Kathryn Borel (Jr.) is a close friend of mine from Toronto who moved to Los Angeles with her boyfriend a few years ago and who is, as we speak, writing a pilot for ABC which is loosely based on her memoir, Corked. I still remember when she was calling her memoir Chateau Shitfaced. Too bad the publisher nixed that. The book is about how she accidentally killed a man with her car when she was in her early 20s and the aftermath in which she tries to grapple with the inevitable eventual death of her own beloved father. I asked her to answer my question, and also to give it to her mother, whose advice and insights I have come to rely on as much as I do on Kathryn's — her mother is a serious, girlish, super-intelligent person. I have never known a family who so much enjoys spending time together as the Borels (there is also a brother, Nico).
Sheila: I have noticed that women spend a lot of time trying to make themselves better, happier, smarter, more perfect. How can one tell when to stop? Is all this self-improvement necessary or not such a good idea? Is it a waste of time? Is it better to just accept oneself, in all one's flaws? What's the right balance?
Kathryn Borel Jr.: I guess it depends on the definition of self-improvement. Should I stop reading books that deepen my understanding of myself or the world? Probably not. Should I try yelling less when my boyfriend makes a small mistake that bugs me, like when he lets the garbage pile so high there's food slime stuck to the underside of the lid of the trashcan? Yes, I can maybe lower my voice and speak to him reasonably and ask him nicely to Windex the smell away.
The friction that occurs between who I am and who I think I can be is the reason I wake up and take a shower and leave the house.
To me, the best way to think about self-improvement is to always be wondering (and figuring out) what are the motivations behind my actions. If I can be honest and clear about those motivations, and be brave enough to say them out loud to the people who matter, I'm moving in a positive direction.
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Kathryn Borel Sr.: I think the desire to improve, whether it is in looks, education, physical conditioning, is an extension of the adolescent in us that wants to distinguish him or herself from the masses. The first 40-50 years of our lives are devoted to climbing the "mountain," whatever definition we have given it. The efforts of self-improvement, in whatever way we want to define that, physical or mental, are well-placed during this time frame, as long as they are not driven by pressures from outside but by an inner need to reach the vision we have set for ourselves.
After that time frame, then a certain contentment (hopefully) kicks in, a professional road that one can be proud of, a family situation which is satisfying and loving, a level of thinking down, being able to define who we are specifically, clearly expressing values, priorities, and ideas that are in keeping with and supported by one's entourage. The need to do better is confined to just those areas that we deem to be the most important and dependent on our rootedness; we are less impressionable and less in need of competing with others. This would be the growing down part and a natural extension of who we have become.
I think from age 50 onward, there is an accepting of who we are, recognizing the limitations and strengths, and working with this. The body also sends off messages that it is not able to run the same race as 20 years before. We take a distance from things, observe more, give back.
More from Sheila Heti at PowellsBooks.Blog:
- Advice Column, Part One: Tao Lin and Heidi Julavits
- Advice Column, Part Two: Susan Swan
- Advice Column, Part Four: Roxane Gay and Anne Theriault
- Advice Column, Part Five: Sarah Manguso
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Sheila Heti is the author of several books of fiction, including The Middle Stories and Ticknor; and an essay collection written with Misha Glouberman, The Chairs Are Where the People Go. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Bookforum, McSweeney's, n+1, and the Guardian. How Should a Person Be? is her latest book.
Books mentioned in this post
Sheila Heti is the author of How Should a Person Be?