Technically, change is one of my super powers. Literacy is probably my favorite. As far as universal survival traits, though, the ability to adapt is highly desirable. Entropy is coming for us. We can’t make it stop, so we might as well get ready for it.
A common reaction to the concept of self-improvement is that it’s narcissistic. Another is that it’s only for losers. I guess everyone hatches from the egg with a pre-formed set of skills and characteristics, and only the lucky people get the good ones. The way I see it, there is always room for improvement somewhere. Look around any parking lot and you’ll quickly see evidence of this; many people could spare some time to learn to park between the lines. It’s like a coloring book, only much bigger, and you actually don’t want to “paint transfer” with your four-wheeled crayon. The thing is, we never realize that our little foibles impact other people just as much as theirs impact us.
Any attempt at self-improvement that deals with our annoying tendencies is a gift to humanity. One of my biggest flaws is my tendency to interrupt people. It’s a filthy habit. After years of effort, I’ve probably cut down to an amount that another person would consider a good starting point. I can’t puff up my ego about this self-improvement project, even if I ever manage to stop interrupting completely, because I never should have been doing it in the first place. Other examples of Remedial Self-Improvement are having a bad temper, being late, sticking chewed gum everywhere, and a thousand others that appear in any public discussion of pet peeves. Every human being is doing at least one annoying thing on a regular basis. If we collectively decide to spend 1% of our complaining time on correcting our own behaviors, we’ll change the world!
(The argument could be made that we’re already changing the world, since complaining about someone’s sloppy parking job is a vast improvement over our ancestors’ habit of challenging people to duels. Future post forthcoming).
Okay, I’m sure we can agree that at least some self-improvement is pragmatic, reality-based, and generally consistent with common sense. Let’s see how far we can take it from here.
Learning new skills is self-improvement. Whenever someone tells me, “Oh, I don’t cook,” I am totally baffled. Why would anyone not want to know how to cook? You can make all your favorite stuff exactly the way you like it. Naturally, the same people who “don’t cook” often tend to be the fussiest eaters, and the most critical as well. Meals cooked for them by others are never quite good enough. There is an easy solution to this. Suffer through a brief period of eating your own failures, and soon you’ll be somewhat competent, then good, then even better. That’s a metaphor. We don’t like eating our failures, as a rule, so we hold back from making any attempt at all, at anything. Having the attitude of continual self-improvement in all areas helps with this. We’re always beginners, at least at something. There’s no shame in it. Nobody was born an award-winning figure skater, because think of the skates. Yikes. Everything fabulous that we have ever enjoyed, from music to books to movies to the great view from a park, happened because someone else worked hard at developing a skill and putting it out into the world.
The most practical area of self-improvement is to get organized and build a solid foundation of effectiveness. It’s very hard work for a chronically disorganized person, such as myself, to learn to think like an organized person. But it ripples out forever. Nobody will ever know just how much you can contribute to the world – including you yourself – until you nail down how to manage your time, your stuff, your health, and your mental focus. The process of getting organized always benefits others, too.
Changing my mental outlook has been the most important for me. I’ve learned that my attitude of resistance to something is a very good sign that I need it. The more instinctual repugnance and rejection I feel, the stronger my emotional reaction, the more I have to pay attention. I have a long track record of unreasonable opinions, knee-jerk bad judgments, stubborn refusals to listen to advice, and blind foolishness. When I look back, I often want to grab my own shoulders and shake myself. Are those traits part of my personality, part of who I am? I’d like to think not, but any neutral outside observer might say yes. If they aren’t part of my personality, it should be no problem to bring awareness to them and try to change. If they are part of my personality, I then have the option of deciding that a personality is malleable, flexible, and designed for upgrades.
Life is part fate, part destiny. Fate is full of natural disasters, layoffs, politics, economics, wild animals, collisions, and the ramifications of other people’s behavior. Destiny is the part we create ourselves, and it’s built from both our actions and our inaction, both positive and negative. We can build a destiny out of addiction or denial or resistance or self-sabotage or anxiety or analysis paralysis or inertia. We can build a different sort of destiny out of focus and action and receptivity to new information. We have to change when confronted by the force of fate; stasis is not an option. Since we know we’ll have to change anyway, why not take the initiative and choose some positive changes?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.