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I am a total self-improvement junkie. I love reading self-help books, watching self-help channels on YouTube, and hanging out with other self-help junkies for tips, encouragement, and comradery. While I understand there are all kinds of injustices in this world and all sorts of terrible news, I do not like the idea of just passively accepting my lot. For me, self-improvement is both empowering and adventurous. It should not, and I refute the idea, suggest that we are to blame for all of our hardships, and I realize there is a manipulative aspect to the self-help industry that likes to put the blame for illness or financial struggles solely at an individual’s feet. In truth, there are societal structures and plain old bad luck that can bring hardship. True self-improvement is about cultivating virtue. Striving to develop courage, self-discipline, frugality, and temperance (and of course, many other virtues like honesty, kindness, and intelligence) will bring a lot of positive changes (though it might take some time for the reward to come to fruition), but it should be clear that self-improvement should not evolve into self-hatred (I’ll never be good enough) or self-worshiping (I’m better than everyone around me). Remember modesty is a virtue too.
Developing virtues like self-discipline or courage can feel like a big, mysterious task. In truth, improving your diet, training for a marathon, returning to the religion of your youth, reading more, or finding a therapy group that addresses a personal struggle are all great paths to developing virtues like honesty and intelligence. The secondary problem is that there are so many paths one could take. There are countless good diets, there are countless good workouts, there are countless spiritual practices, and to be honest, the self-help journey is all about trial and error. You will find some self-improvement methods that drive you crazy (in a bad way), some self-improvement methods do not work, and some genuinely delivering profound breakthroughs. However, there is one beginning step, which regardless of the paths you take, that should be made first.
The first big step is envisioning the person you really want to be. Find a moment and a quiet space and genuinely think about who you want to be. What kind of habits does your dream self have (or not have)? Where does your ideal self live and in what kind of home? Is it a warm cottage in the country? A modern apartment in the city? How does your dream self dress, workout, or eat? What kind of job, mate, or friends does your ideal self have? What is important to your dream self? Helping the poor? Getting politically active? Playing a sport like soccer or even training for an iron man? The more specific, the better. The self you dream and aspire to become is a reflection of your ideas and deepest aspirations. It also reveals a great deal about who you are currently and the things that you hold as valuable. Returning to the vision of your ideal self can be very inspiring when you wake up at five in the morning and go swimming or running. Recalling your ideal self can help bolster your courage when you want to approach a boy or girl you are attracted to or even a full lunch table with the desire to meet new friends and connections at work or school. The interesting thing about your ideal self is that it will evolve and change as you go on your self-improvement journey. I have personally found that my aspirations have shifted as I have grown older and what was important to me in my twenties is not so important to me now.
It is important to know that self-improvement is an incremental process and the development of virtue often requires work in the present for the reward in the future—unlike sugary treats which deliver reward right up front and work in the future. We are biased to prefer gratification in the present versus the future; however, the rewards that arise from virtues like honesty, modesty, and temperance bring monumental rewards. The best part of cultivating virtue is that the riches they bring you can never be lost in a financial crisis or stolen from a crooked person or institution. Have fun with the adventure, and try many paths. The best path is the one that works for you—so take care not to push people to take your path—no matter how much it aided you. No single diet, workout, or teacher delivers positive change for everyone. Some people need hardship like training for a marathon, and some need nurturing like joining a therapy group. It is also important to not let self-improvement become a self-abuse exercise where you are always putting yourself down in the pursuit of perfection. Additionally, do not let your life gains cause you to look down on others who are struggling and who feel stuck. Remember, compassion is a virtue too. Lastly, the best first step is to meditate on and form in your mind the self you really want to be.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.