Improving our Self-Improvement: Thoughts on a Post by Mark Baxter

selfimprovement

Photo via Yanko Peyankov

Our is an age hostile to wisdom, and that hostility makes itself seen in two ways: antinomian foolishness and the endless proliferation of rules. Both these approaches to life result in misery. Unrestrained foolishness leads to lives of empty-pleasure seeking while the attempt to apply prescribed rules to every situation leads to rigidity and bitterness.

Mark Baxter wrote about the second of these approaches recently.

Mark writes:

For most of my life I was led to believe that I had to do things a certain way. That behavior doesn’t die quickly. 

I’ve internalized a lot of redpill wisdom, but the 32 years of conditioning prior to that doesn’t go without a fight. 

I’d be lying if I told you I had it all figured out. Anyone that tells you that is lying. 

What I do know is that correcting course is necessary part of this journey. One minute we are filled with strength, hope, and optimism. The next we as clueless as they day we were born. 

I am still going to follow a set of rules, but I am the one creating them. I have seen what works and what doesn’t. 

Mark’s right. For all the value the men’s self-improvement blogosphere creates, many times it does fall into the trap of laying down rules as if success and fulfillment were the results of a simple, easy-to-describe formula.

That’s not to say the problem of always trying to follow rules is limited to men. Women get into trouble with this too.

The problem is that, as a culture, we have lost the distinction between principles, prudence and practices.

Principles are statements that describe reality. They are impossible to contest and when we act contrary to them, we lose. That doesn’t mean that people don’t act contrary to them. Many do, but all who do suffer negative consequences whether they realize it or not.

Prudence is the process of making decisions about how such principles can and should be carried out in our unique circumstances. Prudence realizes that while principles are inflexible and unchanging, circumstances are not. Prudent people make a habit of assessing their circumstances with an eye to applying true principles in order to improve outcomes.

Finally, wise people build practices into their routines that reflect prudential and principle-based decisions. This is why not every principle-based approach to life will look the same. Because people live in different circumstances, the way they enact the same principles will look very different.

Here’s an example: getting up early.

I get up most mornings around 6:30. I hate it, but in order to get to work on time and to get morning chores done, it’s necessary. I’d feel a lot better with an extra half-hour of sleep.

Some guys encourage getting up even earlier. I’ve seen posts and tweets that say getting up at 5 is what productive people have to do. It’s not.

The principle behind the advice to get up at 5 every morning is something like this: “Don’t be lazy. Too much rest leads to unhappiness and poverty.” That is inflexibly, undeniably true. Make it a habit of staying in bed 14 hours a day, and things aren’t going to go well.

But, if I got up at 5 regularly, my ability to create value for my family, my readers, and my friends would be seriously impaired. So, I don’t. I know my circumstances, my goals and myself well enough to decide to get up later. That’s a prudential decision because it maximizes my chances of my fulfilling both my duties and my goals well.

So, I set the alarm for 6:30. That’s a practice I’ve adopted that reflects both the principle of avoiding laziness and my prudent, circumstance-based decision about how to implement it.

There’s nothing wrong with getting up at 5. There’s nothing wrong with making a case for why it works in some circumstances. The problem comes when we insist that the key to success is a specific practice and not the acceptance of true principles.

When we try to adopt “rules” that say we must adopt this or that practice and carry it out in every circumstance, we end up miserable. We must allow others and ourselves the freedom to implement their own practices in their own circumstances.

Not to do so is counterproductive. Following prescribed practices rather than universal principles leads to frustration and a throwing of the hands in the air, to giving up. True principles always set us free. We must live them out as best we can in an imperfect world and be patient with one another as we do because to fail to do so is to violate what we know to be a true principle.

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