Is self improvement really important


At the end of October, the Hamburg Institute for Advanced Study (HIAS) opened the doors of its newly occupied domicile on Rothenbaumchaussee. Up to 20 scientists and artists from all over the world can and should exchange interdisciplinary exchanges here in the future. As one of the first scientists, the writer and literature professor Prof. Dr. Anna Katharina Schaffner from the University of Kent started her research at HIAS. She is working on her book "The Art of Self Improvement: Ten Timeless Truths" with the Gerd Bucerius Fellowship sponsored by the ZEIT Foundation. In the interview she talks about her research, her first impressions at HIAS and why self-improvement is not the same as self-optimization.

Ms. Schaffner, in your research you look at self-improvement in a historical and always also in a social context. Are there topics that keep coming up?

There are issues that actually run like a red thread through the long history of self-improvement. Self-knowledge is the starting point and means that we understand where our weaknesses and strengths lie and where our deeper motives are. Self-knowledge was already a theme among the ancient Greeks: “Know yourself” is carved into the temple of Apollo, for example. But there are other important issues, such as letting go, mind control, and the ability to empathize with other people's emotions. Machiavelli already used what is known as mentalization for himself. Even today, this form of self-improvement plays a major role in the advisory literature. Other current topics are “living in the here and now” and minimalism.

For you, self-improvement is not the same as self-optimization. But self-improvement is a basic human need? Why?

In my research project, I speak specifically about self-improvement and not about self-optimization, because self-optimization is a rather negative term, especially in Germany. Self-optimization is often presented as a neoliberal increase in efficiency, in which we should adapt to an economic paradigm in order to become more and more productive, more and more efficient. Self-improvement, on the other hand, is a human endeavor that can be traced back to Chinese antiquity and ultimately has the goal of not taking oneself so seriously. The energies of the improved self are not consumed internally, through fears, stress or aggression, but can be directed outwards, onto other people and projects. The improved self takes over itself, so to speak, and becomes more prosocial.

If you deal so intensively with the topic of self-improvement, do you also look at yourself?

Yes absolutely. Anyway, I think that academics are always working on topics that are relevant to themselves and that we always have a deeper connection to our topics. I'm not someone who is only interested in abstract models or theories. For me, the questions always arise: “What do we do with it now? What is socially relevant about that? ”At the beginning I conceived my book as a scientific monograph and then I thought that this is a topic that could potentially be of interest to many people and I rewrote the book from scratch so that it would also be suitable for a more general one Readership is accessible.

Another focus of her research is "Exhaustion". How do self-improvement and exhaustion play together? How do you perceive this interaction in the corona crisis?

I think that exhaustion in the corona crisis has become an important topic again. For example, I see that in universities. There, complex requirements have to be implemented that can hardly be managed administratively and then change again two weeks later. Much of what was taken for granted is no longer safe. All of this takes a lot of energy from us. Many also used the time of the first lockdown to pause and think about deeper values ​​and goals. Time has been used by many to study and self-improvement is a form of learning. The crisis forces us to improve and adapt to a new reality. The massively accelerated digitization is just one example.

The lack of personal exchange is one of the major challenges during the corona pandemic. The HIAS was founded to promote exactly this exchange between different disciplines and with the Hamburg scientists. Is this exchange possible at all at the moment?

Yes, with certain restrictions. Every week we have a Corona-safe lunch and joint events, and we all work in the same building, like a kind of shared research community. The composition of the first HIAS class and the first fellows who started with me is very exciting. A microbiologist, a cultural sociologist, a legal philosopher and me. At first you wouldn't get the idea that there are thematic overlaps, but there is. For example, we all deal with issues related to the relationship of the individual to society. The microbiologist is researching, for example, how unicellular organisms combine to form more complex systems and then function as part of a new entity. The aim of the HIAS is to promote a multidisciplinary exchange, to give space so that new perspectives can open up. You are encouraged to see your own question from a completely different perspective and you are encouraged to think further. This also happens despite the restrictions caused by the corona pandemic. I can already see that my ideas have developed in completely new, exciting directions. It really is a little paradise for researchers, in which we can research here without any responsibility or administrative and teaching activities. The only obligation is to have an intellectual conversation with other scientists.

What influence can an institution like the HIAS have on Hamburg as a science location?

The connections that the fellows enter into with each other, but also with their scientific tandem partners from Hamburg, enliven the science location in the long term. Local networks become global networks that link Hamburg even more closely to the international world of science. The HIAS also plays an important role in science communication and opens up discourse with the public.