The Politics of Self-Development

We’re just over a month into the new year which means it’s been a month since you’ve set a few goals or thought about what you want to achieve for the year ahead. Perhaps you’re feeling groggy after a week of skiing in Tignes or wearily getting yourself back into the routine of lectures. The gym fees have been paid for, the healthy new diet is starting to get a little bit bothersome and Dry January has come to a close. The hype of New Year’s has faded but it’s perhaps more worthwhile thinking about your ambitions now than a month ago. January is usually a month of flux; you’re moving around places, catching up with people, sorting out assignments and getting ready for what’s coming next, but February is where your routine starts to cement itself. 

I’ve been reading Atomic Habits recently and it’s a fantastic book. There are tons of great lessons, little tips and tricks but I’m not here to write a book review. Nonetheless, it’s worth sharing some of what the book talks about. One of the points the author makes early on is that you shouldn’t necessarily build your life around goals since they only change your life in that moment of success. Habits, on the other hand, become part of who we are – a kind of proof for our identity. As James Clear writes, ‘The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game’. To take this a step further, he argues that there’s three layers of behaviour change: outcomes, processes and identity. ‘Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe’ and if we’re only focused on the outcomes – the things we resolve to do at the start of the year, we don’t fundamentally change who we are. His argument, simply put, is that there are two steps to successful change. Decide the type of person you want to be and prove it to yourself with small wins. 

Now that we’ve hit February, an improved approach would be to figure out who you are resolved to become instead of what you’re resolved to achieve and start fitting in the processes and habits that make that possible. But what on earth does any of this have to do with politics?

Philosophers and political thinkers have been talking about what people should do and how their political structures should for a very long time. Perhaps one of the most important concepts involved in all of this is freedom. Since the Enlightenment, the idea of ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ started as the idea of self-determination but it has gradually changed into an idea of freedom as the ability to do whatever you want so long as it doesn’t hurt other people.

Some authors argue that this is basically the divide between the Right and the Left – the right takes this to mean economic freedom to do what you want with less regulation and lower taxes while the left takes this to mean a social freedom of being allowed to be whoever you want without persecution whether this means your gender or sexual preferences. Yet once upon a time, freedom meant something a bit different. If you dip into philosophy – specifically Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy – you realise that ‘freedom’ generally means freedom over yourself. Whether it’s Aristotle discussing areté or Marcus Aurelius journalling his stoic meditations, real freedom meant overcoming your worse impulses. 

This idea changed slightly under Christian theologians, but the same gist was there – it’s just that now it was because God said so and that there was a place reserved in the afterlife for those who did well with sticking to the rules. The Enlightenment may have given us freedom, but it might be more than we know what to do with – when you’re free to do just about anything, what should you do? Out of all the options available for you to become, which one should you strive towards?

Another point that’s important to highlight is that the ancients were community focused. They didn’t have the same idea of mass society that we do – Rome’s population peaked at one million while modern day London has closer to nine million. What’s more, they obviously didn’t have the internet so not only was the population tiny by comparison but there wasn’t the same awareness of the rest of the world. In this context, the idea of individualism was foreign – you couldn’t survive by yourself and you had to know the people you could rely on. There were the people around you and your community and for the most part, you had to figure things out for yourself. When Gauls might come raiding at any time or a bad harvest might strike, there were few people outside of your surrounding community that you could rely on. In fact, this is where the word politics comes from – the polis. Bigger than a town, it was more like a city-state and in order to compete against other tribes and cities who were willing to rob you or generally put their interests above your own, everyone in the community had to pull their weight. 

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country – John F. Kennedy

We might not live in such brutal or unpredictable times now – our own lives are relatively stable – but that doesn’t mean we can’t take on board some of the lessons of the past. If COVID showed anything, it’s that community is still important. The WhatsApp group chats finding out if the local elderly are still ok and organising shopping trips show that the people we live near are the people we rely on when the going gets tough. Even if big crises are few and far between, resolving to be a better person allows you to face the challenges in the world around you more competently. 

To give a brief anecdote, I went out to the movies with a friend of mine a while ago. I was driving us back afterwards and he got a phone call from his Dad telling him to get to his grandma’s house. It turns out that his grandma had slipped in the bathroom. She was thankfully uninjured but was struggling to get up. I was never a particularly healthy person during high school but thanks to a first-year flatmate, I’ve gotten into the habit of hitting the gym these last few years. It’s a small improvement in the grand scheme of things but while his Dad had been struggling to help my friend’s nan out, we relatively easily figured out a way of getting her into her chair and at the risk of sounding immodest, it was mainly because I was strong enough to pick her up. The point here is that there’s a connection between you being the best version of yourself and your ability to support and help your community. 

It’s easy to mistake politics as a process that takes place in a dusty old building in a different part of the country, but real politics – the striving and struggling of the polis – is all around us. All politics is fundamentally local and the more you improve yourself, the more competently you can support your community. Sometimes that means dedicating some of your time to an organisation or a cause but in my experience, it often means directly working on yourself so that you can better tackle challenges. Working to get a better job means you’ve got more money to help loved ones or donate to charity; paying more attention to your fitness means you have a better ability to lend a hand helping people out; reading a few pages a day means that you might have a nugget of wisdom to give to your friend when they’re struggling with a problem. All of these things are important when it comes to improving the world around us. Life isn’t about independence and we’re not individuals; life is about interdependence and being part of a community.  

Resolve to improve yourself by deciding what kind of person you want to be and prove it with small, consistent wins. Doing so means that you can help your community and the people around you more effectively. Government may be in London, but politics is all around you. 

It takes a village to raise a child.

 African proverb

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