Photo by Jake Lewis
It’s hard to use the phrase “self-improvement” these days without people assuming you’re a demagogue, a fraud, a sex offender, or, probably, a combination of the three. Pick-up artists, Deepak Chopra, Fight Club, and Geri Halliwell’s yoga DVDs have sullied the concept. Understandably, we're now suspicious of plans that will "improve" our lives—too many people have been conned out of money or into mass suicide for us to really believe in them.
But having an interest in prolonging your life rather than cutting it short in an alcoholic squib of stress-related "glory" doesn’t make you a psychopath. It just means you’re smart enough to realize that the 5,000 people you're nominally friends with on Facebook won't be there for you when you’re wired up to an ECG in some desolute hospital ward. Attempting to prolong your life isn’t hippie shit, it’s actually an anti-spiritual, pro-science move, a mindset that eschews the invisible rewards of a "life on the edge" for the visible benefits of not dying at the age of 37 with your liver in a bag next to your head.
Even Christopher Hitchens, the feckless godfather of Reddit atheism, once said that he’d “hold it down on the cocktails and smokes” if he could have his time over again. Nobody’s saying you need to get into Tibetan ear candles and black seawater enemas, but while you're here, it might just be worth trying to keep the shit as far away from the fan as possible.
As somebody who’s recently joined a gym, ditched their iPhone, and stopped saying, “Call your guy, I'll pay for it” at 3 AM, I think I’ve made a few giant leaps forward in my life. At the risk of sounding a bit like someone who's eventually going to try to sell you a collection of healing crystals, here’s what I've picked up from things I’ve read, things I’ve done, things I haven’t done, and a few great minds.
Photo by Robert Harper
Dying Young Is Lame
You know who's a great actor? Michael Caine. He’s consistently churned out great films in every decade, started fashion trends, won two Oscars, made a fuckload of money, married beautiful women, and has lived a life that’d be the envy of anyone on Earth.
You know who overacted in a couple of teensploitation movies and died covered in cigarette burns at the age of 24? James Dean. You know who was also kind of melodramatic? Kurt Cobain. You know who’s pretty cool? Sixty-five-year-old Brian Eno. Nelson Mandela got quite a lot of shit done after he was 30, didn't he? The list goes on. Because while some young deaths are—of course—tragic and unavoidable (still got love for you, Biggie), a lot of people need to understand that the “live fast, die young” mantra is total bullshit that’s been sold to you by record labels and clothing companies.
Wanting to live as long as possible in as good health as possible doesn’t mean you’re on the road to becoming one of those people who's always talking about yoga. It just means you’re somebody whose understanding of the human condition goes beyond wanting to join “the 27 Club.” Try to live as long as you possibly can, dickhead. Life might be kinda shitty, but you only have one.
Photo by Jamie Taete
Get Rid of Your Smartphone
Thanks to a chance encounter I had with a couple of tough guys on the mean streets of England a few weeks back, I don’t have an iPhone any more. And I haven't gotten it replaced. Instead, I found myself gravitating towards the words of Mark Fisher. When, at a recent talk in London, the all-round top bloke of British Marxism described iPhones as “individualized command centers” it made me wonder what part of a human being really needs a smartphone. Who's insisting that we have them? Who's telling us that we must be able to respond to emails at all hours of the day? Who actually gives a shit about our Instagram accounts? People who don’t like you, that’s who. Which makes smartphones nothing more than a tool of self-loathing.
Essentially, we’ve all been sold a massive, techno-capitalist lie about the necessity of these things. I never thought I’d find myself saying things like this—and I’m certainly not some kind of preaching neo-luddite—but smartphones kill your concentration, your conversational ability, and perhaps even your cognitive skills. And for what? FOMO and stress.
Throw away your smartphones and reclaim your life. You can always run Twitter off a laptop.
Unplug Yourself from the Entertainment Matrix
At the risk of this turning into a massive love-in, there’s a bit in Fisher's seminal Capitalist Realism where he tells the story of a student who insisted on keeping an earphone plugged in throughout one of his classes. When Fisher asks him to take it out, the guy tells him that it’s OK because there’s no music playing from it. Fisher theorizes that the boy is doing this because he wants the comfort of knowing that he’s connected to “the entertainment matrix”: “To be bored simply means to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube, and fast food," writes Fisher, "to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand."
I think it's healthy to take yourself away from such things for a while. We’ve become completely attached to this matrix, and when removed from it we turn into incapable, agitated wrecks who can’t deal with a bus journey without the technological blanket of Candy Crush. Learn to live without your communication comforters, because these polar vortexes are only gonna get worse, and you’re going to be crappy at dealing with them.
Photo by Rory DCS
See the Horizon
In the bleak, remorseful morning after some godforsaken, coked-up house party, a wise person once told me that human beings don’t see the horizon enough. Not in a philosophical sense (although there is probably an argument for that, too) but in a very literal one. Because so many of us live in cities where we can't see beyond the next Starbucks, we have very little understanding of the scope and size of the world we live in. It can render us paranoid, selfish, unimaginative, and depressed.
Cities are obviously beautiful places, and I don’t think many of us are quite ready for that move to a cabin in the woods just yet, but try to get out in the world every now and then and get a sense of just how small you are. It can be humbling and scary to consider such things in a society that tells us that we are our own gods, but you'll feel a lot better about that passive-aggressive Facebook comment or unfinished report for doing it.
Again, clichéd advice, but clichés are repeated for a reason. You aren’t going to become a great of your generation if all you do is scan UpWorthy twice a day and zonk out to Netflix. Reading more will enrich your life, whatever you do. Read on buses, read on trains, read at lunch. Read fiction and nonfiction. Read George Packer, read George Saunders, read the memoirs of disgraced steroidal baseball players. Read to learn and read to live. Just don’t turn into that person who insists on making a really big deal of reading this year's National Book Award winner on the subway.
Once you've crawled out the other side of the blizzard of hedonistic self-indulgence that is (or at least should be) your late teens and early 20s, it's easy to feel like you've become a little untethered from Who You Really Are. Your school days are long gone, innocence has been eagerly traded for experience, and you can't talk to your old friends anymore because they're too busy being married. So to whom do you turn? Back to the people who know you've been taking drugs all this time but who'll promise not to talk about it just as long as you calm down a bit.
Eventually, you’ll come to realize that your parents aren't the scourges of fun you grew up thinking they were. They too are alone and confused in this world, but with the benefit of having already been through the same shit you’re dealing with now. Treat them as broken crash test dummies for your own existence—look at them and talk to them rather than dismissing them as fuddy-duddies who wouldn’t let you listen to The Chronic in the car.
Photo by Matías Uris Rey
Exercise Is Cool
You’re not at school any more. You don’t have to live out this ridiculous idea that physical fitness is the preserve of witless jocks while your lifestyle of sedentary dandyism makes you the beautiful, shining, enlightened one. You’re not; You sweat on your way to the bus stop and even if you’re still waspishly thin, your arteries probably look like Slim Jims.
Exercise is an enriching, intellectual pursuit as well as a physical one. It clears your mind and it’s a great way to look at the world at a new pace. Haruki Murakami wrote a book about jogging, Camus was a goalkeeper and Kari Stefansson, arguably the world’s leading genetic scientist, is an obsessive basketball player. The list is endless. NASA research has shown that people who engage in regular physical exercise are much better at making decisions than those who don’t. Exercise doesn’t make you stupid—sitting around and doing nothing does.
The truth is that people who don’t exercise are the stupid ones, and the proof backs it up. The idea that exercise is solely for people who’ve just got out of prison and Antipodean gym bunnies is one of the most dangerous of our time, and is mostly perpetuated by people who retweet Richard Dawkins and say stuff like: “Football? It's just millionaires chasing a pig's bladder around a field, isn’t it?”
At the end of the day, life is fucking hard. It’s relentless, and it doesn’t stop until it really stops. How else can we divert our minds from our own existences? Alcohol is nature's way of slowing us down and making us feel good when our circumstances dictate that we shouldn't. It's the elixir of life, the juice of love, and almost every great moment of my life is somehow tied to it. Life is bigger than you are, try to fight it and you'll lose. Without booze in your life, all you’re doing is trying to headbutt God.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
Click here to read the rest of the articles in The VICE Guide to Making 2014 Better Than 2013.