- Baldwin Diep
Using Personal Growth & Development to Overcome Stagnancy
A lot of us are always actively thinking about how we can improve ourselves. I know this because a little over a year ago, I wanted to commit to becoming a better person myself. This meant practicing better habits, making better decisions, and overall moving towards the person that I’ve always wanted to be. But a lot of us just don’t know where to start or what to look for and are trying to find the best way to do that. This is my way of helping those people take a step forward.
We all know that it’s important to improve yourself, but why do I think it’s one of the most important things you should strive to do every single day? After all, we already have so much to do - from work to relationships, and many other responsibilities. But my argument is that if you work to improve yourself, all of these areas in your life will improve accordingly. This is especially needed during times of hardship and stagnancy, when you don't know which direction to go in. When you're in a rut, how can you get out of it?
"But what does Socrates say? ' Just as one person delights in improving his farm, and another his horse, so i delight in attending to my own improvement day by day. "
- Epictetus, Discourses, 3.5.14
Personal development is one way for you to find more meaning and purpose in your life so you aren’t just doing things aimlessly and without direction. By focusing your actions towards the objective of becoming a better you, you are giving yourself the freedom and fuel to pursue the life you've always wanted. And in this pursuit you are simultaneously figuring out what it is you want out of life, leading you to find your own motivations - be it your relationships, your work, or your passions and dreams.
There are several meaningful benefits we get from this mindset and you’ll notice these benefits build upon each other:
Provides clarity and helps us live consciously
In the book, “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem” by Nathaniel Branden, there’s a section on the practice of living consciously, meaning our thoughts become oriented towards things that help us instead of hurting us. This gives us the ability to be aware of the environment around us at some level, so we can guide our actions accordingly. Without a sense of mindfulness in our lives, the inevitable result is a diminished sense of self-efficacy and self-respect.
For example, there were times when I knew I should not have reacted impulsively when something or someone had rubbed me the wrong way. But I did so anyway because I couldn’t help myself. The feeling I got from this reaction was a lot of shame and disappointment because I knew I had let myself down. With a mindset of improving ourselves, it gives us the power to resist the urge of acting out and suffering another disappointing outcome.
Builds our self-esteem and confidence
Personal growth orients our mind on actions and decisions that only make us better instead of tasks and thoughts that give us no value. It’s the process of achievement and mastery through particular tasks that we develop our self-esteem, effectiveness, and our competence at living. You can then start to see the light and realize what you are capable of.
Helps us overcome the negative thought loops and habits that paralyze us
I can tell you from experience that the feeling we get from fear, shame, and anxiety is a revolving door, the mistakes we make and painful experiences will lead to negative thoughts, behaviors, and habits. This leads to more undesired behaviors and the cycle becomes harder and harder to break, limiting our ability to push through obstacles and reach desired outcomes.
In the book, “Mind-Hacking” by John Hargrave, he outlines how we can become blind to our own insane thought patterns that really have no basis in reality, such as fixating on the worst possible outcome after making a mistake. Our attention becomes mired in anxiety and guilt over the fear of losing our safety net and security, and we surrender to despair or resign ourselves to defeat. This leads us to remain frozen, unable to take action. And our self-esteem pays the price. If only we were able to separate the subjective from the objective.
By using the desire to get better, you can effortlessly persevere through the difficulties and expand your ability to cope, raising your feelings of personal power. You are building your sense of self-efficacy by overcoming the thoughts that bring you suffering.
There’s an internal struggle between your impulses and your consciousness that is always occurring and we lose the ability to control oneself when we act on our impulses and emotions instead of our reason, especially in difficult situations. In giving in to baser desires, you're evading responsibility over your own lives and happiness because it distracts you from pursuing your deepest wants and needs. In this case, the need for instant gratification is a much easier path to take than the possible disappointment of failing.
A mindset of personal growth helps you identify those battles and give the control back over to you. Through the actions of doing things that benefit us and seeing the results, we gain a sense of control over our existence. When we are focused on a path, we can resist giving in to compulsive behaviors and prevent them from dictating our actions.
Getting closer to the person you want to be
A lot of people think about the person they aspire to be and the possibilities of the life they could live. The whole point is to grow so that you aren’t the same person you were in the past. And if you're constantly trying to grow, your experiences and actions are filtered through a lens of reason. You can start addressing the parts of your life that have always bothered you or brought you shame, allowing you to move on from personal barriers that are holding you back.
How To Start
1. Keep a journal
The simplest and easiest way I’ve found to start is to keep a journal and write down the things you want to work on. This requires some deliberate and intentional thinking. What are the skills you really want to gain? The habits and behaviors you want to change? The relationships you want to improve?
By actually writing down what you want to improve about yourself, you are making them real instead of just thoughts in your head. It causes you to actually work on them because without this, you will just stay in the same place. This also reminds you of your goals on a regular basis so your attention is focused on what’s most important instead of distractions. The practice of writing things down is even supported by research: in Richard Wiseman’s "59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute", he says that “expressing gratitude, thinking about a perfect future, and affectionate writing… have been scientifically proven to [lead to large-scale change], and all they require is a pen, a piece of paper, and a few moments of your time”.
2. Find your motivations
Why do you want to make those changes and what is it that you really want out of life? List your reasons and motivations, think about what inspires you and rehash it every morning when you wake up. This is your list of affirmations. It is a way to recenter your attention and frame the rest of your day on what you have defined for yourself that is most important.
Again, write these motivations down somewhere. It seems like a superfluous thing to do, why can’t you just keep it in your head? Writing things down and looking at them is actually very powerful because it creates permanence and a sense of urgency. It’s reminds you of your reasons and steers you back onto the right path. When you surface your reasons for doing something, it’s more likely you’ll commit and follow through with it.
3. Create a plan to get better
This is as simple as creating a clear goal, listing the tasks or things you need to do to reach those goals, and monitoring your progress by creating milestones to track your progress every week, month, etc. In doing this, you’re evaluating whether your daily actions are in alignment with your goals.
“Let all of your efforts be directed towards something, let it keep that end in view. It’s not activity that disturbs people, but false conceptions of things that drive them mad"
- Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind, 12.5
Have actionable items that advance your goals so you aren’t waiting around for something to do - you’ll always have it ready. The thing is, you won’t always feel motivated to do it at the beginning, it takes real effort and repetition. All of this does. It takes intention and commitment.
The power of this is best explained in Ryan Holiday's The Daily Stoic: "By planning to the end you will not be overwhelmed by circumstances and you will know when to stop. Gently guide fortune and help determine the future by thinking far ahead... When your efforts are not directed at a cause or a purpose, how will you know what to do day in and day out? How will you know what to say no to and what to say yes to? How will you know when you’ve had enough, when you’ve reached your goal, when you’ve gotten off track, if you’ve never defined what those things are? The answer is that you cannot. And so you are driven into failure—or worse, into madness by the oblivion of directionlessness.”
This is all difficult to do, no one said it was going to be easy. But the way I think of it, what other choice do you have? If you aren’t living the life you want to, what will it take for you to change? If you’re waiting for the motivation to come to you, well here it is. Superman isn’t coming to save you, no one is because it’s your responsibility to support your own existence.
We avoid this step the most because it’s the hardest to endure. Being honest with oneself is often unbearable because you are taking a hard look at the things you are most ashamed of. But it is this step that can be the most empowering if you are willing to make the effort.
Identify the problems and find their root causes, be accurate and honest about them because that’s the only way you’ll be able to address them. Then create a strategy to overcome the obstacles preventing you from meeting your goals. Maybe some days you don’t feel the motivation. How will you get past that? By having a plan of action, you won’t feel lost when it happens and will already know what to do.
Interesting Insight: In Ray Dahlio’s book, “Principles”, he outlines that we have a big internal struggle which is the battle between our emotions/instinct and reason. Our ego creates defense mechanisms that make it hard to accept our flaws, mistakes, and weaknesses, so we avoid them altogether. The deep seated needs and fears (to be loved, to survive, to be important) reside in the primitive parts of your brain like the amygdala, which process emotion.
At the same time, higher level consciousness resides in the neocortex, particularly the prefrontal cortex. This is where you experience the conscious awareness of decision-making, as well as application of logic and reasoning. Once you understand how the "logical/conscious" you and the "emotional/subconscious" you fight with each other, you realize how messy it can become, especially when interacting to others. To be effective you must not let your need to be right be more important than your need to find out what’s true. You need humility to be able to accept criticism or your weaknesses, be able to understand it and analyze it for solutions.
What Won’t Happen
You won’t become a perfect person. There’s never a quick fix and it’s important to accept that. A lot of times we wish that we can just get to a place where there’s nothing that can stop us and we have everything we could want. But this isn’t the point, trying to achieve this will bring you unnecessary stress and disappointment. When you only think about the end goal, it can be too overwhelming when you don't reach it or when things don't go your way.
This won't be the answer to all of the problems in your life. It's merely a tool you can use to overcome some mental blocks. The point is that we feel confident we’re generally headed in the right direction and can stay the course, making adjustments here and there but ignoring the distractions that do us no good. Instead of seeing personal development as an end to which one aspires, see it as a guide one applies to their life.
There are some things to remember as you pursue a better version of yourself:
Be open-minded. Being open-minded is the key to improving effectively. It removes barriers to learning and makes your motivations clear to yourselves so there’s less misunderstandings. This prevents you from deceiving yourselves so you aren’t focused on the wrong things.
It’s not going to be easy. It will take a few weeks until you get on a roll, so don't get discouraged when you feel you aren't making any progress or lose your motivation over a few days. Remember your reasons, why you set out on this goal in the first place, and make the effort to continue your journey.
People close to you may not accept the journey you are trying to take. It will truly perplex you when some of your closest friends or even family choose to ridicule your aspirations instead of support you. But this is just a reflection of themselves and not you. For whatever reason it may be, steer clear of these people in your life because they will come up with any excuse to rationalize their negative behavior. It just won't do you any good to reason with them, and trying will usually end in disappointment.
Don't mistake personal growth for materialism. Some may think this as a superficial way of living their lives, to always be in pursuit of something. But I see it as living consciously, with a guiding principle so you know when you’re being led astray. And these principles are not absolute, they should always be evaluated and reflected upon. But by outright rejecting this type of thinking, it's possible you rejecting responsibility over your own life and are living in denial.
One day these skills will be very useful. A good incentive that motivates me to pursue this is thought that one day I'll be a parent, and I want to be a good role model for my children. But the best way to do that is to be there for myself first.
A lot of this information we probably already know in some form or another, but it’s helpful to hear it again to encourage you to take action. My hope is that you use this to improve your lives. Everyone has an image of the person they want to be, but what’s stopping you from getting there? Practice the habits and actions, let go of the excuses you make for yourself to avoid making the harder decisions. It takes more effort, but you will like yourself more afterwards and it will keep building on itself. Develop your character, it’s all you really have.
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