Desperately seeking self-improvement : a year inside the optimization movement
- Carl Cederström and André Spicer.
- New York : OR Books, 
Where to find it
"A comically committed exploration of current life-hacking wisdom in areas ranging from athletic and intellectual prowess to spirituality, creativity, wealth, and pleasure." -- The New Yorker
In these pages, the authors of the widely-acclaimed Wellness Syndrome throw themselves headlong into the techniques of self-optimization, a burgeoning movement that seeks to transcend the limits placed on us as mere humans, whether the feebleness of our bodies or our mental incapacities.
Cederstrom and Spicer, devoted each month of a roller coaster year to a different way of improving themselves: January was Productivity, February their bodies, March their brains. June was for sex and September for money. Perhaps the trickiest was April, a month devoted to relationships, when their feelings for each other came under the microscope, with results that were both hilarious and painful. Carl thought Andre was only "dialing it in," Andre felt Carl was too controlling.
In fact, both proved themselves willing guinea pigs in an extraordinary (and sometimes downright dangerous) range of techniques and technologies, had hitherto undertaken little by way of self-improvement. They had rarely seen the inside of a gym, let alone utilized apps that deliver electric shocks in pursuit of improved concentration. They wore head-bands designed to optimize sleep, and attempted to boost their memory through learning associative techniques (failing to be admitted to MENSA bit learning pi to 1,000 digits), trained for weightlifting competitions, wrote what they (still) hope might become a bestselling Scandinavian detective story, attended motivational seminars and tantra workshops, went on new-age retreats and man-camps, and experimented with sex toys and productivity drugs. Andre even addressed a London subway car whilst (nearly) naked in an attempt to overcome a negative body image.
Somewhat surprisingly, the two young professors survived this year of rigorous research. Further, they produced a hilarious and eye-opening book based upon it. Written in the form of two parallel diaries, Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement provides a biting analysis of the narcissism and individual competitiveness that increasingly pervades a culture in which social solutions are receding and individual self-improvement is the only option left.
Diary 12.1.16 - Smart Drugs It's been a week since I first tried the smart pills. I was well aware of their existence. But I had never tried them out. The productivity coach I met had suggested using them. I trusted his judgment. But I still didn't feel perfectly comfortable. Was it not dangerous? I wrote an email to a well-known psychiatrist, specialized in ADHD, and asked if he could meet. He agreed, and I went to see him at his psychiatric clinic. This was last Monday. I got there on the tube. It was cold and snowy. The meeting was interesting. I was asking about various drugs. He talked about Modafinil, Ritalin, Adderall, Attentin, Metamina, and others. I asked about the risks of me "hypothetically" using these drugs. He said the risks were almost inexistent. I then asked about the effects. He compared it to drinking coffee, then changed his mind, saying it was much better than coffee. It was hard to tell whether he spoke from his own experience or not. So according to the doctor these drugs are working also for those without an ADHD diagnosis, and they are not dangerous, at least not when used during a shorter period. I asked if he, with his trained eye, could see if I was under the influence. No, he said. Not if I kept to the recommended dosage. I liked what he had to say, obviously, especially since I was taught as a child to always listen to what doctors had to say. My grandfather was a doctor, and so was my uncle, but they were both pathologists. I'm not sure how useful their advice would be, except if I was venturing to become a serial killer. It felt good hearing this from the doctor because I knew that, by publically taking these drugs, I would be exposing myself to serious problems. I had asked my sister, who was a lawyer, and she said that, since these medicines were classified as narcotics, they were illegal to use. I brought this up with the psychiatrist. He said that was true, but that he had heard of no single case of people being caught for using these drugs. Still, I felt I had to tread lightly. As a precaution, I had gone to see my dean a few weeks earlier. This was just before Christmas. As I entered his office, I began explaining that I "might" be using these drugs, as part of a planned book project, and that I wanted to assure myself that I'm not going to get fired. His first, "neutral", response was reassuring. Like others I had asked, he confirmed how hard it was to fire people in Sweden on the basis of drug use. As an employer you have to prove that I, the employee, have been abusing drugs over a longer period of time and that my addiction has had a negative impact on my work. But as he started to realize what I had in mind, he became all the more serious, asking, in a stern voice, "Are you saying that you intend to use illicit drugs at work"? Well no, not really. It's just hypothetical, I said. Hypothetical?!, he snapped back. It sounds as if you've already made up your mind. I tried to convince him otherwise. Had I already made my mind up? I wasn't too sure. Certainly, it had been my intention to use the drugs, but not if it meant I would lose my job. He shook his head and sighed loudly. "Why can't researchers just be like in the old times?", he said in a resigned voice. I then gave him the following scenario: Let's say I hand over a diary, describing my use of drugs, and that you have to call me to a new meeting, along with the university's lawyers and the HR-director. "For fuck's sake, Carl", my dean now cried out, burying his face in his hands. "Do you realize what position you're putting me in now". I asked if I should maybe have a word with the lawyers at the school. "I think you should not do this at all", he said. I started to think about that hypothetical meeting again. "Would it be worse", I asked, "if I would hand over a diary with my presumed drug use and then, in the middle of the meeting, announce that it was all a hoax and that I had never used these drugs at all, but just wanted to see how you would react?". At this point, my dean was just shaking his head, saying, over and over again, that I had made him perplexed. I felt a bit sorry for him. He hadn't been in this management position for a long time. I didn't want to make life too difficult for him so I decided to remain silent from this point onwards. A week later, as I ran into him in the corridor, I told him I will not hand over any diary. I didn't say I would not use the drugs, however. Luckily he didn't ask. As a final precaution, I talked to the union rep. I told him about my plans. He was slightly concerned, saying I shouldn't to upset the people at central HR. His advice was to make sure not to use these drugs while at school. I decided to follow that advice. Seemed sensible. I felt relatively at ease with both the legal and medical situation when I popped my first Modafinil pill. It was last Tuesday. Exactly one week ago. I had woken early that day, before five, after a poor night's sleep. I started writing straight away. It went slowly. Nothing seemed to happen. No boost. I made a note on my iPhone: "don't feel the effects of the pills". After breakfast I decided to go down to the Royal Library. But that didn't help either. After each pomodor, I went down into the basement, had a leak and then stared at myself in the mirror, drinking water, silently cursing. I was tired. I checked my Jawbone. It informed me I had slept just over five hours. Perhaps that was the problem? Indeed, that WAS the problem. I continued taking Modafinil the next two days. I made sure to first get enough sleep. The difference was striking. I no doubt felt more alert. I was able to focus in a way that seemed unusual. But then I also felt some slight side effects too. My jaw seemed stiff and I had an urge to scratch my face. But it wasn't too bad. I could control myself. As I walked along the canal one of those days I tried to put my finger on the experience. Following the advice from the productivity guy, I had made walks part of my daily ritual. It was a heartbreakingly beautiful day. 15 minus degrees. The canal had frozen, covered in a light glittering layer of snow. I could hear the screeching sound from my boots. Clouds of smoke came out as I breathed. So what did I make of these pills? They seemed to require discipline. It seemed you couldn't simply ignore your sleep and then rely on the pills. It also seemed deceptively easy to get stuck in the wrong activity. I had noticed this on a couple of occasions. If I briefly had to check something in a book, I often found myself continuing reading. If I started writing an email I didn't seem able to stop. Which is usually a good thing, at least if you can control it. I gave the pills some more thought. I wanted to think of them, not as an addition, but as a subtraction. It didn't seem to add energy. It was just removing tiredness. I knew that that was not the full story, but it seemed as a nice mental image. That way, I wouldn't expect miracles, and I wouldn't start to get paranoid about other possible side effects. Last Friday, after having used the pills for three days and reflecting on its effects, I used it together with a friend. Jenny was the perfect partner. She was working as a psychologist and author, having written a number of highly regarded novels, most of which were aimed for teenagers. She arrived just after nine. We sat down at the kitchen table, and started working. We used the pomodoro technique. During the short breaks we talked about the effect. We agreed it was working. Jenny came over again yesterday. The weekend had been nice and pleasant. No drugs, and no work. I'd been looking after Esther all weekend while Sally was working. So I had to catch up. To achieve the goal I had to write 3 pages on average each day. It didn't seem impossible. I just had to stay focused, making sure not to lag behind. This time we tried another drug, called metamina, an amphetamine-based drug, used mainly against ADHD. The effect was very different. This was not just subtraction. This was something more. It was an altogether new experience, as if we were immediately immersed into our own private spaces. Like a bubble. All the sounds around me that would otherwise be annoying had now disappeared, or come together in a pleasant wall of light sound. All that mattered was the task ahead of me. I had just started a new chapter, and I sat down and started to write with great ease. I then had to go through a few books, mainly the letters of Epicurus, and it all went very smoothly. It was not as if everything went faster. Rather it was as if both time and space ceased to exist and that I was all alone with my own writing. I don't think I have ever experienced anything like that. I wondered if the text I had produced was any good, so I asked J if I could read it out loud, and she thought it sounded really good, in no need of editing. I will be very cautious with these pills. Don't want to get dependent on them. I know they are highly addictive, even though the doctor I interviewed last week said there is nothing to worry about if I'm planning to use them only for about two weeks. J seemed to share my experience. She said she hadn't worked this well in a very long time. Whereas I seemed to get a bit mellow - but in a pleasant, solipsistic sort of way - she was getting more up-beat and talkative. Perhaps the most interesting observation was that the pomodoros were no longer useful. We just wanted to keep going, and each time the alarm went off to tell us we had to take a break, we got irritated. At 12.30 we had a quick lunch and then went for our scheduled walk. The snow was melting and it was slippery. And we didn't really feel like walking anyway, so we decided after only five minutes to return back home to continue working. I was about to start a new section and had to go through a series of books, mainly by Freud and Lacan, and this too worked really well. I read through chapter after chapter without interruption and I found the pieces that I was looking for. At five S came home. We carried on working for another hour and at 6 we sat down and had a glass of wine. We were all rather amazed. I now understand the delight it must be for a child in school who's never been able to concentrate and then suddenly, with this medication, they get a chance to filter out all of the annoying noise and quiet down. In the evening I met up with my friend from whom I received the pills and I was telling him about the reaction. He told me that that was the typical reaction among those who have ADHD, which made me rather surprised, because I would not consider myself as unusually bad at concentrating on one task, although I do, of course, struggle with that too. Excerpted from Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement by Cederstrom Cederstrom Carl, Andre Spicer All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.