Confession time: I’m partly powered by smugness. I’m not even sure that’s a bad thing. The thought struck me the other day as I was pouring coffee from my battered, decade-old Thermos:
I’m a pretty awesome person for not buying a new one, aren’t I?
I’m old enough to know what buying a new Thermos would entail. It’d throw me into that old familiar cycle of obsessive research, giddy purchase, and New Object Energy that quickly gives way to “the thing I pour coffee into.” Whenever I feel like buying something, my desire for new and shiny throws off its gloves and has a no-holds-barred fistfight with my natural stinginess. Desire used to win! But these days, I’ll usually just pat myself on the back for re-using and repairing. I don’t think I’d be doing that if it weren’t for the warm glow of feeling… um. Better than everyone else.
I’m typing this on a high-refresh 1440p monitor, so, reality check and grain of salt and all that. But as an impulse, I think smugness gets kind of a bad rap? I believe that — in me, at least — it’ll usually drive desirable behaviors and outcomes. It’ll kick in when I choose the comparatively harder path: going for a workout after putting my son to bed, taking my bike and the bus to work, cooking at home instead of getting takeout. I’ll look at people carrying pizza boxes to their cars and go “ha, look at them and look at me” and while I can logically see that these are really unattractive thoughts and actually a good example of Fundamental Attribution Error they’re useful to me. They make me want to become and remain better.
I don’t know what others are thinking about when they’re, for example, lifting weights. It seems some people have an enviable, built-in, sense of self-improvement. One day, they decide there’s something about themselves that they want to improve. And bit by bit, gram by gram, they go about doing it. They’re able to hold themselves accountable and stay the course. It’s a really powerful force, and a thing that seems to unite the really remarkable humans of history. Sometimes it’s a monomaniacal drive, like Kee Marcello spending hours and hours perfecting guitar licks. Sometimes it’s just a seemingly unstoppable curiosity that chips away at someone like Charles Darwin. Even if you have a natural inclination pushing you to do something because you think it’s fun, you’ll have plateaus and valleys — but some people are able to just keep going and power through.
Me, though? While I think I have a decent amount of grit, the long haul is hard for me and I usually end up losing my resolve. There’s never that little voice telling me to keep doing this or that, I’ll just let myself off the hook. I don’t seem to really care that much about my own promises to myself. Know what I do care about, though?
Yeah. I’m kind of a narcissist. I’ve developed thicker skin over the years and my roughest edges may have been sanded off, but in essence: anything I do that seems good or noble, I do to impress others. If nobody were around to see me, I’d probably just be laying around on my couch playing Rocket League and eating junk food. There’s not much to be found in self-improvement for me, except for a very transient soothing of my mind and a feeling of “man, I am literally Superman for cleaning and doing laundry despite being really tired.” And since it seems to be my main source of inspiration I have a hard time faulting that emotion, even if it sometimes curdles into “everyone else is so lazy for not doing this.” It powers my own brand of minimalism, too. I try to get rid of more stuff than I buy, and I want to get by with just the essentials because we only have this one planet and you fuckers are all ruining it and also ha ha I’m saving money. There’s both beauty and ugliness in these thoughts, and I’ve started thinking about how to perform the mental judo required to remove the part where I have to feel superior in order to do things that are objectively good for me and others. Until I’m capable of that, I’m sticking with smugness.