This one comes to us from Mark Casper.

Recently I came across an article in The New Yorker that nearly bowled me over. It’s called Improving Ourselves to Death by Alexandra Schwartz, and it thoroughly outlines the negative consequences of living in a “self-improvement culture.” You may remember the post that appeared on Mockingbird earlier this year about it.

At one point, Schwartz quotes a line from British journalist Will Storr, author of Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us. “We’re living in an age of perfectionism, and perfection is the idea that kills,” Storr writes. “People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”

Storr’s words hit me like a freight train. They perfectly crystallized a personal struggle I hadn’t yet put into words: living and “suffering under the torture of the fantasy self I’m failing to become.”

For years, I’ve been haunted by an ideal of myself that I’m slowly realizing will never come to fruition. This “Mega Mark” gets up every day at 5 a.m. for an hour-long workout, followed by an hour-long devotional, followed by an hour-long passion project work session, followed by 8+ hours of passion-filled, excellent-beyond-belief work, followed by a fun, romantic evening with my wife that’s laced with intentional conversations, followed by an hour-long reading session, followed by 8-9 hours of perfectly restful sleep.

As anyone could guess, my days almost never look like that. But I live in the tall shadow of this “Mega Mark” and almost daily feel a twinge of guilt for not being more like him.

Don’t get me wrong—striving to grow in every area of life (professionally, relationally, spiritually, etc.) is a good and noble thing. But Schwartz’ article shines a light on a glaring blindspot in our culture and personal lives. It’s far too easy to get carried away—to become so focused on self-improvement that we’re plagued by the guilt of never measuring up to our own standards.

When this becomes the norm, we lose our ability to rest. (How can you, when you’re always wondering, “Could I be doing more?”) Not only that, we also lose our ability to work from a place of rest. Instead, we become anxious, fear-filled doers—racked with guilt and depression when we fail to live up to our own ideals.

Which is why, among other things, we need the arts.

If you have any doubts about our culture’s bent towards self-improvement, look no further than the best-sellers shelf at the bookstore. Popular titles like Tim Ferris’ Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers or Smarter, Better, Faster by Charles Duhigg promise that if we would only read their books, the secrets to doing more, achieving more, and becoming more will be ours.

I’m not dogging on these books—I have read and will continue to read many of them. But they can breed in us an unhealthy obsession with personal growth.

Related to this, I recently noticed an interesting trend. Many of us (if we read books at all) only read business or self-help books.

For a long time I wondered why this was the case, and then it dawned on me: In a self-improvement culture, there is no room for art. There is room only for things which have an explicit, utilitarian purpose. Literature, art, poetry, films—these have no practical value in and of themselves. So why read a novel when you can learn ten principles from a self-help book?

In the introduction to his book “Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life,” artist Makoto Fujimura states it plainly:

The assumption behind utilitarian pragmatism is that human endeavors are only deemed worthwhile if they are useful to the whole, whether that be a company, family or community.  In such a world, those who are disabled, those who are oppressed, or those who are without voice are seen as “useless” and disposable. We have a disposable culture that has made usefulness the sole measure of value. This metric declares that the arts are useless. No—the reverse is true. The arts are completely indispensable precisely because they are useless in the utilitarian sense.

When it comes to fiction (and the arts in general), I think many of us take this view: What’s the point? At least nonfiction books teach you practical principles you can actually use. 

And yet, I think back on my childhood and how magical it was thanks to books like the Redwall series, Harry Potter, The Boxcar Children, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Lord of the Rings, and many others. I think about the novels I’ve read in my 20s that have influenced me in profound ways: The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, Silence by Shusaku Endo, Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, and East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

So much has already been said about the importance of art in our daily lives that I will not belabor the point, save this quote from writer Ursula K. Le Guin:

The daily routine of most adults is so heavy and artificial that we are closed off to much of the world. We have to do this in order to get our work done. I think one purpose of art is to get us out of those routines. When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again. We’re drawn in — or out — and the windows of our perception are cleansed, as William Blake said. The same thing can happen when we’re around young children or adults who have unlearned those habits of shutting the world out.

As Le Guin so beautifully attests, art adds a unique and crucial value to our lives. Indeed, many have discovered this simple yet profound truth: art and productivity are not mutually exclusive.

The Catholic writer Henri Nouwen famously spent over six hours observing and studying one of Rembrandt’s paintings, eventually chronicling his experience in a book.

But Nouwen isn’t alone. Some of the greatest leaders in history have been avid consumers of art. John Coleman illustrates this point vividly in an article he published on Harvard Business Review:

According to The New York Times, Steve Jobs had an ‘inexhaustible interest’ in William Blake; Nike founder Phil Knight so reveres his library that in it you have to take off your shoes and bow; and Harman Industries founder Sidney Harman called poets ‘the original systems thinkers,’ quoting freely from Shakespeare and Tennyson.

In Passion & Purpose, David Gergen notes that Carlyle Group founder David Rubenstein reads dozens of books each week. And history is littered not only with great leaders who were avid readers and writers (remember, Winston Churchill won his Nobel prize in Literature, not Peace), but with business leaders who believed that deep, broad reading cultivated in them the knowledge, habits, and talents to improve their organizations.

Speaking of Harvard Business School, did you know that HBS requires their MBA students to read certain pieces of literature?

In an interview called Read Fiction and Be a Better Leader, professor Joseph Badaracco explains why HBS uses works of fiction to teach leadership:

My view of what makes literature so valuable in the classroom is that it helps students really get inside individuals who are making decisions. It helps them see things as these people in the stories actually see them. And that’s because the inner life of the characters is imagined and described, in many cases, by brilliant writers whose sense of how people really think and how they really work have been tested by time over decades or even centuries.

Later on, Badaracco discusses why the nuances of fiction are in many cases superior to the general platitudes of most business books:

But what is troubling [about most management literature] is when you find something, it takes a situation that’s complex and says, well, gee, just do this and this. And this is something that you could kind of explain to an intelligent 12-year-old, and they’d get it. And you just have a sense that no, there’s many more levels of complexity here that are being ignored.

And it is often these psychological, emotional levels of complexity. In an organization, you’re just dealing with other people all the time. And it’s very hard to capture the nuances, the subtleties, the histories, and all the rest of that in a nonfiction book. So that’s why you turn to literature—to get the depth, and the richness, and the realism.

Some might say I’m undercutting my own argument—that art does, in fact, offer us valuable lessons and therefore does have a utilitarian purpose. Yes and no—I’m most certainly arguing that art has much to teach us about life, work, and faith.

But to me, these are all secondary benefits of exposing yourself to the arts. I don’t go to an art gallery for the explicit purpose of becoming a better leader. I don’t go to a movie to become a better husband. I don’t read a novel for the dry, utilitarian purpose of extracting principles to become a better person.

I read novels, watch films, and see art to be moved. I expose myself to art for the sake of my soul—to be reminded that this broken world is not all there is. That there exists, to quote one of my favorite passages from The Lord of the Rings,” a “light and high beauty forever beyond the reach of darkness.” Excellent works of art remind me that I am more than just the product of my work—that I am made in the image of my Creator and my identity is rooted in His work, not mine.