It’s been tough to write about self-improvement these past few years, largely because I’ve moved out of the contemplative phase of it. Through a great deal of my 20s I was still figuring things out — what it means to be a good person, the fundamental nature of humanity, how society works and how it doesn’t. To this day I’m still not sure I can explain concretely what I think about all of that, but at some point I realized that endless contemplation didn’t really get me anywhere. If I was going to try to live a good life, I needed to take action.
For the last few years, you may have noticed me trying different ways to spur myself into action. I’ve tried posting my goals on journals and Twitter to make myself publicly accountable. I’ve tried to take all of my big goals and break them up into bite-sized chunks where progress could be measured over the span of weeks. I’ve tried to distill virtues and ideals down into essential actions, to marry certain habits I was trying to cultivate at the time to something sacred. Through action x, I express virtue y. So forth and so on. It’s been a long, difficult slog, and so far nothing’s been a silver bullet. I’m still scattered and inconsistent. I still can’t develop a habit worth a damn. My willpower doesn’t feel much stronger than it has been. No matter how hard I try to make them bearable, I still collapse under the weight of my goals fairly often.
After a while, I get really discouraged about it. Why is it so difficult to do the things I want to do? Why is it so easy for me to trade long-term virtue for short-term pleasure? How do I keep making the ‘wrong’ choice — the one I end up regretting — over and over again? How can I develop that habit just fine, but any one that benefits me is actively resisted?
I don’t really have an answer for that either, but it’s making me more contemplative about my goals and priorities. I can feel the pendulum beginning to sway the other way, though not completely — I’m still going to keep running towards a virtuous life no matter how many times I trip up. Once you realize how important it is to apply your philosophy out into the world, to try to express thought through action, you can’t go back to being primarily a thinker. That genie has left the bottle.
Anyway, what exactly is it that I’m trying to do here? In other words, what kind of person am I trying to be? It’s been a few years since I’ve really asked myself this question, and I’ve been sort of flailing through all of my goals to the point where I can’t remember why I set them in the first place. It’s time to set my current priorities down, examine them, and discard what’s not working for me any more.
Right now, what do I want to do more than anything? Who do I want to be? I want to be someone who’s confident, but quietly so — it’s so much more attractive when you have a sure knowledge of your ability and limits without needing to have them reinforced by someone else. Part of that is pushing myself to be better than I was the day before, to test myself to see where my limits are. The more I expand my limits, the more I’ll be able to display confidence in a variety of situations, after all.
I’d also like to be compassionate. It’s a difficult skill to cultivate, because far too often we’re wrapped up in our own stories. Taking a moment to pause and step out of that, to be a part of someone else’s life in a way that serves them, requires a lot. It can be an incredibly simple thing to do, but very very difficult if you’re used to being the center of your life. I’d love to be able to get out of my head a bit, to do more for other people, to make them feel loved, capable and strong. I want to be a nurturing, positive influence on the people around me.
Finally, I would like to be productive. This means actively doing things that help me to become more confident and more compassionate. Losing weight, trying new things, letting go of ideas I’ve had forever, that sort of thing. Being productive means, to me, that you’re constantly generating new things, refreshing yourself with new ideas and perspectives, and (hopefully) a natural byproduct of that is shedding the things that have grown stale, that no longer work for you. Being productive means that you’re naturally able to embrace change, that when something new comes along you’ll at least give it a shot before deciding you like something familiar better. To me, being productive is the action of people who have an open mind.
Confidence. Compassion. Productivity. Those are the three big things I would like to cultivate right now. What about you guys? Are there any virtues or ideals you try to live up to? How do you do it?