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  • Writer's pictureMeg Mateer

How to thrive in world of optimization

Updated: Mar 4, 2019

Let's get off the endless treadmill of improvement and distinguish what we really need

Humans are wired to connect with each other. We are social creatures - many people know that one of the main reasons that human beings have been more effective at building civilizations than other animals is because of our ability to connect and build networks, even on massive scales.

Part of what assists us in collaborating together as a species is shared beliefs and acceptable behaviors, our culture - a road map steering many different people to a “common” place. Culture, as we have seen throughout history, can hurt as well as help. When our culture becomes too dominant, with little room for diversity or flexibility, people make decisions that are against their own nature, their own instincts, their own values, just to stay connected to the collective, in many cases without being aware of the influence of culture. They may not even know that they for example are the only ones feeling resistance. In a post-modern world, our culture emphasizes individuality. In some cases, we’ve progressed away from a “one size fits all” model of what it means to belong, appreciating the difference and individual expression of people.

This gave birth to our now so widely spread individualistic Western society, where ANYTHING is possible, as long as you can continue to improve in all aspects of life. Fitter, happier, more productive, healthier, funnier, sexier, smarter. This cultural narrative emphasizes individual performance (whether good or bad) and de-emphasizes collective or systemic influences on a particular outcome. The pressure to optimize is not just about improving. Rather, it is a prerequisite for belonging. In other words, if we do not stand out, we are left behind or forgotten. In an age of information and technology we see more presently all of the choices, all of the content, all of the people in our lives, and we have to be faster and better. It’s no wonder that we are afraid that if we get off the treadmill of improvement, we are bound to be left out.

How is a world that is pushing signs of “bigger, better, faster” is impacting us on an individual and collective level?

Get back into exercise. Organize my finances. Find more friends. Feel more connected to my partner. Sell more business. Be less self conscious. Take things less personally. Eat slower. Stop watching so much TV. Be more up to date on current affairs. Read more. Find time to meditate. Learn how to dance. Relax. Call my family more often. Find a hobby I enjoy. Start running again. Wake up earlier. Stop drinking. Be more bold to try on new things. Keep a tidier house. Play with my cat more. Be less judgmental. Stop doing so many things. Start doing more things. Be more assertive. Be more compassionate.

This is the list that came to my mind within the last 10 minutes when answering the question “what would I like to improve?”. If your list looks anything like mine, it’s no wonder why you and I and many others are feeling overwhelmed!

The optimization narrative is driving us towards perfection, the message being that you can, with your own free will and agency, improve anything you would like to, as long as you work hard enough. What lies underneath this message, however, is a growing dissatisfaction with anything less than perfect, and an increased need to figure everything out ourselves, rather than asking for help where we need it.

But is all improvement bad then? Should we succumb instead to our “default mode” in protest? Hello world! This is me! I will never change! As tempting as it sounds, it may also not work out in our favor. After all, one positive side effect of the western world’s focus on individual improvement is that we now have many different options for personal development that are actually improving people’s lives, not just making them feel left out or less than. The dilemma, as I see it, is in starting to distinguish our inner drive for a better life from an external expectation to “be” something else. How can we distinguish what we want or what may be good for us from an endless treadmill of improvement?

How might we be able to distinguish these external expectations from our own internal needs?

How can we tell whether a feeling to improve ourselves is helping us thrive or only fooling ourselves into something that is not us anyway in order to be more attractive to others?

Understanding our relation to an optimized world

What happens when we IDENTIFY with being optimized? Where am I identifying with optimization as a lifestyle? What am I missing out on? You’ve met the people who constantly talk about the new diet they are on or the new state of bliss in meditation they’ve reached. This is all fine and well when the person is speaking about this activity because they want to share how it is serving them. But watch out! If you or others are doing things simply in order to be able to speak about it and receive validation, it may driven more by the external optimization narrative.

Discovering how the optimization narrative is keeping us from real improvement.  

Believe it or not, entering an endless cycle of improvement can actually be protecting us from facing our own discomfort. For me, constant optimization is about staying in control, never having to be “satisfied” with what “is” and never having to practice patience or be grateful for what I currently have. The optimization narrative serves me by avoiding my current situation and delaying my own happiness. Constantly finding opportunities for improvement, in reality, is just feeding my endless need to know whether or not the other side is greener. What if my real personal development was not about improving and chasing new or better, but instead appreciating where I am at, finding patience and acceptance for myself and the people around me?

Testing out how we feel

How do I feel when I am changing habits and behaviors that I believe are related to my own personal improvement? This is what I’ve tried to pay attention to, to tap into, when distinguishing whether that new habit is serving an internal drive or an external expectation. For example, lately I’ve been interested in waking up earlier to get my day started and to have time to do the things I want. How do I feel doing so? Well, getting up at 6:00 in the morning does not always feel great and I still struggle to actually get out of bed, BUT I know that after I do and go for a run or write that my day feels a lot better. Overall I look back on the days that I’ve woken up early and feel good that I did it - I feel more calm, more productive, more focused, less overwhelmed.  

So when you’re experimenting with new ways of being and wanting to understand whether these changes are driven from external “optimization” or an internal need, try these things:

  1. Before starting a new behavior or habit - know its purpose - ask yourself why you want to improve this aspect of your life and why this new habit or behavior will help you reach it.

  2. While you’re in action - reflect on the change or habit and see whether it is useful to you.  How did you feel while doing it? Did it have the impact that you anticipated?

  3. Check in with yourself what is motivating you to improve anything? If improvement is driving you away from dealing with what is in front of you, especially if you don’t feel settled or satisfied, first stop and appreciate what you already have. Then take action TOWARDS something you want, rather than away from something you don’t want.

  4. Keep in mind that you don’t have to be the BEST at everything - instead, ask for help from others with the skills you lack or collaborate. After all, human beings have been taken a collective approach to achieving goals and solving problems since the beginning.

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