carl cederstrom andre spicer

What 2 Professors Learned After Devoting a Year to Self-Improvement

For most people, January marks a new year, a new beginning, a new opportunity to reinvent or at least improve themselves (they don’t say “new year, new you” for nothing, right?). But for André Spicer and Carl Cederström, their commitment to self-improvement didn’t dwindle after a month… their journey spanned one whole year.

In 2016, the authors of “The Wellness Syndrome” committed to a year-long “optimization movement” in which they devoted each month to a different way of improving themselves, documenting the entire ordeal in their latest book, “Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement.” Both became willing guinea pigs of their own experiment, dedicating each month to a specific “improvement” area — productivity, spirituality, body, brain, creativity and sex being a few. Professor Spicer and associate professor Cederström tried everything from Cross Fit to stand-up comedy, plastic surgery and even prostate vibrators.

We caught up with Spicer and Cederström to learn more about their pursuit of self-improvement and the biggest lessons they learned from their optimization movement year.

What sparked this pursuit of year-long self-improvement?

André Spicer: Our previous book criticized all these practices from a distance. We wanted to experience them close up and keep a record of what we found

Carl Cederström: We had previously studied self-improvement from a safe academic distance. Perhaps too safe. So we wanted to throw ourselves into this culture, headlong and see what would come out of it.

What was the most challenging month for both of you? Why?
A.S.: Mind. My failure to learn computer programming lead me to endure a punishment of giving a speech at speakers corner—the topic was why I’m an asshole.

C.C.: The sex month. I had previously never thought of masturbation as an area of optimization. My goal was to be multiorgasmic, but I failed.

Was there a time where you just wanted to throw in the towel?
A.S.: Yes, many times. I think one of the hardest aspects was dealing with an intense work relationship over so long. Male friendships can be like minefields sometimes!

C.C.: Several times. We went through a period in April when we didn’t speak to each other. I was ready to pull the plug then.

Since this “project” finished, do you feel like you’ve gone back to your old ways/habits?
A.S.: Yes. There are one or two habits I’ve stuck with, but it is amazing how quickly I reverted to default settings.

C.C.: Yes, but with some exceptions. I’m still using the pomodoro-technique when working. I’m still a member at the CrossFit gym, though not going there as regularly as last year. I have no intention to have more plastic surgery. Not yet, anyway.

Why is constant self-improvement important, in your opinions?
A.S.: Our culture demands it of us—to [prove] you’re a good person you have to show you’re improving yourself… that pressure can be overwhelming sometimes.

C.C.: The will to become better is a basic human drive. There’s something positive in trying to be better for other people, whether you want to become a better friend, partner or parent. But the imperative to constantly be better can also be destructive, as it bombards us with the disheartening message: you’re not good enough.

List your five biggest lessons learned from this year-long journey.
A.S.: 

  1. Do first, think later. This is how I became a stand up comedian.
  2. Switch off. The best way to increase productivity is to get rid of email, social media, meetings and other useless social noise.
  3. Treat yourself like a machine sometimes. This is how I trained for a ultra marathon in 30 days.
  4. Treat yourself like a human at other times. Sometimes you need to switch off and indulge your basic needs.
  5. Experiment. I learned to think like a performance artist and see the things I did as an experiment.

C.C.:

  1. When we tried to optimize every aspect of our lives we soon realized how many shortcomings you have. According to the self-help literature we can succeed in a million different ways. But that also means we can fail in a million different ways.
  2. By the end of the year I read through all my diary notes and realized that this was my life, not in text or pictures, but in numbers. A strong trend in the culture of self-improvement is the use of apps and technologies—a kind of Silicion Valley-style self-improvement 3.0.
  3. Some of this techniques really did work, such as language-learning techniques which helped me learn French (barely) and memorization techniques that helped me memorize the first 1000 digits of pi.
  4. That there are limits to what you can change. Self-help often draws on positive thinking: making the claim that there’s no barrier to success apart from you. But when I tried to change career and become a well-paid HR executive, it didn’t matter how positive I tried to think. No one was interested.
  5. As we absorbed the central message of self-help—everything is possible if only you try hard enough—we became impatient with one another. When André suggested he’d run a marathon, I simply sneered, saying he should at least do an Iron Man.