Take a look at your life as it is, as it was, and as you want it to be. Look at the people you disdain (you probably won’t have to dig too deep here), and at the people you deeply envy. What are the differences between your past and present self? Who are the people you like and the people you loathe? Now, with these things in mind, we begin the true purpose of this writing: finding self-actualization and improvement.
Without wanting to sound like The Secret, or some other sort of self-help book, I want you to pick a goal. You don’t have to write it out (though if that helps, go for it), because chances are, you already know something you deeply desire to be able to do, or to claim to have done, or even just to be.
Now, to explain, I’m going to use my own experience here to help illustrate what I’m talking about. About three years ago, and through a good portion of my life, I was overweight, out of shape, and had little social skills beyond criticizing other people and judging them.
I took stock of those facts, and realized: I don’t want to be that-guy-that-no-one-likes. I don’t want to be the unattractive person, the unhealthy person, the person who is not proud of his body or who he is. So, right there I had realized the first step: Understanding my flaws, realizing that I was not happy with the status quo, and accepting that I had to make a change.
Understanding these things about yourself is not enough. We recognize these flaws in our character every day: that we probably shouldn’t smoke, that we don’t need a second helping of macaroni and cheese every night, that we probably shouldn’t wear the same pants every day for a week. But we as people are comfortable with the status quo. Change is not in our nature; routine is tried and true. Routine is comfortable, familiar, and safe. It is also our greatest enemy.
So, realizing my flaws, and knowing that I did not have the willpower or motivation to make all of those changes on my own, I did what many people do in these situations. I got help.
When you want to change a behavior or something about yourself, you cannot rely solely upon yourself to do it. You are your own worst enemy in that regard. This is why there is such a large market for work-out gimmicks, weight loss pills, and Alcoholics Anonymous.
However, though all of those tools can be useful, many people then make the mistake of assuming that the tool can replace their own will power and personal drive to achieve their goal. They believe that the nicotine patch alone will remove all the temptations of cigarettes, that just by going to Alcoholics Anonymous, their desire to drink will cease. This is not true. Though such tools and mechanisms can help you reach your goal, you still have to determine for yourself that it is time to change.
So I got help. I went to college, bought a few making-yourself-a-better-person books, and joined the Army. None of these things were easy. Though I’ve always been an academic sort of person, the lifestyle change from at-home to at-campus was not the most pleasant change I’ve ever made, but it was also a canvas upon which many people reinvent themselves.
Changing one’s behavior is not the easiest thing to do. When you reflexively scoff at other people’s errors, or are used to being ‘the quiet person in the group’, it can be hard to bite back a searing comment for the sake of being nice, or to speak up even if you are afraid people will not approve of what you say.
But you have to.
You cannot blossom from cynical commentator to pleasant conversationalist in one day. You cannot go from socially anxious to social butterfly on demand. It’s simply not doable, because if you try to make that journey in one bound, you will likely find yourself falling short of your goal. You may even give up.
So you, like I, have to start small. You have to set a goal, even if it’s a tiny one. “I am going to talk to five strangers today, and try to make conversation, even if it’s only a few words.” or “I am going to run one mile today, and even if I can’t run the whole time, I am going to finish the distance.”
How do you hold yourself accountable for these goals? For the social ones, it can be hard to admit to a friend that you’re trying to change how you act, but if necessary, have them tag along and quietly observe. If you can’t do that, then you can at least make a list that you force yourself to look at. That shows you a sense of accomplishment when you see that you’ve completed it, or a sense of shame when you realize you’ve avoided it.
After reading a few self-help books, I started working on my social awkwardness. I tried striking up a conversation with strangers, and I found something remarkable. A great deal of the social anxiety I suffered stems from a fear of ‘rejection’. I’m sure many of you would be embarrassed to ask someone out, or to ask for help in something most others find easy. Such fear is what I felt even in normal reactions: The constant self-pause of ‘what if what I say sounds stupid?’ or ‘what if I offend someone?’ But, I also found that I had no trouble asking people questions that had no consequence, such as “Where is the nearest library?” or “Do you have the time?”
When you realize that you have nothing to lose by talking to people, provided you don’t go out of your way to offend them, you find social interaction easier. Most people don’t make much of your day-to-day conversation, but confidence is key to making a positive impression.
For the physical goals, I strongly recommend a partner. Ask someone you do not live with (this is important, because those who live together will often put things off ‘until later’) to meet you at a place neither of you live close to in order to work out or to go for runs (even brisk walks, if that’s the stage you’re at).
Having to meet someone takes out a lot of the temptation involved in saying ‘oh, well we’ll do it later’. Agree with your partner that you will not communicate with each other about your workout plans unless one of you is sick or there is a conflict and you need to reschedule. Set your meetings on a schedule, so that if you miss a workout, it would be like missing work or any other commitment. This will help motivate you to get the job done.
When I joined the Army I could barely run a mile without having to walk, gasping for breath. I had played a bit of basketball in my youth, and done a few other activities, but at this stage in my life, I was very out of shape. I wanted to quit within days of joining, just because of how much I suffered physically from leaving a lethargic lifestyle and going to an extremely active lifestyle. However, the acceptance and trust people showed me just for trying drove me to continue showing up early each morning for Physical Training. It was that camaraderie that motivated me to train for a year and a half, until I met the Army Physical Fitness Standard and excelled beyond it.
These are the steps you need to remember:
1. Realize your flaws, and determine that you want to change them, and that unless you do so, you will continue to be unhappy with that thing about yourself.
2. Find tools or mechanisms that can assist you, but that you will not only rely upon to solve your problem. Remember, a nicotine patch and weight loss pills can help, but they will not change your behavior for you.
3. Make a plan that includes a system that keeps you accountable for progress. The best way to do this is to include a partner or group in your plan, but if you cannot do that, at the very least, write out your goals and the steps you will take to achieve them.
The final step in all of this is to act. It is too easy to do as you have always done, to not study for tests because you get ‘okay grades’, or to eat badly because ‘you’re not that big’. As the road to success is gradual, so is the road to decline.
So remember: “Nosce te ipsum, carpe diem, vici.” Know thyself, seize the day, conquer.
-Daniel, University of Denver