The Traps of Self-Optimisation

What does constantly wanting to perform better reveal about ourselves and our society?

By Chloé Meley

In mid-July 2019, as part of a promotional cycle for a collaboration with Adidas, the singer-songwriter Grimes posted on her Instagram the details of her confounding workout routine. A self-care program veering on the side of performance art, her ‘training regimen’ includes a wide array of mitochondrial supplements, a sensory-deprivation tank, sword-fighting, and screaming sessions. Although it may well be trolling or a publicity stunt for her upcoming album, these types of boundary-pushing self-optimisation routines are unironically and enthusiastically endorsed by other high-profile figures. Take Jack Dorsey for instance; in pursuit of greater energy and productivity, Twitter’s CEO has revealed earlier this year on the Ben Greenfield Fitness podcast that he abides by a strict set of rules involving daily hours-long meditation sessions, ice baths, a single meal a day on weekdays, and no meal at all on weekends. Self-denial and self-discipline in the name of productivity have become the new normal for the tech moguls of Silicon Valley, who starve themselves and exhaust their minds and bodies in the hopes of unlocking greater potential.

Although those extreme practices may deservingly prompt cynical eye-rolls, what they are rooted in is a pervasive belief in one’s capacity and duty to optimise oneself, a belief we all buy into to various degrees. Whilst I am the first to sneer at egregious forms of self-improvement and have never felt driven by the urge to fulfil the drastic demands of self-enhancement in the way that Jack Dorsey does, I have nevertheless been enticed by the idea of forging a better version of myself.  Despite it taking on outrageous, laughable forms in Silicon Valley, the practice of self-optimisation is not restricted to this elite, and is in fact much more central to our selfhood than we care to acknowledge. I would even say that self-optimisation is so integral to the way we operate – so close to who we are – that we are unable to draw clearly its contours and objectively appreciate its ubiquity. We so enthusiastically revel in its rewards and so eagerly ignore its traps, that we lack the ability to critique it. But articulating a critique first requires a description of what self-optimisation is, and what it can be. 

Self-optimisation is a series of connected actions directed towards a revered end goal, an abstract ideal of who we ought to be dictating the concrete steps we take while we’re still not. It is a process that never truly culminates to settle on a version of yourself that is deemed fully accomplished. More importantly, self-optimisation is a cultural exhortation that also works as a promise; the promise of greater freedom through self-discipline, of the acquisition of more social and economic capital through the sharpening and distinguishing of self. The drive to self-optimise, perceived as both inescapable and fundamentally desirable, is the background noise to our decision to swallow vitamins, to download apps to track our physical activity, to read books and articles dispensing advice on entrepreneurship and productivity. None of those things are bad. But the motivations behind those pursuits and the context within which they arise are worth homing in on. 

Indeed, self-optimisation cannot be disentangled from the demands of a capitalist system. We do not self-improve because we yearn for an actualised self, but instead out of desire – or perhaps more accurately out of need – for an efficient self. We do not wish to perform better just for the sake of it, but because we feel like we need to compete. In an era of late capitalism, better does not mean more fulfilled; it means more dynamic, more productive, more profitable. To self-optimise is to become more able to navigate a saturated job market, more malleable in a gig economy that demands flexibility, more resilient to a digital world in which everything is amplified in a deafening, live-streamed buzz. The quest for self-improvement, upon which we have all embarked to various extents, is dictating an approach to our bodies and minds as a resource and as an enterprise. Something to relentlessly exploit, constantly update and refine so we can work more efficiently, more quickly, to yield greater results. We mine our physical and mental potential, chase physical and mental performance, wanting to make our bodies steadier and our minds sharper, our very selves more valuable – and ultimately, more marketable. We are spoken to in the language of efficiency, and self-optimisation is our answer. 

But self-optimisation is not merely a response to capitalism, it also fuels it, legitimises its model of individualistic competition by putting the emphasis on the principles of self-responsibility and self-reliance, by placing immense value on the notion of individual exceptionalism. As such, when we self-optimise, we are both adapting to capitalism and implicitly acknowledging the legitimacy of its workings. We internalise the idea that the most important thing about ourselves is our productivity, and that our most crucial personal responsibility is the growth of that productivity for the purpose of setting ourselves apart from others. The practice of self-optimisation becomes a deeply personal endeavour that says something fundamental about our worth, a tool to carve up a noteworthy individual out of a shapeless mass. A gushing stream of well-packaged probiotics, sleek wellness apps, and books and articles filled with advice swirls around us, and in the storm, we keep seeing the chimera of a better version of ourselves, the one that will be able to stand out from the crowd.

Wanting to be productive, self-responsible and above-average are not noxious aspirations in themselves, but the need to optimise one’s life often becomes overbearing. When we worry about not being productive enough, and when we try to fight against our need for rest and our yearning for idleness, it is not merely ourselves we are up against, but rather a whole system that values work above all else. Not only do we refuse ourselves stillness and laziness, but we also convince ourselves that we genuinely love the constant grind, that we take great pleasure in relentlessly optimising our bodies and minds. The fact that we always want to be performing at high levels is not apolitical; it is not a sign of remarkable individual willpower, but instead the symptom of a collective sense of urgency, the feeling that if we stop for a moment, we’re risking lagging behind and never being able to re-enter the race again. 

Workism, a term coined in February 2019 by Derek Thompson, a staff writer at The Atlantic, refers to the obsession with work that pervades American culture. Although his analysis of workaholic behaviour is specific to the US, I don’t think it is much of a stretch to apply the same kind of reasoning to the UK, and Europe at large. Workism manifests itself as the placing of work at the very centre of life. Occupation becomes identity, and life starts to revolve around what we do, rather than who we are. Self-optimisation works in concert with workism, as mutually-sustaining systems and intertwined phenomena we can’t quite wrap our heads around. I propose the cycle works as follows: the increased productivity we derive from self-optimising routines is directed towards work, fuelling our obsession in the process, and our obsession with work in turn legitimises our engagement in productivity-enhancing practices. What this can lead to, over time, is burn-out. Anne Helen Petersen, a Buzzfeed reporter, published a story in January 2019 entitled ‘How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation’. In it, she lays out the millennial condition as one of constant burnout. This affliction, which is likely to define Gen-Z as well as we progressively enter the workforce, can be attributed to the internalisation of the idea that work should be the single most important thing in our life, what we direct all our energy towards and build our entire identities around. She writes: ‘In a marked shift from the generations before, millennials needed to optimize ourselves to be the very best workers possible’. By identifying self-optimising tendencies as a product of a competitive system that demands more work, better work, ever-improving work, and linking that to inevitable exhaustion, Petersen highlighted the workings of a fatigue many of us have become acquainted to. 

You might not agree with this diagnosis, might not feel like you’re always in the process of mining your own potential to satisfy the demands of a mindless capitalist society. It is probably because it is a general diagnosis, and that, as with many social ills, contamination manifests in many different ways, to various degrees. But I am fairly certain that the relentless pursuit of productivity, sometimes carried out at the expense of our wellbeing and often done without careful consideration of our motives, is quite familiar to a significant number of us. As I see more apps (Sleep Cycle helps you track your sleep patterns, Freedom blocks digital distractions to make you focus for larger periods of time), companies (care/of ships personalised nutritional supplements directly to your door) and websites (OptimizeYourself.me offers courses, articles and a podcast to teach you how to be ‘healthy, productive and successful’) promising the optimisation of our bodies, minds, and lives, I worry that we’re being sold burn-out with a bow on it, the pernicious commodification of our selfhood disguised as the satisfactory elevation of that selfhood. Although it goes against everything we have internalised about our self-worth, it is sometimes worth remembering that productivity is not the supreme value, and upgrading oneself not the be-all and end-all of existence. 

In the process of writing this article, I have tried to be mindful of how I felt about how slowly I was writing, about how difficult it was to even muster the sufficient initial motivation to open my laptop. I tried not to feel bad about those things, and yet I still did. I am quick to equate productivity with merit, eager to put the emphasis on my organisational efficiency as if that said anything substantial about my character. Every day I buy into and help perpetuate the idea that being better is being more productive, and being more productive is being worthier. Writing an article about it does not absolve me of that, it does not even help me make peace with it. It simply is an attempt at understanding, at drawing the contours of a phenomenon that still eludes me somewhat.

Chloe Meley is a final year International Politics student. She writes her in a personal capacity and not as Editor in Chief of Incite.

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