The Philosophy of Self-Improvement

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There are thousands of books, podcasts, and social media posts about how to be more productive, strengthen your relationships, find your purpose, and be your all-around best self. And there are legions of programs and seminars out there designed to help you improve your life. All together, self-help represents a multi-billion dollar industry.

But despite its ubiquity and cultural influence, you may never have thought about the deeper underpinnings of self-improvement. My guest has. In fact, her research led her to add being a life coach to her academic work as a professor of cultural history, surely creating one of the most unique career combinations. Her name is Anna Schaffner and she's the author of The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten Timeless Truths. Anna and I begin our conversation with how the idea of self-improvement, far from being a recent, Western phenomenon, traces back to antiquity and can be found across cultures. We discuss how self-help reflects what a culture values, and changes based on a culture's conception of selfhood, agency, and the relationship between the individual and society. From there we turn to a few of the timeless principles of self-improvement — self-control, being virtuous, and building positive relationships — looking both at how they were tackled anciently, as well as more modern angles that can also be helpful. We discuss the downside of taking a strictly Stoic approach to life, the idea of making virtue a habit, and how Dale Carnegie can be seen as a modern Machiavelli, in a good way. We end our conversation with Anna's four favorite self-improvement books.

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