Self-improvement, or personal development, is a topic I think about a lot. And not just because I blog about it, but because I have always wanted to become more than I am.
As an idealistic teenager, I taught myself Esperanto and read large swathes of the Great Books. As a devout youth, I copied out practically the whole Bible by hand, with my reflections, into a series of notebooks. And I’ve taken classes in everything from nutrition promotion to Tai Chi to Celtic art to ritualmaking.
Through all of this, there have been three ways or paths I’ve discovered to self-improvement. I’ll talk about the hardest one first.
Being hit with the clue-by-four
The hardest way to self-improvement is being beaten about the head by the challenges of life until some insight finally penetrates.
I experienced this in my early 20s. I’d put myself in the way of some self-improvement by volunteering to train as a youth worker for a religious organization that I’d been part of at university. It turned out to be a poor fit, to put it mildly. It was an authoritarian group, especially towards its staff, and I wasn’t able to fit into the one mold that was offered as an option.
I grew so unhappy that I missed most of the course with stress-related illness, and had to abandon my grand plans to help change the world. But on the upside, I got a badly-needed dose of humility. I learned what it was like not to fit in, not to be able, not to be valued for my skills, how it felt to be asked to be someone I wasn’t. It also taught me a lot about stress, which, years later, I turned into a course which has helped hundreds of people.
At one and the same time, I wouldn’t wish the experience on my worst enemy, and I wouldn’t change the fact that I went through it, because it taught me lessons I needed to learn sooner or later – and helped make me the person that I am.
My godfather was a minesweeper with the Army Engineers during World War II. He would clear minefields so that other soldiers could advance safely. It got him a faceful of shrapnel and some plastic surgery, but also lasting honor among the men he had helped protect.
A lot of my personal development journey has consisted of mindsweeping. Being curious, trying things out, and then thinking about the results and learning from them.
I’ve tried many different approaches to exercise, for example. Free weights, pushups, situps, running, Tai Chi, yoga, they’ve all been successful for me to different degrees. Each one has helped me develop some aspect of my physical (and mental) self: strength, perseverence, balance. But the best approach I’ve found for general fitness so far, because it’s so sustainable, is simply parking 1km away from my workplace and walking down (and, at the end of the day, up) a steep hill. It’s exercise by default.
What works best, after all, is what gets used.
Perhaps the point of your life is to serve as a warning to others
I’ve had a saying for many years that other people’s mistakes are the cheapest wisdom.
Unfortunately, we sometimes feel the need to make the mistakes for ourselves before we can be convinced. But I’ve also learned from some great self-improvement pioneers, who’ve done their own minesweeping so that I don’t have to.
Although there are ideas I’ve come up with through my unique experience and perspective that nobody else has stumbled on, the same has been true of many other people, and their examples and their teaching have helped me forward on my journey.
For example, I get coaching from a man who’s very strong on the benefits of meditation and has meditated himself for many years. He’s found that it’s stabilised his emotional life and created a depth and a centeredness that he didn’t use to have. Earlier this year, he challenged me to practice a very, very simple form of meditation daily – because in his view I wouldn’t make much further progress unless I did.
It wasn’t something I’d ever have thought of, or done, for myself, without his encouragement and example. And it’s helping me to change in ways I’m still discovering.
3 paths to self-improvement
These three paths – learning from experiences that come along when you’re not looking for them, learning from experiences that you’ve sought out, and learning from other people’s experiences and ideas – together form a powerful method of self-improvement.
The common factor is the ability to reflect on the experiences, learn the lessons they offer, and apply them to what you do next. As long as you’re doing that, you’ll go on from strength to strength, whether you’re “succeeding” or “failing” in what you planned to do.
Mike Reeves-McMillan trains ordinary people to be heroes at his website How to Be Amazing, where he writes on topics like how to be happy.