He who stops being better stops being good (Oliver Cromwell, 1599 ~ 1658)
We have within ourselves an innate need to grow. We want to become more than we are today. Simply put, we want to become BETTER human beings. When we are confused about how to become better, we may find ourselves wanting to own more possessions or earn more money. True, greater power and wealth make us MORE (more wealthy and more powerful), but not necessarily BETTER.
Unless we satisfy our thirst to become BETTER, we are bound to experience frustration, dissatisfaction, and regret. Conversely, when we consistently work on improving ourselves, we feel fulfilled, so a self-improvement regimen is in our best interest. What follows are a few ideas on the art of self-improvement.
Embarking on self-improvement is a noble task, for when we improve ourselves and encourage others, we make the world a better place. Our role, then, is an important one. After all, self-improvement is nothing less than world-improvement! Never underestimate your power to make things BETTER or worse in the lives of the countless number of people you will meet in your life span.
Many of us could be doing far more good than we are at the moment. What is holding us back? For the answer, let’s consider the five basic needs we have, as outlined by U.S. psychologist and philosopher Abraham H. Maslow (1908 ~ 1970). In his theory of self-actualization, Maslow taught that we have five basic needs, each of which must be satisfied before we can move up to the next level.
The first need is PHYSIOLOGICAL (food and water). A person who is starving doesn’t have the leisure to think about becoming a better person. All he or she can think about is survival.
The second need is for SAFETY (freedom from danger). It is hard to think about becoming a better person when bombs are continually exploding in your village.
After our needs for food and safety have been met, we can move up to our need for BELONGING (love, cooperation, and acceptance).
It is only after our first three needs have been met that we are ready to work on satisfying our need for ESTEEM (achievement, power, and prestige).
Finally, at the pinnacle is the need Maslow calls SELF-ACTUALIZATION. Maslow describes some of the characteristics of self-actualized individuals as acceptance of oneself and others, developing strong ties to others, and transcendence (being committed to a cause greater than oneself).
Now we are ready to return to the question, “What is preventing us from moving forward, reaching our potential, and becoming BETTER?” It is because most of us get stuck in needs #3 (BELONGING) and #4 (ESTEEM). You see, in trying to fulfill these two needs, we allow our emotions to take over. Beware: emotions make good servants but bad masters. Love and compassion can propel us forward, but envy, resentment, and anger can bog us down. So, be aware of your feelings and think before you act. When an emotion bubbles up to the surface, ask yourself, “Is this emotion helping me to become BETTER?” If it is, use it as motivation for growth. But if it isn’t, ask yourself, “How can I change this negative feeling into positive energy?” When we look for solutions, we will find them.
If we wish to improve, we have to distinguish between ASSERTIONS AND ASSESSMENTS. Assertions are statements of fact. For example, Tom is five feet eleven inches tall, Mary weighs one hundred thirty-five pounds, or Mario is an immigrant from Italy. However, the statements, “Tom is stupid,” “Mary is lazy,” or “Mario is narrow-minded,” are assessments. They are conclusions I have reached. More accurately, they are opinions. Also, more than likely, they are opinions based are false assumptions, misunderstandings, and prejudices.
If I say, “Tom is stupid,” I am effectively saying, “There is nothing I can learn from Tom.” That is a serious error since EVERYONE can teach us something. So, when I base decisions on negative assessments, I am closing the door to opportunity and personal growth. Consider this, when I say that Mario is narrow-minded, the only thing I prove is that I AM NARROW-MINDED! Instead of looking for faults in others, I should look for traits I admire. Then, I should emulate them. By becoming like those I admire, I will come to admire myself.
I often hear people commenting on the perceived weaknesses of others. Examples of such comments are “Betty is always trying to change others.” and “Why is Richard always criticizing others?” If I were to say that, wouldn’t I be guilty of the very things that I complain about? That is, my comments would reveal that I want to change Betty and I am criticizing Richard. Such comments are wasted energy. What do we accomplish by uttering them?” The answer is nothing. Yet, if we used that energy by directing the comments at ourselves, we could begin to make genuine progress. Discontent can be a valuable tool, but when we direct our dissatisfaction at others, it is misdirected. When, however, we direct it at ourselves, miracles can happen. After all, it is only at the moment we are dissatisfied with what we are that we can begin to become what we are not.
If we wish to improve but cannot think of a place to begin, all we have to do is list the things we do not like about others. For what we do not like in others tells us what we do not like in ourselves. We see what we feel. If I feel good, I see goodness. If I feel lousy, I see a miserable world. So, the world is a mirror. If all I see is good – guess what? – I’m good. But if all I see are mean, nasty people. Well, I’ll let you figure that one out for yourself.
If I still can’t find ways to improve, I might want to question my motives and desires. I may convince myself that I don’t need improving because I’m already doing many good deeds. But if I am doing so, what are my motives? Is it because of compassion? Or am I driven by self-aggrandizement? If I wish to get married, is it because of a wish to help create a better world? Or is it because I wish to have a servant who will cater to my every whim?
An indirect route and a great way to improve ourselves is by helping others. What better way to learn than by teaching others? What better may to grow in power than by empowering others? What better way of increasing our income than by helping others increase theirs? Finally, what greater use can we make of our incredible gift of awareness than by using it to improve ourselves?