It's nice to think that anyone can engage in self-improvement. Unfortunately, while there are a few things most people can do, a lot of what we view as self-improvement requires financial privilege.
Twice a month, I visit with a therapist. She helps me navigate deep work on myself. I learn about my programming, what's holding me back (and why it's holding me back), and receive guidance for overcoming those things. My mental and emotional health is supported.
I've been doing this regularly for a year and a half. In the past, I've done counseling for specific issues. Now, I'm doing it as maintenance for my life. It's part of my long-term self-improvement effort.
I have this experience because I can afford a health insurance plan that allows me access to these services.
My financial privilege allows me to do something that many others simply can't do.
A Lot of What We Think of as “Self-Improvement” Requires Money and Time
When many of us think of self-improvement, we think of things like reading books or working with a coach or even going back to school. We talk about meditation, eating healthy foods, exercising, and listening to podcasts.
At first glance, it feels like anyone should be able to do these things.
Listen to a podcast on the way to work! Just take a few classes in the evenings! Get up an hour earlier to exercise! Make sure you're meditating!
Unfortunately, for many, the ability to truly work on ourselves, make progress in our lives, and develop healthy mental and physical habits require time and money. There's a certain amount of privilege involved when it comes to self-improvement.
Do you have the money for self-improvement?
I've got a friend who could use some therapy. However, he doesn't have health insurance. His jobs don't come with it. He works full-time hours — at multiple jobs — and because he doesn't have a single full-time job, he doesn't have health benefits through work. Unfortunately, his income also doesn't allow him to buy a policy that covers counseling.
The fact that health insurance in our system is tied tightly to work is a problem. Additionally, even if you do have insurance, it might not adequately cover mental health services or counseling.
Gym memberships cost money. Sure, you don't need a gym membership to exercise. But it can help — and you're likely to make even more progress if you can afford a personal trainer. Yes, you can go outside and jog. But if you want to get a weight set, even for simple strength training, you need money.
If you live in a food desert, access to affordable and healthy food options can be challenging. You might not be able to walk to the grocery for fresh produce. And what if you can't afford a car to drive to a different location for your shopping? Healthy eating isn't all that simple when you need to spend money on transportation to get to the store. And let's be honest. Have you compared the prices on healthy items to less-healthy options?
If you're strapped for cash, eating healthy to improve your life is a luxury.
And let's not even start on that whole, “Just get more education and you can get a better job,” thing. We know how expensive post-secondary education can be.
There are plenty of examples like this. While you can talk about low-cost or free options for different self-improvement options, the reality is that they can be hard to find. And if you don't have access to the internet, you can't get some of that free stuff anyway. Just finding resources for free and low-cost versions of self-improvement can take more time and effort.
And that's where privilege really begins to show.
Who has time for self-improvement?
Let's say you don't have much money for self-improvement, and you do find ways to make these changes without spending a lot.
Do you have the time and energy for self-improvement?
In my life, I have the time and energy for self-improvement because I make a decent living — one where I don't have to worry about working long hours. After I get some work done each day, I have the privilege of time. I still have energy — mental as well as physical — left to improve myself.
For the last two years, I've been working on my MBA. Because I have time in the evening and weekend to do it (on top of the money). I can work out in the afternoon because I'm not left exhausted by a job (or two) that takes up eight to 12 hours of my day. Most evenings, I can prepare a well-balanced meal to share with my son.
Just wake up an hour earlier and exercise! How does that work when you're already getting up early to get the kids out the door for school, and you're running late for your job, and your partner is just getting in from an overnight shift?
Like, if you're getting up any earlier, you wouldn't have gone to bed!
I know people who work a job that should pay a living wage — but that doesn't — and so they spend time doing DoorDash to make ends meet. But that doesn't leave much time for sleep (another thing we're told to do for self-improvement) if you're going to be up half the night studying for school, all while trying to make sure you carve out time to spend with your family.
Self-Improvement Porn and the Myth of Anyone Can Do It
We love stories of people walking miles and miles to get to work. The media makes a big deal of the few people who catch a lucky break after some amazing feat of perseverance. We marvel at stories of homeless college students getting through on pluck and the eventual goodwill of others.
Unfortunately, most of these stories only serve to help us feel comfortable in our privilege. See? If they can do it, anyone can. No excuses.
But here's the thing.
For each person whose self-improvement porn story makes the news and results in the gift of a new car or a GoFundMe to help pay for college classes, there are scores of others who work just as hard, try just as much, and don't get that lucky break. Eventually, they succumb due to health, debt, overwhelm, or just sheer tiredness.
It's nice to think that everyone has time for reflection, self-improvement, and involvement. When you're working several jobs just to cover the necessities of life, and that's taking up all your time and energy, and you don't have the money left over, how are you supposed to “invest in yourself?”
Self-improvement is never easy. I have all sorts of privilege and ability, and that sort of deep work is difficult for me. It's even harder for those without my advantages.
Rather than sitting back and feeling smug, we might be better served as people and as a society to think about how we can improve our systems and rearrange our priorities so that more people truly have the same opportunities when it comes to self-improvement.