Whether you look at a new year as a blank slate or an oozing flesh wound, there’s one thing that’s inescapable.
Anything can happen.
Well, perhaps not anything. I’m unlikely to become King of the Pandas, your trimmed toenails are unlikely to become heavily traded commodities on Wall St, and Trump ain’t getting into the White House.
But given a handful of exceptions, none of us know what’s going to happen.
What matters I think, is having some pointers, some guideposts, some navigation guides. Things you can carry with you all year long to help you adapt, help you learn and help you grow.
Here then, are the best self-improvement tips for a better life.
1. Grow, Despite How Uncomfortable it Makes You
Comfort is compelling.
It’s like a warm blanket in a cold world; a way of making sure you’re safe in a world that doesn’t seem to give a rats-ass what happens to you.
But comfort is also what leads people to hate their lives and hate themselves.
Think about it for a moment. You wanna do stuff in life; make a difference, create something remarkable, dent the universe.
I know that much about you, and it’s all very admirable, but right along with those desires is the fear of the unknown, which is when your brains’ operating principle of minimise risk, maximise reward kicks right in and pulls all kinds of dirty tricks to get you to stay exactly where you are because it’s too damn dangerous out there.
We’re hard-wired not to change, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that we need to.
Your brain will tell you:
- That you don’t need to change. Things aren’t so bad right now, and pretty soon it’s possible that it could turn around. And hey, other people have it a lot worse.
- That you’re too special to change. I have something nobody else does, it’s just that the world hasn’t seen it yet. I can’t compromise what I have on the inside by changing what I do or changing who I am.
- That nobody understands. Those messages and articles I read about change and doing stuff that matters? That’s all well and good, but the writers of those things just don’t understand who I am and how tough my situation is. I can’t apply the same thinking because my situation is unique.
- That everyone else had something you don’t. I bet I could change things if I had an amazing mentor like [insert name here] does. I know if I had their talent and bank balance things would be a lot simpler. And just how far would they have got if they didn’t have all those people helping them? Yeah, they have all the help in the world and I have zip.
- That you don’t deserve it. I’m so worried that I haven’t done enough to deserve it. I’m not the kind of person who stuff like this happens to, and other people are more worthy of it than me.
- That you’re not good enough to get it. Who am I kidding, I don’t stand a chance out there. I don’t have what it takes; maybe I’m just not cut out for this stuff.
- That you can’t trust people. That guy’s such a jerk trying to tell me how I should play things. He’s just in it to make a quick buck. And I hate the way that woman talks, like she’s so great and has all the answers. Everyone’s just in it for themselves.
- That it should be easier. If I was supposed to do this then why the fuck is it so hard all the time? Surely that’s a sign that I’m not ready or the time’s wrong?
Seriously, it’s a miracle that any of us get anything done at all.
But people do get things done. People do make a difference. People do create remarkable things. And people do dent the universe.
All it takes is an acknowledgement of 2 things:
- There is no staying still in life—that it’s by staying still that your muscles atrophy, your bones ossify and your life shrinks down to nothing
- Growth happens by leaning into the unknown—it’s through that stretch and your brain’s wonderful plasticity that you get to learn new stuff, try new things and develop new skills.
Expecting growth to happen without discomfort is like expecting an apple orchard to appear on the moon or the Koch brothers to donate their wealth to charity.
Choosing growth is the only choice you have; it just needs you to soften into a different way of thinking.
2. Create Value, Despite What People Think
How do you create value in a world that pretty much just wants you to fit in and go through life not being noticed?
That’s easy, you can’t.
Creating value can be any one of a gazillion different things. Helping a friend when they really need it. Guiding a team towards a great solution. Giving back to a community in a way that has a positive impact. Creating a course that helps people achieve something. Leaving a room better than when you entered it. Offering compassion when there’s an urge toward cynicism. Doing something for a charity or cause that matters to you. Using a strength or talent to help others create value.
The list is as long as you need it to be in order to fit with your world view, and creating value will always attract opinions from others.
Some will applaud your efforts. Others will want to tear it down.
There will always be an asshole ready to tear chunks out of you for what you’re doing, just as there will be an angel who tells you what wonderful work you’re doing. But you’re not responsible for any of that.
I had people tell me I was being incredibly reckless and thoughtless when I raised money for an M.E. charity, and I get people who say that The Code is “terrible” and “lame”.
If I listened to those folks I’d never get out from under the duvet in the morning. Instead, I continue to look for ways I can add value in whatever measure I can and look for ways I can improve what I’m doing in order to reach more people who might be receptive to the value I want to create.
Haters gonna hate (hate hate hate hate), but you can’t let that stop you from creating the value that, a. you can start making today and b. that the world desperately needs.
3. Hear Yourself
Your brain makes thoughts all day long; helpful and unhelpful, insightful and ignorant, enabling and disabling.
It’s a bit like a long-time recording artist in that regard, churning out record after record with some stone-cold hits as well as some complete ass-mongery.
That thought soup your brain produces is in constant motion, and all the time you let it wash over you it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to get out from under it long enough to do anything that amounts to a hill o’ beans.
So it’s essential that you hear yourself.
Essential, so that you’re able to to:
- spot the bullshit; those stories your brain makes up to keep you safe but are nothing more than fiction
- choose a way of thinking; picking out a thought or train of thought that best represents you and what’s important to you, rather than having who you are and what matters to you get swept away by a random thought stream about otters or sunsets or whatever else might be spinning around in that noggin of yours.
- choose a better experience; rather than having circumstances determine your experience, you can develop a sense of mindfulness that means your circumstances don’t need to dictate your experience
Hearing yourself takes practice, but it not only allows you to be aware of where your thoughts are but offers a way of creating enabling thinking that you get to act on.
So come on, start practising.
4. Stop Setting Goals
3 quick facts about me.
I have never watched The Godfather. I was in a Moroccan TV commercial for a yoghurt drink. I’m pretty passionately against goal-setting and the cult that’s built up around it.
See, goals come with a whole heap of trouble…
- They create a gap or a dissonance between where you are and where your goal says you need to be. If you’re not very careful, that can lead your brain to conclude that you’re not good enough or lacking something, otherwise you’d already be on the other side of the gap and would already have nailed it.
- One word: should. Goals are often based on what you think you should have or should want. Setting a goal based on a should is like trying to win a cuddly bear at the fairground, only the rings you’re throwing are way too small to fit over the bottles and are tethered to lengths of string that won’t even reach. Oh, and the bottles are behind a frosted glass screen anyway. And the guy running the stall has been fibbing about the bottles all along; all he has there is a slowly curling bologna sandwich for his lunch. Point is, shoulds aren’t worth a prize.
- Goals always force you to plant your eyes at some fictional point on the horizon, never at what you’ve got right now. Show me a serial goal-setter and I’ll show you someone who’s afraid to ease into the moment they’re already in for fear of what they might see. It’s all too easy to get sucked into dreaming and planning for what might be rather than noticing or facing what is.
- There’s no link between reaching a goal and happiness. Those studies don’t exist, and in fact it’s been proven that people who achieve a goal are no happier than those who don’t set goals or who don’t reach them.
- The focus of value is all wrong with goals. I spent my first couple of years as a coach working exclusively helping clients with setting goals and then pursuing them. Always—and I mean every single time—we found things on the way that rendered the goal obsolete, out-dated, insignificant or redundant. The value is in the path you take, not where it ends up.
- Goals often lack genuine meaning and have little to no tolerance for resistance or obstacles. The motivation behind a goal is enough to get you started, but when things get tougher and resistance sets in, it turns to vapour and escapes.
- Goals are a great way to maintain the illusion that you’re in control. There are some things you can control in life, sure there are (where you keep your socks, whether you go for that run and how friendly you are with your barista among others), but life is nothing if not filled with uncertainty. So, if you can feel better by planning and “controlling” things via a goal then your brain will gravitate towards that, regardless of whether it achieves anything useful or not. Bottom line is that living a life where you strive for certainty and control will invite struggle at every step. It’s a recipe for misery.
So, please, stop setting goals. You’re better than that.
What’s that? What’s the alternative? Read on my friend, read on…
5. Start Playing
Having ranted about how much of a shitty strategy goal-setting is, it seems only appropriate that I offer something of an alternative, right?
Here it is…
Stay with me, because the alternative is a system that offers the following:
- a way of focusing on the good stuff you find on the way, no matter where you’re going
- a mechanism that doesn’t place any judgements of worth or belonging or success on you for not having nailed that goal already
- a system that automagically strips away all the bullshit shoulds, oughts and half-hearted wants
- an understanding that your happiness, value or self-worth is not dependent on getting what you want
- a simple way to plug into the stuff that genuinely matters, and to remind yourself of that good stuff every step of the way
- a way of seeing things so that how you show up in this very moment is what matters
- a sense of motion that incorporates obstacles and difficulty without the need to struggle or suffer
Whether it’s baseball, football, Monopoly or Call of Duty, the entire, entire point of playing a game is that you get into the game, play it to the best of your ability and enjoy it, right?
That’s the nub of playing a game versus setting a goal—goals are things you work towards in the hope they’ll happen at some point in the future, whereas games are things you live in this very moment using all you already have (and are).
A goal is something you do
A game is something you live
It requires a choice to engage with something that matters to you, a choice fuelled by 3 simple reasons:
- Because it matters to you. It comes from the inside—a need, a will, even a compulsion to engage with what’s important because it’s part of you. Not playing just doesn’t feel right. You gotta get involved.
- Because it’s fun. There’s a pull or an energy or a sense that it’s gonna be one hell of a ride. Fuck it, it’s gonna be fun. You gotta get involved.
- Because you get better at it. When you decide to play a game that matters to the best of your ability there’s a real, tangible and measurable chance of winning. But even without that, you get to enjoy the very act of playing, learn more about the game and become a better player with everything you do and every choice you make. You gotta get involved.
Start playing, people. Start playing.
6. Be Generous
The world’s a challenging place right now, and amid all the fear, noise and hubbub it’s natural to draw your arms a little tighter around your own world to protect it and keep it—and you—safe.
But those same walls you erect and to keep you safe also serve to keep what’s out there, out there. Protection and safety come at a cost.
It costs you your creativity. It costs you joy. It costs you connection.
Losing those things isn’t just a bit sad, it’s the catalyst for a bitterness that’s malignant and tragic.
But more than what it costs you personally, there’s a wider impact on the people around you. Your friends, family, peers, colleagues, clients and lovers. The more you keep back, the more you’re keeping yourself hidden and disconnecting yourself.
I’d suggest that it’s your responsibility to be generous with what you have.
Your talents. Your compassion. Your strengths. Your thoughts. Your love. Your time. Your empathy.
Picture a world where people steadily become more generous with who they already are.
Doesn’t that sound like a pretty spectacular place to live?
7. Run Experiments
I remember Chemistry class at school, getting my beakers and bunsen burner all set up and taking notes ready to write up later. Pretty much all I wanted to do was tip random shit into random vessels, but there’s something to be said for the scientific method.
Same goes for when you’re trying to make a complex decision or decide on a challenging course of action. The level of doubt, fear and uncertainty can be enough to make you back away entirely.
But you don’t have to invest your whole future in your next decision. You could always run an experiment to see what happens.
Change one or two variables and see what happens. Try something for 5 days and see what there is to learn. Challenge a premise or idea by trying it on for a short time to see how it works.
See, your next choice doesn’t have to be a big dramatic thing that commits you irrevocably (because you’re more likely not bother when it is). You’re allowed to try something, to run an experiment, and then make a choice that’s appropriate to what you’ve learned.
8. Enough with the Masochism
I know for a fact that you’re hard on yourself.
You’re not attractive enough. You should be a better Mum (or Dad, or son, or daughter, or husband, or wife, or manager, etc). You’re not as successful as you wanted to be by now. You don’t have what it takes. You’re a crappy friend. Your face is showing your age. Everyone else seems to be so damn talented.
And that’s just the tip of a flippin’ humungous iceberg.
Your brain runs comparisons—you against everyone you encounter—to see how you stack up in the pecking order. These comparisons are based on 3 factors:
- How you feel in the moment. Maybe you’re having a crappy day, maybe something’s just gone wrong or maybe it’s a bad hair day.
- How you perceive everyone else. From the outside, it’s easy to perceive that everyone else is doing better than you.
- Your darkest fears. In a dark corner of your brain live fears that you’ll never be good enough. You’ll never be attractive enough or smart enough. You’ll never have that spark of something special. You’ll get found out sooner or later.
Any comparison based on those elements is only going to make you feel crappier than a Victorian sewer during an outbreak of salmonella.
It’s comparing your insides with others’ outsides, and not only is it irrelevant nonsense, it’s irresponsible and damaging.
You’re already good enough to live fully in the world.
Being a work in progress isn’t a fatal flaw, it’s a reality that everyone shares.
Stop beating yourself up.
9. Banish the Phantoms
Your brain is one hell of a piece of work.
Especially when it comes to driving you towards certain courses of action that it tells you will be fucking awesome. But there are false motivations that your brain will latch onto, motivations that I call phantom wants, because that’s all they are. Phantoms.
There are 3 of them.
- Status. Your brain loves to know where it sits in the social pecking order so it can maintain its position and exert some control over the social environment. Gaining and establishing status is about where you sit in a hierarchy against others—when you lose status your brain will tell you in no uncertain terms that you’ve screwed up, that you’re no good or that others are better than you, whereas when you gain status your brain rewards you by giving you an addictive, feel-good hit of warm and fuzzy neurotransmitters.
- Validation. Being validated gives you a sense of being okay, just as you are. It tells you that you’re an okay person, perhaps even a good one, and that you’re on the right track. On the flip side, not receiving validation makes room for speculation that you’re not an okay person; it creates space for a belief that you are in fact, not okay.
- Recognition. Receiving recognition is about having your actions and achievements recognised as being of value. It confirms that what you do is good, and that other people appreciate those deeds. Without recognition, doubt can grow that what you’re doing matters or that people value it.
These 3 phantom wants are bio-chemically woven in your brain, which is why they each feel so damn good when they happen. but the drive toward that feel-good high can drive you into behavior that doesn’t fit who you are or even worse, turns you into an asshole.
They’re insipid. Get a taste of them and you want more. See one of them drop and you feel so bad that you’re motivated to get it back by almost any means.
They have you dancing to their tune, even if the dance is one you’re rubbish at.
But with nothing to prove, no validation to be received and no recognition to be gained, there’s only one reason to do anything.
Because you want to.
Remove status, validation and recognition from the equation and the phantom wants disappear, leaving you with a level of want I call a source want.
Your source wants are your unfettered, undiluted, unashamed wants. They’re graceful, powerful and simple. They’re there simply because you wouldn’t be you without them.
They’re freeing, and they’re all you need.
10. Don’t Be a Bastard
This should really go without saying, but given my penchant for the remarkably obvious, please don’t be a bastard.
There are a lot of bastards out there. People who don’t give a rats ass about anyone else. People who go about their days thinking they’re the most important person in the room. People who force their sense of being right on everyone else.
So be one of the good ones. Practice empathy. Try compassion.
As Annie Lennox once said, put a little love in your heart.