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As the year draws to an official close, many of us naturally start thinking about the next turn of the wheel. We start to muse about what roads we might want to head down in 2018. What kind of updated vehicle we wish to be driving, perhaps. And what Shiny New Us we want to see in the driver’s seat.

It’s also the time for reflection and review, and right now I’m remembering that it was just about a year ago that we talked in this column about how smart it would be not to go on a diet in January.

Side note: Not dieting is always a good idea, every day of the year.

But this year I’m thinking Let’s go bigger! Not dieting is a great start, but maybe we could take 2018 to set aside self-improvement plans altogether. We often acknowledge in these pages that “time for ourselves” can be pretty restricted—but working with what we’ve got, I want to offer, for your consideration, the idea of spending the year on self-cultivation, rather than self-improvement.

Here’s how they’re different: self-improvement sounds nice (sort of). We’re making ourselves better! Who couldn’t use that? But the attitude at its base is one of solving problems. It’s about fixing flaws. There’s something wrong with us, we’re not good enough, time to whip ourselves into shape.

Operative word: whip.

So we set goals (Lose weight! Read the classics! No gossip!) and develop plans to meet them, and we feel very resolved, and three days later it all falls apart and our optimism is replaced by despair. I think a lot of the trouble is rooted in not picking good goals.

I had a lot of help in examining my life goals from Regena Thomashauer, head of the New York-based Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts. The school is dedicated to the education of women in the art of joie de vivre, a topic not much treated in my home growing up, as previously noted. Joy? Simple joy in living? Don’t you need a lot of money for that? Could a person reasonably expect to have any joy, really? I had questions.

Mama Gena had ready answers, and one of the first things I remember her saying (I’m paraphrasing here) was that achieving a goal doesn’t really bring happiness, because a goal is something you think you should have already achieved. The box is ticked, but there’s no feeling of being out ahead. You were already supposed to be there. You’re late.

So there it is again. Something wrong, not enough, as the Zen folks say. Self-improvement = fixing what society labels as deficits or flaws = not really a recipe for happiness. How could it be? It’s built on self-rejection.

Self-cultivation is the term I like for the opposite of self-improvement. It’s not about avoiding disapproval, or trying to become more acceptable. It’s not running from something you just want to have behind you.

It’s doing things and being ways that bring you toward something inherently pleasing. It’s about being someone you’d actually want to spend time with, a person of depth and experience and, yes, perhaps, joie de vivre! A person who’s got interesting stories to tell about the very things that you are deeply interested in. And I think the only way to find those things that cultivate our sense of worth and depth and fascinated pleasure in living, is to follow our own affinities, our own inherent interests. What Mama Gena calls a “desire.”

When we ask deeply, What do I desire? What is it I am drawn to do, learn and be right now?, some strange answers may surface. Perhaps you want to knit every swatch in Barbara Walker. Maybe you want to learn Amharic so you can go to Ethiopia and see their monumental underground churches. Maybe you just want to collect Hugh Laurie memorabilia.

Whatever these desires are, they come from deep within us, probably a place beyond the reach of culture. Goals that come from our deep selves might not earn us a lot of public approval, the way culture-sanctioned goals like “lose weight” and “earn six figures” and those various public “challenges” do. Deeply personal goals are probably going to be things that we do without fanfare or expectation of a public parade at the finish line. They’re going to be things we do for our own simple pleasure. And that’s the reason we have a much greater chance of achieving them.

In the comments section, I would be excited to hear about your self-cultivation plans for the coming year. What’s on for you in 2018? How are you going to cultivate your glorious, singular, irreplaceable life this year?

Binders full of self-improvement? Image: Meisjes leren grammatica, Désiré Mathieu Quesnel, after Louis Alexandre Eustache Lorsay, after anonymous, 1868, Rijksmuseum.

About The Author

Max Daniels is a research-based life coach whose weekly emails make us laugh with recognition and rethink everything we thought we knew.

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  • Thank you, Max— this shift in thinking resonates with me. Can’t wait to spend some time on considering my self-cultivation ideas!

  • Wow you gave me a lot to think about. Thank you.

  • Great post! Self-improvement versus self-cultivation. Such a huge difference between the two. The first one implies a heavy burden. I am 68 years of age, still working for a living, still dreaming and looking for things and being ways that can be pleasing but is the first time I see this idea put in such a sensible, straight forward and practical way: ask you own heart!!! When I said “practical” I meant, for example, the idea of stop making lists of goals and ticking the boxes. All the boxes unticked turn into heavy ghosts. I just found an excelent way to start a self-cultivation 2018: no more lists to be ticked!!! Thank you for the inspiration!!!

  • Totally enjoyed this post. You had me at Womanly Arts. Love the concept of Self-cultivation. Will think about this some more.

  • Today I found the to-do lists I started in January 2017, aimed toward self-improvement. They petered out by March. Since retiring, I have found myself focusing on who I am, not what I achieve. The result is feeling more balanced. This essay helps. Thank you.

  • I’m going to cultivate my inner Mrs Butterworth. I’m going to take my own sweet time.

    • I love this – maybe because I’m not even entirely sure what it means – who IS Mrs. Butterworth, really? But she seemed joyful unto herself, even in what must have originally been the adverse condition of being a kitchen slave. But she definitely has a secret personality.

  • So interesting! The only Resolution I have for 2018 is learning how to crochet, because there’s this dragon toy pattern I Need To Make.

    I can’t decide if this is self improvement or joy or a combo…

  • Loved this!

  • This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about lately! This year, I just want to listen to my heart and see where it leads me. This is going to be my Year of the Un-Goal. XO

  • I have declared 2018 the year of the snail. I even bought a snail pendant to remind myself to slow down and enjoy the journey, whether that is a knitting project that I am not rushing through or an article I want to savor. Take time for just being, breathing and listening

    • Amen! I saw a wonderful sloth pendant, to remind me that not being productive is also a really good thing. Here’s to slowing down!

    • Love your idea for a gentle reminder. Bravo!

  • I, personally, do not believe in “new years resolutions” which are, in effect, the same thing you are talking about. I do set some goals for myself, but I don’t beat myself up if I don’t get to them. Goals for 2018: get back to my spinning wheel and knit more socks.

  • Love this! Self-cultivation sounds like tending to the garden of ourselves–what nutrients do we need? how much light, water? to bloom as we were created to do.

    • Thank you for stating this so well; exactly my thought.

  • I have already begun to cultivate. I just couldn’t articulate it so well. I have wanted for some time to resume bread making. This is not a public goal with my own action plan but a personal meandering in a direction. I am experimenting with a recipe in a children’s book that I will do with 3 and 5 yo granddaughters who love to count and will find joy in kneading 100 and then 50 times without ever considering a bread machine. I have also started a Korea related reading endeavor. The best I can do to ease my worries about this part of the world. Fiction, non-fiction, cookbooks; no formal list or plan. Doing something is better than nothing. Finally, I have been dreaming and swatching for the Log Cabin KAL. I have 6 washcloths done. The last one a total improv since I’m running out of yarn.

  • Thanks, Max. I love this idea.
    All the best.

  • Love this – have been working on this is small ways just to get through my current stay-at-home-mom days. If I have a lot of SHOULDS, I find it hard to get started in the morning, but if I start with something I WANT to do, or even something that’s just not the thing anyone else needs me to do, like rearranging that shelf…or knitting a few rows…then I can breeze through the rest of the cooking/cleaning/errands, whatever.

    I also love having an alternative to “improvement” as cultivation. I have just moved into a very old house that suffered from years of, we say, “benign neglect.” I didn’t want to frame it as “bad” energy or “bad” behavior from the previous owners, because I do think they valued the house. Realized that I am not “battling the bad energy” but “adding organizing energy to address the natural processes of entropy.” Framing it as simply putting in love and energy where things had been slowly falling apart, as they do, rather than a push/pull of good/bad has been really encouraging.

    • Amber, I cannot tell you how strongly your words spoke to me. I am getting divorced after 25 years and have possession of a house that also suffered from benign neglect. My 10 year old son and I joke that it’s the place things come to in order to break. Giving me the words to frame it as “putting in love and energy where things had been slowly falling apart” is a revelation to me–one for which I am quite thankful. And which apply to many things other than the house in my life right now. Sincerely–thank you.

      • I’m so glad! It’s really been an important mindset to me. I have a son, too, just about 3 weeks shy of being 10. I think his hands are the place things go to break…or disappear? But maybe I just need to help him learn more organizing/anti-entropy techniques.
        Even the cleanest, most amicable of divorces are horribly difficult for everyone involved, I wish you all the very very best.

  • I apply a new word for every year. This year’s goal is “Joy”…as in “Finding the joy in every circumstance”. Obviously, some of my circumstances are pure joy (stroking a wad of alpaca roving), while others (family health challenges and personal foibles) are more challenging. There is joy to be had in every moment and I’m determined to at least recognize it, if not fully join in the party! Let there be joy in abundance this year!

    • I so agree with you, joy in the moment. I have been practising this since I retired from work a few months ago, and while some challenges make this difficult to do, it is worthwhile. Love your post Max, a great way to think about your path in life.

    • I also have a new word for the year. Last year it was thankfulness. In practicing thankfulness in all the things that came my way this I discovered a sense of peace and experienced profound joy, also. I’m not sure joy is something you can find if you are in pursuit, or if it finds you when you are mentally ready? May your joy be abundant!

  • What a great way to look at this. I’ve felt this pull but couldn’t articulate it. I want to get back to giving attention to my creative self and do more of what makes me happy, just because. Here’s to a great year ahead!

  • I’ve just completed six months of chemotherapy, with apparently good results and a clean bill of health. Going through this since last June has made me appreciate my friends so much! People have come out of the woodwork to wish me well, send cards, call me, send little gifts. I have reconnected with some old friends from when my kids were little (they are in their 40s now) and even from when I was a girl or young woman. I want more of that! So I think this year coming up will be a year to cherish my friends and continue in a deeper connection with them, and maybe continue to track down old friends I haven’t been in touch with. I would like to BE the kind of friend my friends have been to me, but that’s starting to sound like a should… so if I just say “spend more time with friends,” I think that will cover it.

    • Such wonderful news! Really happy to hear it, Judy 🙂

  • Yes! I have always felt that goals and to-do lists were things I should already be doing. Not taking me to a better place. Your words make all the difference. As Beverly said at the top, this resonates with me. I also am off to contemplate (knitting and baking are involved)

    Thank you Max!

  • I am going to cultivate patience for myself.

  • The bit of wisdom about how goal-checkboxes can rob us of satisfaction and the joy of accomplishment resonates with me. Thanks for that!

    8 months into new motherhood, I find myself yearning for self-cultivation, but it feels entirely out of reach, I sat with your question for a while, and tried to ask myself what I deep down desire right now, but all that came up was: the default expectation of uninterrupted sleep; to happily and unguiltily lose all track of time while ensconced in knitting, sewing, a novel; to stay at work late because I’m firing on all cylinders and to finally leave, bleary eyed but triumphant about what I accomplished.

    I don’t think these are the kind of things you’re talking about? They sound to me like a bad case of nostalgia for pre-baby life. None of these things are available to me right now anyway, when I’m the physical and emotional center of a small human’s universe.

    My instinct says that it is just at this time of seemingly bottomless giving of myself that I need care and cultivation, but I feel profoundly at a loss. Who is this self? What does she desire, looking forward into the future, not pining for an irretreviable past? I suddenly realize I don’t have any answers to those questions, and it’s kind of freaking me out!

    • When my boys were young, I remember watching someone walking towards the train station wearing a suit, and I so wished at that minute that I was about to be squashed like a sardine in a train and on my way to work!

      It does get better, but I remember when I was living through the baby years each day could feel so long. Defend your right to a little bit of headspace every day.

    • Motherhood takes you on a new journey in a different direction. The road is full of unimagined delights and challenges. The disconcerting part is not being given a map! That takes some adjustment but it does occur. Best wishes on your new path.

    • I’m headed back to work in January and leaving my little monster in daycare. I anticipate feeling like you do as right now my Mom visits a few days a week to hang out and help with the baby so I get some me time. Maybe self-cultivation is starting to figure out who you are and what you actually want now? For me it will be living in the moment with my family and using my commute for me time. Hang in there and good luck!

    • Hey Julia. Your comment brought tears to my eyes. Even though my youngest child in 25 I still remember the pain of being a new mother. Love and hugs to you. Trust your instincts take a bit of time for yourself every day to do what you love (reading, knitting, yoga, etc) .

    • I just have to add to this, too: people will tell you to take time for yourself, and you should, and there’s nothing like a quiet moment of coffee and knitting or bath or whatever, but what I find TRULY refreshing is when I have 90 minutes or more of truly focused time to do one thing that is apart from all other things. For me, it’s bookkeeping (with someone’s ELSE’s stuff, not mine), or house renovation things (painting a wall, or…), or anything, as long as it has a conclusion, an end product, is not immediately reversed (like laundry or cooking), and is not attached to the everything stuff of life (set the crock pot BEFORE you start, no interruptions!!!)

    • Oh man, I remember those times! My youngest are seven now, and it took a long time to feel like I had anything I could truly call my own (I suppose that’s not particularly encouraging, is it?). Sounds like you’re mourning your pre-kid life, which is a little different from nostalgia, and can be honored differently. And yes, the things that you do for yourself are going to look different, and they’ll take awhile to figure out. Maybe self-care at this point means grieving what you’ve lost and keeping your heart soft, ready to accept what your next phase of life has to offer you personally. Journal during naptime, go out for coffee with friends, say yes to any and all offers of help. Hang in there!

    • You’re feeling just as I did about two years ago when my daughter was a baby. I used to be very career driven but now I’m a stay-at-home-mom and when I made the transition I at first was quite disoriented. People tell you it gets better, and it does, but learning to get over the guilt of saying “f the dishes (or whatever other non life threatening thing you ‘should’ be doing) I need time for myself,” makes a huge difference in getting there. That is totally easier said than done. However long it takes, you’ll find yourself again.

  • I’m having another baby January 2nd so this year will be all about surviving with my sense of self intact. Knitting helped me do that when I had my daughter. So did a supportive husband who realizes that knitting is more important to my mental health and by extension the care of our family than a clean house is.

  • “just want to collect Hugh Laurie memorabilia”. Please do not use the word “just” in that way, It trivializes the desire. Otherwise, great post!

    • You’re right! Nothing trivial about Hugh Laurie – especially lately!

  • Regretfully, I have to hang onto one goal, which is just as you described: something you think you should have already achieved.. What is it? Make a financial plan for looming retirement! I really can’t let that go. But I’m excited to begin thinking about self-cultivation, and the things I’ve wanted to do, study, or become, and put off because of GOALS. Now I’m down to ONE goal, so entering self-cultivation has really become possible! Thanks for saying the right words at the right time.

  • Love this post and appreciate the change in attitude from self-improvement to self-cultivation. I took stock on my December birthday of what I wanted to do this coming year and have already begun learning about and enjoying my new cashmere goats. Most of my friends wonder what possesses me to take on more critters and “work” when I see this endeavor as feeding my heart and soul. Thanks Max for so clearly stating what I’m attempting to do.

  • I want to continue cultivating my independence as a knitter. In particular I plan on knitting at least the Basic Crew Sweater in Jacqueline Fee’s book, “The Sweater Workshop.” And speaking of Barbara Walker, I really want to knit my way through her book, “Knitting From the Top.” Being a Knitting Independent just appeals to me!

  • Your last sentence reminds me of Mary Oliver’s question:
    “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?”

    I’d like to read and write poetry, because it makes me happy to do so.

  • The most successful resolution I ever made was the one to keep homemade cookies in the cookie jar for one year. I kept the resolution and found that I lost interest in eating them and my family loved it. My kids had friends over more, enjoyed the happy atmosphere of cookie baking and even helped. I started calling it cookie therapy because it was so relaxing to bake. They still talk about the year of chocolate chip cookies. (They complained when I made any other variety)
    A resolution can add something to your life and lives of those around you, not just be something you sacrifice to fit into a bikini.

    • I LOVE THIS IDEA. This is what I need to do. I think we are all, in my family, running on a terrible feast/famine with goodies and as the leader of the pack, I’m going to give ourselves permission to just make the damn cookies and have them around. Normalize it, satisfy it to CHILL OUT about it.
      I have always been reluctant about “New Year’s Resolutions” because I know I can’t/don’t even want to hold myself to an impossible standard or something totally different from what I’m doing. I HAVE made resolutions about “more” that have worked: more chanpagne, more picnics, more blue (when picking paint, clothing, home and personal accessories, etc).

  • Last year I started the year off full of big plans and purpose. My word for the year was Transformation! I signed up for the SWA Mastery course in 2017 and got it spades. My life transformed and took a 180 turn. Mama Gena also says before rapture comes rupture. This whole year has been about rupture, which I guess is another word for transformation. My life at this moment in time is unrecognizable to me. Everything that I’ve worked so hard to achieve for the past forty years has disappeared through no fault of my own. As shocking as it sometimes seems to find myself in this place, there was a moment of “careful what you wish for” when I chose Transformation as my word for the year. Transformation can be interpreted any number of ways and one doesn’t get to choose the trajectory.
    At the same time, in the middle of all the change, I’ve felt supported and held by unseen help, though I’ve also realized how many fair weather friends I had. The friends who have shown up are the ones I met in Mastery. The self care tools I learned there have been invaluable.
    Reading this post about Self Cultivation is a huge sigh of relief. Transformation is exhausting. Self cultivation sounds so civilized and appealing.
    Even before reading this, I had already decided that my goal for the year was to become a better knitter. While I wait for the rapture part of Transformation!

  • Thank you so much for sharing this. I needed to read this and I need to save it. Thank you, thank you.

  • This article has brought on much rumination for me! Good and bad rumination. My first thought was depressing, as I thought about the wonderful difference between self-improvement and self-cultivation: why is it so hard to give up on self-improvement ideas?? Because as I tried to think of some self-cultivation to foster in 2018, ‘goals’ kept popping into my brain: “I’d like to get my running up to 10 miles” – no!! Or even “I’d like to finish those next 3 knitting projects in my sweater queue” – no, not this either! These are all based on deadlines, and definitely on the belief that I really should have already achieved this. No, not these things. Even when I think “I want to read more this year” – it has the whiff of ‘be more productive’ somehow. I love running and knitting and reading – but somehow I have always put pressure on myself, even in these wonderful hobbies, to achieve some goal. Why? And it is depressingly hard to give up on this! So – what I am going to try to cultivate this year is more joy while I am in the process: when I am out for a run, don’t think about where to set the finish line, but look around and see the trees and the sky and notice how the air feels. When I knit, do a couple rows and then stop; look at what I’ve done, squeeze the yarn, enjoy the fact that I am sitting and breathing and feeling happy. When I read, stop after a delicious paragraph, re-read it, observe what the author has done to make me feel what I am feeling… I want to stop more, feel the moment more – and stop pondering my NEXT steps/projects/books… but I think I’ll try to start now, no need to wait for 2018 to start!

  • I’m tired of the whole self-help, self-improvement industrial complex. What I’d like to do is practice radical self-acceptance, flaws and all (hey, wait a second, what flaws?!). That can be hard to do when society is screaming at you to be the way society thinks you should be.

    I’ve recently started knitting again after I quit doing it 30 years ago. That’s all I wanna do now, and that’s fine with me.

    • Sarah, I could not agree more. I quit working ten years ago and still struggle with being “allowed” by me to spend my time on my hobbies and interests. I’m still setting “goals” to be more organized, have a cleaner house, better meals, and do “productive things.” Until about a year ago, I would not let myself knit or read during the day, only in the evening. During the day, I had to do household chores, cook, pay bills, run errands, work in the yard, volunteer, or take care of our dogs. Even as I write this, I realize how utterly ridiculous it sounds, but it really was what I thought.

      Just the past year I realized that at 63 it is time to start doing what I want to do most of the time. I have gotten as much from reading the comments of others as I have from the article itself (which was fantastic). I am going to cut back on the numerous self-improvement projects I seem to be drawn to and try self-cultivation instead.

  • That’s what we need! More self absorbed people at a time when improvement of our attitudes toward others is desperately needed. Self-improvement does not equal self-rejection, self-blame and negativity. Self improvement just means accepting that we are all a work in progress. That as with any process there is room to be better. Our reality changes with changes in our lives and society, and so must our response to it. Goals aren’t things that we should have done, goals are something we are interested in. This year’s goals are different from when I was 20. Life without goals is stagnation. Thanks but I’m keeping my apparently outdated “goals” and continuing to strive for an improved self and community. YMMV.

    • Gosh, I don’t read the article or any of these comments as advocating self-absorption. I guess my mileage does vary.

  • This is one of my all time favorite posts, and definitely my favorite post of Max’s. I love Martha C’s comment as well, The Year of the Snail,because that is where I am. At 71, i feel like I am careening through the end of my life, being told to check off boxes, begin “death cleaning” for heaven’s sake, check off every thing on my bucket list’, enjoy a new career, meet all my unfulfilled goals. This isn’t really me, and while I don’t do it, I am often made to feel that I am supposed to feel guilty because I am not.
    This year, I want to experience life at a snails pace, to take all the time I need to look about me, enjoy the moment, enjoy my family, and my friends ( and at my age, you begin to lose them quickly) and do things that I enjoy. Period. I am who I am , more improvement is probably not likely, no resolutions, no guilt.

  • While I knit in only the figurative sense, Max has touched upon the core of what I’ve woven together with my allegorical algorithm FARM (see — Cultivate Your Self) I’m so glad to see self cultivation has resonated with so many people (which I guess is how all-seeing Google suggested to me!) and would appreciate any feedback, thoughts or questions anyone has on FARM.

  • Great article. I have decided to change things 180 for 2018. Until now, I have been focusing on completing what I HAVE to do in order to enjoy what I WANT to do. In 2018, I will be focusing on doing what I WANT to do, in order to feel more refreshed for what I HAVE to do. I feel that this is a much better direction for me.

    • Love that!

    • Wow Annette, you hit the nail right on the head. Thank you

  • I am going to spend more time in my alpha zone. try for a little each day. for me that means painting. I can paint all day and the worlds problems do not encroach and time stands still. I need for time to stand still.

  • It’s taken me 71 years to figure out that doing things that make me happy, even if they don’t make sense to others, is an excellent survival technique. I no longer question whether it’s practical, or makes sense for a woman my age — I do. I’m not self-improving, I am indulging my inner child, something that didn’t happen when I was a kid.

  • Since turning 50 I have a word and/or for my birth year (55 is unemcumbered) and one for the calendar year. After reading this post and pondering its wisdom I’ve decided that for 2018 my mantra is ‘Goal free as what will be will be’ sung to the tune of Doris Day’s Que sera sera

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