Adam Zerner

Why self-improvement?

I spend a lot of time on self-improvement related things. For example, I listen to a lot of podcasts like Lex Friedman, Peter Attia and Andrew Huberman. In fact, I just finished listening to Lex's episode with expert negotiator Chris Voss.

Why do I do this? Well, it feels good. Why does it feel good? Because it feels productive. I learn new things.

For example, in the episode with Chris Voss I learned that it is good to get the other side in a negotiation to say "that's right". It means that they feel listened to. Understood. You've passed the intellectual turing test. Once they reach this point, they'll be more flexible. And it goes beyond negotiating. Voss mentioned that when Trump speaks, he evokes a very strong sense of "that's right" from his supporters.

Learning about this concept made me feel pretty good. It gave me that dopamine hit. But I am a little skeptical that it, for lack of a better term, should have.

Basically, I don't actually think that it will help me achieve better outcomes. Maybe it will prove useful a few times1, but I just don't think it'll do that much for me. And yet it generates a pretty strong feeling of satisfaction.

Why is this feeling of satisfaction stronger than what my prediction of the concepts usefulness would imply? I can think of a few reasons that apply, to varying degrees, to both myself and others.

  1. Status-seeking. Self-improvement is high-status. Both the process and the results. Being the type of person who spends time on self-improvement is high-status. And being the type of person who has, err, improved, is also high-status. I think this a pretty big one.2
  2. Terminal value. Self-improvement is actually a terminal value (or something close to one). Both the process and the results.
  3. Lost purposes. Self-improvement isn't actually a terminal value but you lose sight of that fact. You don't realize that it is connected to achieving better outcomes and start to treat it as a terminal value. Or maybe "you" don't but the part of you that regulates your emotions does.
  4. Habitual productivity. As Nate Soares describes in his post on the topic, this is what happens when your brain, for whatever reason, just loses the ability to be satisfied with things that don't bring you closer to the goals you're working towards. Which is probably some mix of 1, 2 and 3.

For myself, 4 screams out as being the dominant factor. It seems to be composed mostly of 3, some 1 and a small amount of 2. For others, the sense I get is that 1 > 2 > 3 > 4 but I don't feel too strongly about it.

If you have any thoughts, I'd love to discuss them over email:

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  1. It goes beyond just using it in a negotiation of course. It improves my model of the world and this improved model may prove useful in some other context. Still, I'm skeptical.

  2. To the extent that this is true, self-improvement should probably be viewed more conspicuously.

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