The Pursuit of Self-Improvement

Never in my life have I encountered people more driven toward self-improvement than those in recovery. We are fueled by the understanding that our survival depends on this transition into recovery, and the added fact that we have been given another chance at life, and the realization that we have burned up a lot of time, creates a recipe for a maniacal focus on personal growth. In a broad sense, this drive is a good thing—it allows us to put our lives back together and become people who can go out and kick ass in the world—but the ways in which we pursue the goal of personal growth deserves some attention. 

The amount of internal change that must occur to achieve sobriety is tremendous. Add in the discipline it takes to grow into sustained and fruitful recovery over a long period of time, and it truly is amazing that any of us survive. What most amazes me, however, is the way in which the changes we make to achieve recovery are in such contrast to our lives in addiction. Addiction is all about taking the shortest route to the greatest effect. Substances, for me, were a shortcut to the goal of feeling ok. Recovery, on the other hand, requires sustained focus and steady progress over a long period of time. Recovery is a road trip toward some unknown destination with the faith there will be amazing experiences along the way, while active addiction is a walk around the same block over and over again because we know the corner store has the candy bar we want.

When I am clear eyed with regard to this work, I understand that the journey, (not the destination) is the place where the self-improvement actually occurs. The point of a road trip, at least in my experience, is the wandering, the getting lost and figuring it out, the following of side roads and exploration of strange little towns and neighborhoods. This is where the good stuff happens. In the years I have been traveling this road, however, I often forget this most basic fact, and find myself frustrated with the road because it is getting in the way of the destination. In other words, I begin to resent the work because it gets in the way of the desired self-improvement. I become that kid in the back seat asking every five minutes, “are we there yet?”

It is difficult to stay present during the journey for several reasons. Primarily, we are people who are hard-wired for quick fixes, which is why we fall into addiction and run with it in the first place. Beyond this internal struggle, our culture constantly points our attention toward destinations. We are bombarded by advertisements that promise easy solutions for our problems. We are told we can “hack” our way to better health, more beauty, increased efficiency, piles of money, and anything else we might dream of. We are so busy that we live with the constant feeling that we are running out of time. I am certainly not immune to these pressures; as I mentioned, as an addict I am especially vulnerable to them. The sad thing, however, is that by taking shortcuts, we miss out on the real growth experienced by being present for the journey.

When I really look at my experience, it is clear that almost everything of value in my life has come as the result of being present and not hurrying to the destination. I have often set out with the hope of achieving some goal, only to discover something better along the way. Examples of this in my own life abound. I went back to school with the idea that I would get a career that would give me financial security, only to realize that I love literature and writing, which have given me so much more than money could ever buy. I came to Oregon to write a book, and ended up meeting my wife, making friends with some of the best people I have ever known, and discovering that I love fly-fishing (still no book). I got clean and sober because I was tired of being sick and ashamed, and I have ended up with a life that is so much bigger than just staying clean and sober a day at a time.

Sure, these gifts may have come my way even if I was solely focused on the destination. At times during the past few years I have been obsessively concentrated on end goals, but the thing I miss out on when I am fixated on arriving are all of the little possibilities for growth that come along the way. These small opportunities are the building blocks of large-scale self-improvement, and often I realize that the thing I am striving for is not actually the area where I need to grow. There is also a joy in putting the destination to the side and enjoying the moment. The portions of my journey where I am hyper focused on the goal are not the ones I remember fondly, and funny enough, the arrival at the desired destination usually leaves me with the feeling of, “what now?” Ultimately, what my experience has shown me is that self-improvement is not a destination at all. Life is not about “getting there”, but about “being here”. I am slowly realizing that I don’t ever want to arrive. How boring would it be to reach a place of perfection? What the hell would I do with myself?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that we are perfect little flowers just as we are, and don’t need to continue doing any work. This perspective, in my opinion, is just as bad if not worse than the idea of hacking your way to perfection. I believe growth and self-improvement are essential for sustained recovery. The point I am trying to make is that at times our orientation toward the process of self-improvement is screwed up. By approaching personal growth the way we approached our addictions—looking for shortcuts and quick fixes for our problems—we miss out on so much of the good stuff of recovery. When we are five hundred miles down the road mentally, we miss the signposts that point toward real opportunities for growth.

With this in mind, I’d encourage you to take a look at your pursuit of self-improvement. If you are trying hard to get to the destination, try to slow down and enjoy the journey. If you can let go of results, and just be here and now, you might be surprised by where you end up.