“Self-improvement is masturbation.” Tyler Durden
If you don’t know who Tyler Durden is, he’s the alter ego of the unnamed main character in the movie Fight Club. The narrator is your typical everyday American corporate Schmuck. He rises up the corporate ladder. He has carefully chosen and curated catalog furniture in his luxury apartment. One day, he comes home to find the apartment in flames.
And thanks to his ‘friend’ Tyler he begins to ‘blow up’ several other areas of his life. He starts screwing off at work and ditches his normal routine and life for some ‘interesting’ activities with his buddy Tyler.
There’s a scene where Tyler puts a gun to a convenience store clerk’s head and takes him outside to execute him. He pulls out his wallet and finds the clerk’s expired student I.D. “What were you going to school for?” He asks. The Clerk replies “Veterinary school.” He then tells the clerk that if he doesn’t go back to vet school, he will come back and murder him.
He leaves him with these parting words:
Raymond K. K. Hessel, your dinner is going to taste better than any meal you’ve ever eaten, and tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of your life.”
With Tyler’s help, Raymond ‘blows up’ his current life and begins a new. You can extract many themes from the movie, but I resonate with the idea of breaking yourself down to begin again. It’s not that you don’t have enough motivation, you have too many walls up. It’s not that you don’t care enough, it’s that you care too much and feel you have too much to lose.
But like another quote in the movie said:
It’s only after you‘ve lost everything that you‘re free to do anything.”
Things were going pretty well. I had a decent job at a marketing agency and I was finally making some decent coin with my writing side hustle. I’d risen up the ranks at my job — they were even talking about making me a partner at the company. I was finally feeling a little bit financially stable after being broke for so long. My marriage wasn’t good, but I was comfortable, still very much attracted to my wife, and I enjoyed having a family.
Everything was fine.
I wonder how long it would’ve remained ‘just fine’ had a few massive wrecking balls not smashed my life to pieces. It all happened gradually and then suddenly. It started with losing half of my vision due to the blood vessels in my eye exploding. I had to sleep sitting up in a recliner to let the blood slowly descend to the bottom of my eye so I could see. This meant I stopped sleeping in bed with my wife every night. With our hectic job schedules and a young child, we were more like roommates than lovers. Then came increasingly bad fights. We grew apart.
She left me. With all the stress from the separation, I started massively screwing up at work. I messed up a project so bad that the client withdrew from the contract and cost the company $100,000 in lost revenue. They suspended me for a week. After that, I opted to take a month off to both get my mind right and give this full-time writing thing a test drive.
What a time to try and create, right? I’d rarely ever describe myself as depressed, but at that point, I was. I discovered how crippling feeling loneliness can be. Everything I was accustomed to was sitting in a pile of rubble. For a time I couldn’t manage to do anything more than wish I wasn’t in the predicament I was in. But, eventually, I put my own advice to work. I took the wrecking balls in my life as signs, as a chance to start over, a chance to rebuild things the way I wanted to. And that’s exactly what I did.
My income skyrocketed. I wrote and published my latest and best-selling book. I created a bunch of new forms of content and products. I traveled, met new people, created new networks and social circles. And I had confidence and pride knowing that I dealt with so many blows — health scare, divorce, and losing your job pretty much all at once.
It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. There was a time I was scared to lose all the above, but life forced my hand and showed me that it’s not just okay for things to blow up, it might just be the answer. Also, I remember having a conversation with my business coach at the time. She hinted at the idea that maybe I didn’t just randomly screw up at work. Maybe I was subconsciously trying to throw a wrecking ball into my own life to finally give myself permission to leap.
Am I advocating that you blow up every aspect of your life with no backup plan? Not at all. But I am telling you that you could survive if it did happen. Maybe you’d even in a better position if it did.
I’m reading this book called How to Get Rich by Felix Dennis. He says it’s easiest to get rich if you start when you’re young and penniless because you really have nothing to lose. Once you start to ascend in life and your career, you develop not just material things you can lose, but an identity you don’t want to lose. Your life becomes defined by what you’re afraid to lose.
It’s nice to have prestige, a little money in the bank, a nice crib in the burbs. If that’s what you want, it’s cool with me. In many ways, it makes sense to be content with what you have. Maybe what you’ve built so far is worth maintaining and the risk of losing it isn’t worth it.
But for those of us who feel stuck and want to pivot, understand that you have to be willing to lose something. See, I’m not going to be one of those people who’s going to tell you it’ll be all sunshine and roses if you try to change your life. Nope. This pepped-up version of self-improvement doesn’t account for reality. There are tradeoffs to every decision you make.
You can start a business, lose your shirt, and go bankrupt. You can let the people in your life down and crater relationships in the process. I know from experience. You can blow parts of your life up and remain in rubble for a long time. All risks have the possibility of no payoff and complete loss. Don’t just take random advice from people. Only you know the pros and cons of your situation.
I’m not telling you what to do, what to risk, or what to give up, but if you try to start you’re going to give up something. Mostly, though, you’ll have to give up the pieces of you that make you feel good, help you cope, help you maintain, and help you stay a bit sane even if you don’t like your life. You don’t have to blow everything up to achieve your goals. But you can start looking at areas of your life that might benefit from first being broken down so you can build again.
What do you need to destroy? What do you have to sacrifice and let go of? Where are you being held back because you’re trying to maintain what you already have?
They say that good is the enemy of great. How many of us are willing to stay in relatively good situations, even if they aren’t what we really want? That’s the thing about it. I don’t think that people live these miserable lives. If you talk to many normal people, they do feel good about their lives. For some people, it makes sense to stop right there. Be content. Don’t chase dreams. Ambition isn’t the right path for everyone.
But, for many people, the good life will gnaw at them. They can’t shake the idea that they have the potential for more and it will bother them incessantly. They have a pretty good job but they really want to start a business. When it comes to their self-perception, they feel good about themselves. They work hard, they’re comfortable, they have a good standing in their profession, friend group, and career. But they still don’t necessarily feel great about life.
This brings me back to a conversation with my mom. She lived a good life. She worked really hard, got good grades, and had a good career. But she told me that she thought there’d be more like there was this promise that society didn’t fully fulfill. She says she looks back on everything that happened and now just feels a little bit ‘meh’ about the whole thing.
You can reach another level if you destroy some of the good parts of your life to get to the great. It’s a lot like being the protagonist in fight club with the cushy job and the nice apartment that ultimately feels empty. Instead of beating people up after hours, you can focus on building a bridge to what you want while learning to abandon what you have.
Let go of your tenure, status, and prestige in your career so you can have a vocation. If you’re settling in a relationship and you know it, do both yourself and your partner a favor and let go instead of prolonging something that really isn’t working. Think of every area of your life that you grip onto because you had a little bit of success and start a new path.
Think about how many of the problems in your life are caused by your ego. Your ego is your sense of self. And you’ll do almost anything to preserve your sense of self even if it makes your life worse. Better to be a loser and know who you are than try to redefine your life and feel uncertain. Better to tell yourself a story about who you think you are than to find out who you really are.
We all can easily identify people with the brash sort of ego-based arrogance. These people run into problems because they’re too active. They run their mouths too much. They’re too confident that they’ll succeed and don’t do the work necessary to avoid failure.
But what about people with an inverted sense of arrogance? They tell themselves they’re down to earth when really they’re afraid to fail. Instead of coveting success, they show disdain for it because they can’t get it. Then, they’ll claim that they’re above it. Worrying about rejection and embarrassment is also arrogant because it comes from a mindset that your feelings are too important. You’re worried about what others will think when no one cares about your feelings at all.
Then there’s that part of your ego that tells you what kind of person you are. I used to tell myself a story that I was someone who started projects but never finished them. This gave me an out when I’d inevitably quit. I didn’t like the results but it did feel good to blame my failure on some unchangeable character flaw rather than realize I could finish projects but just chose to cower away from the work.
Changing your personality for the better comes from subtraction. Once you remove all the excess, you’re left with the real you. Your ego creates a wall around who you really supposed to be and you’ll never find out who you are until you break that wall down. How? Put yourself in situations that force you to do it and see them through. Way easier said than done, I know, but this is the way.
In general, it’s just important to understand the power of breaking yourself down to recover. You grow by adding these hormetic stressors into your life — things that cause discomfort, but don’t kill you. You grow physically by first breaking your body down. Someone who goes through no physical stress becomes bedridden.
A life that seeks to avoid discomfort and pain ultimately ends up with lots of it. It’s the mental and spiritual equivalent of a sedentary lifestyle. You don’t want to feel upfront pain so you experience chronic pain and suffering your entire life.
We’re a society of people that does everything possible to avoid any little thing that will break us down. And the more protective we become the more susceptible we are. If you never put yourself out there to experience rejection, you’ll feel that much worse when it comes your way. A life spent avoiding challenges makes you more susceptible to the challenges that certainly will come.
Every time you hesitate to do something that might hurt a little bit, that might physically or mentally chip away at your armor a little bit, the weaker your armor becomes.
What if you just stopped trying to avoid feeling bad and not just accepted it, but understood how much value a little negativity can bring to your life?
What if you’re not meant to be happy, sated, and content all the time? Maybe you could benefit from being a little hungry and desperate.
What if you started seeking out chaos instead of running from it? The eye of the storm is serene while surrounded by chaos and mayhem. You can look at it as a metaphor for the calmest state of being. Anything but acceptance and serenity in the midst of chaos will cause you to get swept away in the storm.
Do you want a little comfortable box on the hillside or a grand, fulfilling, and dangerous adventure? Your choice.