What If You Never Improve?

I’m so depressed now. I log onto Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, whatever and I’m just inundated with pictures of self-help aphorisms written by everyone from Lao Tzu to Mein Kampf and re-posted, re-pasted, photshopped, imaged, throw in a cute cat, or someone doing acrobatics, and life is great. C’mon, cheer up! Failure is good. In order to have sunshine you need rain to make the harvest in the spring. Or someting like that.

Some days I simply want permission to fail. I don’t want self-help. What if I’m a janitor and I log in and everyone is copying a URL of an image that someone copy and pasted “The people who fail the most are the people who TRIED the most!” from Confucius or whoever (sounds like Confucius. But I’ve never read Confucius. So it sounds like people who have, for my entire life, copied Confucius so I would not have to read him). I might feel pretty bad at that moment. Isn’t there a rule or something about finding purpose in life and then TRYING to fulfill that purpose. Did I really want to be a janitor?

Ok, as an example, give me one second. Logging onto Pinterest. Great. I knew it. Right at the top. The quote is by the actor who played God in “oh, God”. I like the design: type mixed with drawing on a schoolpad.

George Burns might honestly think the above, but that doesn’t help me when I feel like a failure. When I fail at something I love, whether it’s better or not, I’m going to feel pretty horrible. If something (or someone) I love disappoints me, then I’m going to feel pretty crappy. No matter whether it is “better” or not.

Now I look at my inbox (169,724 unread emails) and I guess I’m a failure. I’m horrible at keeping in touch with people. Even the people I love the most. And then sometimes people write me and say, “I’m really surprised and annoyed you didn’t respond to my latest email.” Don’t you read my blog? I’m dysfunctional at communicating with people, ok? Do you have to remind me? And I love communicating. So maybe God (see above) was right: better to be a failure at something you love.

Sometimes I can’t improve. I can’t always  breathe deeply and smile and breathe in compassion and breathe out gratitude. My brain might not want to. I can’t control, for instance, the color of my skin. Nor can I ALWAYS control what my brain does without my permission. If I do yoga I’m going to hit a wall, for instance. Maybe I will or maybe I will not ever be able to do a handstand for 60 seconds straight. And even though Claudia bought me “Spanish for Gringos” and I made it a New Year’s Resolution in 2011 to get better at Spanish I just might never learn it. I might never improve my language skills.  I wish I could. But sometimes I can’t. And I promised.

And as we’ve been told in countless books, “can’t” is a bad word. A curse word even. And so is “should” and so is “impossible” and so are phrases like “I’m no good” or “I hate the way I look”. But sometimes I look in the mirror and I just want to puke. I’d like to meet the person who doesn’t. Maybe Larry Page doesn’t. I don’t know.

Yesterday I felt a little burnt out in the middle of the day. I had things I wanted to write. I have three books I want to get together. I have emails to return. I have phone calls to return. I have one or two people I have to disappoint (I’m sorry in advance!). But I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted to take a little break. So I turned off the computer. And I just sat around. I didn’t read any self-help books or fiction. I didn’t return the emails. I could’ve maybe taken a walk but I didn’t. I got a glass of water and sat on my couch and did nothing. There were leaves creating shadows on the windowshade. I stared at them. They were hypnotic.


Claudi said to me, “all ok?” and I said, “not really”. And that was that. I sat there for about an hour. Was I depressed or something? No. I just wanted to do nothing. It was the middle of the day and I had nothing to do. Or, better put, I felt like doing nothing. So that’s what I did. I didn’t improve any aspect of my life. I didn’t write down ideas. I didn’t exercise. I didn’t pray or meditate or anything. I just sat around and did  nothing. It was fun doing nothing.

And it doesn’t really matter. It’s only me. I can do whatever I want. Anyone can.

Sometimes its important to think “decrease” instead of “increase”.

I find with people who are practicing a minimalist lifestyle, they get very good first at decreasing the things that take up space in their lives. They move to a smaller house, for instance. or give away some possessions. Its like they first decrease in three dimensions.

Then they might get good at decreasing the fourth dimension: the things that take up their time. They make fewer committments. They watch TV less.

But there’s an important fifth dimension to decrease – all of the directions you want to INCREASE. I’ve recommended constantly something I call “The Daily Practice” – every day incrementally improve in four areas: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. A reader even created a platform at tdp.me for people to track their goals. Whenever I’ve been able to successfully do the daily practice I’ve found my life to be completely different every six months.

But sometimes you just can’t do it. Sometimes I can’t. Sometimes it’s enough to just do nothing. To not think of how much you need to improve. Or how much you need to fail in order to succeed. Or how much you need to go paleo in order to look and feel your best.

To sit and think, “how great is it that I’m doing absolutely nothing right now while everyone else IN THE ENTIRE WORLD is running around.” Decrease the number of things you pressure yourself with. What can you decrease today. Across any dimension. Can you decrease the amount of money you think you need before you are happy. Or can you decrease the pressure you put on yourself to kiss ass at your job? Or decrease the amount of pressure you put on to come up with great ideas, or a “purpose” or “goals”. Sometimes you want to “improve every day” but just as important: “decrease every day”. I’d like to write more books. But what if I don’t? Maybe in the pursuit of decreasing I uncover something I didn’t know about myself. Something  that makes me happy that isn’t part of the nonstop drive for  success and improvement.

I mentioned this in my last post: a few years ago I wanted to do a fund. Something happened. Someone trashed me to someone who owned some NFL team and the next thing I knew: no fund. I was upset. It almost ruined a few friendships. In fact, it did ruin some friendships. But now I think: man, that would’ve been HARD WORK. I should never have even pursued that in the first place. Thank god I was forced to decrease some of my ambitions, even unwillingly. I should call my ex-friend back and thank him. Because he just called me the other day and I didn’t return the call.

If you sit and do nothing someone eventually will walk into the room and say, “Hey, is everything ok?” Because people might not be used to “decrease” from you. You might be the “increase” guy. The one who is improving every day. But cut yourself some slack. It’s ok  to then say,

“Nothing is ok.” Because Nothing always is.


30 Responses to “What If You Never Improve?”

  1. Jason Hull Says:

    There’s a difference between having intentionality in choosing to do nothing, as you did (and tweeted about) yesterday and letting the world go by because sitting down to do nothing was the default choice. You chose. You controlled. Therefore, you accomplished something – making an intentional choice to do nothing.

    • Otaddy Says:

      I agree. Sometimes I do not act because of fear. This is bad as I really should be making an effort to overcome my fears.

      But choosing to rest is ok. To me, there is way to much pressure to always be “doing something”.

  2. kara rane Says:

    basically nothing matters

  3. Jill Says:

    Time moves slower for those who are decreasing. Failure, illness and living alone are teaching me to decrease and do nothing without guilt. It is delightful but hard because I am in the minority. If the world did this collectively, time would slow down along with them leading to longer more fulfilling lives.

  4. roberto シ Says:

    Failure in this society is a sin, a huge, big, sin. You fail, you pay, with prestige. time, money,etc. Nevertheless everybody says it’s OK to fail, double standards we live in.

  5. Joseph Choi Says:

    “Decreasing” is definitely important. Over the past few months I’ve been doing just that. Before I was hell bent on the career track, taking classes at night, trying to network, etc. Basically getting burned out and tired. When you decrease you take yourself out of all the chaos and think and learn about what’s really important.

  6. alanv Says:

    You know what James, you should become my patron, I have been feeling “decreased” and need one. It isn’t even really expensive when it comes down to it.

  7. Don Alfatah Says:

    don’t think too much James…just flow…nice and easy..we will die soon anyway

  8. Trading_Nymph Says:

    James, I have 11,000 plus unread em’s..I MUST just Delete them all..I haven’t yet, but unread they are going to go bye-bye. NOW regarding George Burns comment, I LOVE the Stock Market/Game, it is my Passion, I didn’t pick it, omg if I could pick my passion it would have been something cool, not this geeky thing. But bottomline, everyday if I am right or wrong I am stupid silly happy because this is my passion. Even if I loose every dime I invest I will not be a failure because it has brought me bliss and that is all that matters. I fail all the time at it, but it doesn’t matter at all…just love it so.

  9. Todd_Andelin Says:

    Im thinking about an architecture idea I read some time ago:
    When there is nothing, everything is possible.
    When there is everything, nothing is possible.

    Sitting and doing nothing is probably doing a lot more than any of us will ever realize.
    My Uncle Bob says your brain is defragmenting and organizing comples things, and we arent even aware of it.
    And sitting is good, because energy is flowing to the brain, and everything else is on standby. its like a computer.
    Tons of complex parallel circuits all rendering simultaneously.

    I am most relaxed when I am on a train. Not commuting, but actually travelling, for at least 7 hours.
    There is nothing else to do but sit and enjoy the ride. Not much to complain about.
    Trains don’t turn like buses or cares, they just flow.
    No temptations to work or clean or workout or go shopping. No temptations to go out to eat. All gone. You are constrained.
    So for once you feel no guilt.
    Then your brain starts working and only the most important things precipitate inside your mind.
    And your brain wraps up all the important ideas and lets you open them up. All finished.

    Email is out of control.
    It is too easy to send worthless information and worthless requests to people.
    And the fact that you are reminded of the 136,000 unread messages is totally insane….
    just think about how many physical pieces of mail that would be….What if you woke up tomorrow and a fedex truck was hauling in 150 file boxes with “gmail inbox” labelled on each one. Have fun. Oh yeah, and every 1,500 pieces of mail might have a check or some valid piece of financial information about it. that would be really stressful. And while you were reading each letter, new letters would spontaneously jump out at you from the borders of the paragraphs…..with visceral images or money and debt and mortgages and social daily deals, etc….
    the letters are multiplying. So instead of 136,000 messages, there are really 13,600,000 ideas and images you have to see. So, for as smart as Larry Page is….(you seem to admire him so much) there are a lot of big elephants in the living room at google and maybe he doesnt see them, and maybe he does because they are shitting money all over the office. I dont know.
    Somehow we all have to communicate, more and less all at the same time, and the world would be a better place.
    Whats weird is sometimes it helps me to send an email to someone even though I know they will not respond, or even read it.
    It helps me get my thoughts straightened out. I find myself using them as a hypothetical audience so I gear my ideas toward them since I know they are valid. there should be a new word for those types of emails.
    Even commenting here, its mostly for me. I am trying to internalize what you wrote then sort of write on the chalkboard with you and the class looking over my shoulder to make sure i sort of got something right in my own head…..maybe i should blog about your blog.

    Whats weird about failure is that others might still glean really important and positive things from you even though you hate yourself or hate your job.
    I always have this imaginary idea in my head of a person who is a well paid manager at a pepper factory….and he hates black pepper….he is sick of it and thinks it is worthless and pointless after a while. He thinks it is trivial and annoying. He views pepper as a failed product.
    But, down the street or across the country, there are dinners and parties and weddings and lunches and campers and prisoners, and seniors and kids, all using pepper and enjoying it, and would all suffer stress and discomfort if it were not around. We all have to have pepper. And all the guy at the pepper plant thinks about is how boring and mechanical it is.

    What about the people who produce intangible things? Intangible things which are amazing! They might not even be aware of the thoughtstreams they are sending out into the universe, there is no paper trail or packaging or inventory, no counting statistics, definitely no money, just ideas and simple reflections of beautiful consciousness.

  10. Hope Perlman Says:

    Heh, even Dale Carnegie said resting is important. Not that you wanted to hear from another self-help success guru, but I couldn’t resist.

  11. PlinytheElder Says:

    I did absolutely nothing all day and it was everything I thought it could be. – Office Space

  12. mikeyhell Says:

    Damned if doing nothing is the hardest thing in the world to do.

  13. Rob Leathern Says:

    I love your writings James because it runs counter to the unfortunate trend these days of “cut and paste journalism” we will keep seeing more of, and also it appears “upload and share philosophy” will be the way of the future too.

  14. Udai Singh Rajput Says:

    hello hai jjhdfdfjm jyfj navalpura Bagore Mandal Bhilwara Rajasthan

  15. Efrain Says:

    I wish I could not be part of any country. But I just realized how impossible that sounds. Everything’s a part of something these days. The only reason people feel depressed about being a janitor or about not writing a book is because we’re always comparing ourselves to others. That’s where shame come from. That’s where the fear of decreasing comes from.I wish there was some piece of land where you could just go and be neutral. But that sounds like a jail. Eh, I don’t know what I’m talking about.

  16. Mirella Trimboli Says:

    Yesterday, the 13th Sept, was national “Are u ok?” Day here in Australia and it is exactly about giving anyone and everyone the chance for an opening to say that in fact they’re not feeling ok and for all of us to be more aware of those around us. I think it’s more about the caring for others than for the opportunity to not be ok. But what a timely post of yours!
    This has inspired me to go and read again “In Praise of Idleness” by Bertrand Russel, a real philosopher and not just another snippet off FB. Thank you as always 🙂

  17. AB Says:

    great post, I have missed good lengthy posts from James, especially when he was away on vacation or travel

  18. Rolling Dance Floor Says:

    Most of what we do is nothing. Don’t feel bad about it. Enjoy it.

  19. Kitty Kilian Says:

    You have my permission. There. That help?

  20. kamalravikant Says:

    I needed to read this. Thank you.

  21. Rip van Winkle Says:

    Don’t they already have a word for it? Something like Rest and relaxation? Shooting for something way above your ability and you wil fail, you can only stretch so far. Resting is no excuse for not pushing your limit now and then. On the other hand, if you have already seen and accepted your limit then welsome to adulthood!

  22. agus Says:


  23. Brendan Teeley Says:

    I improve physically everyday. But not where I want too. Professionally. To me that is what matters at this point. So
    Simply improving is not enough.

  24. Anonymous Poster Says:

    On the flip side, someone like myself – who has trouble focusing on even the smallest tasks for more than five minutes – can end up doing a whole hell of a lot of nothing over the course of a day.

    Or a week.

    Or a month.

    Or a year.

    Or an entire decade.

    You think of Nothing as “okay”, but when you can’t really break free of doing nothing — either out of comfort, or fear, or plain ol’ stubborn idiocy — Nothing becomes a big problem.


    I think you should learn Spanish. When you learn another language, and you speak it, it is like adding another facet to your personality. Also, when you hear yourself speak, sometimes it is almost like listening to another person, and you have this strange feeling of dissociation. So, who knows, maybe the way to lose oneself might be to multiply oneself?

  26. Vibhanshu Vb Sharma Says:

    I am a living example of that pressure 😦

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