Why get better at anything?
It’s an interesting question.
When we’re kids, we don’t have a choice. The adults around us demand improvement:
- We’re expected to move from 6th grade to 7th grade at the end of the year.
- We’re expected to be nicer to our younger brother when we’re 10 compared to when we were 9.
- We’re expected to get at least a little better at the piano after six months of lessons.
But once we graduate high school (or maybe college) and reach a point where we can function in society, the external pressure to improve disappears. If we can hold down a job and keep a roof over our head, odds are no one’s going to hassle us too much.
If we want to keep improving, we have to hassle ourselves, and that’s no easy task. Here are some reasons it’s worth doing:
One of the biggest arguments for personal development is our increased ability to help others. The more we make of ourselves, the more we can contribute.
If we set out to transform our career by taking on more responsibility at work and starting an interesting new project, who benefits?
We do, but so does our company.
If we set out to transform our relationship with our family, to spend more time with our kids or our parents and stay in better touch, who benefits?
We do, but so do our family members.
If we set out to clean up our diet, start running with a program like Couch to 5K and sign up for a charity run in two months, who benefits?
We do, but so does that person in our life who’s been thinking about doing the same thing, sees us doing it, and is now inspired to make a change themselves.
It’s really good news that life is not a zero-sum game. The more capable we become, the more we can help others.
Have you ever stopped to notice how good progress feels?
When we feel like we’re making progress with some part of our lives, we’re generally pretty happy about that part. When we’re stuck in the mud, we’re unhappy.
For me, this here website you’re a-gazing at is a perfect example.
In 2013, I started The Lip Rip Blues, a blog about a super niche topic: lip injuries in brass musicians. Creating, maintaining, and writing for that site has been eye-opening and rewarding, and when I was creating new content regularly for it, I felt great about the “Writing” area of my life.
But as I found myself having covered most of what I wanted to cover about lip injuries, my writing slowed to a trickle and I dropped the daily writing habit I’d developed. I wanted to cover other topics, but I also wanted to keep The Lip Rip Blues dedicated to helping other brass players experiencing a lip injury. Conundrum.
I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t do anything. For months. I’ve done lots of writing in my life that I’m proud of, but I hadn’t done any lately, and that bothered me. No progress = no happiness.
I eventually realized I could start a personal blog, and here we are. Now, the interesting thing is this: jonathanvieker.com is brand new. It’s a little baby website without much content yet, and it will take many hours of work to change that. But I feel extremely satisfied with the “Writing” area of my life because I’ve made recent progress.
It’s interesting that we’re often happier progressing along the journey than we are once we reach a destination.
The Deathbed Argument
There’s not much that’s scarier to me than reaching the end of my life and realizing I haven’t made a dent. That I haven’t really made a useful contribution or lived a meaningful life.
Death is a heavy, uncomfortable topic, but since it’s unavoidable, let’s talk straight.
At the close of your life, how awful would it be to realize that you basically repeated the same set of behaviors and experiences for decades? Always doing the same thing in the same way, day after day, week after week, year after year? That you were presented with an endless buffet and only tried the steak and baked potatoes?
That would be pretty awful. Here’s another option:
How nice would it be, in your golden years, to look back on a colorful, vibrant life of having constantly pushed against self-imposed boundaries, learned new skills, pursued new experiences?
This sounds much better to me. Let’s both do the second one, how about it?
Where to Start
Here’s a quick exercise for jump-starting things. I’ll do this along with you, right now, as I type this.
- Think about an area of your life you’ve been neglecting or putting off. Something that’s eating at you a little.
- Pick one thing you could do right now to make some progress in this area. Every action counts! Even Googling “how to start reading more” counts.
- Do it. If you really can’t do it right now, pick a time later today and put it in your calendar or set an alarm on your phone. And if you really want to make sure you follow through, use someone else to hold you accountable. Text a friend, partner, or family member and tell them “I’ve got something I need to do, and I need you to hold me accountable. Text me tonight and ask me if I did it.”
Personal development can have a huge impact on our lives, but it doesn’t have to start with a huge action.
Start small, and start now.