The Surprising Truth About Self Improvement

I’ll admit that sometimes I get very tired of constantly trying to improve myself, my work, and my relationships.

The external issues vary. Work, marriage, health, family, friends. My internal process persists. It goes something like this…Fatigue sets in. Rationales pop up. Excuses come forward. Profanities spill out. (Usually in private and in a whisper, but not always.) And I storm off in a huff, declaring in no uncertain terms that I’m done, I’ve had enough, it’s fine like it is, and/or that I don’t have time for this.

Then, a moment, day, week, or month later, I return to the sandbox or said ‘temper tantrum crime scene’, pick up my toys, apologize to my playmates, and calmly address whatever it is that I need to improve.

It may be rewriting a manuscript, eliminating a bad personal habit, refining a helpful work habit, or just to finish reading a book that has not proved exactly compelling. Whatever it is, I make a relentless if uneven attempt to get better at something on a regular basis, to fulfill my obligations to myself and others in strong form, to be a better person this week than I was last week.

The benefits of my resolve are always uneven, often intangible, and rarely immediate. In taking the long view, I like to think that I’m a completely different person than I was 30 years ago. In darker moments, I doubt that I’ve changed one molecule.

Still, I persevere. Why? Because in the clear light of day, I know that self improvement is not a linear process. If you get better at doing or being ‘A’, it doesn’t mean you just go on to ‘B’.

If you improve and take your skills or interpersonal abilities from a ‘1’ to a ‘5’, the total impact on your life is not ‘4’, the difference between 1 and 5, but more like ’16’, the square of 4.

Why? Because self improvement is exponential, not linear. It doesn’t remain compartmentalized. It bleeds into other areas of your life. If you get better at communicating with your wife, you’ll probably be better at communicating with your coworkers. If you learn French, you’ll not only be able to talk with Parisians, but your brain will be healthier because of the mental challenge. If you exercise, you not only feel better physically, but mentally as well.

Improvement expands in every direction, not just in one direction.

So when I don’t want to do another revision, or when I don’t want to do yoga one morning, or I don’t want to reach out to a friend who’s been out of touch, I do it anyway. It’s a pain in the butt sometimes.

What’s a bigger pain in the butt is the whispers I hear from long-dead ancestors, nagging me that I didn’t do my best, or the stories/lies I tell myself about why I didn’t circle back to that paragraph, chapter, or scene that wasn’t quite right, not quite the best, or the regrets I don’t want to have by not having made an effort with friends and family members.

It’s seldom easy or pleasant to go the extra mile. It’s just what needs to be done if I’m going to live with myself in peace.

The one comfort I do get from it is that I can honestly look back on my work and myself and see some improvement here and there. And that keeps me going.

Hopefully, it can keep us all going as we push to improve, to excel.

  • BGT

3 thoughts on “The Surprising Truth About Self Improvement

  1. Byron,

    I feel for you.

    I’ve had colleagues thirty years my junior telling me not to be so hard on myself. So I’m telling you that now. Forget what you might have been. There are thousands who (are) what you might have been and they hate it !!

    Do you know what is better than self-achievement, awards, promotions and all those other things ?

    It is helping another person with the simplest of gestures. Offering your seat in the Metro or the bus. Stepping back for a lady at a shop door. When you do something like that you have NO idea what an affect it might have on that total stranger you’ll never see again. You have NO idea what they might be going through at that moment when you were kind and you’ll never know how it might have changed their day for the better. Those are the really important things. All each person has to do is be kind to just one person. That is all it takes.

    Take it easy. (And if you figure out how to, let me know !)


  2. Byron, this dovetails nicely with a comment I just left in reply to David in the previous post. Cultivating self-improvement, the path forward, is an ongoing struggle. Sometimes easier. Sometime more difficult. The key is simply ‘awareness’ that we can and should do better. . . personally, socially, and politically.

  3. Yes, I find that if I do one thing I did not want to, it leads to doing more. For me, a major procrastinator, I always find once I get started, I do more than I expected and actually enjoy it. Progress leads to more progress. What David commented- to help someone else- seems like it is for them, and it is, but in fact IS personal achievement too. It is work on our own character and capacity for compassion. I find it provides perspective and connection to others. One way I see maturity in younger people is observing when they develop the habit of inquiring about someone else’s well-being. My eleven year old niece asked me, “How is your new job going?” and actually listened and asked follow up questions. It was humbling and showed such kindness in a young soul.

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