Self improvement is just Puritan malware accidentally coded by your first programmer

“The discontent and frustration that you feel is entirely your own creation”

Stephen Richards

The self improvement course you go to at the community college on Friday night has more to do with the sexual preferences of a despot King than some innate character flaw. Probably far more than you realise. To explain let’s go back to the future. Strap yourself in McFly. Juice up the DeLorean with 1.21 gigahertz and set the time dial for 1490 – Medieval England.

Before we depart I want to let you know that this post resulted from an exchange of comments with my buddy Josh over at Living Apex. Josh’s comments on self improvement encouraged me out of my idle malaise and inside on a perfectly sunny day to bruise my fingers on this post. If there is something on your mind drop a note in the comment box it’s great to receive your thoughts. If you’d like to check out Josh’s work then a good place to start is here.

Okay Doc’s up the clock tower. Time to start our run. Hold tight we are almost hitting 88 mph…Middle Ages…here we….


It’s a bit dirty. The first thing to notice is that there are less sick and odd people than you meet on the subway. Weird. Things are by no means perfect here, but one thing that stands out is that life is structured around hedonism, fun and pleasure. The people are by and large a contented lot. They sing and dance regularly and get this – there are 100-150 non working days of festivals every year! That’s a couple of wonderful village parties to attend every week. People wear colourful clothing; they enjoy their food, drink and a hearty laugh.

Pause a minute and you’ll notice another group. They are dressed in austere black. Think of their getup as the business suits of the day. Like ‘suits’ the world over they don’t smile much. Smiling is a pointless waste of energy. These black garbed humdrum squares lead lives so boring that if it ever flashed before their eyes they might not even be in it. They do little aside from work and pray. To them fun and frivolity are sins. They labour for money, salvation and naught else. They are the Puritans.

The contrast between the medieval folk and the cloistered Puritans could not be starker.  Unbelievably more and more of the fun loving freewheelers are being convinced of their sins, they are taught shame and guilt and other tools of Puritanism.  Ideas like fun and pleasure are quickly being replaced by seriousness, sternness and hard work. The Puritan believes in strict living and the need to impress upon others the view that humour and idleness are wrong.

One of the doctrines that springs from these budding Puritan capitalists is a very strange new notion. They teach their children that through hard work and God’s grace they may mould out all the imperfections from themselves. Here for the first time appears the genesis of our obsessive quest for self improvement. The idea that we can be moulded, shaped and improved and in so doing improve our lot in life is bought into being.

This is all very foreign to the happy folk that have grown accustomed to producing enough to enable good living for all.  They work merrily together in the fields. They share whatever they have. Debtors may be released from their financial bondage if it is clear they cannot pay. Idleness is wide spread. It is after all a rather strange notion to work anymore than you have to. Once the field has been properly ploughed why plough it some more? These convivial folk worked on skills for the good of themselves or the village, but the idea of one day becoming perfect is a development forged by the Puritans. In the medieval culture where lives are lived cooperatively and collectively, to produce for the good of all, what need is there for self improvement to the point of perfection? Good enough will do and this ensures everyone can participate in the evening’s merriment. Why labour while others play?

Meanwhile on the rich side of town a tubby ruddy ginger King grows tired of his wife. He yearns for another so desperately that he would separate the state from organised religion to bed her. His carnal desire is immense enough to overthrow the law, structures and institutions of the day. Seizing the opportunity inadvertently presented by the randy royal the Puritans step in and take charge of the ideals of the era. And so it is that these twin forces of a royal libido (drenched in more than a dash of madness) and a dour mob of boring suits reform merry old England into a work camp. In so doing they put an end to a colourful pleasure seeking, community oriented way of life that had survived for 1000 years before them.

Right, back to time-machine we must return to the present…the history books record that King Henry VIII did indeed kill his wife, got his leg over his girlfriend and killed her too. Meanwhile the Puritans seized their opportunity to kill off fun in any or its many forms. Their cry’s still ring in your ears when your runty boss tells you to work harder, work longer, be thankful for a job, forget a pay rise, and to appreciate these opportunities he’s giving you recreate less…

No thanks to the Puritans we have 10 hour work days, low pay and a myth rattling around the back or our brains that we are a partially completed creation. A clean slate of wax. A piece of clay that can be actively moulded into whatever we want to become. With some hard graft and serious dedication we might one day be able to perfect ourselves and attain…benefits?

But, what benefits might I ask? Had it not been for a dodgy King and some zealots in corporate clothing your life might have centred around fun. All the while you would be blissfully ignorant of any short comings in your personal character.

If you are not content in and of yourself, if you are pursing personal success coaching, if you are perfecting presentation skills or memorizing the 16 steps to greater self confidence you might be better off reflecting on how those party loving folk of 1490 might view your Puritanical view of your life.

Would you have even have these urges if the Puritans had not won the idea war waged 600 years before you stepped on the soil? After all isn’t it just the modern day Puritans bombarding their advertising messages that you suck, that you are broken, that you are imperfect,  and that you need to be fixed that has you shaking down these supposed character flaws? In the same foul swoop they offer salvation through buying their programme, or seminar or a retreat where you can get your broken self fixed.

Think about this though. If there were means to truly and permanently improve yourself wouldn’t you know about it already? If one of the millions of books or courses was actually worth the price of admission don’t you think it would have become so widely known that you would have discovered it already, tried it and become living proof of its effectiveness?

To self improve has become the modern day salvation in our increasingly unhappy secular lives. Religious people might point to that statement as a call to mass. It’s not. This post has nothing to do with religion whatsoever.

What it has to do with is that like many other features of our life we are living to a script passed down the ages. Like a parlour game of whispers the message gets distorted generation by generation. It is deep code placed there by our first programmers. Unwittingly the Puritan script is coded into our mainframe for us to run in the background for all of our adult life…unless we realise it to be malware and decide to delete it. Sadly I fear that we are whispering the wrong script to each other! The code of endless work, self critique or self loathing and guilt in taking our pleasures. We must develop our own defense against Puritan spammers.

Myself I would prefer the Medieval way of life. Granted it was one of the most bloodthirsty periods in history, but reviving the best of the values, beliefs and customs from that period could do more to support an improved quality of life than anything that has emerged from the Puritans industrialist-capitalist plot.

Self improvement or self contentment? Work or dance? Compete or share? Puritan or Medieval? Flag your personal development class next Friday night. Instead spend the time appreciating your qualities. Reflect on your blessings. Remind yourself what it is that you are grateful for. Stop comparing your everyday to other peoples highlight reel on facebook. Look for the happiness in your own life situation. Give up the self critique. Lets contentment happen and contentment is the first stop on the way to a happier life.

Better still stick it to the Puritans. Celebrate your Medieval roots. Skip work. Take off to the woods for a long weekend. Build a bonfire. Drink sing and dance with your friends. I’d wager this will do more for your spirit than any course notes you’ll miss out on.

3 thoughts on “Self improvement is just Puritan malware accidentally coded by your first programmer

  1. Hey, first off great post, and thanks for the compliment my friend, it’s been a pleasure reading your blog and I’m glad mine’s interesting as well!

    Since you bring up the subject of self improvement, I’m sure you know I have to comment 😉 Of course my side of the territory is a bit more happy with continual self improvement, but I appreciate the points you make – self critique can be demoralizing, pointless at times, and in some people even suicidal.

    But I’d like to bring up a question. Is it possible that the subject is less dichotomous than simply puritan vs medieval? Can an individual have the best of both worlds, embracing inner peace as well as continual lifestyle improvement, honed to an efficient edge by self discipline?


    • You know the answer is of course we can! You are asking about the best method to DIY yourself. But, we are asking different questions. Mine is the search for why we feel the need to constantly improve. Is this organic or man made? The other question for me is if I wish to improve ourself or discipline ourself, then who is the watcher? Who is this self that is the student? Who is this self that is the schoolmaster?

      Looking forward to reading your response at Apex 🙂

      • Good stuff (: I haven’t posted in a while thanks to 24 credit hours of classes and work on my book – I’m looking forward to getting back to writing on the blog though, may be a few days but maybe I can address those questions then!

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