Logo

    About this Episode

    There are thousands of books, podcasts, and social media posts about how to be more productive, strengthen your relationships, find your purpose, and be your all-around best self. And there are legions of programs and seminars out there designed to help you improve your life. All together, self-help represents a multi-billion dollar industry.

    But despite its ubiquity and cultural influence, you may never have thought about the deeper underpinnings of self-improvement. My guest has. In fact, her research led her to add being a life coach to her academic work as a professor of cultural history, surely creating one of the most unique career combinations. Her name is Anna Schaffner and she's the author of The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten Timeless Truths. Anna and I begin our conversation with how the idea of self-improvement, far from being a recent, Western phenomenon, traces back to antiquity and can be found across cultures. We discuss how self-help reflects what a culture values, and changes based on a culture's conception of selfhood, agency, and the relationship between the individual and society. From there we turn to a few of the timeless principles of self-improvement — self-control, being virtuous, and building positive relationships — looking both at how they were tackled anciently, as well as more modern angles that can also be helpful. We discuss the downside of taking a strictly Stoic approach to life, the idea of making virtue a habit, and how Dale Carnegie can be seen as a modern Machiavelli, in a good way. We end our conversation with Anna's four favorite self-improvement books.

    Resources Related to the Podcast

    Connect with Anna Schaffner

    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • Examining the origins and principles of self-improvement can help us make informed choices about personal growth in today's society.
    • Self-improvement has always been a fundamental aspect of human nature, with ancient civilizations and modern authors alike offering guidance and insights into personal growth and societal issues.
    • Self-help literature offers valuable insights into a culture's beliefs, societal changes, and shifts in values, showcasing the evolving emphasis on virtues and character development to individual success and skills.
    • Self-improvement involves understanding our own strengths and weaknesses, and using that knowledge to make a positive impact on others and our communities.
    • Understanding the cultural influences on how we perceive ourselves is essential for personal growth and self-improvement. The concept of self-control, emphasizing temperance and avoiding extremes, is also important in this journey.
    • By cultivating self-control and acceptance, we can bridge the gap between our rational and emotional selves, reducing negative self-judgments and creating a more balanced and fulfilling life.
    • Cultivating humility and virtues is crucial for personal growth and societal harmony.
    • Cultivate virtues genuinely, assimilate them into habits, and choose to do good naturally. Understand and empathize with others sincerely, building positive relationships without manipulative intentions.
    • Genuine attention and curiosity are vital in establishing meaningful relationships, as they help create positive interactions and build stronger connections.
    • By focusing on what we can control, accepting the present moment, and finding purpose, we can overcome challenges, find contentment, and live a happier and more fulfilling life.

    📝 Podcast Summary

    The cultural expectation of self-improvement throughout history and its influence on our society.

    Self-improvement is not a recent phenomenon, but rather a deeply ingrained cultural expectation that has been present throughout history. It is fascinating to discover that the concept of self-improvement can be found across cultures and has evolved based on each society's understanding of selfhood and the relationship between the individual and society. Self-help, as a genre, holds significant ideological power and influences our aspirations, values, and behaviors on a large scale. It is essential to critically examine self-help literature and question the meaning and definition of self-improvement in our current society. Understanding the origins and underlying principles of self-improvement can help us navigate and make informed choices about the ways in which we seek personal growth and development.

    The Evolution of Self-Improvement Throughout History

    Self-improvement is a timeless human desire that can be traced back to ancient civilizations. It is intricately related to learning, self-knowledge, and growth. While some critique self-help as a new liberal creation that distracts us from structural forces, the desire to self-improve has always been a part of what makes us human. Self-help as a specific genre emerged in the 19th century, but ancient advice literature aimed at improving ourselves can be found in Ancient China and Ancient Greece. Today's self-help literature is often written by self-help authors, but in the past, it was theologians, religious sages, and philosophers who provided practical advice and guidance. Although modern philosophy has shifted its focus, there is a growing demand for intelligent, deep self-help that reflects on broader philosophical debates and societal issues. Ultimately, self-improvement literature not only helps individuals but also provides insights into different cultures and historical moments.

    Cultural Reflections and Societal Shifts: Understanding Self-Help Literature

    Self-help literature provides insight into a particular culture's values, aspirations, fears, and anxieties. It reflects a culture's conceptions of self-hood and the connections between the mind, body, and society. Self-help texts are not just about practical self-improvement advice but also about philosophical and political assumptions regarding human nature. Different cultures and time periods emphasize different principles and values in their self-help literature. For example, ancient texts focused on virtues and sustainable character work, while modern self-help tends to emphasize skills and individual success. This shift reflects a societal move from a relational and community-oriented culture to an atomistic and individualistic society. Ultimately, self-help literature acts as a barometer of a culture's values and aspirations.

    Self-improvement: Enhancing ourselves for the betterment of society

    Self-improvement, as described by Anna Schaffner, is not just about personal enhancement, but also about contributing to society and finding our place within it. She emphasizes the concept of Bildung, which encompasses holistic education, including our inner lives, moral sensibilities, and social learning. Self-improvement involves learning about our patterns, strengths, and weaknesses, and directing our energies outward to benefit others and our communities. Schaffner disagrees with the notion that self-help is selfish and narcissistic, instead seeing it as a means to become more relational and social. She criticizes damaging metaphors, such as the brain as a computer, and highlights the importance of recognizing our complexity as human beings. Ultimately, positive self-improvement allows us to give and engage better, focusing our attention on benefiting others.

    Cultural Perspectives on the Self

    The concept of the self varies across cultures and time. In Western societies, the prevailing narrative portrays the self as autonomous and independent, with the ability to shape the external environment. On the other hand, many Asian societies view the self as relational and contextual, adapting and changing depending on the situation. These different conceptions of the self influence how we perceive ourselves, our relationships, and our environment. They also shape our approaches to self-improvement and therapeutic interventions. Understanding these base narratives is crucial before embarking on any journey of self-improvement. Additionally, the ancient concept of self-control is emphasized in many self-help books, highlighting the importance of temperance and avoiding extremes.

    Embracing Self-Control and Acceptance for Emotional Well-being

    Self-control and acceptance play significant roles in our emotional well-being. The idea of controlling our animal nature by exercising control over our minds, emotions, bodies, and drives makes us more human. While ancient stoics emphasized self-control through mind control, cognitive behavioral therapy still follows the core assumption that our thoughts and judgments determine our emotions. However, it is important to recognize that we are not solely rational beings and that constant reasoning to change our emotional states can drain our energy. Instead, acceptance and commitment therapy combines cognitive behavioral therapy with Eastern ideas of acceptance and mindfulness, allowing us to create a gap between our observing self and our true essence. By observing our thoughts and emotions with detachment, we can reduce the influence of negative self-judgments and unhealthy narratives. This practice of defusing from our thoughts can be a powerful tool in our daily lives.

    The Revival of Humility in Modern Society

    Both Eastern and Western cultures recognize the importance of becoming a virtuous person. In ancient times, virtues such as humility and altruism were greatly valued. However, in our modern age, these virtues have fallen out of favor. The idea of humility and recognizing our place in a larger community or order of things is experiencing a revival now. It is important to not take ourselves too seriously and to appreciate what we have rather than focusing on what we lack. Humility also involves acknowledging our limitations and blind spots. Cultivating virtues requires practicing good habits until they become a natural part of who we are. Both Eastern and Western cultures have emphasized the importance of shaping oneself into a virtuous person through rituals and habituation.

    Genuine Virtue Requires Internalization and Willingness

    Cultivating virtues and performing good actions should come from a genuine desire, rather than being forced or manipulated. According to the philosopher discussed, in order to be truly good, we must internalize virtues and assimilate them into firm habits, so that we naturally and willingly choose to do good at all times. On the other hand, trying to be virtuous by forcing ourselves or manipulating others may not lead to genuine goodness. It is important to understand and empathize with others, but not for the purpose of manipulation, but rather to establish effective relationships based on true attention and recognition. By making others feel important and appreciated, we can build positive and compliant relationships, but this should be done sincerely and without manipulative intentions.

    Building Stronger Connections Through Genuine Interest and Attention

    Establishing meaningful relationships requires genuine interest and attention. While Dale Carnegie's approach may seem transactional on the surface, the underlying principles of giving attention and being genuinely curious about others can lead to positive interactions. Attention is a valuable gift that we all crave, and by giving it to others, we can build stronger connections. This idea aligns with Simone Weil's perspective on love, which emphasizes the importance of paying attention to another person. While Carnegie's strategies may be effective in certain contexts, it is crucial to apply them authentically and not solely for personal gain. Ultimately, deeper relationships should be based on love, appreciation, and authentic interactions.

    Taking Control of Our Happiness and Finding Peace in the Present Moment

    We have the power to control our reactions and expectations, ultimately determining our own suffering and happiness. Marcus Aurelius, in his journal, teaches us that focusing on what we can control and letting go of what we cannot is the key to finding peace. Additionally, Anna Schaffner mentions "The Happiness Trap" which emphasizes acceptance and commitment therapy, teaching us to find contentment in the present moment rather than constantly striving for more. Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" highlights the importance of having a strong sense of purpose to overcome any challenges. Lastly, Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of Now" reminds us of the power of living in the present moment. To learn more about these concepts, one can visit Anna Schaffner's website and engage in coaching sessions tailored to individual needs.

    Recent Episodes from The Art of Manliness

    Embracing the Strive State

    Embracing the Strive State

    We often think happiness will be found in the completion of a goal. We often think happiness will be found in ease and comfort. My guest says real joy is found in the journey rather than the destination, and that if difficulty and discomfort are part of that journey, that's all the better.

    Dr. Adam Fraser is a peak performance researcher and the author of Strive: Embracing the Gift of Struggle. Today on the show, we talk about what Adam calls the "strive state," where we have to grow and be courageous to tackle a meaningful challenge, and why this state is the source of the greatest fulfillment in life. We discuss why we often resist embracing the strive state and what happens when we don't have to struggle in life. We also talk about what successful strivers do differently.

    Resources Related to the Podcast

    Connect With Adam Fraser

    Book cover of
    The Art of Manliness
    enMay 15, 2024

    The Dude's Guide to Laundry: How to Save Time, Money, and Your Wardrobe

    The Dude's Guide to Laundry: How to Save Time, Money, and Your Wardrobe

    If you didn’t grow up doing your own laundry, once you headed out on your own, you probably just figured things out on the fly, hoped for the best, and have been doing things the same way ever since. But, while you may be getting the job done okay, you also might be making some mistakes that are costing you time, money, and cleaner clothes.

    In this episode from the Art of Manliness department of essential life skills, we’ll cover all the things you should have learned as a young man but never did, and how to do your laundry effectively. Our guide is Patric Richardson, aka the “Laundry Evangelist,” a laundry expert who runs how-to-do-laundry camps, hosts the television show The Laundry Guy, and is the author of Laundry Love. Today on the show, Patric shares the one cycle and water temperature you should use for all of your clothes, exactly how much detergent you should be using (which is a lot less than you think), how often you should wash your clothes (which is less often than you think), why you shouldn’t ever use dryer sheets (and what to throw in your dryer instead), how regardless of what the tag says, you can wash anything at home (including a wool suit), how to easily get rid of stains (including yellow pit stains), and many more tips that will save you time, money, and hassle in doing your laundry.

    Resources Related to the Podcast

    Connect With Patric Richardson

    The Art of Manliness
    enMay 13, 2024

    How to Get Better at Anything

    How to Get Better at Anything

    Life revolves around learning—in school, at our jobs, even in the things we do for fun. But we often don’t progress in any of these areas at the rate we’d like. Consequently, and unfortunately, we often give up our pursuits prematurely or resign ourselves to always being mediocre in our classes, career, and hobbies.

    Scott Young has some tips on how you can avoid this fate, level up in whatever you do, and enjoy the satisfaction of skill improvement. Scott is a writer, programmer, and entrepreneur, and the author of Get Better at Anything: 12 Maxims for Mastery. Today on the show, Scott shares the three key factors in helping us learn. He explains how copying others is an underrated technique in becoming a genius, why, contrary to the sentiments of motivational memes, we learn more from success than mistakes, why experts often aren’t good teachers and tactics for drawing out their best advice, why you may need to get worse before you get better, and more.

    Resources Related to the Podcast

    Connect With Scott Young

    Podcast #989 featuring the book cover of

    Of Strength and Soul — Exploring the Philosophy of Physical Fitness

    Of Strength and Soul — Exploring the Philosophy of Physical Fitness

    When you’re lifting weights, you might be thinking about setting a new PR or doing your curls for the girls.

    But throughout history, philosophers have thought about physical fitness on a deeper level and considered how exercise shapes not only the body, but also the mind and the soul.

    My guest today, Joe Lombardo, is a strength enthusiast who follows in this tradition and has explored the philosophy of bodily exercise in his writing. Today on the show, Joe and I discuss several different ways the philosophy of strength has been expressed over time.

    We begin our conversation with how the ancient Greeks thought of physical training as a way to develop personal as well as social virtues, and why they thought you were an "idiot," in their particular sense of the word, if you didn't take care of your body. We then discuss early Christianity's relationship with physical exercise and the development of the muscular Christianity movement in the 19th century. We end our conversation by looking at the philosophy of physicality espoused by the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, and what he had to say as to how strength training moves us out of the life of the night and towards the light of the sun.

    Resources Related to the Podcast

    Connect With Joe Lomabrdo

    The No-BS Secrets of Success

    The No-BS Secrets of Success

    Jim VandeHei didn’t have an auspicious start in life. His high school guidance counselor told him he wasn’t cut out for college, and he went on to confirm her assessment, getting a 1.4 GPA at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and spending more time drinking beer than planning his career.

    Eventually, though, Jim turned things around for himself, going on to co-found two of the biggest modern media outlets, Politico and Axios.

    Jim shares how he started moving up the rungs of success and building a better life for himself in his new book Just the Good Stuff: No-BS Secrets to Success (No Matter What Life Throws at You). Today on the show, Jim shares the real-world lessons he’s learned in his career. We discuss the importance of matching passion to opportunity, making your own luck, surrounding yourself with the right people, keeping the buckets of your happiness matrix filled, understanding the difference between wartime and peacetime leadership, harnessing the energy of healthy revenge, and more.

    Connect With Jim VandeHei

    Book cover for


     

    How to Eliminate the Two Biggest Sources of Financial Stress

    How to Eliminate the Two Biggest Sources of Financial Stress

    There are different philosophies one can have when it comes to money. Jared Dillian’s is built around eliminating as much anxiety around it as possible, so you hardly think about money at all.

    Jared is a former trader for Lehman Brothers, the editor of The Daily Dirtnap, a market newsletter for investment professionals, and the author of No Worries: How to Live a Stress-Free Financial Life. Today on the show, Jared talks about the two biggest sources of financial stress — debt and risk — and how you can eliminate the stress they can cause. We discuss how three big financial decisions — buying a car, buying a house, and managing student loans — ultimately determine your financial health, and how to approach each of them in a stress-eliminating way. We also talk about how to minimize risk by creating what he calls an “awesome portfolio,” a mix of assets that has nearly the return of the stock market with half its risk. And Jared shares whether cryptocurrency fits into his “no worries” financial philosophy.

    Resources Related to the Podcast

    Connect With Jared Dillian

    Cover of the book

    The Secret World of Bare-Knuckle Boxing

    The Secret World of Bare-Knuckle Boxing

    Have you ever noticed the guy in a fighting stance on the Art of Manliness logo? That’s not just some random symbol; it’s an actual dude: John L. Sullivan, the greatest bare-knuckle boxer of the 19th century.

    While most people think bare-knuckle boxing came to an end during Sullivan’s era, in fact, it never entirely went away. In his new book, Bare Knuckle: Bobby Gunn, 73–0 Undefeated. A Dad. A Dream. A Fight Like You’ve Never Seen, Stayton Bonner charts bare-knuckle boxing’s rise, fall, and resurgence, as well as the improbable story of its modern chapter’s winningest champion. Today on the show, Stayton describes bare-knuckle boxing’s incredible popularity a century ago, and why gloved boxing took its place while bare-knuckle got pushed into a shadowy, illicit underground. Stayton takes us into that secret circuit which still exists today, revealing the dark, sweaty basements and bars where modern bare-knuckle fights take place and the ancient code of honor that structures them. And Stayton introduces us to a dominant figure in that world, Bobby Gunn, an undefeated bare-knuckle fighter who combines a love of faith, family, and fighting and has helped turn bare-knuckle boxing into what is now the world’s fastest-growing combat sport.

    Resources Related to the Podcast

    Connect With Stayton Bonner

    Book cover of

    Why Your Memory Seems Bad (It’s Not Just Age)

    Why Your Memory Seems Bad (It’s Not Just Age)

    Do you sometimes walk to another room in your house to get something, but then can’t remember what it was you wanted? Do you sometimes forget about an appointment or struggle to remember someone’s name?

    You may have chalked these lapses in memory up to getting older. And age can indeed play a role in the diminishing power of memory. But as my guest will tell us, there are other factors at play as well.

    Charan Ranganath is a neuroscientist, a psychologist, and the author of Why We Remember: Unlocking Memory’s Power to Hold on to What Matters. Today on the show, Charan explains how factors like how we direct our attention, take photos, and move through something called “event boundaries” all affect our memory, and how our current context in life impacts which memories we’re able to recall from the past. We also talk about how to reverse engineer these factors to improve your memory.

    Resources Related to the Podcast

    Connect With Charan Ranganath

    Book cover titled

    Grid-Down Medicine — A Guide for When Help Is NOT on the Way

    Grid-Down Medicine — A Guide for When Help Is NOT on the Way

    If you read most first aid guides, the last step in treating someone who’s gotten injured or sick is always: get the victim to professional medical help.

    But what if you found yourself in a situation where hospitals were overcrowded, inaccessible, or non-functional? What if you found yourself in a grid-down, long-term disaster, and you were the highest medical resource available?

    Dr. Joe Alton is an expert in what would come after the step where most first aid guides leave off. He’s a retired surgeon and the co-author of The Survival Medicine Handbook: The Essential Guide for When Help is NOT on the Way. Today on the show, Joe argues that every family should have a medical asset and how to prepare to be a civilian medic. We discuss the different levels of first aid kits to consider creating, from an individual kit all the way up to a community field hospital. And we talk about the health-related skills you might need in a long-term grid-down disaster, from burying a dead body, to closing a wound with super glue, to making an improvised dental filling, to even protecting yourself from the radiation of nuclear fallout.

    Resources Related to the Podcast

    Connect With Joe Alton

    Cover of


     

    Skills Over Pills

    Skills Over Pills

    Over the last decade, there's been an increase in the number of people, particularly young adults, who struggle with low moods, distractibility, and anxiety and consequent difficulties with getting their life on track and making progress in work, friendship, and romance.

    In addressing these difficulties, people are often given or adopt a mental health diagnosis, and look for a solution in therapy and/or medication.

    My guest isn't opposed to these remedies. She is herself a clinical psychologist who's maintained a practice for a quarter century that specializes in treating clients in their twenties. But Dr. Meg Jay, who's also the author of The Twentysomething Treatment, believes that a lot of what young adults, and in fact adults of all ages, struggle with, aren't disorders that need to be treated, but problems that can be solved.

    In the first half of our conversation, Meg explains what's behind the decline in mental health for young adults and how it's bigger than just smartphones. We discuss the dangers of self-diagnosis, the potential downsides of using medications to treat mental health issues, and why she advocates for "skills over pills." In the second half of our conversation, we talk about how mental health gets better when we get better at life, and what skills twentysomethings, and many older adults, need to develop, including the skills of thinking, feeling, working, socializing, and even cooking. We also discuss how porn is affecting the young men in her practice and an alternative to being a self-assurance junkie.

    Resources Related to the Podcast

    Connect With Meg Jay

    Book cover featuring the title