in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: July 18, 2022

Podcast #818: The Philosophy of Self-Improvement

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 selfimprovement. 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 SelfImprovement: Ten Timeless Truths. Anna and I begin our conversation with how the idea of selfimprovement, 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 selfimprovement — 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 selfimprovement books.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. 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 improve your life. Altogether, 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 could 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. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

Alright, Anna Schaffner, welcome to the show.

Anna Schaffner: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure.

Brett McKay: So we had you on a few years ago to discuss your book on the cultural history of exhaustion. You got another book of cultural history out, and this time it’s about self-improvement. What led you to take a deep dive into the cultural history of self-improvement?

Anna Schaffner: Yeah, in lots of ways, it seemed a very natural follow-on from my previous book, Exhaustion: A History, so I think of this book as the positive counterpart to it. It’s very much about how we can manage to care for and project our energy outwards. And I’ve always been really interested in psychology and personal development, and I have also read my fair share of self-help over the years. I’m an extreme introvert and I often feel socially quite awkward, I have a lot of inner noise going on, very harsh, unkind superego, and I’ve somehow always been looking for cures for these conditions. And I also grew up with a really strong internalized belief that we can and always must improve ourselves, so I’ve internalized this fairly protestant work ethic extended to the self. And so I’ve read a lot of self-help but because I’m a cultural historian and a literature scholar by training, I at some point read these texts much more critically, and I have realized that most of our self-help is really very ideological in spirit. It’s not just harmless advice literature, and it’s also a hugely influential genre if we think about it, it very powerfully and directly seeks to shape our aspirations and our values and behaviors, and it really does so at scale.

So self-help is a massive industry worth almost $40 billion worldwide, and I think at the same time, this imperative that we constantly have to improve ourselves, that we have to work on ourselves, is a really, really strong cultural expectation in our times. And many of us have internalized it quite unquestioningly and including myself, and at some point I wondered, where did it come from, and has it always been like this? And, if we drill down deeper, what does self-improvement actually mean? So what is our current understanding of the self, what counts as improvement and why? So for example, why should it be considered an improvement to become more extroverted when we might be naturally quite introverted? And these were the kinds of questions that motivated me to write my book, and of course, as a cultural historian, I’m also really interested in what changes and what remains the same, and especially when it comes to the self-improvement advice. And I discovered that self-improvement has a hugely long history, and that there’s really a lot that we can learn from our ancestors and from other cultures.

Brett McKay: And so when you started researching, going back in the history of self-improvement, how far does this idea of self-improvement go and do we see it across cultures?

Anna Schaffner: Yeah, that’s the fascinating thing, Brett. It’s really… It goes back all the way to Ancient China, to the earliest recorded texts that people have written. And I do think that self-improvement really is a ubiquitous and timeless desire, and that it can be traced all the way back to the ancient civilizations, and really it is for millenia that philosophers, sages, and theologians have reflected on the good life and devised strategies on how to achieve it. So I really do see self-improvement as a timeless human desire, and I see it very intricately related to learning and to self-knowledge and to growth. And of course, there are quite a lot of academics who critique self-help, and they see this constant imperative to self-optimize as a perfidious new liberal creature, which is designed to put all responsibility for our well-being on our own shoulders, and they argue that self-help distracts us from the structural forces that may be making us ill. But I really do think that while there is self-help of that kind out there, the imperative and the desire to self-improve is really a huge part of what makes us human, and it has been a feature of human experience from the very start.

And I do think that self-help is actually a specific genre that emerged in the 19th century when the first self-help text as we know it, designed… Written for autodidacts who want to improve themselves without the help of others, want a kind of how-to manual, and that doesn’t require the involvement of any other third parties. So that’s a fairly new genre, but ancient advice literature, that is aimed at helping us to improve, to grow, to learn, to sharpen our self-understanding and self-knowledge, really can be found in Ancient China, in Ancient Greece, and it has a really long tradition. And I think that tradition is usually interesting to explore because many of the modern self-help texts actually hark back into these ancient practices and they re-package, re-brand, re-label older ideas, and it’s really interesting to trace these back to their original sources.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s an interesting point you make in the book is that today’s self-help or self-improvement literature is written by self-help authors, and these people are, typically, maybe sometimes psychologists, other times they’re just people who decide, “I was successful, here’s what worked for me.” But if you go back anciently, self-improvement literature were… It was a completely different group of people. It was theologians, it was religious sages, or it was philosophers who were writing self-improvement literature.

Anna Schaffner: Yeah, that’s definitely true. I think the purpose and mission of philosophy has changed very dramatically, and I think in the past, it was quite accepted that philosophy should give counsel, should give practical advice, and should really help people define their values, their goals, and basically guide them. There’s a beautiful quotation by Seneca who defines the purpose of philosophy as basically giving that kind of advice. He writes something about the task of philosophy really being to shape our personality, to provide structure and moral guidelines for our behavior, and generally to sit at the helm and keep us on the correct course as we are tossed about in parallel seas. And modern philosophers have, to a large extent, abandoned that project, which is a great shame, and I think analytical philosophy has done huge damage with its focus on logic and propositions, very dry, very sterile, very abstract. But I do think some practical philosophers are making a comeback, and there’s clearly a hunger and a desire out there for intelligent, deep self-help that is also reflecting on the bigger question, reflecting on the social, reflecting on broader philosophical debate.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned earlier that something about self-improvement literature that we often overlook is that it can tell us something about a culture in a particular historical moment, and I hope as we discuss some of these self-improvement concepts you found across cultures, that we can talk about how it’s changed based on history. But big picture, what can self-improvement literature teach us about a particular culture in a particular moment in history?

Anna Schaffner: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s a really interesting question. I think self-help is… We have to… If we look at it philosophically, we need to first of all ask, what is the self? What conceptions of self-hood are at play here? What counts as help and what form can that kind of help take? But I would say that self-help literature in general is always based on very specific conceptions of self-hood, and it also entails conceptions of purpose, agency, responsibility, and about the relationship between the individual and society, and mind, body, and the social. So if you take Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, for example, that’s a text that isn’t just a self-help text, this is very much a cultural text.

I mean, it’s much more about philosophical and political assumptions about human nature than it is about imparting practical self-improvement advice, and Peterson’s very, very explicit about that. But I do think this is true for most self-help texts, they just do it under the surface, and I think he states his assumptions very clearly and explicitly and provocatively. But in a lot of other self-help texts they are less explicitly stated, they’re just kind of taken for granted, but I think self-help always tells us a lot about a particular culture’s values, about our aspirations, also about our fears and anxieties. So I really see self-help as a barometer for all sorts of deeper questions, and it really can tell us very precious insights about a culture’s conceptions of the self and the connections between the mind, the body, and the social.

Brett McKay: Yeah, with self-help, there are these timeless principles that you see pop up in every age, but how they’re framed or what principals get emphasized and which ones get downplayed, it really depends on the particular time and culture. So like in Ancient Greece, the values they emphasized… I think you can make the case that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics could be described as a self-help text, and the values that he emphasized are those he saw… That he thought were important in being a citizen in a city-state in Ancient Greece. And so self-help anciently was really for a certain class. You fast forward to today, and the self-help literature is geared towards the average person, and everyone in our modern era has this expectation that they can rise in the world, so it’s geared towards making money, improving your career, being more productive, being liked, because that’s what’s most important to people these days. So the themes of self-help change according to what’s important to a particular culture, and it tells us what’s important to that culture.

Anna Schaffner: Yeah, absolutely. So you have values at stake there, and I think what we can see is a shift from kind of character values, virtues, and virtue ethics towards a kind of personality cult. So a lot of 20th and even early 21st century self-help is very much about skills. How to become more extroverted, how to become better communicators, better sales people, how to become more effective and efficient and productive. Whereas in the ancient texts, you have a huge emphasis on the virtues and on sustainable character work, on virtues that have fallen from grace such as temperance, humility, altruism, and so on. In a sense that reflects where we’re at, culturally speaking or generally. We’ve moved very much from a relational culture in which the social and communities and structures had an enormously important place and were very much part of the mind metaphors that people were using, they were integrated into that, and we’ve moved from that to a kind of atomistic and very isolated individualist society in which completely different values are of importance right now.

Brett McKay: So as you explored self-improvement throughout time and throughout across cultures, you came across… I mean, there are noble and good ways to do self-improvement or an approach to it, and you think it’s captured by this German word, which I really like, it’s “Bildung”. Is that… My pronunciation, “Bildung”?

Anna Schaffner: Yeah. Bildung, super. Excellent.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So what does that word mean, and why do you think that’s a good way to describe noble and enriching self-improvement?

Anna Schaffner: Yeah, because I think Bildung is really… A really important core concept for me. Bildung refers to a form of holistic education, and one that very crucially encompasses our inner lives and aesthetic sense, our moral sensibilities, and also social learning. So Bildung is not just about acquiring knowledge and information, but it’s really also about an education of our emotion, sensitivities, and it’s about finding a place in societies, and ways in which we can contribute to our communities. And Bildung was first theorized by the German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt in the 19th century, and for me, it encapsulates the essence and the purpose of self-improvement, because I do see self-improvement as a form of learning. I see it as a process of learning about our inner lives, our patterns, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses, but also very crucially, about how we can direct our energies outwards. So and I think positive self-improvement is visible in us being able to give to other people and to projects we care about.

So it’s really not just about enhancing ourselves so that we can be more effective and efficient and productive, I think it’s so that we can also find our place in the social fabric. And self-improvement for me is very much about not being a slave to our shadows, it’s very much about pulling as much as we can into the realm of consciousness, and by that to avoid wasting our energies in endless… In our psychological battles. So I think ultimately, the sign of positive self-improvement is that we can give and engage better, that we can focus our attention outwards. And so I, therefore, really disagree with lots of academic critiques of self-help and self-improvement as the selfish and narcissistic, a kind of neo-liberal project, because finding our own unique ways of being relational and social, I think is, for me, the ultimate sign of positive self-improvement.

Brett McKay: The way I understood that is Bildung, it seemed it was a good way… A good analogy or metaphor. You talk about metaphors a lot with your work, and how they can shape the way we think about ideas. Bildung from you is about… It’s almost like a farming or a garden metaphor. It’s like you’re trying to use the environment you’re in, grow it slowly, nurture the world around you while you’re nurturing yourself. So it’s sort of interconnected. I think a lot of modern self-help the metaphor is you’re building a skyscraper and you can just bulldoze through and you just put up whatever you want. You can restructure yourself however you want, I think that’s the modern idea of it, at least. I think Bildung captures more of a… It reminds me of like, you’re on an organic farm and you’re trying to just grow the best self possible.

Anna Schaffner: Yeah, that’s beautiful, Brett. I fully agree. I think the ancient models and metaphors are really about cultivating, cultivating the self, and cultivation is a kind of biological, agrarian metaphor, as you say. And I think nowadays there are quite a lot of harmful and very problematic metaphors around. So you mentioned some, but there’s also the kind of brain as computer metaphor, which is really ubiquitous. So a lot of self-help texts talk about re-programming ourselves, upgrading, fine-tuning, rewiring, cognitive overload, switching off, getting rid of psychological malware, and eliminating behavioral glitches, and so on. And I do think these are really damaging metaphors, because metaphors matter. Metaphors are really important because they shape how we imagine and experience our inner lives. Yeah, I guess the computer metaphor is, for me, a very damaging one, because we’re complex organisms. We interact dynamically with our environments. We’re in no ways like machines. We’re messy and needy, we have desires, we have histories that shape us. We’re embedded, encultured, and embodied, and to model our self-help technologies on machine-like entities, I think is really damaging.

Brett McKay: Alright. So something you do in the book is you highlight themes of self-improvement that you’ve seen across time and across cultures, and one area you see is this idea of self-knowledge. But before we explore self-knowledge and how it’s manifested itself across time and across cultures, I think it’s important to understand humanity’s varying conceptions of the self, ’cause that’s gonna change how you think you can gain self-knowledge. So how have humans thought about the self across cultures and time, and how has it changed across… In the East or in the West?

Anna Schaffner: That’s a really fascinating topic because we don’t often think about how we think about the self. But when we look at the history of self-narratives and self-hood conceptions, we can see some really exciting and interesting changes, and also really dramatic changes between… And differences between Western societies and Asian societies. So I would say that in Western societies nowadays, we see the self as autonomous and isolated, and as potentially having quite a lot of agency to shape the external environment, whereas in the past and in many Asian societies, self was very much understood as essentially relational. And our dominant narrative nowadays is the individualist narrative of the self that casts us as independent agents in control of ourselves and our environment with a relatively fixed identity. But other conceptions of self-hood are more fluid and they place an emphasis on context, on inter-relatedness, and inter-being. And I would say that generally speaking, Asian conceptions of the self are more contextual, they assume less of a steady essence and more of a changing, interacting, relational self that is very different in different contexts. So they kind of assume we show up differently depending on whom we meet, which I agree with. That’s probably very true. And also, I think there’s an assumption that we have less power to control our environments and our characters are less fixed.

And our personality traits aren’t quite as deeply cemented, but more malleable. And I think related questions are, do we think of the self as good or bad in essence, you know, and philosophers are very divided on that question. Do we see ourselves primarily as rational or emotional creatures? Do we think of ourselves as powerful agents who are able to exercise free will or do we see ourselves as shaped by internal or external forces? Do we think of ourselves as material or spiritual beings or lone warriors out there in hostile territories to secure our own advantages or embedded parts of communities or specific ecosystems or nature as a whole and all of these narratives about the self really matter because they shape how we see ourselves. They also shape our therapeutics. They shape the models we devise to improve ourselves. So you’re absolutely right. I think we need to understand those base narratives first before we can even talk about self-improvement.

Brett McKay: So just to summarize the modern Western conception of the self is I’m in control of who I am, basically, and others in the, this culture around me doesn’t influence me. I can… I’m the master of my fate. And then anciently and still to day in Eastern cultures, they would say, “Well, no the social context that you’re embedded in is gonna influence the self as well.”

Anna Schaffner: Absolutely. Yeah. And with this idea of mastery comes great responsibility and also feelings of guilt and shame. If we don’t manage it.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay. So I think we’ve got a good general background now on the philosophy of self improvement. And what you do with this book is you not only give the background of the philosophy of self improvement, but go through specific principles that have been common themes in self-help throughout time and throughout cultures. And you talk about their… You first talk about their ancient antecedents, and then you also offer some modern angles that you think could be helpful based on your research. So I… What I would like to do the rest of this conversation is talk about a few of these principles in your book. And let’s start out with something you see discussed a lot in a lot of self improvement books, and that is self control. So anciently, how did they think you could control the self and how have you come to look at this area of self improvement?

Anna Schaffner: Yeah, I think self control was really, really important in the ancient models, partly because of the value of temperance and the idea of the golden mean avoiding extremes. And I think the idea of controlling our animal nature was also really, really strong. So there was a core assumption that we have to be able to exercise control over our minds, emotions, bodies, and drives, and that makes us less animal and more human. And I think the idea of self control also just came into focus because of this eternal conflict between the needs and desires of the individual and that of the community, that’s always a very precarious and difficult balancing act. And of course the ancient stoics talked a lot about self control and in their books, it was mainly about mind control, controlling our emotions by controlling our thoughts and our judgements and our assessments of external factors. And I think many of the ancient stoic models have huge benefits.

So for example, the circle of control idea that we always should differentiate what is and what is not in our control. And they very much advocated that we focus on what we can control and they were very strict about it and said, “What we can control is only our inner lives and more precisely our judgements and assessments of external events.” And these assessments and judgements in turn determine our emotions. And that assumption is still core to cognitive behavioral therapy. And it has a lot of merits, I would say, but it also has limitations because we are, of course not just rational beings. We’re also messy, creative, spiritual, emotional, we’re not just creatures of reason. And I think this extreme idea of stoic self control also costs a lot of energy because if we constantly have to reason ourselves out of bad states, this is where our energy goes. It’s this counterintuitive to many. And I think sometimes it is more helpful to accept negative emotional states rather than trying at all times to change them. It depends. It depends on what kind of emotion we’re talking about, but I’m generally speaking of big fan of acceptance and commitment therapy which is a sort of third wave behavioral cognitive model that addresses this question that it takes a lot of energy constantly to try and control our minds. And sometimes acceptance is the answer rather than control.

Brett McKay: And that’s a very Eastern idea, correct? Like, so you just kind of… Yeah.

Anna Schaffner:Yeah, absolutely.

Brett McKay: Right. So you accept it and you don’t try to change it, but by doing that, you somehow diffuse the emotion.

Anna Schaffner: Yeah, absolutely. And I would describe ACT, acceptance and commitment therapy, as a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy models, plus Eastern ideas about acceptance, letting go and gratitude and mindfulness. And that’s why I think it’s a very powerful therapeutic model because it brings that in, and it doesn’t just assume that we’re purely rational creatures and can be purely rational at all times. And acceptance and commitments therapy is based on this idea that we can create a gap between the observing self and our true essence. So it’s all about recognizing that our thoughts, our emotions come and go and they can be helpful or less helpful.

And they’re like clouds passing on the sky, but they’re not permanent, and we don’t have to always take them at face value, we can question them, we can look at them with a bit of distance and I think this idea of defusing from our souls can be a really, really powerful one in daily life. So for example, when we have negative ideas about ourselves in our head, like, I’m a loser or nobody likes me, a very powerful acceptance and commitment therapy technology is to say I think that I’m a loser, or my mind tells me that nobody likes me, and that already creates a really, really beneficial distance between ourselves and that thought, and that can help us to look at it as a mere thought rather than a reality, and that can be really, really powerful in terms of not being swayed too much by our inner critic, by automatic negative thinking, by unhelpful and unhealthy self-narratives, we can look at them as thoughts as narratives as recurring patterns, but we don’t have to identify with them, we don’t fuse with them, we actually just observe them with detachment, and that’s, yeah, I think for me, one of the most powerful techniques I have come across in my research.

Brett McKay: So another thing that self-improvement writers have spilt a lot of ink on is how to become a good person, a virtuous person, and you looked at this, how this has changed over time and across cultures. Let’s start with the eastern approach, what was the eastern approach on becoming a virtuous or a good person?

Anna Schaffner: Yeah, I think virtual ethics were very, very important in the ancient models, and I think in probably the most neglected virtue in our age is altruism. I think altruism is really one that has massively fallen from favour and that we only begin to see again in self-help now, and that has actually disappeared for a very, very long period. So I think becoming virtuous was about embracing the idea of humility, it was about embracing the idea of altruism, and it was about recognizing our place in a bigger whole, understanding our place in a broader, wider order of things. And I think that humility and altruism are interestingly two virtues that are experiencing a revival right now, and I think that in terms of improving our virtues, we talked a little bit before about temperance and self-control and mind control, but in terms of the social virtues.

I think there is a lot of emphasis on not taking the self too seriously, on recognizing that we’re part of larger structures, that we’re always part of other teams, big and small, and that it is also about looking at our own bubble and understanding ourselves as members of a community, a particular historical moment or even about understanding ourselves as a profoundly flawed species, so I think humility in particular is related to gratitude as well, to appreciating on what we have rather than focusing on what we lack, and humility is also about recognizing just how much we don’t know and acknowledging our blind spots and the confusion form of humility is profoundly pro-social in spirit, it’s just about valuing the social good more highly than the satisfaction of our personal aspirations and ambitions, but humility is also a core value in Christianity, where it takes the form of self-renunciation and complete submission to God, and that’s perhaps a mold of humility that is no longer that attractive nowadays.

Brett McKay: So that stood out to me when you talked about approaches to becoming a good person, a virtuous person, is you see both anciently in the east, and in West, particularly in Confucian philosophy, in Aristotelian virtue ethics, Confucius thought the goal, like you wanted to become the kind of person who would do the right thing in the right situation, because it just… You’ve naturally developed yourself to become that person, and he thought, well, the way you develop to become that kind of person where you just naturally do the good and virtuous thing, so he had these strict rituals you had to follow. You follow the ritual, and you will shape yourself into a good person who will eventually just naturally just do the right thing in the right moment, and then you say… You argue… You would see this in Aristotelian virtue ethics in the West.

Aristotle had the same idea that the goal was to become this virtuous person, but you wanted to become the kind of person who just did the right thing at the right time for the right reason, because you’re just naturally a good person, and so he thought the way you did that is you develop these habits of virtues, you just kind of practice this skill until you shape yourself into that person, and I thought that was interesting that two different cultures came up with the same idea of how to shape a virtuous person.

Anna Schaffner: Yeah, absolutely, and that’s a really interesting parallel you brought there, because I think in Confucian ritual the idea wasn’t just that you bow down to your elders, but the idea was also that by bowing down, you actually genuinely experience that emotion of deference and humility and respect and that it’s not just like a theatrical gesture, but by performing it, you actually experience it. And then… And I think in Aristotle’s framework, at the heart of it really is… Is this… As you say, this emphasis is on us becoming habitually good. This idea that we need to aim for a long-term transformation of our personalities and to cultivate specific virtues in such a way that we want to be virtuous, rather than forcing ourselves to be virtuous, and he very much believed that in order to be good, we have to internalize virtues and assimilate them into firm habits, so that we voluntarily and automatically wish to perform good actions at all times. And I think that’s very different from… And he has this interesting distinction between the continent and the incontinent person, so the incontinent person would like to be virtuous, but they’re constantly overridden by their passions and they can’t quite manage to…

They would like to, but they can’t. And then, the continent person wants to be virtuous, but has to force themselves to be virtuous, so they’re not automatically and naturally virtuous, but it’s an effort, it’s a constant moral and cognitive effort to be virtuous, and he doesn’t rate that very highly, he rates it more highly than being incontinent, but it’s not the aim of his kind of philosophy of virtue ethics, which is all about wanting to perform virtuous deeds. So you don’t have to even force yourself to do it, and I guess the idea is very much to establish firm habits and to perform good acts and to want to perform them too, so that they become a natural and an automatic habits that we don’t even think about.

Brett McKay: Okay, so we’ve been talking a lot about improving the inner-self, but as we touched on before, a lot of self-improvement advice is about improving our relationships with other people, so I wanna dig more into that. In your research, what did this inter-relational advice look like, both anciently, and in more modern times?

Anna Schaffner: Yeah, so I think in the Confucian framework, it was all about respect for existing hierarchies. And about doing your duty, and seeing yourself as defined by your relations with others, never questioning your position in these hierarchies and so on. An interesting new perspective regarding our relationships, I think comes with Machiavelli, who advocated that we always need to understand the other’s fears and desires and then use this knowledge to manipulate them. So in The Prince, he talked about talking the talk and paying lip service to the values and sensibilities of the day, but being utterly ruthless and power focused behind the scenes in order to get what you want, and of course, that’s not a very positive model of human relationships, and it’s a very kind of power-driven and effect or in-headed way of looking them.

One of my favorite modern writers, on this topic is surprisingly Dale Carnegie, I would say that, Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, which was published in 1936 in the Great Depression. It was one book that surprised me most because it was written for sales people, and I thought it would be quite cheesy and cringe worthy, but in fact, it is full of sound advice that really has survived the test of time, because Carnegie also talks about mentalizing like Machiavelli. He thinks we… In order to establish good relations and effective relationships with other people, we need to mentalize, we need to step in their shoes, understand what they want and what they fear, but there’s also a nicer side to his model in that he advocates giving true attention and recognition.

So I would say that Carnegie really argues that we need to see the world from other people’s point of view, if we want to communicate with them in an effective way. And very few of us master this art because it requires the ability to imagine what lies beyond our own cognitive maps, and he ultimately thought that human beings are very easy to read, and he argued that we have an unquenchable thirst for attention, sympathy, and respect. And if we want others to like us, we simply have to give them that, we have to find ways of giving attention, sympathy, and respect, and like Machiavelli, Carnegie actually has an astonishingly low opinion of other human beings, and he thought they were quite self-obsessed and needy, and ultimately he believed that in order to establish positive relations, we need to make others feel appreciated and we can thereby render them more compliant with our own agendas, but it sounds very manipulative, but I think in his world view, it was a kind of win-win situation, because what others want above all is to feel important and to be praised, and by giving that praise and by making others feel important, we can establish good relationships.

So he has some fantastic lines in his book, such as “A person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language,” and he also, estimates that we spend 95% of our time thinking about ourselves, and he also wrote that we should remember that the people we are talking to, are a 100 times more interested in themselves and their wants and problems than they are in ourselves and our problems, and he came up with a few simple ways of making people like us. So he says, “We need to be genuinely interested in the other person, smile, remember their first name and use it often, be a good listener and encourage others simply to talk about themselves, and we should also talk about the other person’s interest and make them feel important.” And he has a lot of other little tricks, but they aren’t really as a manipulative as they sound, I think, because ultimately they are about giving attention. And attention is a gift, attention is what we all want. And by giving it and by being genuinely interested in another person, I think that that is a very good basis for establishing relationships.

Brett McKay: Okay, so Dale Carnegie, he’s the nice Machiavelli? You make…

Anna Schaffner: Yes, that’s a good way of putting it.

Brett McKay: But you point out… Okay, these things are good, they work, but Carnegie’s idea to relationships, you are nice because you want something. It’s almost transactional, it’s kind of like the underlying assumption this was written to help sales people land sales.

Anna Schaffner: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, there is something transactional about his model, and I won’t deny it, but I think if we take the transactional side out of the picture, we’re left with something more positive, we’re left with giving attention and sympathy and being genuinely curious about the other person.

Brett McKay: No. And I think that’s great, a philosopher who talked about the importance of attention in relationship, Simone Weil’s talked a lot about that. Love is just basically paying attention to another person, and I think what you’re saying is that Carnegie’s advice are principles to apply to give attention to people.

Anna Schaffner: Yeah, I think we can see him in a slightly darker light, in the sense that it is about ultimately establishing relationships for a certain purpose. But I suppose many of our interactions have a purpose, and he articulates that, and of course, in the sense that I think the deeper relationships we engage in, they’re genuinely meaningful ones, the ones that are about love and giving, and appreciating and celebrating the other person, they would not be the place to try any of these, they have to be based on authentic and non-purpose-driven desires and interactions. Absolutely.

Brett McKay: How has your research into self-improvement changed the way you approach your own self-improvement?

Anna Schaffner: Yes, I think writing this book and doing all this research has changed me in one way above all and that was that when I read all the theory, I developed a really strong desire to get engaged with the practice, so I actually trained as a coach, and I have been coaching and helping clients to grow for more than two years now, and I really love it because I feel like I’ve discovered so many exciting ideas and techniques and philosophical and psychological frameworks that I really wanted to see how I can help other people apply them because reading a book is one thing, but I think in order truly to change ourselves, we sometimes need other people to help us see ourselves slightly differently, to question us, to challenge us, to act as a mirror, and in my coaching, I try to integrate ancient and evidence-based scientific approaches and as I mentioned before, I really love ACT, acceptance and commitment therapy, which in its own right does that integration. And I think that in my own life, what has changed most dramatically is that I’m… I’ve become more interested in the practice than in the theory.

Brett McKay: You’ve read hundreds of self-improvement books to write this book. Do you have your top three self-improvements that you would recommend people pick up?

Anna Schaffner: Ooh, top three is really tricky, there’s so many books I love, but if I have to limit myself to just three, I would say Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. So it’s by the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius. And it basically is a beautifully written journal that really illustrates and explains in theoretical terms, but also gives lots and lots of practical examples, and it illustrates this idea that suffering is caused not by external events, but by our own reactions to these events, by faulty judgments and unrealistic expectations, and Aurelius argues that it’s pointless to worry about external events that are beyond our control and we should focus all our attention on what we can control, and there’s a beautiful line in the book, one of my favorites ever and that is, “Only a mad man looks for figs in winter.” So it’s the idea that we have to adjust our expectations, and my other second favorite book is Russ Harris’s The Happiness Trap, and that is based on acceptance and commitment therapy. It’s a beautiful, simple, very engaging and relatable explanation of the basic premises of ACT and how we can apply it in our own lives. And my third choice would be Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Old classic, and that has to be on my list because it’s all about purpose and meaning, and how powerful why that drives us can help us tolerate almost any how. And if I can mention a fourth one I’d…

Brett McKay: Sure yes.

Anna Schaffner: Mentioned Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, which is a bit too esoteric for my taste in lots of ways, but I think has a very, very powerful message about living in the present and why we should and how we can do so.

Brett McKay: Well, Anna this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Anna Schaffner: So you can always go to my website, and I’m also really interested in building bridges between the theory and practice, they can just find me online. So I’m online at, and I’m very happy to offer coaching sessions based on very specific ideas and philosophical frameworks, and I think there’s probably something that appeals to different people, some people like to work on their imagination, and some people want to work on their mentalizing, some people want to work on how to be more present, some people want to work on self knowledge, on mind control, and that’s something I’d be very happy to help with.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Anna Schaffner thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Anna Schaffner: Thank you very much for having me, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest here is Anna Schaffner, she’s the author of the book, The Art of Self-improvement, it’s available on and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about her work at her coaching website, Also check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast, make sure you check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of, and if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium, head over to, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify, helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you, please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support, until next time, it’s Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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