It’s not that I thought I was a “bad” person. But I did think I needed to be fixed.
I spent a lot of time in my 20s reading self-help material and following various self-improvement regimens. “Self-help” is a broad, fuzzy term, encompassing the gamut of motivational books and seminars, productivity systems, personality tests, more-or-less dubious spiritual and mystical theories, pop psychology, diet and workout trends, and even business and leadership material. I’m talking about books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and You Are a Badass, and productivity systems like Getting Things Done, and the Atkins diet, and Crossfit, and Strengthsfinder and Myers-Briggs, and pickup artists and the Law of Attraction.
What unites all these is that they appear to offer a system to base your life on, or a guru to follow who could provide all the answers to life’s problems. All one had to do was adhere to the system faithfully and exactly.
At least, that was how I interpreted the offer. It turns out that there is a healthier way to engage with this material, but I learned that lesson the hard way.
From about 2007, just after I graduated college, until 2012, when I a) got married, and b) found a real mentor, I bounced from one book to another, one system to another, one guru to another, constantly falling under spells, and avoiding searching my own soul for the answers I was seeking to my biggest questions: “What kind of life do I want to lead? What are my priorities? What does success mean to me?” Despite all the promises these people were selling me about how their approach would change my life, I did not really “improve” or become more “productive” or “efficient.” It was like eating junk food, empty calories. I was consuming, consuming, consuming, but never feeling satiated.
In fact, I was moving farther away from my true path, farther away from real meaning and purpose; not closer. Because I was outsourcing my search. Some questions just have to be answered by and for oneself.
I did make serious changes for the better during those years—more punctuality, better listening, less fast food—and a lot of this revealed the influence of being in a relationship with a strong, loving, mature partner (as well as simply getting older). I made the strides in maturity that were necessary for us to flourish as a couple, but while this wasn’t certainly not easy, it was also the minimum. My relationship goals were clear, but what about my personal and work goals, in the sense of a life’s work? What was I doing with myself, and where was I headed? I still didn’t know.
I was trying to build a skyscraper by starting from the observation deck. What, exactly, was the nature of this “self” I was trying to improve? Become more productive at what? And to what end? Peter Drucker said: the biggest waste of time is trying to make more efficient that which should not be done at all.
The thing that really set me down a different path was when, in early 2013, I started seeing a Jungian psychotherapist named John. Among many other services, John helped me uncover my pattern of seeking answers from others to questions I hadn’t even asked myself.
One day in 2014, I walked into our session and pulled a new workbook out of my backpack to show John. It was a productivity project from one of my favorite authors, the marketing expert and cultural pontificator Seth Godin. He had learned this system from his own mentor, sales legend Zig Ziglar, and repackaged it for his readers. Double guru power! I was proud of myself, and very excited by its promise. I felt like the kid bringing his new pair of roller blades to show-and-tell at school; the teacher was totally going to give me a gold star for this. The workbook was called “Pick Four,” and the idea was that you pick the four most important projects you want to work on, and do at least one thing each day to advance each of the projects.
Thinking about it now, it does sound like a solid enough tactic for making progress on some work. But to me, at that time, it was much more than that—it promised to be the One Thing that would Solve All My Problems, if only I could force myself to stick to it.
I seriously thought I had finally found the thing that was going set me on the path to… somewhere, but John knew better. He did not mirror my pride; instead, he responded incredulously as I stubbornly insisted that using this tool would be like waving a magic wand over my life. He began to get very animated, and he said:
"This stuff Does. Not. Work for you.”
This tough love felt demoralizing. It made me angry. I honestly don’t know enough about the practice of therapy to know if this was one of John’s methods: was he using an exasperated tone for effect, because I needed to hear it in just that way to get it through my head? Or did he get genuinely frustrated with me and let his persona slip?
I don’t know. But I remember what he said.
Living the Questions #
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. — Rainer Maria Rilke
When John told me that “this” did not work for me, I knew instinctually that he was not talking about the Pick Four workbook—not only that. But it took me several years to internalize that he was identifying my entire pattern of slingshotting from one system to the next and never sticking with any plan, never wondering whether my basic approach to fulfilling my life’s ambitions was working for me at all.
What were my life’s ambitions, anyway? Were they the same at 30 as they had been at 25? At 20? Could I answer any of those questions? What if I was working from even earlier assumptions? How long had it been since I’d actually thought about this? Was I still running a super old and long-since-obsolete version of my internal operating system? Aaron NT ’95?
All of which is to say that I did not immediately achieve enlightenment. That’s not how any of this works. (I still haven’t, in case you were wondering.) But I was learning how to live the questions.
From that moment, however, I did cast a more skeptical eye toward self-help—you can see me doing this in my discussion of Lichtenbergianism back in #26—and within a few years I had turned into a staunch opponent of the entire genre. This felt like the reverse of the convert’s zeal, an unquestioning rejection rather than an unquestioning acceptance. And since I had converted to many self-help religions, I had a lot of pent-up rejection to express.
I’ve never been a person to visibly erupt, but I am a person, and I have a churning core of red-hot magma underneath my surface just like anybody.
I remember the first time I saw a copy of the book You Are a Badass. It might be a great book, but since I was looking at the shelf with new eyes, I could not get past that title. “Hold up—how do you know that I’m a badass? You couldn’t possibly.” I understood that the argument was probably more complex than the title indicated, but I also understood that someone had designed this title to flatter me and promise me that the book would make me feel good and tell me what (it thought I) wanted to hear.
I felt personally offended. It seemed like such a glaringly distrustful act.
Irrational anger, however, is just as extreme a reaction as uncritical adoration. Sure, people are out there hawking a lot of scams, half-baked ideas, and glorified blog posts, but there must still be something redeemable within such a gigantic category of our culture.
And so, I still sought wisdom. It’s in my DNA. It was inevitable that after a few years of nursing my wounds, after the rivers of lava cooled, I would be ready to re-engage from a newly sturdy foundation, and then, sooner or later, I would come across a book that passed my tests. That book was The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, by Mark Manson. I never imagined that the first self-help book I’d truly appreciate would turn out to be an ungodly-popular institution on the New York Times bestseller list—but here we are.
This title was also carefully designed, down to the ink blot covering up that last “u” on the cover, making it seem subversive. But it appealed to me undeniably. “A subtle art:” well, I am intrigued by art forms of all kinds. Especially subtle ones—I will take any chance I get to mount my soap box and preach about the lack of nuance in today’s culture.
And not giving a fuck: I didn’t exactly know what that meant, but in some ways, that’s an ideal I had been striving for and consistently failing to meet. We’re told pretty often that it’s important to “not care what other people think;” at the same time, our culture is constantly sending us marketing messages about new products to buy and new trends to follow.
Something that makes Manson interesting to me is that he sees himself as a popularizer, neither an academically-minded scholar or a full-on trend seeker. He brings deep knowledge and research to his arguments, but he positions his work squarely within the self-help genre, and so his marketing targets the demographics who are drawn to this category (by which I mean me). Say what you will about that, but it makes him well-suited to assess the successes and failures of self-help as a concept.
And it turns out he, too, has some major problems with the self-help industry. He gave me the language to articulate what my problems with it actually were, and where I had been led astray.
Bad and OK #
Mark Manson contends that there are two main kinds of people who are drawn to self-help material: those who see themselves as fundamentally “bad” and want to become “OK,” and those who see themselves as already “OK” and want to become “great.”
I'll get this out of way up front: like most dichotomies, especially conceptual ones, the idea of Bad-to-OK and OK-to-Great people is a simplification. It's a useful one, though.
As I said at the outset, I never consciously thought of myself as a “bad” person—if anything, I’ve worked hard to become more aware of my flaws. But it’s clear from my thought and behavior patterns that I did not consider myself “OK.” I acted like I needed to be fixed, and I sought instructions for how to fix myself. The domain of my search was the self-help industry.
The premise of self-help is that one can improve their life—strengthen their habits, set or refine their goals, build or enhance their relationships—by studying and learning from others who have succeeded at those aims.
A billion-dollar ecosystem has developed to expound this premise, deploying all the tools of data-driven marketing and flamboyant salesmanship we all know and love. It's no wonder I got hooked.
And it is a fine enough premise, a laudable goal, but it's also one that’s overblown: there are practical limits to how much any person can “improve,” and in which areas; the specific tactics that work for one person to create, say, a steady workout habit, may not work for another person; and any improvements are usually much more difficult and take much longer to achieve—and their scale is much more modest—than the typical self-help book promises them to be.
What these caveats have in common is that they all require internal self-awareness. One needs to have a healthy sense of their limits, to know how their mind tends to work, to have thought deeply about what kind of life they want to live, and to understand what they are willing to sacrifice and endure to sustain that way of life.
And most importantly, a person needs to know that if a particular workout regimen or journaling practice or goal-setting system does not work for them, that’s not on them. It’s not a personal deficiency; it’s an experiment whose results failed to confirm the hypothesis. They’re still OK, and they’re going to be OK.
The OK-to-Great person asks: “Why didn’t that work for me? Maybe my mind does not work the way this author’s mind works. Maybe our goals and our definitions of success aren’t actually that similar. Maybe this author, this fallible human who will naturally present themselves in the best possible light, has left certain things out of their story, or perhaps they have mischaracterized or glossed over some critical information.”
Given all these nuances, and the effort and awareness required to make real, lasting personal change, Manson theorizes that self-help only works for the OK-to-Great people. It can work for them because they come to the material from a stable personal foundation. Bruce Lee summed up the approach better than I ever could:
- Absorb what is useful.
- Reject what is useless.
- Add what is specifically your own.
Bad-to-OK people, on the other hand, cannot be helped by self-help, because they are missing the one thing self-help cannot give them: fundamental self-acceptance.
They struggle to make distinctions between useful and useless; and really, they don't even think about self-help material in those terms. And they don't add anything of their own because they are ashamed of what they're bringing to the table.
Bad-to-OK people consistently fail because they possess a fundamental worldview that interprets everything they do, including self-help, to support their inferiority or lack of worthiness.
For example, an OK-to-Great person may read a book on becoming happy and think, “Oh, cool, there are a bunch of things in here that I’m not doing. I should try them out.”
A Bad-to-OK person will read the same book and say, “Wow, look at all of this stuff I’m not doing. I’m an even bigger loser than I initially thought.”
During my Bad-to-OK period, I closely followed an author named Ryan Holiday, who had a blog about books and a monthly reading recommendations newsletter. Not only did he love reading as much as I did, but he had also already read a lot of the books I still wanted to read, he was publishing content regularly to a substantial audience, and he was friends with other authors I idolized.
One of the key posts that helped vault Holiday to mainstream success was entitled “Reading to Lead.” It's all about how to get the most out of reading, and how to use books to level up one's career. He spelled out many of his well-honed tactics, like “spoiling the ending” by reading the summary of a book first, and finding his next book in the bibliography of the one he’d just finished.
And this above all: Holiday described his elaborate system, which he learned as a research assistant to the author Robert Greene, of copying out important passages from books onto 3-by-5 index cards, categorizing them by topic, and storing them for later use, a form of practice traditionally known as compiling a "commonplace book."
I spent an enormous amount of time thinking about how I could replicate this system. I even bought the exact same bin to organize my index cards that Holiday used—and advertised on his website. Despite this, I never fully adopted a single element of it for myself.
Why not? I think there are many reasons, but one runs deepest.
I decided, unconsciously, that I needed to read books exactly the way and for exactly the reasons Ryan Holiday read books. It didn’t matter that I’d been reading books for decades, that I had my own reading habits and my own reading preferences and my own reading style. Because I judged that Holiday was better than me, that he was ahead of me, that he had something I lacked, I regarded him as a savior rather than a teacher.
I poured all my efforts into fashioning a cargo cult version of his personal system, never dreaming to ask myself what I hoped to gain from it.
Now, Holiday knew what he was doing. He knew what kind of writing style would gain him traction with the people who read and publish self-help, which is the style of the self-appointed authority. It's a style in which the writer often preaches as though their credentials are unimpeachable, while diverting attention away from the fact that they haven’t provided their credentials at all. With no ombudsman sitting beside the reader to fact-check statements, it’s tempting for writers to present their opinions and experiences as if they are laws of nature.
And yet, if I was approaching Holiday from an OK-to-Great stance, I would have pushed style aside as best I could and asked myself, “How can I do more of the things he does, which are the same things I say I want to do? What makes me so excited about these ideas, and which ones can serve me best? What is a realistic plan?” Instead, I asked myself, “How can I be him?”
A person can go on Extreme Makeover as many times as they want—if they fundamentally dislike their body, and they don't like themselves, no amount of different outfits, new hairstyles, or even plastic surgery will change that.
It may sound like I'm saying that going from Bad-to-OK is impossible. I'm not.
You Are Not An Experiment #
When I first read Manson’s Bad-to-OK and OK-to-Great theory of self-help, I was thrilled; it opened my eyes to a different way of interpreting many of my past experiences. It gave me language to explain how I was able to continue reading book after book and implementing system after system to improve my life, despite the fact that I always felt like I was incapable of sticking to any of the changes I was making.
I emphasize how I felt, because it was really only my feelings, and a set of beliefs beneath them, that never changed. Many of the self-help methods I adopted did improve my life, a lot. During one period I joined a Facebook community for fans of the financial literacy blogger Ramit Sethi, called Ramit’s Brain Trust. As I tend to do, I found my group-within-the-group, and as we talked about our personal goals, we discovered that we shared a desire to improve our physical fitness and nutrition.
One of my friends in the group, a guy named Marc, was in the early stages of developing a health coaching business, and he offered us his services for free if we would beta-test his offering. He built a detailed plan for me, which included practicing intermittent fasting, eating more vegetables and protein, strictly controlling my macronutrient balance, and lifting weights. We tracked all of this in a custom spreadsheet and compared our progress with everyone else in the group.
We created a supportive environment in which we talked for hours a day and encouraged each other to keep showing up for workouts and avoiding problem foods. The group’s engine burned hot for several months, but it gradually began to lose steam. I eventually abandoned intermittent fasting, stopped monitoring my macros, and allowed my gym membership to lapse. I had attempted several demanding lifestyle changes at once, and it’s not shocking that I didn’t stick to them all, especially once my group’s mutual admiration, which was really more of an infatuation, began to wear off.
In many ways, though, these experiments succeeded: I lost weight, added muscle, improved my mental clarity, and attenuated my temptation to over-indulge in my various vices. Even after I ceased to follow Marc’s specific regimen, my overall fitness and nutrition habits remained far healthier than their previous baseline. And with my improved state of mind, I started other habits that also had compounding effects: I began reading books again for the first time since college—a lot of books—and I became a regular flosser for the first time ever.
If my goal was to live better, I’d achieved that by pretty much any measure. But I didn’t see it that way at the time. I’ve only assembled the sturdy edifice of that previous paragraph out of seven years’ worth of hard-won bricks, prized one by one from individual journal reflections and therapy sessions.
Let’s go back, though. How did I actually feel when I stopped doing intermittent fasting and lifting weights; when I went off my special diet; and when I lost touch with Marc and my other friends from the Brain Trust group? To the average observer, it probably appeared as though I had declared my experiments successful, and, having consolidated some new health habits, and with a sense of great satisfaction, reverted back to a more sustainable way of living. Maybe that’s even what happened. But I did not feel satisfied. I felt like I had failed to uphold my commitments. I felt like I had tried to become a different person, a better person, and failed.
In other words, I felt like I was a failure. I must have felt that way before I even joined the Brain Trust or met Marc, before I even knew who Ramit Sethi was. And that hadn’t changed at all. I still felt that way.
Clearly, it wasn’t true. Experiments succeed and fail, according to the terms with which they are designed; not people. People just are.
But since I didn’t know that yet, I approached the entire business of improving my health as a proxy strategy for trying to make myself a success. It wasn’t about the program; it was about me. And that means that what attracted me to Ramit’s Brain Trust, and to Marc’s coaching business, was not their content, or their techniques, or even their wisdom. It was Ramit and Marc themselves. To become a success as a person, what I had to do was find other people who were successes, and do whatever it was they were doing. It didn’t matter what that was, as long as they had… I don’t know. That special indefinable something. Then—if I worked hard enough—I could also have that something.
That is, to put it mildly, a high bar to clear. In fact, it’s impossible.
Intermittent fasting, if you’re not familiar, means eating all of your food within a set six-hour or eight-hour interval, and eating nothing during the rest of the day. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried eating nothing until 1 p.m., but trust me, it’s not easy. And as far as I understand, the jury’s still out on how effective that is as an overall nutritional tactic. The point is, I didn’t look into it too hard; I just followed the program.
To stick to that kind of a schedule, to learn how to set aside hunger for the first several hours of every day, one has to really be determined. That’s not the impossible part. I could have done that. However, it still wouldn’t have given me what I was seeking, because I wasn’t really looking for a new system to follow; I was looking for a new person to be. I wasn’t taking on a challenging diet from a belief in its efficacy, or even from a desire to achieve the promised benefits, but from the subconscious conviction that I needed to follow a leader—which really meant, deep down, a belief in my own inadequacy. Many successful intermittent fasters don’t even do it full-time. Falling off, then, was inevitable for me.
But in accordance with the pattern I’d established, I instead interpreted falling off as further evidence of that inherent inadequacy. Perhaps it was my nature to be low—unless I could find another savior. Back on the hunt, then.
Intermittent fasting was hard, but trying to be someone else was exhausting. Why didn’t I understand that, logically speaking, one of two things must be true: either I was very bad at evaluating who was actually a success; or something was fundamentally wrong with my basic assumptions? Well, I just didn’t think about it. Dissociation is a powerful thing.
This is one reason why therapy works—dissociation is insidious, but it’s not invisible. A part of me knew what was happening all along, and longed to tell me so; I just wasn’t listening. By putting myself in a small room once a week with a trained expert, someone who knew how to match observed behavior with underlying mental pitfalls, and how to coax someone into developing deeper awareness of themselves, by building trust with that person and letting him into my psyche, I gave myself the space to hear what I needed to hear from myself.
It was John, my therapist, who told me, “This stuff does not work for you;” but it was me who added, “Because you feel like you’re a failure.”
Once I heard that, I was able to ask in response: “How do you know?” And then: “What if it’s not true?”
Manson is right: a self-help industrial product could never do that for someone. When it pretends that it can, that’s what makes it dangerous.
Adopt or Adapt #
We’ve been talking about the two methods for approach self-help material. Taking a “Bad-to-OK” approach means seeking the one thing that self-help can’t ever provide: a way for a person to accept themselves for who they are—a way to become “OK.” Taking an “OK-to-great” approach is about finding bits of knowledge that a person can incorporate into, and thus enhance, their lives. The effect is to burnish their already healthy sense of self-acceptance—they’re not looking for a fix, but to improve and develop themselves. This is why you’ll often see the genre called self-improvement or personal development.
It’s the difference between adopting a system and adapting a system. A self-help book or course is selling a system, a framework of actions and principles that the author has discovered, or perhaps just packaged, in a way that helps them achieve some goal. It’s necessarily personal, which is why it’s called “self-help:” the author is saying, this system helped me do this thing, and it can help you also.
Adoption doesn’t work when it comes to a personal system. A “personal system” is the sum of all the repeatable activities a person takes in pursuit of their life goals. Trying to adopt a system wholesale, to the letter, that somebody else created, necessarily means adopting their personal life goals as well.
The first reason this doesn’t work is that even if two people have very similar goals, they cannot ever be the same. A person’s personality and circumstances are both unique; the combination of the two, which we call “a life,” is doubly unique.
The second reason adoption doesn’t work is that it is inevitably a demonstration of a person’s lack of self-acceptance. Self-acceptance requires having a sense of personal meaning that one can feel good about. If there is no sense of purpose, if a person is deeply unsure about what they’re doing on this planet, then it’s very difficult to accept themselves fully.
I don’t mean to suggest that self-acceptance means certainty, or anything close to it, especially in terms of concrete desires like “working as a staff writer for The New Yorker” or even “becoming a journalist.” It has more to do with building a realistic acknowledgement of your strengths and weaknesses, your capabilities and your deficiencies, and feeling satisfied with who you are despite your imperfections and regardless of your past behaviors and choices. It’s a sense that you can go after a goal knowing that if it doesn’t work out, it’s not because you are fundamentally flawed.
For the “Bad-to-OK” set, they’re still working to develop that sense of satisfaction in themselves. That’s why the idea of adopting someone else’s personal-development system, including the goals inherent in the system, is so tantalizing.
When a person is confident about their trajectory in life, they ask themselves, “how can I get where I want to go?” They build habits and physical spaces that will move them in a particular direction. They formulate a set of goals, and their unique system then falls out of those goals, and when their goals inevitably change, they adapt the system to meet the new challenge.
On the other hand, when someone is uncertain about where to go and what to aim for, they’re tempted to seek the system first. Unfortunately, many popular self-help systems encourage this temptation in their marketing. They disregard or wave away the distinction between adopting and adapting. They make it sound like the system will work exactly as specified for anyone who picks it up. They fail to ask the would-be adopter any questions about what brought them to the material. Some systems even promote themselves as “goal-seeking” systems; they explicitly claim the ability to guide a person toward accepting themselves, unlocking their true desires, and discovering their purpose in life.
Yeah, capitalism is a tough racket; caveat emptor and all that. There are plenty of products in all areas of life that pretend to be healthful, when really they cause damage, or are at least capable of being misused. But it’s not impossible to do the right thing.
Cold Showers For All #
What’s the appeal of self-help, anyway? Why, after all of the discouraging experiences I’ve had with it, and after all of the ways it has tripped me up, am I still writing about it? Why am I still buying books and taking courses?
I could cite curiosity, or the lack of anything better to do while stuck in lockdown, but there’s something deeper going on. I think it’s a yearning to make the most of the time that I have in this life. And the way to do that is often to prioritize learning from other people.
Take habit building. This is a crucial skill that forms the foundation of many other skills. In order to get really good at something really hard, you have to practice it a lot, endure a lot of discomfort and frustration, and critically assess your areas of strength and weakness. You could figure out how to do this on your own, with trial and error, and for a select few people, maybe that’s enough.
Most of us, though, benefit from learning from someone who has been through all this before. A coach, a teacher, or a mentor. An author who has spent years studying a problem from every angle. A trainer, a nutritionist, or a therapist. And thus we begin our search.
The self-help marketplace is full of systems for sale. It’s an $11 billion industry, and it’s fiercely competitive. It’s unregulated. And the measuring stick for what constitutes an effective product is fuzzy. This creates a problem for the consumer. How do we know if a weight loss system works? How do we know if a book about being happier or more confident works? I might know if it works for me, once I try it, but how does a person deciding which book to buy or which class to enroll in know which one to choose?
For the salesperson in such a market, their incentive is to pitch their system as comprehensive and foolproof. This works in part because claims are hard to vet, but it also works because, as consumers, no matter the industry, we’re taught to seek out the all-in-one solution—it slices, it dices, it grants you permanent enlightenment. Accordingly, a system often comes with the promise, either explicit or implied, that if you adopt it wholesale, you will see incredible (yet vague) benefits. You will lose all the weight you’ve ever wanted to lose and keep it off, you will get strong and buff, you will make your life perfectly organized and efficient. Upon close inspection, many self-help marketing messages are incredible only in the original sense of the word: too extraordinary and improbable to be believed.
And yet, despite the difficulty, I do believe it’s possible to find guidance that can help you learn new skills, achieve personal goals, and feel better about your life. You have to be discerning, though, which means avoiding the fallacy that any one system will be everything you want it to be. The only system that can possibly do that is the one you build for yourself.
The way to see benefits from self-help is to adapt lessons from these systems into your personal system. This requires you to put in some work up front. You have to get very specific about what you hope to find. Rather than allowing a system to seduce you into chasing after whatever it’s promising, promise yourself something first. Decide what you want to chase. You choose the direction to strike out in, and you propel yourself forward, blazing a trail if that’s what it will take.
Once you have an orientation and a trajectory in mind, and hopefully some intermediate, tangible, and ambitious goals, you can try things out until you find the systems—or more likely, the pieces of systems—that are trustworthy and that help move you down the path and get you closer to your goals. What you discover to work will depend on both what you are chasing and who you are; just because you find a system that makes the right promises doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do what it asks.
There’s this dude Wim Hof; they call him the Ice Man. He can spend like an entire week floating in an ice cold lake or something. He’s built a whole program around teaching you to use exposure to cold to condition your body. It’s an inventive and provocative idea. His system promises resilience and mindfulness, and these are things I’d like to pursue.
One of the techniques he advocates is cold showers. When I first learned about this several years ago, I found several people who swear by it; they’d taken to it so well that the cold shower became one of the the highlights of their day. This takes discipline, I thought, and I’d like to have that kind of discipline. What if I’m ever in a situation where there’s no hot water? (The fact that I might plausibly never be in this situation again for the rest of my life is saying something.)
But I resisted the idea of taking cold showers, and it was bothering me. As it turned out, the problem was simple; I love taking hot showers. It was already one of the highlights of my day. It took me some time, but eventually I realized that this tactic just wasn’t for me, and I didn’t need to feel guilty or weak because of that. Cold showers aren’t the exclusive pathway to a resilient mind.
For some people this practice feels right and fits in with their aesthetic, and for others, it doesn’t. This can feel discouraging, but it’s not a matter of moral judgment. Things can always change. You will change. Maybe one day I’ll wake up with a sudden inexplicable urge to take a cold shower. Maybe I’ll decide to try it after I’ve just done a sweaty workout and see if I feel differently.
(But probably not.)
Thanks for reading! If you want more like this, I send out a short newsletter once a week (here's a good issue) with reflections, new stuff I've written, and links to the best stuff I'm reading.