The other day I saw a social media ad for an app to optimise my calendar. Followed by an ad for a workout plan to optimise my muscles. After that, a meal-order service for optimum nutrients, followed by a post for reishi that promised better sleep. For a second, I envisioned the lithe goddess I could become if I opted into all four: eating, sleeping and exercising perfectly, while my calendar gets AI-configured for the max amount of whatever I deem needs maximising.
Then I remembered today’s algorithms are based on the same foundation the advertising industry was (a century ago): you are not enough as you are. You could be better — if only you bought this. The only difference is that these days it’s followed by a ‘click here’, but that digital tweak is crucial.
That tweak means producing and disseminating these ads is cheaper than ever, which means we’re seeing them more than ever. In that overload, we’ve ended up in a pressure cooker known as Being Your Best Self. I used to wonder if it was a big-city thing, a privileged-person thing or a social-anxiety thing, and now I think it’s just the world’s most common digital business model.
Being Your Best Self is a subtle brand of perfectionism. It works as a sales ploy when the audience feels they’re falling short and therefore have to turn to the influencer for tips. Yet, by definition, it is an impossible quest. Like an asymptote, our ‘best’ selves are always beyond reach — we can stretch towards the curve but never quite touch it.
‘Best’ implies ‘ideal’ — as in, ‘existing only in the imagination.’ You can eat healthily. But you can also always eat healthier. You can work out. But you can also always be fitter, faster, stronger. You can be smart. But you can also always be smarter.
Never have we been reminded of this so frequently. As long as there are ways in which we can feel ourselves falling short, there will be ways in which we can be sold something that helps us get rid of that feeling of incompleteness.
Yet this is why the new Tiktok trends, like how to be a ‘stay at home girlfriend’, baffle me. They aren’t selling anything. They’re sharing their routines as a way of promoting… what? Themselves? Follow them for more… info? On… their routines? Maybe I’m too old to get it.
In any case, it was refreshing to hang with my Boomer parents over Christmas and notice how removed they are from (a) sharing their private lives on others’ phone screens (b) ‘aggressive optimisation’ culture. Instead, they do their best. There’s a big difference.
Doing your best means showing up, working hard, and keeping your word. It’s empathy and perseverance. It’s committing for the long haul even when things aren’t glamorous or enviable. It’s not always sexy, and it’s not always fun. In short, it’s about committing to getting 1% better daily (the main message I took from Atomic Habits).
Being your best self is often a hamster wheel fuelled by vanity. It’s the idea that there is this ideal person you could be if only you did this or that, which requires purchasing this or that. Once you become this epitome of perfection, then you deserve love. Or acceptance. Or belonging. Or inner peace.
The energy I’ve been taking into 2023 is doing my best as a friend, family member, founder, writer, etc. That includes using whatever tools I need, not because I think I’m ‘not enough’ without them but because they make life easier (e.g. the feel better app, a Nutribullet, social media).
It includes taking this energy into when I am selling. There’s a type of advertising that is: “You are struggling because I say so, but hey, I’m here now — so let me help you.” And then there’s: “I see you struggling because you’ve said so. If you’d like, please, may I help you?” I gravitate towards the latter.
This year, it’s about being proud of 80% instead of regretting not getting 100%. It’s the satisfaction of knowing you made an effort, even if nobody else sees. It’s not letting the curse of the ideal prevent you from taking a shot. As John Steinbeck said, “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
One last thing: I’m definitely not against personal development — I’m against the idea that we need to optimise 24/7 to be worthy of our deepest desires. We don’t need to always be improving. As radical as it sounds, we can be enough as we are.