My conviction is growing stronger: there is nothing to “improve” in yourself. Or at least: silence all voices that urge you to change!
Thinking changes nothing – personal growth is necessarily action oriented
I’m a huge fan of personal growth and progress, but one thing has always particularly bothered me with the concept of self-development. In the years I’ve spent reading and thinking about self-improvement, awareness … I must admit I didn’t get much out of it.
Stephen Covey’s book is wonderful but if you just read it and hope that your life will change of its own accord, you’re wrong. Yet this is the way I have gone through several books: reading, and in the inspiration that I got from reading it, I forgot to bring practical change into my daily life. And then after a while I would establish that it hadn’t “worked”. As if that book was some kind of magic pill.
I believe less and less in magic pills – which is good! My faith is being replaced by a growing belief in practical everyday changes with immense repercussions.
I often see people who are not busy with ‘improving themselves’ that at least seem completely happy with themselves – even in the awareness that some of their behavior isn’t ideal. They watch me with pity when I speak about my vision on improvement. I used to blame it on their lack of vision and that has cost me friends. Other times I blamed myself, that I had a pathological tendency to self-improvement. A friend of mine once literally told me: you’re so busy with it, it looks like you’re unhappy with yourself?
I did not want to hear it then, but she was right: I wasn’t happy with myself. I thought I could ‘fix’ myself, that everything that went wrong in my life a matter of awareness and adjustment. All the things I did wrong, people I hurt, expectations I didn’t live up to… were all due to my not being optimized.
You can imagine how tiring this can be. I don’t know about to you, but this process exhausted me repeatedly. And all this time I didn’t know that…
You’re already there
In my rush to be perfect as soon as possible, I forgot that every stage of my life, every step I would take, was at that time the best for me. I felt that I was behind and always tried to get a step ahead. I hung around with older people, behaved more maturely … and all this time there lived in me that little imperfect child that could not express itself. I missed the things that were of my age because I wanted to reach the next stage of maturity as soon as possible. I thought that would solve it, that would enlighten me.
Needless to say there never was enlightenment in it, and each stage has its advantages and disadvantages. With age come more responsibilities and more skills to cope with them. In a sense you could say that the challenges of your life are always just as big, because you load yourself with the same amount of things you can handle.
The heredity of your feelings
This process of always carrying the same weight with you I would call “the heredity of your overall happiness”. I believe that people live through their circumstances, almost any circumstance, with the same weight on their shoulders. If it’s too much, we’ll crash to make it lighter – like the manager that wished he would get a heartattack so he could relax a little. If it’s too light, we become restless and we want something new – like creating problems out of nothing just to have something to be bothered with. At least for me it was like this.
In this way, so go from stage to stage, and you do grow. By increasing your strength, you grow the load that you carry around. So it is not the charge itself, but the relationship to your force to bear them that stays the same. And all this time you’re actually growing, but the increase of the burden that takes you there it seems like you’re at a standstill! Take five minutes to write down what you’ve learned all last year – new dishes you can cook, a different sport, something new that you can do on the computer, a course that you followed, a different way of dealing with certain people or something from your past … I bet you’ll be amazed with yourself!
Your life is not necessarily better with improvement
Even if you become stronger, more assertive, more productive… your life will not become qualitatively improved if you don’t adapt the load that you carry with you. It seems so wrong to say that self-improvement does not necessarily help, but it is a law in my life that I’ve seen repeated endlessly. Every time I get better at something, my expectations increase. In the end I feel I’m not improving at all, as I keep on having to push myself onward to get anywhere!
I recently took up rugby again. I stopped for three years due to a serious injury. Meanwhile I also trained in other sports, so I stayed in shape. One day, I happened to be on the beach where some rugby teams were playing, including those of Gent Rugby – my team since I was fourteen. And they were good! In the three years that I was away, a new generation emerged with a physique and technique I have never seen. You guessed it: I wanted to make a come-back.
In the beginning I was already glad to not be the worst. Then I put a slight pressure on myself to at least be with the better half of the team. That worked! I was satisfied for a few trainings. Once I felt safely in the middle, I wanted more. I wanted to be with the best! I started to train harder, and felt my old reflexes coming back. Many were eligible and few were called – and by the first game I was with the reserves of the first team. I was so proud! The next game, I was with the reserves again. I thought it was OK. By the third game I wanted to be on the field at the start of the game. And so on.
On the one hand, this is the story of a healthy ambition and growth. Perfect! On the other hand there is the slight dissatisfaction that I almost constantly bore with me; the urge to get better. That need was satisfied in flashes when I achieved a new level, but the euphoria quickly ebbed away with the coming of new challenges. So while I was growing, I was mostly unhappy! I realized one day that I always felt dissatisfied. I would fret in myself thinking about what I wanted, instead of enjoying the sport itself and the atmosphere with my teammates. What a pity!
Drop the load
I think the real story of changing lies in the way you view your life and how you tackle it. At one point I stopped being so ambitious in rugby, and I started playing for fun again. I wasn’t any better (you’d think I suddenly went through the roof or something, but this isn’t Hollywood), but I did enjoy it more. And after some trainings I noticed that people around me got more pleasure from playing with me. And then – yes – then our game, and mine, got better. And it was fun! And what did I have to do for that? Just drop the load, so my natural strengths could emerge. Because it was already all present inside of me …
What do you need to be happy?
I used to think that I should change to be happy. I thought happiness was external. Do this, achieve that. And most who read this thought: “Yes that’s very wrong” – and yet, don’t you do the same? One of the biggest lessons I ever learned is that there is a difference between what you know and think you do, and what you actually do. The reality is also that your own actions are a matter of interpretation. Like my rugby trainer says: ‘The truth comes from the field’.
There is a fundamental difference between you wanting to change, and not being happy until this has happened; and being satisfied with yourself with room for improvement. The first is an undermining of your own sense of value, the second is a positive way to deal with growth.
It’s all already in you
The NLP has a premise that says: “You have all the resources you need”. This means two things for me: that I’m better off focusing on the challenges of the moment than desperately trying to get to an imaginary level. That I am where I need to be, now. And that I have everything with me to face the challenges of the moment. I understood this abstractly, but I didn’t really understand until I noticed how unhappy I was making myself by trying to be something outside of myself.
Growth is a matter of patience, facing the challenges of the moment step by step. It’s good to have a long term vision and to keep it in mind, but not constantly. When I play a game, I don’t think about our ranking in the league; I think about my next tackle or pass. Tackle by tackle, pass by pass, we win the game. And then we go forward in the rankings (we’re currently first in our division!).
Actually I partly agree with Bob Newhart:
Of course it’s not always that simple! But why not it’s a matter of deciding that you want to do differently. That also means discovering which part of you doesn’t want change, and coming to terms with it.
Stay with yourself
Do not run away from yourself. Your challenges are present here and now, not sometime in the future. Your growth is in what’s in front of you. All the rest is a projection of something you’re not even sure is going to happen, and all those thoughts guide your attention away from what you should be doing now. I’m sure you can think of you three things right now that you could do that would make a difference. It can be as trivial as your cleaning your desk, calling your mother, paying a bill. I think that trivial matters are often related to much deeper issues. That means that solving the little things has repercussions at a deeper level.
An example: is your desk often a mess? Then you probably carry a sense of being overwhelmed and not having enough time around with you. This is not astrology, but a simple extrapolation. If you felt that you have enough time, you would probably calmly clean your desk. I don’t think that a clean desk is a matter of discipline, but rather it lies in your perception of time.
In other words, keep to yourself. Acknowledge the deeper challenges that are present in seemingly trivial matters. Accord them the deeper inner value they have, and discharge yourself of the grandiose external expectations that you will never achieve. Give yourself time, and the release of your external demands on yourself will bring a natural grandeur to your life.