Why you can't improve yourself

Article / 17 July 2019

Introduction

I am not good at many things but life led me to be obsessed with a few topics. Nowadays these are sculpting, drawing, aesthetics, health and learning in general. In other words: how and what do I study, how do I learn anything, how can I make something more appealing and why thinking about all this makes me anxious. I tend to have a not so common point of view because it's partially scientific and partially spiritual (for lack of a better word).

The "how to improve" conversation usually splits people into three groups:
- those who believe in motivation, or, I should wait until I feel a certain way.
- those who believe in dedication, or, No matter what I feel I will do it anyway because I can choose to.
- those who believe that you should shut up and do the work, or, I am in control regardless of the circumstances.

The problem with those three assumptions is that they share the same basic underlying premise, especially the last two: there's an agent turning the wheels, and whoever is incapable of doing what is right is blameworthy.

So whether these assumptions are valid or not I just want to present another way of looking at things that may seem quite alien and counterintuitive to many. I do not necessarily intend to convince you of anything here, or argue a point. Rather, it's best to simply let these ideas roll around in your mind for a while and consider their implications.


The impossible task

Improve yourself! What an impossible task we've been given. In psychology, this kind of contradictory objective is what is called a double-bind. This is how wikipedia describes it:

A double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, with one negating the other.

We are all so involved in it that we are not even aware of its contradictions. Any objective which imposes a forced expression of an involuntary behaviour is a double-bind. Consider the following: "You must get hungry" or "You must love me" or "You must, at this very moment, sculpt something that is totally out of all your life experiences and that you have never seen before...". You got the point.

Take a moment to wonder what your world-view is. And then ponder on some questions that may seem to have an obvious answer, such as: Why do I choose what I choose? At which point this feeling of agency stops and I feel like I am no longer in control of things? So on...

There are obvious places where we can draw a line, right? Say you can move your body if you want to, but you can't control what each muscle fiber is doing. But... are you really doing the former? If we are really true to ourselves, we will realize that thoughts or even words simply arise unauthored and then fade out as unexpected as they came. It's a big claim, but one that anyone can realize.

Virtually everything we think and do are culturally biased and as such another basic aspect of human society is the allocation of blame and praise. This idea of agency is the base of our justice system and also reinforces social rankings and hierarchies and a strong feeling against people's actions. By imagining that individuals could have done differently, the illusion of choice was created. The reality is, however, that all this reasoning is just a complex attempt to cover up the basic reality that no one has any clue as to why or how they do what they do. The feeling we can willfully control anything is a social hoax and not physical reality.


The current state of affairs

The difficulty in accepting this is mainly psychological. Given our western culture and bias towards a rational arrangement of things, we tend to ignore our inconceivable connected existence and how inseparable we are from it. Our culture tells us that human success is how much rational control we can apply over our environment and so it is damaging to admit how absolutely reliant to it we actually are. We are not only a part of it, but we are fundamental to it.

To help illustrate this idea, here are a few quotes from Robert Sapolsky's great book "Behave - The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst":

(...) human social behavior (...)  a subject involving brain chemistry, hormones, sensory cues, prenatal environment, early experience, genes, both biological and cultural evolution, and ecological pressures, among other things.

(...) What features of the environment in the prior weeks to years changed the structure and function of that person’s brain and thus changed how it responded to those hormones and environmental stimuli?

(...) What happened one second before the behavior that caused it to occur? This puts us in the realm of neurobiology, of understanding the brain that commanded those muscles. What happened an hour, a decade, a million years earlier? What happened were factors that impacted the brain and the behavior it produced.

When pondering over the above questions, I hope it's clear to most people that the answers to them won't be far from the questions themselves. Do you imagine the answer to be a huge no-no, from a completely different point of view or explanation to what que questions are implying?

By asking the wrong questions you will most likely end up getting wrong answers.

The general public opinion is that only some mechanisms (bodily functions, for instance) are out of conscious control but the really complex ones, which require planning and long term thinking are within a whole different realm: IT IS I THAT DID THIS!!!


And yet, what every research and scientific knowledge is pointing to is that motor skills, thinking patterns, short term goals or long term life decisions are functioning under the same rules. They may differ in energy pathways, neural connections and complexity, but either way, it leaves no room for this "something else", unity or center to force the bodily and universal mechanism to change its inner workings. No matter how hard or extreme the turn, shouldn't it be still following the same mechanisms? At which point would the mechanism pause for this "something else" to take control?

What we are doing, at any point, is exactly what we are capable of doing at that very moment, given preexisting experiences. Saying it's a struggle, or that was different in the past, or blaming who can't do it does not change how things came to be. We are like a car indicator claiming "I did it!" after the car turns.

So, my current view is: no lines are drawn, no choice, no effort, no intentions, no motivation, no dedication. These are all just stories, disconnected from what's actually happening.


Now what?

It is apparent that we cannot try to do something that happens spontaneously. The self that you think must be improved is exactly the same self which is doing the improving. The actual attempt to improve yourself will only put you in a state of frustration and anxiety. The trick is to just do the thing that you enjoy or interests you the most right now.

It seems paradoxical but it's just a change in the mindset that goes basically as follows:
You clicked on this blog post for whatever reason and it kept you engaged up to this point. Logical thinking, knowledge of the english language and prior experiences are now creating a new environment in the mind that will make beliefs and behavior to shift and change over time based on this new information. You will eventually unnoticeably start thinking new thoughts built up from all this new information. So on and so forth.

In the same way, art related content are constantly being digested by our senses, which in turn is driving wills, tastes and wants to new places. The more we digest it, the bigger the outcome. Every system, idea, program, school, workshop, tutorials, etc, are just ways to optimize learning. It is happening constantly, at different rates.

The changes are already happening. Even the underlying rule of this article to keep the "I must improve my self because..." reasoning out of the loop will find its way back into your thinking patterns and behaviour. This is a self-fulfilling plan. A new mind loop.

Health

Based on what I have written so far, allow me to plant a new seed into your mind. Positive health attitudes may have a bigger impact on who we are and what we do than one might think. It's not only about being able to perform better at any given task but instead having things that will completely change behaviour outcome based on what we ate or didn't eat, or how tired or alert we feel, etc.

A couple more quotes from Sapolsky's book: 

(...) One example concerns how much the frontal cortex has to do with willpower (...) when the frontal cortex labors hard on some cognitive task, immediately afterward individuals are more aggressive and less empathic, charitable, and honest.

(...) Moreover, when people are hungry, they become less charitable and more aggressive (e.g., choosing more severe punishment for an opponent in a game).

(...)Thus, sensory information streaming toward your brain from both the outside world and your body can rapidly, powerfully, and automatically alter behavior.

In short, the point is not to get into details about health and fitness. These are only basic questions that can help paint a different reality of how things work and change our prejudice against others. 

Furthermore, there are dozens of internal bodily imbalances that can change people's:
- sleeping behaviour
- energy levels
- subjective feeling of: willpower, dedication and motivation
- learning abilities
- ability to chose
- moral values, etc..

Now, try to feel your deepest belief. Is it that "you" can change anything, based on an unchanging and fixed willpower, that's totally unaffected by everything else?

If that's the case, then the outcome will probably be different from what I am implying here. But if what I am writing connects to you in some way, beliefs will shift and changes will come quickly. Just more food for thought.

Over time, these ideas made me realize, feel and do things in a different way: the actual daily learning routine, feelings of effort, expectations, source of inspiration, better attention to sculptural forms, a more constant and steady learning curve, new-found patience to do things that I felt were boring before and most importantly: less anxiety.


Conclusion

It's obvious that I touched upon many non-art related subjects: philosophy, culture, health, moral relativism, and many others, but it's hard not to do so with such a huge topic. Apologies for not providing an in-depth knowledge on every subject.

I will probably extend this topic in the future as a new article, but then focusing only on the actual sculpting task and form development. Consider this a long needed introduction, because my current approach was born out of this. So please let me know you if this interests you in some way.

My only hope is that you learned something new and that these ideas will lead you to even weirder ones.

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Without unnecessary resistance, you will naturally improve anyway. Mastery of any skill happens in this way.  Interest comes first, improvement second. 

Everything else is just noise. Strange, beautiful and inexplicable noise.