone who recognizes that they own their living space and are the sole one responsible for maintenance of it generally treats it quite well.

And so it is with your abilities and mind. They are essentially the only things you have direct control over. Which is different from saying that they’re the only things you think you control. Some people believe their inability to understand mathematics is wired into the system, (barring some rare developmental disabilities) they’re wrong. Some people believe they can exercise complete control over the subservient people in their life (be they family, romantic partners, employees, or even slaves), they too are wrong.

Once one sees fully and exactly what they control and what they don’t, they generally tend to believe in the value of improving it. One of the biggest obstacles people have in understanding the case for better is that they have mistaken beliefs in either their omnipotence or impotence.  The delusions that allow people to believe in either direction are one of the most important obstacles to people living the best life they’re capable of. And they’re far more complex and multifaceted to fit within the purview this essay, so I’ll move on.

If we agree that we control our mind and abilities, we’re left with three basic options: get better, get worse, or stagnate. Getting worse is not easy, but people manage it all the time. When you only learn things because people make you, you’ll forget them quickly and be unable to comprehend facets of the world you once did. This is getting worse. When a boyfriend pushed you to eat better and exercise more, and then left your life, you’re probably going to neglect those things you once did well. That’s getting worse. Generally, we get worse because we were never committed to get better in the first place. We did those things that the wise recognize as good because there was someone pushing us out of the rut, once the pushing stops the rut feels welcoming, like home.

Laziness, habits, and willpower conservation are also the reason we typically stagnate. Without outside pressure to know more about the universe than the model of the solar system you got in grade school, you’ll only have learned of the demotion of Pluto from planetary status because the news was so prevalent as to be unavoidable. Without a school-mandated councilor there to push you to work with your anger in a healthy way, you’ll probably never get any better than the modest extant to which they were able to help you fill in the bottom of your rut.

Without a self-motivation brought on by a belief that you can be better, your life will be controlled by others. By the things you can’t help knowing, the work you can’t help doing, by the mental reactions others evince in you because you’ve never taken the time to try to control your own mind. At the most basic level, I think the case for better comes down to this: who do you want to control your life: yourself or interested strangers? Surely there exist strangers genuinely interested in your improvement (most such people also have a deep interest in their own improvement, it’s worth mentioning), but leaving yourself at the mercy of strangers nets out as an unwise proposition. Even a few people with a truly sinister interests can easily overwhelm those trying to be of help when they can.

All of that gets to sounding a bit “me against the world”, but it’s not. One of the best and most common reasons that people have for being better in their life is so that they’re able to help others better. Taking care of yourself seems selfish until you try a few times you help others and make the whole situation worse. When we’re not in control of ourselves, our attempts to help others will frequently go wrong. Being the best version of yourself also allows you to be the best help possible for other people. So if you don’t want to to try to be better for your own sake, do it for our sake. For the sake of your family, friends, neighbors, and world. If there’s a better reason to do anything I’ve not found it.

5 responses to “The Case for Better”

  1. Hey David,

    Glad to see you write about this. I’d like to respond to this but I’m afraid I am not really following the logic. I’m looking for a main point or two that I can grab onto, but I’m not really seeing one.

    Without a main point, I’m left making some semi-related side comments like these:

    Determining what’s “best” or “better” is really messy, isn’t it? For example, on my private blog we’re currently discussing whether my anxiety/insecurity might actually be helping me to be “good” at some things because feeling that I suck might make me concentrate an unusual amount of mental energy on sucking less. If true, then how much of those anxious/insecure thoughts do you “allow in,” assuming you have control?

    I’m not seeing how this dichotomy makes sense: “who do you want to control your life: yourself or interested strangers?” If I don’t control my happiness or my jump-shooting ability or my intelligence then it follows that other people do?

  2. Foiled by obviousness again!? In the most direct way I can:

    (1) There are thing you can control and things you cannot. (The exact nature of those groups is beyond the purview of this essay.)
    (2) For those things you control, you have three basic choices: better, worse, or the same.
    (3) Better is clearly the best of those three options.

    I think saying it that way should clear up your second point. While I could (would) disagree with you about all three of those things not being under your control, if they are indeed not controllable they’re outside of that point.

    If you’re saying that by not working on something I can control, how am I leaving it up to someone else? That’s a finer point, and I wrote that sentence incarefully. The implicit argument is that if you’re choosing not to control the things you can, the only way they’ll change is that someone else makes you change them. It’s a bit of an inexact point though, I’d allow, but I do think it’s basically valid.

    To the extent that it’s true that some negative-seeming character traits are instrumental in your life, I’d liken it to using a flat-headed screwdriver to get unscrew a Phillips-headed screw. It may work, and it looks a little like it’s being done right, but it’s still not really the best way to do the job. Status anxiety may help you to focus more, but because your vision is always clouded with it you’re not able to act as wisely as someone without that issue. (When you’re caught by status anxiety you’re frequently asking “what is the best-appearing way to handle this situation?”, rather than just “what’s the best way to handle this?”)

    You can continue to work to be better when you aren’t constantly worrying about how you’re doing. And you’ll also be free from all the worrying. Anxiety isn’t the easiest thing in the world to improve, but I do believe it’s both possible and worthwhile to work on. And you can do so while still work on sucking less in other areas.

  3. P.S. – I like your point about the screwdrivers, but it’s making some assumptions that I’m not comfortable making.