What I consider as ‘self-improvement’
‘Self-improvement’ is generally considered as the pursuit of an ‘ideal version of yourself’. Where ‘the ideal version of you’ is encapsulated by the physical and mental skills or emotional attributes you always wished you had. Often phrased as ‘becoming the better you’ or ‘reaching new heights’.
This all sounds rather like the self-help industry, fanciful ideas of what happiness means and how to reach it. Understandably, a lot of people resist these ideas and as a friend recently put it, ‘I am not into the whole self-improvement thing’.
However, to me, self-improvement is distinct. The ‘self-help’ industry is about the likes of Tony Robbins telling you how to achieve your goals with success defined by the achievement of them. The ‘self-improvement’ philosophy is about driving your own improvements (apologies, I couldn’t think of a good synonym) with success defined by the pursuit of these, not their acquisition. To state a banality – ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination’.
Why I chase ‘self-improvement’
At its most obvious, self-improvement can lead to acquiring desired skills. Be it learning a language, a sport or subject area – it is great to have a new skill to use and enjoy. This, I think, is what most people mistake as the sole the purpose of self-improvement. In such a context, when you think you already have enough skills, or no new skill is particularly attractive – putting time and effort into self-improvement seems pointless. Some would say, why not just enjoy life and the skills you possess rather than persistently chase new ones?
Whilst I think no-one ever has enough skills, there would come a point where the effort required in becoming an expert in the distant art of didgeridoo playing is greater than the happiness from the dinner parties at which it can be used (I am happy to stand corrected on this!). For a list of weird & wonderful skills, check this page. However, to me, self-improvement is more than becoming a ‘renaissance’ character with eclectic dinner party skills for the following two reasons:
Self-improvement necessitates self-reflection
The process of identifying what new skill to work towards will, at least in most cases, force a degree of self-reflection. To understand what skill can be useful to your life requires an understanding of what skills you don’t possess. I have found it often leads to a frank discussion, mainly with myself, about where my weaknesses are. It can be painful and humbling.
In some cases, this was as obvious as the need for a new language – whilst English is spoken widely in Kenya, speaking Swahili could add a lot and I most certainly did not know any. In other cases, it required a lot of more thought to establish the importance of the skill and to what degree I possessed it – for example, an honest assessment of how I interact and treat my family, forced a discussion about why I should and have not been making enough of an effort. Such self-reflection is by no means fun, but it provides a valuable way of understanding your own weaknesses, enabling you to then bolster them. Such humility is all that more important when working in a team.
Two examples I found scrolling through my notes:
When it came to JCR [student college body] election for my role, I faltered on several counts. I was presumptuous to think people would just want the position. Similarly, in selling it, I was ‘too honest’ and did not advertise it widely or well enough. As opposed to the prose I wrote, I could have simply had bullet points outlining all the benefits and not really mentioning the burden. More strategic thought in this process is necessary!
I have acted selfishly and thoughtlessly – be this in my curt phone interactions with my parents or my resistance to share information and divulge as a ‘waste of time’. Further, the language I often use when discussing sensitive issues, the somewhat needless arguments I get into and general thoughtlessness in my actions.
Self-improvement is a ‘quick, easy and cheap’ ticket to happiness
This is where the self-help industry does have a point, the pursuit of self-improvement is enriching. Working towards a goal, leads to incremental improvements. Generally, the harder you work, the more you will improve – particularly at the start. It is fantastically rewarding.
What we crave, as Tony Robbins puts it well in his TED talk, is growth. This keeps us feeling satisfied and content – particularly when we are older and physical growth is no longer an option. Self-improvement provides precisely this.
Moreover, the beauty of the types of skills which require self-improvement is that rewards are driven by internal constraints not external. How well you learn a new language is not as dependent on your boss, family or friends as it is on your own effort. You have far greater control over the outcome than chasing external goals like a promotion or winning a match.
My own ‘Self-improvement’
The answer to this question is inevitably wrapped up with self-discipline, I leave that for a separate blog. Here are some of the resources from which I learn from and the skills I am currently working on.
Books: My general philosophy with books is to try and read from people who have had an impact on the world. I need to read more biographies but so far, these are the three that stand out:
- Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
- Gandhi: The Man, his People & the Empire by Rajmohan Gandhi
- Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Goodwin from which I wrote this Abraham Lincoln and this post: What the Left can Learn from Lincoln
Podcasts: Tim Ferris’s podcast, found here, is fantastic. He is another one of those ‘self-help’ gurus but what I particularly like about him is that he outsources the advice to experts. He interviews prominent people from all walks of life: from Ray Dalio, founder of one of the world’s largest investment firms, to Cory Booker, a fascinating Democratic Senator, and Maria Sharapova, one of the top tennis players in the world. Just have a scroll through his list of podcasts and chose the people you are interested in – I would highly recommend it.
Current skills learning:
- Swahili – with an app called Duolingo it is free and an amazing resource
- Python – no, I am not trying to become a snake charmer. Instead trying to re-learn this coding language I have forgotten with a great site called Codeacademy
- Introduction to International Securities & Investments – not the most exciting, but with it, you can earn a qualification from the internationally recognized Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment
- Meditation – it’s something recommended by countless successful figures and my mother (who managed a 10-day silence retreat with 9 hours of meditation each day!), seems silly not to try it. Trying an app called Headspace
- Blogs – something I am only starting to look into but hope to find a few good ones to follow, any recommendations most welcome
- Vloggers – yet to follow any non-cycling related ones, recommendations welcome
A Tentative conclusion
Self-help and self-improvement are often considered alike, and indeed, they are very similar. However, at least within my own terminology, they are fundamentally different: self-help is about the destination with success defined by external factors whilst self-improvement is about the journey to success largely determined by your effort.
There are valuable lessons to be learnt from both, and for both of these ‘self-discipline’ is key which will be the next blog. For now, if you can only bare to try one – go for self-improvement. In a short space of time, you may find yourself happier as you grow, more humble and self-reflective and best of all, knowing how to play the didgeridoo!