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The Dark Side of Self Improvement

On the anniversary of the quarantine, I’ve been reflecting on what’s changed this past year. My goodness, it seems everything has changed! In February of 2020, I was having the time of my life on a cruise, and less than 2 weeks later I was wondering how I was going to survive a pandemic and a stock market crash. I had a lot of life changes hit me at once…only to find a LOT of free time on my hands.

I decided to invest in myself, and start learning. The first thing I decided to do, was learn how to design my own websites. I needed 8 websites completed, so this would be a significant savings. Learning something new like web design is not necessarily a pretty process. A bunch of techno-geeks and hackers made aspects of this really difficult. You need to know things you don’t necessarily know. You make mistakes. You can easily spend hours designing a portion of the website only to find out it looks horrible and doesn’t work right. And you’ll never get that time back…but you get the often unamazing and unfulfilling experience of knowing what doesn’t work!

Ever try learning a new language? You learn a few words here and there, but after 3 months of 30 minutes a day learning a new language, you still have no idea how to ask where the bathroom is! You keep asking yourself “when will I ever understand?” The mistakes we make during the time it takes to learn something new is what I call the “dark side” of self-improvement.

There is no magic pill for self-improvement. There’s no red pill, there’s no blue pill. The Self Improvement you’re looking for is the time it takes to make the red pill and the blue pill plus the side effects. It’s the time, effort, planning, and consistent execution that goes into learning a new skill.

We are creatures that have evolved from men and women that had to fight to survive. Some of the best lessons we learn are the ones that caused us pain. When you learned how to ride a bike as a child, your parents/caregivers likely did all they could to prepare you for that first ride. They showed you how to balance the bike, pedal the bike, and use the handle bars to control the direction. However, despite their best attempts to keep you balanced, you probably fell a few times before you got the hang of balance.

Pain is often interpreted as “bad” or “dysfunctional,” but“pain” is nothing more than feedback. Sometimes it’s intentionally inflicted upon us by others, sometimes unintentionally. The important thing is that we learn from pain and grow as result of having the experience.

There’s an ancient Japanese saying, “Fall seven times, stand up eight.” Every time you get knocked down, you need to stand back up. It’s important to take these knock downs into account and even plan for them during your self-improvement endeavors. Each time you get up after being knocked down, you become stronger, more knowledgable, and more resilient.

Every new year you find yourself making resolutions. You start with all of the enthusiasm you can possibly have to support your optimistic beliefs. You say to yourself “THIS IS THE YEAR THAT I…” (fill in the blank). And every year, usually by January 3rd, your enthusiasm fades because you had unrealistic expectations and you’ve failed to end up where you wanted to be.

Understand that while the concept of self-improvement can turn into something of a rabbit hole, it can also be a very powerful tool. One of the fundamental aspects of our humanity is that we feel a need for improvement. It’s possible that this comes from some archaic evolutionary survival tool for ancient men and women. While it is a useful tool, it can become toxic for those of us who see this need for improvement as a flaw.

Going back to the bike analogy: When you first learned how to ride a bike, you were excited! You had training wheels and you were just fine. And then when the training wheels came off, maybe you fell off your bike and got scraped up. You might’ve gelt a twinge of disappointment or actually gotten hurt.

It’s important to remember that you probably didn’t approach that bike with a thorough course in physics and the physical practical knowledge needed to balance it. Thanks to the training wheels, you had some balancing basics but it might not have been enough the first time. Just because you couldn’t ride without training wheels at first doesn’t mean you’re fundamentally flawed. It just means you had a few more things to learn and improve upon.

Also, just like learning how to ride a bike with training wheels, the point of growth in self-improvement doesn’t occur once you know how to ride the bike without training wheels. The self improvement occurs while we are learning.

Anyone who is learning to ride a bike without training wheels is probably going to fall. For those who teach themselves how to do things, the experience can take a bit longer because they may not have a mentor to teach them tricks or provide guidance.

We often tend to see our goals just beyond our reach. When we stumble, it’s important to remember that the stumble is often times an essential learning moment and not necessarily a failure. Our natural tendency is to embrace the dark side of the failure because we’ll avoid more pain, instead of embracing the lighter side of “I learned something,” even if that something was something that didn’t work. Rather than try again and experience more pain, it’s just easier to throw in the towel and give up.

Avoiding self judgment is everything. Instead of criticizing yourself when you fall short, honestly assess your success and give yourself a pat on the back for trying. You’ll get a lot farther by being your best cheerleader than you’ll ever get being your own worst critic.

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