The number-one bestselling book in the world last week was Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear. To be extra clear, it wasn’t just the top book in its category, but the top book period. That is an especially remarkable feat, as overall bestseller lists are typically dominated by works of fiction. It’s quite something for a non-fiction book to be outselling even the hottest romance novels.
And it’s no flash in the pan, either. The title has been topping the charts since its release half a decade ago. Since then, it has been on Publishers Weekly’s Top 10 Overall list for 194 weeks. And as of mid-2023, over 15 million copies had been purchased. Such staying power and volume indicates not just effective marketing, but satisfied readers and enthusiastic word-of-mouth. And for a self-improvement book, it signifies that its advice must be working for people. It certainly has been helping me.
The Atomic Habits phenomenon is an encouraging one. In recent years, we have seen many troubling signs of cultural decay. Yet, at the same time, we are also seeing a counter-trend of millions seeking to build better versions of themselves and finding an effective guidebook for doing so.
That is cause for hope.
What’s the Big Deal?
How, a skeptic might ask, is a bunch of people improving their habits supposed to reverse cultural decay?
A conservative critic might argue that a moral degenerate with a fine-tuned morning routine is still a moral degenerate. In fact, better habits might only empower such reprobates to be more effective in disseminating their perverse values. The last thing we need is Netflix scriptwriters improving their daily creative process and cranking out more youth-corrupting poison. Cultural decay, our critic might say, can only be combatted with a culture war: with champions of the good battling the forces of evil in order to reform the values of others—not people in general reforming themselves.
A libertarian doubter might add that the root cause of our cultural decay is that big government is strangling individual liberty and perverting incentives. We can’t self-improve our way out of that. A socialist on a better diet will just be around longer to clamor for more tyranny. Civilizational decline, our doubter may insist, can only be reversed through a war of ideas: through champions of the truth skewering collectivist fallacies in order to reform the thinking of others—again, not people in general reforming themselves.
Both the conservative and the libertarian might agree that only a strategic focus on political change—getting the right people in office and the right laws in the books—will save us.
Whom to Improve?
One libertarian who saw things differently was Leonard E. Read (1898–1983), the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education. In his book Elements of Libertarian Leadership, Read wrote:
All individuals are faced with the problem of whom to improve, themselves or others. Their aim, it seems to me, should be to affect their own unfolding, the upgrading of their own consciousness, in short, self-perfection. Those who don’t even try or, when trying, find self-perfection too difficult, usually seek to expend their energy on others. Their energy has to find some target. Those who succeed in directing their energy inward—particularly if they be blessed with great energy, like Goethe, for instance—become moral leaders. Those who fail to direct their energy inward and let it manifest itself externally—particularly if they be of great energy, like Napoleon, for instance—become immoral leaders. Those who refuse to rule themselves are usually bent on ruling others. Those who can rule themselves usually have no interest in ruling others.
That is why the Atomic Habits phenomenon is such a good sign. The book’s millions of readers are seeking self-improvement and thus “directing their energy inward.” The more they do that, the less they will “expend their energy on others,” trying to “improve” others by meddling with their values through corrupting indoctrination or meddling with their behaviors through shackling legislation.
They will not only meddle less, but model more. That is because their self-improvement efforts can inspire those in their circle of influence to self-improve in emulation. At whatever scale of influence they have, self-improvers tend to become leaders who lead by example rather than meddlesome tyrants: mini-Goethes instead of mini-Napoleons.
This is not to say that conservatives and libertarians cannot influence the moral values and political ideas of others. But, as Read taught, good influence cannot be achieved through meddlesome campaigns of counter-indoctrination: e.g., culture wars and wars of ideas. Leadership in this arena is also a matter of self-improvement as opposed to other-improvement: of modeling over meddling. The more we concentrate on improving our own understanding, expression, and embodiment of good values and ideas, the more that others will gravitate toward our moral and thought leadership.
Self-improvement is inherently pro-virtue and pro-liberty. What our world needs is not a culture war or a war of ideas. What the world needs is for each and all to wage and win the war within.
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.
– Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Right method... consists of self-improvement. If everyone were devoted to the perfection of self, there could be no meddlers amongst us, and without meddlers there could be no socialism.
– Leonard E. Read
P.S. If this essay resonated with you, you might be interested in an online course I will be teaching starting February 20 called Habits of Effective Libertarians. In that course, we will use the principles of Atomic Habits to develop daily reading and writing habits for learning and sharing the ideas of liberty. Learn more here.
Related Essays by this Author:
- A Legacy of Light
- What Leonard Read Learned from Mises and Nock about Changing the World
- Keysmiths for Liberty
- How a Tiny Minority Can Lead the World Toward Liberty
- When Meddlers Run Amok
- What Thought-Leaders Can Learn from St. Augustine
- Leonard Read's Three Levels of Libertarian Leadership
- Are We Living Under a Kakistocracy: Government by the Worst?
- Call Off the Call-Out Culture War