Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement

A YEAR INSIDE THE OPTIMIZATION MOVEMENT


CARL CEDERSTRÖM and ANDRÉ SPICER

“Two crazy people try numerous crazy strategies, all so I don't have to. I call that a result!”
—Lee Child, author


“Brilliantly sardonic.” —The Guardian, on Cederström and Spicer’s The Wellness Syndrome

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About the Book

In these pages, the authors of the widely-acclaimed The Wellness Syndrome throw themselves headlong into the world of self-optimization, a burgeoning movement that seeks to transcend the limits placed on us by being merely human, whether the feebleness of our bodies or our mental incapacities.

Cederström and Spicer, though willing guinea pigs in an extraordinary (and sometimes downright dangerous) range of techniques and technologies, had hitherto undertaken little by way of self-improvement. They had rarely seen the inside of a gym, let alone utilized apps that deliver electric shocks in pursuit of improved concentration. But, in the course of a year spent researching this book, they wore head-bands designed to optimize meditation, attempted to boost their memory through learning associative techniques (and failed to be admitted to MENSA), trained for weightlifting competitions, wrote what they (still) hope might become a bestselling Scandinavian detective story, enrolled in motivational seminars and tantra sex workshops, attended new-age retreats and man-camps, underwent plastic surgery, and experimented with vibrators and productivity drugs. André even addressed a London subway car whilst (nearly) naked in an attempt to boost attention.

Somewhat surprisingly, the two young professors survived this year of rigorous research. Further, they have drawn deeply on it to produce a hilarious and eye-opening book. Written in the form of two parallel diaries, Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement provides a biting analysis of the narcissism and individual competitiveness that increasingly pervades a culture in which social solutions are receding and individual self-improvement is the only option left.

320 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-682191-02-6 • E-book 978-1-682191-03-3

About the Authors

carl cederstrom author photo

Photo © Eva Dahlin

Carl Cederström is Associate Professor at Stockholm Business School, Stockholm University and the co-author or co-editor of five books. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic and Harvard Business Review.

andre spicer author photo

André Spicer is Professor at Cass Business School, City University London and the co-author or co-editor of five books. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, Financial Times, Times, Independent and CNN.

Read an Excerpt

André, January 24 (The month of January was devoted to improving productivity)

It was 9am and I was walking up the familiar staircase for my final day of the Landmark forum. Coach B. turned to look at us: “If you really want to change your life, you need to recruit.”

On Tuesday we were going to have our “graduation,” and we had been asked to bring along friends and family and encourage them to sign up.

“Now let’s handle this marketing thing,” Coach B. said. “It’s just about sharing something important with the people you love. It’s not sales.”

“But what if they think it’s a cult,” a skeptic in the audience asked.

“Well, they are the ones who need it the most,” Coach B. responded.

“But what if they say no,” someone else asked.

“Tuesday’s graduation is an opportunity to move forward and share your transformation. It’s not about marketing,” Coach B. said firmly.

Having dealt with the “marketing thing,” Coach B. turned to the audience once again. People immediately started to volunteer their stories.

“I was a stripper and hid it from my family,” a young woman yelled out.

“My parents don’t know I’m gay,” a middle-aged man admitted.

The tragic stories piled up. Coach B. turned to the last member of the audience who had shared their story. “You’ve wasted your life on meaningless kaka,” he said firmly. “You go around trying to convince other people of your story just so you can feel right. And it’s screwing up your life.”

Was that my problem? Was it my bullshit story?

Throughout the rest of the morning Coach B. kept returning to this theme. “You are addicted to your stories,” he said. “If they disappeared, you’d think you would die. The reality is that if your stories disappeared, you’d discover yourself.”

After another hurried break, Coach B. asked when we were really able to be ourselves.

“Painting,” one person yelled out.

“When I’m sewing,” another person added.

“Skiing,” said a third.

“How long do you spend skiing?” Coach B. snapped back.

“A week or two a year,” the skier replied.

“And how much of that time is actually spent on the ski runs? A few minutes? You’re living for a few minutes every year? Your life has been a complete joke.” He was grinning now as he turned to the audience. “So, you’re wondering what you got from this course. What you got was this: You’re a joke. Your life is empty and meaningless. You’re not going to get anywhere. And there’s no hope.”

Amazing! £480, three days, and it could all be summed up in the message that my life was a complete joke.

Coach B. started practicing jazz drumming on his chair. He turned to the audience. “We’re chasing It through the whole world. This is It,” he said gesturing around the room. “And It doesn’t mean anything.”

The dozen assistants who had been lurking at the back started handing out small sheets of glossy paper with quotes printed on one side including Shakespeare and Kurt Vonnegut. Coach B. riffed on Macbeth: “Your life has been full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

“I still can’t believe that this is it,” an audience member called out in a sad voice. “This is shit!”

“That is It,” Coach B responded, smiling as he circled in on her.

“Baby, this is It,” he added.

She sobbed.

“There’s nothing now. Nothing to do. Nothing to say. If you can get that all right now, you’re home baby. You’re whole. Complete, perfect.”

Coach B. paused, rocking on his heels. Tears rolled down the woman’s cheeks.

“How do you feel,” the Coach asked.

She breathed out, “Quite relaxed.”

“Just be with me,” Coach B. said, taking her hands. They looked into each other’s eyes like two long separated family members standing on the abyss.

He clapped her on the shoulder and looked to the audience. “You can only create from nothing. With your words. But the most important thing is this: you make promises to yourself that you know how to keep.”

When we walked out of the room, people were overawed. Many seemed euphoric, as though they had finally found meaning in their life. From what I understood the basic message was that: all is nothingness, there is no meaning, so we can create anything by just saying it.

When the show finally drew to a close, the participants milled around, hugging each other. I headed for the door. As I sat on the train on the way home, I read through the quotes on the glossy white handout again. They included part of a poem by e e cummings: “Everything (dreamed & hoped & prayed for months & weeks & days & years & forever) is Less Than Nothing (which would have been something) what got him was nothing.”

 

Carl, February 21 (The month of February was devoted to improving the body)

It was early Sunday morning when we climbed over a young man sleeping outside the train station. The streets were empty and desolate. The sky was grey. Snow lay thinly on the ground.

We found the door, a small sign outside reading Athletic Club and walked down a steep flight of stairs. I placed my polished Blundstones next to a mountain of sneakers and walked into a room, lined with benches and lockers. A couple of sturdy weightlifters in grey hoodies looked my way. I changed into my singlet and warmed up. My name came over the speakers. I marched through a long corridor and down a couple of stairs into the main hall. My coaches were following me.

One minute, the speaker said.

I walked down, into the big gymnasium, stopped by the bowl and covered my hands in magnesium, stepped out, onto the podium, my back against the Swedish flag, looking out at the three referees, sitting a few meters away from me, and, behind them, the audience.

Beeeeee. 30 seconds.

I gripped the barbell, back straight, chest up. I pulled the barbell vertically, and, as it reached the level of my knees, I jumped, making the weights fly up into the air. Meanwhile, I threw myself underneath the barbell, knees bent and arms stretched, catching the barbell above my head.

Beeeeeee.

I dropped the barbell onto the ground, looked at the judges, then the scoreboard. I had passed. My two personal trainers cheered from the side. I had made my first correct lift, and it felt great.

After a two-minute break, I returned to the podium, now attempting 40kg. Same procedure—barbell over the knees, stretched arms, jump—another correct lift.

Then 45kg. Attempting a personal best. I pulled the barbell with all my power, got it flying up into the air, above my head, but, as I was going to catch it with my straight arms, something went wrong. It was too heavy. My arms folded and the barbell, with all its weight, fell down, with menacing force, straight onto my head.

Bang!

Then onto the floor.

Boom!

I turned around and stumbled out, feeling dizzy. One of the functionaries ran up, asking how I was doing.

“Fine” I said, my voice breaking a little. I touched my head. No blood.

“Attempt failed. The barbell fell on his head,” I heard over the speakers, as I disappeared into the corridor, back into the small gym.

I was disappointed, humiliated. My coaches tried to cheer me up.

No time for weeping. I had to get ready for my next set of lifts. Clean-and-jerk.

My name came over the speakers. I passed 40kg without a problem, asking for 50kg, my existing personal record. Easy. I felt strong, my self-confidence returning.

“Put on 60,” I heard myself say to the functionaries. This wasn’t the plan. The plan was to make 45kg in snatch (which I had just failed), and 55kg in clean-and-jerk (hence reaching a total of 100kg).

“Take it easy now, relax,” the agile coach said.

“No Carl, don’t relax. Use that adrenaline and go out and kick ass” the beefy coach intervened. “You can do this!”

I was feeling strong. My adrenaline pumping. Yeah, let’s kick ass.

I walked out, straight onto the podium, with more than a minute to go.

“C’mon Carl, you can do it,” I heard people shouting from the audience, clapping their hands. I grabbed the barbell, staring straight ahead. All sounds disappeared. Nothing was there; nothing except the weights, and my body, which felt strong, stronger than ever.

I got myself into position. Chest up. Straight arms. Shoulders over the barbell. And then, with all of my strength, I pulled the weights, gave it a perfect hit with my hips, and then jumped, as high as I could. The timing was good. I could feel how the barbell was flying high up into the air, landing on my chest. More shouts from the audience. Some applause. C’mon you can do it. I squatted and jumped, once more, as high as I could, pushing the barbell up, throwing myself underneath, with straight arms. Adrenaline still pumping. The barbell was there, I could feel it, above my head. I could feel my face turning red. My hands were tightly wrapped around the steel.

Beeeeee.

I dropped the barbell onto the podium. I had broken my personal record with 100kg. As I jogged off stage, I couldn’t conceal my joy, and stretched my arms above my head.

I ran up to my coaches. They hugged me. Was this the happiest moment in my life? I came second to last. Well, I was last in my weight group. But that didn’t seem to matter. It felt like a great victory. I had done 100kg in total. 40 in snatch, and 60 in clean-and-jerk. I felt a strange impulse to write a letter to my publisher who had rejected my book and tell them I could lift a 100kg in total. Eat that, pricks!