Many of us would welcome an improvement in our lives. Perhaps a better job, better health, a better place to live. Though we would relish an improvement, few actually attain all their dreams. Why is that? James Allen shares one of the reasons: “Men are anxious to improve their circumstances, but are unwilling to improve themselves; they therefore remain bound.”
The secret to improving our situation, then, is to become and do better. And doing so is extremely important. After all, “Without continuous personal development, you are now all that you will ever become, and hell starts when the person you are meets the person you could have been.”(Eli Cohen) Once we realize that what we get is a result of what we become, we will want to work more on self-improvement. Below are some of the many steps you can take to move ahead in life.
Stepping Stones to Self-Improvement
1. Begin by feeling your potential. See how the soft grass pushes itself through the cracks in the concrete sidewalk, stretching its blades to embrace the sun. See how the migrating monarch butterfly flies 1,800 miles, from Ontario to Mexico, without a map or compass. See how the giant sequoia tree draws water from beneath the soil, raising it 200 feet or more to nourish each of its countless leaves. Imagine the power that resides in every organism that makes such incredible feats possible. That power is the life force and it is throbbing within you. We can also call it your potential. It is eager to express itself. It wants you to stretch out and embrace life; it wants you to soar and travel to the distant destinations known as your dreams; it wants you to tap into the unlimited power of the universe to nurture your every hope. Feel your potential. Draw it into every fiber of your being. Let it inspire you to take action.
Begin each day by recalling these words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “I had an almost intolerable awareness that every morning began with infinite promise. Any book may be read, any idea thought, any action taken. Anything that has ever been possible to human beings is possible to most of us every time the clock says six in the morning. On a day no different from the one now breaking, Shakespeare sat down to begin Hamlet.”
2. Begin to make a plan. Did you ever wonder why so many slack off and fail to reach their potential? Their ship remains in the harbor simply because they haven’t decided on a destination. How can they set sail for an unknown territory? The first thing we need to do, then, is decide on what we wish to accomplish. The second is to list all the steps we need to take to reach our goal. The third is to build an action plan by indicating the dates we will carry out each step. The fourth is to begin following the steps in our plan. The goal you decide on is your compass. The plan you design is your map. The action you take is the wind in your sails. So, you see, you have the potential and the tools to set sail.
3.Your compass and map point out what you would like to do. Your actions suggest what you want to do. There is often a difference between the two. For example, Connie works in the accounting department and dreams about furthering her career by eventually attending night school and becoming a certified accountant. That’s what she would like to do. The trouble is, after a hectic day at the office, all she wants to do is go out with the girls, unwind, and have a good time. If we find ourselves in a position like Connie, we have to ask ourselves, “Who’s in control here? Do I want to be led around by whatever feels good or do I want to take charge of my life and map out my future?”
Sometimes it’s helpful to remember that anything worthwhile is difficult to attain. Life is a struggle, but it’s a rewarding struggle. We soon learn that the more we put into life the more we will get out. Success doesn’t come without a fight, but the sweetness of victory makes the effort worthwhile. It is also helpful to remain focused on our goals and ever mindful of our potential. When you pick up an acorn in the park, it is easy to forget you are holding a tree. When you look in the mirror, don’t see an acorn; see a tree. Be ever mindful of your potential and let it energize you.
4. It takes courage to improve our lot. Is it worth the risk we have to take to follow our dream? Theodore Roosevelt believed so: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” Nobody wants to die, but how many of us want to live? George H. Allen explains: “Only winners are truly alive. Winning is living. Every time you win, you’re reborn. When you lose, you die a little.” And when do we win? When we follow our dream. When do we lose? When we drift through life without a compass and map!
5. Never give up. After a rough start, Mary Groda-Lewis created her compass and map. As a youngster she couldn’t read because of dyslexia, which was misdiagnosed. The frustration she experienced led to behavioral problems. Instead of receiving sympathy, she received a sentence to a reformatory. But it was there she learned to read by studying as long as sixteen hours a day. At eighteen, she passed her high school equivalency exam and was named Oregon’s outstanding Upward Bound student. Not long after being released she became a single mother. First surviving on welfare, then on any odd job she could find. After many sacrifices, she enrolled in college. Encouraged by her success, she then decided to become a doctor. After receiving fifteen rejections from medical schools, she was finally accepted by Albany Medical College.
She graduated with honors in 1984 at age 35 and set up a practice devoted to helping the poor and needy, providing more than a $100,000 worth of free health care each year. In 1986, her heroic story was made into a TV movie called, “Love, Mary.” Her story also appears in the book series, “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” She closed her practice on April 28, 2000 among the tears and warm embraces of her patients and colleagues. Yes, she couldn’t read, was sent to a reformatory, became a single parent, and lived on welfare, but all along Mary knew she wasn’t an acorn, but a tree. So, armed with her compass and map, she reached her dream and made a difference in the lives of all those she touched. Can’t we do the same?
6. “People never improve unless they look to some standard or example higher or better than themselves.”(Tryon Edwards)So, learn from others. One of the easiest ways to do so is to read good books. One example is Yes I Can, which is included in my list of resources at the end of this article. Unfortunately, you won’t find the Table of Contents or a review for this book on Amazon.com. So, I’m including one example of the 93 stories the author tells of people who have been put down, belittled, and made fun of, all of whom went on to achieve stunning success. The following example is taken from page 32 of the book.
7. 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, ormore 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.
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.
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.
8. 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 volunteer to serve my community, is it because I wish to make the world a better place or is it to gain contacts and recognition to help me win a political office?
9.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 feeling 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.
10.Take responsibility. “When the archer misses the mark, he turns and looks for the fault within himself. Failure to hit the bull’s eye is never the fault of the target. To improve your aim̶ improve yourself.”(Gilbert Arland?)
11. It’s not the job, but the attitude that determines one’s success, for as Gilbert Arland(?) explains, “What a man accomplishes in a day depends upon the way in which he approaches his tasks. When we accept tough jobs as a challenge to our ability and wade into them with joy and enthusiasm, miracles can happen. When we do our work with a dynamic conquering spirit, we get things done.”
Instead of saying I can’t improve because of the problems I face, say I am improving because of the problems I face. That is, use difficulties to rise up to the occasion, not to cower in fear.
12. Don’t compare yourself to others. Just concern yourself with beating your own record. If you do this each and every day, you are destined to succeed.
13. You don’t have to be satisfied with merely doing well; you can make it your policy to do better.Or, as Arlene Croce put it, “True genius doesn’t fulfill expectations, it shatters them.”
14. Granddreams are not enough, use them to make an ambitious plan, and use that to take substantial steps that you carry out to completion. Dare to dream. Dare to plan. Dare to act. Dare to strive. Dare to succeed.
15. Invest in your education. Books, journals, seminars, lectures, courses, and audio and video programs can help you become the person you want to be. Self-development guru, Brian Tracy suggests, “Invest three percent of your income in yourself (self-development) in order to guarantee your future.”
16. I’m sure you have heard many times that it is not what happens to us that is important, but it is how we interpret or react to what happens that is important. An intellectual understanding of this truth, though helpful, is not transformative. To realize your potential, you need to experience this truth by living it. Embrace this teaching of Thaddeus Golas: “Inside yourself or outside, you never have to change what you see, only the way you see it.”
17. When we think of self-improvement, we normally think of improving our weaknesses. Of course, whatever we can do in this area is helpful, but we will experience our biggest gains by developing our strengths, for it is our strengths that will carry us on to success.
18. Commitment is a powerful inner resource that we all have. But we have to call upon it. If you have a goal worthy of pursuing, commit yourself to it. In other words, promise yourself to do whatever it takes to achieve your goal. When you resolve to be successful, you unleash the power to overcome all hurdles. Success isn’t a reward for halfhearted attempts. Rather, it is given to those who follow their dreams with passion, enthusiasm, and commitment.
I would like to give the last word to Pope John XXIII, “Consult not your fears, but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you have tried and failed in, but for what is still possible for you to do.”
THE OPTIMYSTIC’S HANDBOOK: Using Mystical Wisdom to Discover Hope, Happiness, and the Wonder of Spiritual Livingby Terry Lynn Taylor and Mary Beth Crain
MANAGING YOURSELF: How to Control Emotion, Stress, and Time by Alfred Goodloe, Jane Bensahel, and John Kelly
HOW TO LIVE WELL: Secrets of Using Neurosisby Takehisa Kora
LET YOURSELF GROW: Fifty-Six Ways to Self-Realizationby Christopher Markert