The 3% Improvement

You know what feels crappy? 3% improvement. You busted your ass for a year, trying to get better at dating, at being less of an introvert, at self-soothing your anxiety – and you only managed to get 3% better at it.

If you worked a job where you put in that much time at the office and they gave you a measly 3% raise, you would spit in your boss’s face and walk the fuck out.

And, in fact, that’s what most people do: quit. “I tried fixing that,” they’ll mutter, angrily, into their morning coffee. “Didn’t work. I’m just terrible at small talk / anxious / an introvert, and there’s nothing to be done about it.”

And you know what doesn’t help here? All the people who were already good at this shit telling them how easy improvement is. You’ve got the Lebron James of extroversion doing infomercials in your comments feed, saying, “Hey, sometimes when I’m debating which of my nine hundred close friends to call up to go to the front-row seats at the Beyonce concert with, I too wonder if they think less of me because I didn’t get backstage passes this time. So that’s exactly like your social anxiety, but I work past it!”

Fuck these guys.

So the model for most self-improvement is usually this:

* You don’t have much of a problem
* You found The Breakthrough that erased all the issues you had
* When you’re done, you’ll be the opposite of what you were. Used to be bad at dating? Now you’ll have your own personal harem. Used to be useless at small talk? Now you’re a fluent raconteur.

Which, when you’ve agonized to scrape together a measly 3% improvement, feels like crap. If you’re burdened with such social anxiety that it takes literally everything you have to go out in public for twenty minutes, make one awkward small talk, and then retreat home to collapse in embarrassment, you think, “Well, this isn’t worth it.”

But most self-improvement isn’t immediate improvement, my friend.

It’s compound interest.

Which is the magic of the financial markets, assuming they don’t all collapse in the next unregulated fiasco. My grandfather told me that when I got some money, I had to put money in an IRA. I got an unexpected windfall when I was 29 and put $2,000 in an IRA just to shut him up. And to my surprise, I got a notice from the IRA last week: even though I haven’t put in another dime into that fund, it’s up by a couple thousand.

Because that $2,000 got 3% interest, and kept accruing, and every time that 3% got applied it was to a bigger amount – $3,000, then $4,000, and right now I wouldn’t say it’s a tidy nest egg but damn is it a lot more than I would have had if I’d spent that windfall on porn and videogames.

Truth is, most improvement is compound interest, and it’s not sexy or satisfying. You muscle yourself out the door to that meetup this week – that’s 3%. After a couple of efforts, where “being able to get out of the house” becomes something you can do with minimal strain, you make awkward small talk with someone there instead of sticking to the wall – that’s another 3%. And you endure the awkward small talk for a couple more weeks until you find someone who you really connect with – that’s another 3%.

It’s never the Lebron James payoff. But over the years, you can make massive improvements to your life in small chunks that rarely feel satisfying at the time.

You can budge the needle a lot.

But that needle-budging only happens over time.  There’s very few one-offs in this biz.

And the truth is, you don’t need to be Lebron James good a lot of the time. If you’re really out of shape, a couple of 3% improvements will let you walk around the block without getting winded – an activity that most people would shrug off, but it will make your life infinitely better if you can manage it. If you’re so anxious that you’re driving your friends away, learning to self-soothe one out of every four times doesn’t seem like much but it can make the difference between self-destructing your social circle and retaining your buddies.

I mean, I’m still a socially anxious introvert. But I get out to conventions, I have friends, I even occasionally go to meetups with strangers. I manage to have a life, even if that life is still marred by breakdowns.

There are people who can’t improve by willpower alone, of course. Some people’s traits are set, and they’re not shifting, and I don’t deny that. But most people, I find, are too quick to see themselves as unchanging. They’ll claim that “That’s just the way they are” when the truth is that they haven’t stuck with their changes long enough to see the power of compound interest at work.

3% improvement feels like nothing when you’re starting out. But 3% improvement, applied consistently over a lot of years, can double your initial investment. And even if you don’t get that payoff, incremental improvements – as I’ve noted – will still make your life better.

This isn’t me promising that your life will become wonderful overnight. Or even wonderful, period. I’m a depressive, and I’m always going to have days where I break down and can’t function. But the miracle of compound interest means that there’s some days I can function when I couldn’t before, and that extra day means I get to write a little more, means I get to love a little more, I get to relax a little more.

That’s worth it.

Maybe it’d be worth it for you.

2 Comments

  1. Anonymous Alex
    Apr 19, 2018

    You’re not wrong, but 3% compounded takes about 23.5 years to double your investment.

    -Alex

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 19, 2018

      I did that math before I posted. Sounds about right, given where I started.

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