Kamal Ravikant never intended to get noticed for his writing. His short, self-published book titled Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It came out of a season of intense pain. The death of a close friend, a life-threatening injury, and a failed company all flooded his life within a span of months, pushing him to the end of himself.
It was at his nadir that Kamal began the practice that would ultimately transform his life, “I started telling myself, I love myself.”
The simplicity of his practice, coupled with the vulnerability of his story, creates a unique experience for the reader. I found myself routinely challenged by his insights. Here is this successful startup founder and author discussing the physical and sexual abuse he suffered as a child, with no motive other than to show what is possible when self-love becomes a priority.
It got me thinking, why don’t we talk more about self-love, self-forgiveness, or self-acceptance in the circles of self-improvement and self-mastery? From most of my readings, it seems as though the authors and teachers want us to be above those topics. Or perhaps, go around them.
But here is a hard truth I’ve come to realize: you cannot heal yourself by improving yourself.
The two are different goals entirely. And while they can support each other, achieving one does not mean you are any closer to the other. In his book, Stillness is the Key, Ryan Holiday writes about the tragedies surrounding Tiger Woods' career. His excellence as a golfer did not translate into excellence as a man. His untamed desires eventually crumbled both his personal and career success.
My question is: how do we talk about self-love within the context of career and mastery?
If becoming a better writer, athlete, or scientist isn’t the same thing as becoming a better human, how, and what, should we prioritize?
Is self-love necessary for self-mastery?
Self-love never came easy to me. It still doesn’t.
I was an overweight kid who wore glasses and spoke with a lisp. To top it off, I got braces in middle school. The bullying and mean comments I received stuck with me longer than I would ever admit. But these everyday traumas were only the background noise of that period.
My father was abusive. Thankfully, he was out of the picture before I hit puberty. My favorite uncle, a man who taught me how to build with my hands and told me not to be ashamed of being smarter than most people, committed suicide.
The influences in my life during that time were volatile at best, which is why church began to play such a major role in my story. Religion was orderly. It made sense. There were clear rules and boundaries, and, after living through so much rule-breaking, I was happy to give up some freedom in exchange for safety.
I’ve written a lot about faith and religion over the years. As I look back at my writing now, I think the last decade has largely been consumed with the practice of shedding.
Shedding the overweight, outsider child. I lost weight, got speech therapy and contacts, and learned to feel comfortable in my own skin. I’ve made peace with many of the hardest moments of my upbringing through writing and counseling. And in the last year, I began to shed my old faith.
One thing religion does very well is that it causes you to dislike yourself. Every Sunday, for years, attendees are told what they are not.
Humans are not trustworthy.
Humans are not inherently good.
Humans need something outside of themselves to be whole, to be right, to be worthy of love.
I bought in wholeheartedly because the alternative (hell or, more commonly, hell on earth) was all too real of a place for me. I surrendered any belief I had in myself and gave it over to the church. To God and his plan. To something other than me.
I went to school and then seminary and got more training post-seminary, but I was never able to close the gap. In a properly orthodox, theological environment – self-love is just too dangerous a concept to keep. It fights against our need to be saved.
Becoming your own savior is untenable. Being in need, being incapable, needing something more than what you are able to provide for yourself – these are at the core of the Christian faith. So, when I started to expose myself to messages of enoughness, abundance, and self-acceptance, the structures I built to protect me began to crumble.
I didn’t need protection from the world. I needed the skills to navigate it. Emotional, mental, and spiritual skills with which I could engage with the life I was once so afraid to live.
I began to make a conscious trade-off. The more I chose to shed my old faith, the more freedom and self-love and competence I felt.
I call it my old faith because all of my belief in the eternal hasn’t disappeared. What I believe now is a sort of amalgamation of humanistic philosophy and universalism. Still rules and boundaries, but wildly broader now. The circle of inclusion is much bigger. And now, I have a say in what I need and in what I am allowed to feel.
Everyone has an obstacle preventing them from self-love.
For me, religion and childhood experiences. For others: broken relationships, abuse, death, failure. The same challenge wears a thousand masks, but its endgame is always the same.
It wants us to define a concrete reason for why we are unworthy of self-love. Something we did, consciously or unconsciously. And then, our minds work to defend that belief. They color our memory with similar mistakes and failures, whether they exist or not.
Our traumas shape us, whether we want them to or not. And for most of us, over time, we sentence ourselves to a life silently guided by a feeling of unworthiness.
So how do combat this suffocating feeling?
We strive. We get awards and then promotions. We add letters after our name and titles before it. We look for ways to separate who we are from who we were. We move and transform and consume. We become experts in our field — masters of what we know, of what we can control.
We run towards a finish line that doesn't exist. A type of border we hope that once we cross, we will finally be able to relinquish who we were on the other side.
But life doesn’t work that way. Our hearts don’t work that way.
For everything a human being is capable of, there is one role we always default back to: a carrier. We carry buckets and genes and stories. Things to share and pass on. But we also carry wounds and regrets. Stories we’ll never share. Buckets we have no business keeping on our backs.
Often, a person’s quest towards self-mastery doubles as an ill-fated attempt towards self-healing. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Who we want to become doesn’t have to be a reaction to who we were in the past. It can be a response to our hopes, our desires.
Self-improvement can be a good thing when it’s pursued from a place of love, rather than fear. The more we acknowledge the undercurrents of what was in our lives, the less power they will have to carry us in directions we don’t want to go.
As I’ve written before, I wholeheartedly believe self-awareness is a prerequisite for mastery, especially self-mastery. And true introspection can't help but bump up against the chain-link fences constructed by our lack of self-love.
To do great things, we must first become great. And to become great, we must first become honest.
In his book, Ravikant offers the reader four distinct practices for developing self-love. He arrived at this quartet after countless experiments where he tested what most moved his life forward. Each one is deceptively simple, but therein lies the charm.
We want to believe that the most important changes we can make in our lives require herculean tasks. Yet that isn't the case. Often, the hard and big and insurmountable merely requires the consistent and the small. To cut a boulder, all you need is a single drop of water and time. Nature will accomplish the rest.
Before we can develop a practice that sticks, the author guides his readers through two prerequisite steps: self-forgiveness and making a vow.
Self-forgiveness is the practice of undressing the layers of regret and shame which hide who we are from the world. To let go means to acknowledge and accept your past as true and unchangeable. Kamal writes, "You are a human being...it’s your nature to make mistakes. It’s the contract of existing on this planet.”
As we come to grips with what was, we equip ourselves to see our now with clearer eyes. Now does not have to be like before. And our future will be whatever we choose it to be. But all of this begins with a commitment to ourselves for ourselves. As we “develop a healthy respect for the person [we’ve] become,” we open our lives up to possibility.
This air of possibility is what our vow captures. It puts into writing our directional shift and sets us up for a practice built upon a restored internal foundation: not only do we want to love ourselves, but we’re starting to believe, even slightly, that we are worthy of that love.
Every time we think a thought or feel a feeling, we reinforce those memories and emotions in our brains. As Dr. Carol Dweck writes in her book Mindset, the pathways we use most often expand. First, from single lane streets into two-lane roads. And then, when used daily again and again, they transform into eight-lane highways.
Ravikant’s advice is to be intentional about the roads (aka mental loops) we build. We do this by saying aloud what we want to stick. In this case, “I love myself.” We say it with breathing, with emotion, and with energy. We engrain the phrase into our psyche so much so that one day we catch ourselves thinking it without even trying.
The author’s formulation for this self-love practice includes music and light imagery. I found these assistances helpful since I am still very much a beginner to meditation.
The goal here is to practice breathing in the thought you want (i.e., I love myself), followed by breathing out the thoughts that attempt to distract.
Kamal prioritizes gentleness as he explains. Meditation is not something you force. Instead, it's something you allow yourself to fall in to. When it works, it is one of the most recharging activities you can engage in.
Science shows the benefits of consistent meditation can be quite radical. The hard part is showing up and shutting up long enough for it to work.
Next, repeat the “I love myself” phrase in front of a mirror. Things like this are mentioned occasionally across the self-help genre. I’ve found that it never gets less awkward to do this, no matter what phrase you say.
But before you discount this oddity, I want to share with you the part Kamal wrote that immediately made me put the book down and go try it.
After this exercise, something began to shift in me. I started to believe that maybe I could reach self-love if I let myself attempt self-kindness.
The mirror exercise helped me think through many of the negative (and downright mean) things I say to myself without even knowing. Things I would never say to my wife or any person I love. So then, why do I let myself get away with it?
Maybe the natural unfolding of increased self-awareness is improved self-kindness. And from that warmer soil, love may grow.
The final practice Kamal suggests is a question we must begin to ask ourselves: “If I loved myself truly and deeply, would I let myself experience this?”
I can attest to the power of a question like this because this is exactly what I started to ask myself over these last two years. The cognitive dissonance I was experiencing between what I believed and what I was doing with my time at work and at church and in my relationships was debilitating.
Because of a long series of fear-based choices, my life molded into something I no longer recognized nor wanted to be a part of. It felt like someone had dropped me into the middle of a play, and I hated my part.
To fix this, I started to experiment.
I said no more often. I excused myself from commitments I made for the wrong reasons. I felt a little like a turtle, slowly sneaking back into its shell. But I needed that. I needed a season of less, a season of no, in order to find what things were worth saying yes to once again.
And the only way I was able to get there was by asking questions like these. Most people will do nearly anything to protect the ones they love. Why don’t we do the same for ourselves?
While studying Greek, I learned the word ἀρετή (arete). Roughly translated it means excellence or virtue. But like so many Greek words, translation never captures the complete picture.
For the Greeks, arete captured something more akin to greater than the sum of its parts. Arete was the fullness you get from being excellent. It was the type of perfection Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was describing when he said: “perfection is achieved...when there is nothing left to take away.”
This is the word that comes to mind when I think about self-love. The people who learn how to love themselves, regardless of circumstances, are the people who become excellent in a way that is intoxicating once you see it.
They become solid.
There's a depth to their decisions that most people lack because when they do decide on something, it's as though onlookers can see their whole body align with their choice. No compromise, no ego, just enoughness. What better foundation is there than this to build a life of mastery upon?
As the stories of so many fallen icons show us, becoming does not inherently precede doing. No great achiever is also made a great human through their achievement. Skills are not saviors, though we often treat them as such.
It doesn't automatically work the other way around, either. Solid character (an eventual side effect of self-love as I understand it) does not equate to marketplace value. Being trustworthy and kind and patient and good are desirable qualities. But they do not qualify one for skill-based roles
To be truly great, you need both. The foundation of self-love (as displayed through doing good to yourself and others) AND the continual development of mastery. If mastery is reaching for the stars, how much more difficult will your quest be if you find your feet trying to stand on quicksand?
Self-love offers our mastery a longevity it isn’t capable of on its own.
If deliberate practice, learning, and mastery are exercise. Self-love, forgiveness, and character-formation are recovery. When we push, we break parts of ourselves along the way. This isn't a bad thing. It's necessary for growth. However, it becomes bad when we neglect to ever care for those broken pieces.
Do you need to practice self-love in order to achieve skill- and self-mastery? No. But your chase will come at a much higher cost than you could imagine.
Self-love is necessary for sustainable mastery.
To be excellent, we must be present. We must prioritize the small, consistent practices which feed our soul so that our souls can support the minds and bodies which do the work. As Kamal writes, "Life begins from the inside out."
The most significant factor of our success in life is what’s going on inside of us. History, science, and experience prove this to us, time and time again. What more needs to happen before we listen?
How ironic is it that the thing so many of us need the most is a thing only we can give ourselves.
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