Self-improvement sounds amazing until you really have to put it into practice.
Everyone preaches stoicism, but few could use it in truly dire times. How many Ryan Holiday readers are practicing Amor Fati during the co-vid 19 epidemic?
Mental toughness is great in theory, but when the time comes to exercise it, staying resilient in tough times is an entirely different story.
Millions of people have read the book Grit, but how many people actually practice it?
I’ve even seen other writers buckle under the pressure of current times — some self-improvement writers — when this is the exact time to do the opposite.
If self-improvement doesn’t pass the sniff test during true adversity, then what’s the fucking point of it?
Self-improvement is simultaneously the most useful and useless concept at the same time. One person can use self-improvement to genuinely change their life.
Other people can be all in on the theoretical aspects of self-improvement, but get nothing done in their real lives.
We all want the upside, but what about practicing these lessons when they really count? I try to train myself to be as serious about this as possible. I never preach what I don’t, at a minimum seriously try to, practice.
How do you know whether you’re all in on this or you’re just bullshitting yourself?
Life will reveal that to you in one way or another. Then, you’ll see. If you do take self-improvement to heart, you can develop levels of resiliency you didn’t know you had.
I’ve mentioned this story a small handful of times, but I don’t parade it around much. I was half-blind for six months. I had outpatient surgery that could’ve resulted in becoming totally blind. Did I take a break during this time? Absolutely not.
I remember sitting on the chair awaiting this procedure that could potentially cause me to lose my eyesight. Instead of panicking, I genuinely started to think of ways I could overcome being blind and continue to write.
I figured I was smart enough to learn braille. How hard could it be? I could dictate and work with freelance editors to tidy up my work. I could pivot more heavily into YouTube and podcasts.
Speaking of YouTube. I started that channel partially to lift myself out of a slight depression I felt after separating from my wife and moving to a new city all alone. Now that channel is set to be extremely successful in the future.
What’s the point of telling you all this?
You don’t know how to practice self-improvement unless you develop the ability to pivot when shit hits the fan. All the motivational quotes in the world won’t do you any good when you get fired from your job, divorced, lose a loved one, or suffer a debilitating injury.
For those of you stoicism nerds, Marcus Aurelius said it best, twice:
“When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better group of harmony if you keep on going back to it.”
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”
Do you want to be paranoid? No. You simply want to be ready.
Both ready and resourceful.
Let’s posit this scenario. You have no money. Zero.
For whatever reason, I’ve decided to kidnap your entire family. I tell you that you have six months to build a six-figure business from scratch or else I’ll kill all of them.
Would you figure out a way to build that business?
You damn near wouldn’t sleep the entire time. If it came down to it, you’d rob a bank for seed money. You’d do anything. Now, you can recreate that same level of urgency in your real life but think about the hypothetical scenario to show you that you could muster up a level of resilience and build something amazing if you felt you had no choice.
That’s the interesting thing about people who find themselves in compromising situations — layoffs, recessions, thrown off by a major health issue, divorce, anything that’s terrible but still not life-threatening.
Without something as heavy as the threat of death, many people still won’t be as resourceful as they possibly could be even though, in many ways, their lives depend on it.
People are watching Tiger King while they’re weeks away from being destitute. The point isn’t to bash people, but to illustrate how deep the scripts in our minds run.
Self-improvement is hard.
People often ask me why I’m so harsh with my writing, why it sometimes comes with a doom and gloom theme attached to it. I write this way specifically for times like this.
I didn’t know we’d have a pandemic, but I squirreled away cash just in case something happened. A few years back, I focused on a side hustle because I knew having a job was actually the riskiest position of them all. The seriousness of my self-improvement journey inspired me to work hard. I didn’t want to become successful for the upside as much as I wanted to mitigate the downside.
None of this is easy, but we all have more than enough incentives to improve our lives in every single way possible. First, to avoid being in situations of dire straits in the first place. And second, to bounce back when they happen.
But why don’t we do this?
I’ve been exploring the question of why it’s so difficult to get and stay motivated for the past five years. I’ve come up with a few reasons. One, humans think they’ll live forever. We’re afraid of our own mortality so we create this invincibility complex to cope with that.
And it spills into your motivation levels. In the back of your mind, you think somehow you’ll get motivated one day, even though you won’t. This keeps you from starting new goals and projects even at the time you need to most. Think about it.
During a time like an economic recession, you’d think the obvious response would be to learn everything possible about business and money so that you don’t get spanked next time. You’d think someone laid off from their job would become obsessive about learning — spending 12 to 14 hour days on the job hunt or researching. Nah. Most of us have this collective delusion that somehow things will get better for no reason.
How are you spending your time right now? Are you operating at your highest levels and anticipating future scenarios in your life? Why not? Shouldn’t you be? Think deeply about your emotions and level of motivation. Understand they’re rooted in this idea of invincibility and immortality. You don’t think you’re going to die. But you will. Embrace that fully.
Another reason motivation is so difficult to master? There are simply too many distractions. It’s hard to shut yourself off from those distractions, too, even when you should be truly focused and buckled down on improving your life. Like, if you’re dead broke and have a low quality of life right now, you probably shouldn’t be doing anything fun or entertaining right now. But you’re also not wrong or bad for doing so.
Why? Because life is difficult enough. Distractions serve a purpose. They keep you sane. Facing your life head-on, one hundred percent of the time, especially when its far from ideal, is hard. I get distracted, too. Don’t fault yourself. Being more consciously aware of these reasons why self-improvement doesn’t seem to stick is a great start. You’ll have to do something with them, but at least begin to truly think about them.
The last reason I’ll add for why self-improvement is so tough, even when it seems very clear that you need to use it, is the fact that doing all of the steps is just hard. To reach my level of success in writing, I had to write every day for five years. Honestly, I look at some of the writing I see from beginners and I’m like “Shit, they have no chance.” But then I remember that my writing used to look like that. Sometimes it doesn’t seem real to me that I’ve put it so much practice. I try to remember exactly how and why I did it.
Here’s what I’ve come up with.
I got into self-improvement when my life sucked. Shit had already hit the fan. I was young and idealistic still, but the objective evidence was not good. No degree, convicted felon, totally broke, dead-end jobs. From that position, I got into self-improvement and never stopped.
People have a tendency to smooth and polish their story in retrospect, so I’ll try not to do that.
The main thing that helped me? A combination of real dissatisfaction with my current circumstances and finding writing, which was a positive way to re-shape and re-direct that frustrated energy into productive energy.
How can you make self-improvement work?
How can you do the things you know you need to do, especially when the circumstances in your life are screaming at you to do so?
Look at your situation right now. Take the feelings you’re feeling about your situation and let them heighten to the surface. The next time you feel tired, feel like procrastinating, or feel any sense of hesitation, go back to these feelings and use them to counterbalance your inertia.
If your back is against the wall, you have an even better chance of coming out on top because you have even more compelling reasons than someone who’s living a tolerable life.
Whatever your situation is right now, use your feelings about it as motivation and…go.
You’ll look up a few years later and feel very proud of everything you’ve done.