I have fantasies of being enrolled in a boot camp. In them, a sadistic trainer kicks me out of bed every morning at 4 a.m., putting me through hours of such punishing physical exercise that it makes me weep. But there’s no time to cry because right afterwards I have to attend French classes with a militant teacher who takes no prisoners, and then go swimming, and then be forced to sit in a chair for three hours straight until I produce 3,000 words of writing every single day.

I imagine that by the time I am done with the boot camp, six months later, I will emerge with a bestselling novel, speak perfect French, and swim better than a dolphin. I’ll have overcome my crippling fear of water that has made it impossible for me to learn how to swim, and finally French conjugations will make sense. 

I will also have somehow cultivated discipline, my body and mind chiseled and honed, sharp as a tack, in the best shape of their life. I will be a new person, a new person who gets things done. This new person will be cured and no longer held back by a backfiring brain that often refuses to focus on anything, or by a lazy body that never seems to commit to regular exercise, often requiring the boxing coach to call in the morning to summon it to the gym.

My job will be waiting for me on the other side of perfection. I will stun everyone with never before seen degrees of brilliance, productivity and efficiency. I will never miss a single deadline, never make a single mistake, no matter how small. I will always be ready with profound answers to every question, a master problem solver, a bottomless well of creativity.  An optimised human. Unstoppable. A woman who runs with wolves.

These fantasies, is it just me?

Life these days seems to run on relentless pressure for self-improvement. The general message is that we need to do more. This is how you can be more productive at work. Here are some tips to get the most out of your work out. Are you sure that your self-care is working? Optimise your meals. Optimise your sleep. Optimise your friendships. Buy the latest eye cream, but only if you will also buy this serum because one doesn’t work without the other. Invest your money, but no, not like that. This fund is better, those people are cons. Pop multivitamins now that you’re 30, or your body and brain will turn into mush as you watch …

All these expectations make us feel as though the world is measuring every aspect of our lives and still finding us wanting. No wonder there is such a high demand for life coaches and motivational speakers. The quest for meaning and purpose is universal.

A few weeks ago at around 2 a.m., which is often when the self improvement rush strikes, I found myself going down an internet rabbit hole looking for a solution. Not a therapist, because it didn’t feel like a therapy kind of problem. Perhaps a life coach. I needed someone to examine my life and tell me who I was and how I could be better. Someone to sieve through the mud, find some clay, and mold it into bricks that I could then stack until they became a house I could find security in. 

That got me thinking. If no one is watching, if no one is examining, if no one is diagnosing and labeling and measuring, how can I exist?

If you google “life coach Kenya” there are hundreds of hits. But I am not sure that is the solution most of us need. In my opinion, acknowledging that there are limitations to how optimal life can be is less a failure and more an acceptance of normalcy. It’s just how life is. Sometimes we are driven and trying new things and reaching new heights, but most times, we are on auto-pilot, just going through the motions, doing the boring work of survival, maintaining a rhythm with nothing new or exciting on the horizon. We are who we are, not lazy, not unmotivated, not unintelligent. Tuko tu. 

Can we find a way to be ok with this? 

I suspect we would be happier if we could. After all, who does the relentless, and often individualistic, pursuit of self-improvement serve? The constant messaging that we can attain our best lives if only we want it badly enough, if only we work hard enough, programmes us to look away from the very real systemic challenges that define our lives. 

We are right that something is missing, but it’s got less to do with how dysfunctional we are on the inside, and more to do with how dysfunctional the world on the outside is. How do we self-improve our way out of structural inequalities, classism, sexism, racism, homophobia, and all other forms of social injustice? If we’re too busy working on ourselves, then we’ve got no time to work on communal struggles or challenge bad governance or do any of the collective work that would result in the collective improvement of our collective circumstances.

It  might be time for us to take a closer look at the urges to search for new, better jobs with more money and loftier titles; get another university degree or short course; hike Mt. Kenya; launch a business; write a book; be funny and relatable on Twitter; be beautiful and aspirational on Instagram… It might be time to learn how to sit in stillness and develop an appreciation for the lives we’re already living. Hard won lives that are already a triumph, already an achievement, already beautiful and aspirational and relatable. We are fine, we don’t need fixing, we are doing our best with what we have. 

I don’t know much about happiness but I do know that I have found a new appreciation for boredom. Excitement will come. In the meantime, stillness is really nice too.

Author

  • Jacqueline Kubania

    Jacqueline is an award-winning journalist and communications practitioner with a combined nine years’ experience in local and international newsrooms and the non-profit sector. She is a Chevening scholar and was the 2015 Kenyan winner of the David Astor Journalism Awards Trust. She has previously worked for Nation Media Group as a senior reporter, and has also reported for The Guardian in the UK and City Press in South Africa. She holds an MSc in Practising Sustainable Development from Royal Holloway, University of London. Jacqueline currently lives in Nairobi and works as a communications consultant and freelance journalist. Her favourite subject is people, in all their layers and complexities. She is a feminist and a supporter of social justice. She hopes to one day do a food tour of West Africa. Talk to her about books, cats, or travel.