Self-Help or Self-Improvement?

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Do not bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” 
― William Faulkner

I have a lot of books. Like a lot a lot. Multiple bookshelves. All full. Spilling out. Books under the bed, under the couch, in my drawers, in the car, in my classroom, in my backpack — everywhere. My family always had a library growing up, and books in every other room — so to me it seems normal. I’m always surprised when I go to someone’s place and don’t see books. While I honestly derive some (okay a lot of) pride from my book collection, it’s also a little scary when someone new comes over and starts to peruse. Despite having read more books in a year than most people have in ten  — books are a personal thing, and I don’t want to be judged for my choices. 

I have all kinds of books, but the overwhelming majority are non-fiction. Within the non-fiction I have several different types — one being self improvement. Personal development. Growth. Whatever you want to call it — terms we use because God forbid we say “self-help”. 

A common TV trope is the sad single in a bookstore self-help section. Hat and glasses on — invariably ends up running in to their ex/crush/mortal enemy. It’s looked at as shameful or embarrassing to look to a book for help. And I get it — I’ve felt it too. But more often I wonder why the stigma still exists — I mean, shouldn’t it be shameful NOT to want to improve yourself?

I think there are three types of people who have a problem with self-improvement: 

1. The people who already think they’re perfect (don’t need improvement) 

2. Those people who aren’t self-aware enough to understand or realize that it’s possible to improve (i.e. do not read) 

3. The people who think they’re just too freakin’ cool. Too hip. Too faux artistic, intellectual, blah blah you know the type (just follow the scent of elitism and overcompensation)

Well, maybe there is a fourth type. One that I fit into. And that’s the group that has some problems with self-help's false pop culture definition. Or maybe just the word help. 

Help and improvement - to me - are very different. Help is something you NEED. It’s aim is to make things easier. Improvement is about GROWTH. Development. Things you want to advance in your life — easy or not. Help comes from a needy place, and I don’t have to tell anyone that’s not a good look. It comes from a place of lack — I need something in order to be fulfilled. Improvement comes from a desire or a want deep inside — it’s active, it’s from a place of abundance. 

Help vs. Improvement is similar to the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset. These terms are everywhere lately (like here, here, and here) so I’m sure I don’t need to go over them again — but basically, if you have a fixed mindset you believe your intelligence, traits, gifts, whatever, are fixed and that there’s not much you can do to change them. Just deal with it. Get help. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is the mindset you have when you believe you can change. You can improve. Your intelligence, traits, gifts, whatever. It’s when you embrace failures as learning opportunities and continue to strive towards the things you want. 
That’s why I’m so interested in personal development — I know I can improve anything I want to improve. Now, I’m not so obsessed with improvements and efficiency and life hacking that I try to improve every part of my life unnecessarily, but I know that I can if I want to (through deliberate practice and hard work).

So why is there still a stigma? While there are definitely higher or lower levels of stigma depending on the type of people you surround yourself with - there seem to be some barriers that are fairly general. 


“The worst disease which can afflict executives in their work is not, as popularly supposed, alcoholism; it's egotism.” 
― Robert Frost

While it’s super hip and instaworthy to practice yoga, meditation, healthy eating, etc. it’s still somehow super uncool or cheesy in some circles to admit that you are actively trying to improve yourself through any of these methods. It's somehow better to be seen as someone who is just naturally peaceful, meditative, flexible, healthy, positive, etc. rather than someone who is striving to be. If we admit that we are striving for something more in our lives, it seems like we are admitting to being less than - and our ego doesn't like it. 

For example, I’ve been 95% vegan for the past several months (and yeah I know how annoying the 95% part is...), but I’m the first to admit that it’s not just for ethical, wannabe cool Colorado girl reasons. I like the way it makes me feel, and honestly I like the way it makes me look. Why is it wrong or cheesy to admit that we want to improve?

We don’t want to be seen as weak

"Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.” 
― Rainer Maria Rilke

It’s hard to ask for help — we all know that. But it’s also hard to just admit that we want to improve. Which is cray because we all know about imposter syndrome — in fact, I just read that over 70% of people have experienced it at some point in their lives. Felt like they weren’t qualified or good enough to do their jobs. Imposters in their own lives. And while this isn’t a positive way to go through life, at the same time, if you don’t feel competent - you can do something about it! You can learn, improve, grow, and feel capable if you’re willing to help yourself. 

The real weakness we should be concerned about is passivity. Not doing. Not striving. Remaining stagnant in our lives. 

We also don't want to be seen as self-centered

“There is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you take nothing personally.” 
― Miguel Ruiz

We don't want to be seen as weak, but we also don't want to be seen as self-involved. "Who does she think she is" "They are just trying too hard". While I wish the opinions of others held no weight, as a human I can't help but sometimes think about it. I'm sure we all do. If we are actively trying to improve ourselves, it's going to rub some people the wrong way. Chances are those people are insecure about that same thing, and wish they had the willpower to change it too. So be kind, but don't stop growing for others, you aren't taking anything away from them - there is enough to go around.

Fear of Change

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” 
― Jalaluddin Rumi

I’m sure you’ve heard the Alice Hoffman quote, “Once you know some things, you can't unknow them. It's a burden that can never be given away.” I think about this a lot, and have realized that I sometimes physically avoid things because of it. Once I check that email, ask that question, read that book, whatever — I can’t go back. I have to deal with it.

I don't think I'm alone in this. It seems like a lot of the people I meet are avoiding something. Not asking the hard questions. Playing it cool. Making excuses for their behavior and their lives instead of trying to change them. Sometimes I just want to scream, “how about you just get your you know what together like an adult?!” — but of course, no one has it together. So why are some of us so afraid to admit that? To show that we care? That we are trying to change? 

Change is scary - but staying the same is even more terrifying. When we fear change we end up repeating the same behaviors and thoughts that keep us in a cycle of negativity and passivity.


This one is a little controversial - but as a teacher, I see it every day. The self-esteem movement - yes, of participation trophy fame - really has had the negative effect of promoting entitlement (in some cases - obviously not all). Self-esteem is absolutely crucial, but the way it has sometimes been misused in the last few decades has led to generations with sizable groups of people who believe they are worthy of praise and adulation just for being. 

Think of reality TV. It's made up of people who have basically no qualifications or positive attributes - but they have achieved what many people in our society see as a successful life. They aren't trying to change - they are just being themselves. And I hate to say it, but yourself isn't always worthy of praise. None of us are born blameless or without fault, so why is it so common to hear the refrain of "just be yourself" "you deserve _____ just for being you" "don't ever change" "I'm just being me". While these all come from a place of positive intentions - and if used in the right way are positive phrases - they can easily be used as an excuse.

I'm just being me can easily be used an excuse to be a jerk. Like when someone prefaces a rude opinion with, "it's just my opinion" as if that let's them off the hook. Yes, just be yourself.... unless you're a jerk.  

So now what?

Don't be afraid of the self-help section - whether we want to admit it or not, we are all striving to improve our lives - which can only happen by improving ourselves. Be a little bit ruthless - what part of your life could benefit from some growth? Don't give in to negative behaviors just because "it's who you are". Then get to reading! Blogs, articles, books, whatever! Don't be ashamed! And while you may come across some cheesy stuff - more than likely you'll find some amazing insights.

11 of my Favorite Personal Development Books

If you don't know where to begin (or - like me - are always looking for recommendations), here are some titles to start with (that you may not have even realized are "self-improvement"!):

#Girlboss by Sophia Amoruso

And don't forget to let me know what you think :) 

Friday Five - 11.18.16

"Be interested in everything. You don't have to adore it. I don't adore hip-hop, I don't think it's great music, but I'm interested, I listen. I watch a lot of new films, I see everything. I still read, I like books, whether they are old books, new books. I'm interested - you gotta stay interested!' - Mel Brooks

I really enjoy the process of blogging. I like writing, sharing, photos, research, basically just creating. But the idea of a long blog post synthesizing tons of information, pictures, and maybe a joke can be daunting. So I'd like to try to start posting a Friday Five post - five things I'm super interested in this week. Not that my interests are so great you should take the time to read all about them and take them as your own - but because the process of sharing is so important and something that I really value. I love hearing about random art, articles, books, podcasts etc that other people are into and I love reading these sorts of posts from others. So here are five of my (not election related) current obsessions: 

The Unicorn Tapestries - The Met Cloisters Museum

I took a quick trip to NYC last weekend and spent the perfect Sunday roaming around the Cloisters Museum. The museum is in Upper Manhattan on the Hudson River in the middle of Fort Tyron Park. It was the perfect fall day, with the perfect company, and some really interesting medieval art. 

The best part was a room with the Unicorn Tapestries (or the Hunt of the Unicorn). It's a series of seven tapestries depicting hunters and noblemen pursuing a unicorn. The tapestries have been a mystery to critics in modern times but they are believed to have been created between 1495-1505. Some historians believe they were commissioned by Anne of Brittany as a gift to Louis XII on their marriage in part due to an A and E that are displayed in each tapestry - but this has also been refuted. 

The unicorn is such an interesting figure and the symbolism of it in the tapestries has also been the subject of much debate. "The original pagan myths about The Hunt of the Unicorn refer to an animal with a single horn that can only be tamed by a virgin; Christian scholars translated this into an allegory for Christ's relationship with the Virgin Mary." Interesting stuff.

There is a lot more information about the tapestries and the symbolism online if you can't make it to the museum - but I'd recommend it if you are in the area. Read more here, here, and here.

Grace Hopper - Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient

Grace Hopper, the "first lady of software" was one of 21 people awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom this week! Super exciting to me for so many reasons. Hopper was one of the first female computer scientists, one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark 1 computer, an admiral in the United States Navy and so much more. I painted her portrait for my classroom STEAM stars wall and I'm so glad she is getting even more recognition, albeit posthumously.

Interesting Grace Hopper story: she is believe to have invented the term "de-bugging" after she found an actual moth in Harvard's Mark II computer.  

She is awesome. Read more about her here and here

Math Gender Gap

As a math teacher who has spent three of the last 8 years teaching all girls, this study has been on my mind a ton this week. It found that the gender gap in math starts in kindergarten due to teacher and parents expectations and biases! I know this to be true from my own experience but it's still shocking to see that girls are consistently underrated in math skills when the data actually shows that they start out at the same level of ability. Boys are more likely to be called on to answer or demonstrate, and teachers in study after study are shown to have unconscious biases towards girls math ability.

This is so important for teachers, parents, mentors - everybody to address. In order to close the gender gap in STEM girls need to first believe that they are capable! (and have role models like Grace Hopper :))

Read more here and here

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

I'm reading 52 books this year so people ask me for recommendations a lot. Well, people who read books - so still not like a lot a lot haha but a fair amount of people. I just finished up Daring Greatly after it had been in my pile for months and I can't recommend it enough. I'm always skeptical of the Oprah book club variety fare but this is a revelation in so many ways.

The title comes from The Man in the Arena exerpt from the famous Teddy Roosevelt speech, Citizen in a Republic

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

This quote is at the crux of Browns research that led to her incredibly popular TedTalk on The Power of Vulnerability - and the book is basically a continuation of the talk. Brown defines vulnerability as, "uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure" and through the book explains that in order to have purpose and meaning in our lives, we must have the courage to be vulnerable.

She says, “When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make,” says Brown. “Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience.”

It seems like common sense but I honestly have felt a shift in my life since I have read this book. I have let myself be vulnerable in ways that I haven't done in the past and I feel so much freer. I could go on but you should just read the book! Or watch the TedTalk :) 


Summer Plans - (and that guy who dissolved in Yellowstone)

It snowed for the first time this year yesterday in Denver (after a 40 degree temperature drop in mere hours) so I have been thinking a lot about summer haha. I love summer - not just because I am off work - but the sun, the water, the mountains, the opportunity to wear backwards hats - the list goes on. 

I've been looking through some of my summer photos (like the ones taken in Yellowstone above in June) and reminding myself that just as winter comes, so does summer and soon enough I will be back out there. 

I've also been morbidly obsessed with stories about the guy who essentially dissolved in a hot spring after falling into it just a few days before I visited. I heard about it at the time but the report was just released so if you're into that stuff... look here and here. 

So there ya have it - my top fives this week. I will (hopefully) have five definitely new, maybe interesting, possibly math related things to share next week. What are you thinking about this week? Stay interested friends.