- Start before you are ready
- Immerse yourself
- Make it your identity
- Accumulate the right skills
- Get one step closer every day
- Take the opportunity when it comes
2014 has been an incredible year for me. This year I travelled across 11 different countries across 2 different continents with 7 different travel partners. I camped in the mountains, on the beaches, in the forests and by the roadsides. I slept in hostels, hotels, vans, buses, kitchens, barns and several mansions. I spent a month working in a community based around the female orgasm, a month in a community based around African drumming, and a month in a hostel in the middle of San Diego’s gay district.
My travelling experiences over the past year have been far beyond my wildest dreams. But the most unbelievable thing about it all?
It was easy.
Where does self-transformation come from?
If you’d told me at eighteen years old that travelling was easy, I’d have laughed in your face. At eighteen, travelling was the hardest thing in the world: I was still in school, living in my parents house, with no money, no idea about how to look after myself, no hope that I would ever find someone else who wanted to travel with me. Like every other teenager that yearned for the open road, my heroes were Jack Kerouac and Christopher McCandless: I saw them as independent and capable adventurers – everything that I was not. I used to keep a journal, and I remember writing in it all the places I would go if I could.
Actually, the truth was that I had already been to a lot of different countries on holiday with my family. But what I wanted was real adventure.
So how did I go from being an awkward family-holidaying teenager to the handsome, rugged 24 year old adventurer I am now?
- I had a burning desire
Before I started travelling independently, I had a burning desire to travel independently. Even though independent travel seemed like a painfully remote prospect, it was the focus of my thoughts every night. Almost all the books I read and the films and TV programs I watched were focused around famous travellers and their adventures.
In many ways, I felt helpless – it was difficult to imagine that I could ever achieve my ambitions of travel – but I literally couldn’t stop myself. Seeing the world was the only thing I cared about.
- I made mistakes
My first “adventure” was a ten day solo hiking trip around Wales when I was 19. It was a disaster. I bought too much food, couldn’t carry it all, dumped it in the woods, and then spent the next few days starving when I couldn’t find more food. Not that I knew how to cook the food when I had it – mostly I tried to survive off boiled onions and potatoes. Not exactly the most delicious meal.
But in those 10 days I covered 100 miles by foot. I climbed a bunch of mountains, got chased by a bull, and saved a lamb that had fallen down a well. At the end of the trip I felt amazing – for the first time I had some travelling stories of my own.
- I made it part of my identity
Despite the huge amount of self-imposed discomfort I had on my first journey, I kept on travelling. I found a travel partner who was more experienced than me and could teach me things (like how to eat). Together we went around France and Spain for a month. After that, even though I wasn’t really an experienced traveller myself yet, I made it part of my identity. It didn’t matter that I’d only gone to a handful of places on my own.
I was a traveller.
- I accumulated the required skills
Once I though of myself as a traveller, I didn’t really have much choice: I had to keep moving. I organised my whole lifestyle around visiting other places. Every time I had the opportunity to go somewhere else, I took it. I even spent a year of my university education studying abroad in the USA.
Over the course of my 4 year degree I accumulated many different new skills. I learned things like how to talk to people confidently, how to attend to my basic survival needs, and how to get value for my money. I wasn’t always good at these things, nor was I consciously training myself to be a good traveller. But because I was travelling often, I constantly had to apply these new skills in the context of travel – and I was improving.
- I had the opportunity to transform
By the time I left university, I had seen a fair amount of the world. I had a lot of stories, anyway. But I hadn’t managed to have any of the big travelling adventures that I’d dreamed about as a teenager. What I had found was a Canadian-American girlfriend, and my dreams were changing. Now I went to sleep imagining myself working a steady job, helping to provide an income so we could continue to be in a relationship. And although we were living together in Canada, I wanted to move back to the UK – I had given up on further travel.
When we broke up a few months later, my life was an empty void. I was literally living in a tent with all my possessions in the world. As I looked around at the things I owned – a rucksack, a sleeping bag, warm clothes – and as I thought about the things I knew how to do, I really only had one option. I had to go travelling.
I’ve been single for a year now, and in that time I’ve crossed the west coast of the USA border-to-border twice (once in each direction) and hitch-hiked almost 4000km in Europe. I’ve feel like I’ve achieved more than the dreams I had as a teenager.
The process I’ve described above wasn’t something I set out to do. But it was so powerful that it turned the impossible hopes of my younger self into reality. Can we to go through this process deliberately? Can we maintain a conscious awareness as we undertake each step? I’m not certain.
But I’m sure going to try.
Today I finished the first draft of my first book and sent it to a handful of friends for their feedback.
After I sent the emails, I had one thought: I’ve done it – and for the rest of my life, I will always have done it – I have finally written a book.
It doesn’t matter to me that my book doesn’t have a title yet, or that it’s not particularly long, or even that the writing isn’t particularly brilliant. I know that I’ve repeated certain phrases, leaned heavily on certain words, focused too little on some areas, and focused too much on some others.
My book is a long way from being perfect. But you know what? It exists, and perfection doesn’t.
Yesterday, l finished reading Rich Dad, Poor Dad (Kiyosaki, 2000) and I felt inspired. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t understand a lot of what I had read, but I knew that my views on personal finance had shifted been considerably.
Hungry to expand my knowledge in this area, I started to research the Kiyosaki’s ideas and background. Instead of further inspiration, however, what I found were several withering reviews that explained that Kiyosaki was essentially a fraud, who had serious problems with his (sometimes borderline illegal) methodologies.
With 26 million copies sold, I am sure that I am not the only one who reacted to the book positively. I know very little about personal finance, and Rich Dad, Poor Dad provides a simple, engaging set of rules to follow in order to increase wealth. I wonder what fraction of the people who have read his book discovered the truth behind it, though. I wonder what fraction of people made disastrous decisions with their money as a result.
The importance of reading critically
The self-improvement industry is filled with books like Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Books that appeal to the large audience of people who want simple answers and quick results. Unfortunately, these books very rarely provide any kind of value to the genuine self-improver.
There are plenty of books out there which provide honest, useful, inspiring information. Unless you want to improve yourself by trial and error, which is a very painful path to self-improvement, you need to discover and read these books. But how can you do this? It’s not as simple as finding a reading list on the internet (although that can be a good start). Everyone is different, and everyone needs to change in different ways. The books you need to read are not the same as the books I need to read.
One solution is to read critically.
Critical reading is a skill that must be learned. Very few people do it naturally. Luckily, Harvard has a “Critical Reading Strategy” that breaks down the method into 6 easy steps, which we can adapt for our self-improvement research needs.
Step Zero: Discover the book
This isn’t part of the official strategy, but of course the preliminary step to reading something is to discover it. Ask your friends for recommendations, research the subject you want to learn on the internet, read blogs, listen to podcasts, and lurk on discussion boards. Inevitably someone will mention a book that appeals to you.
Step One: Preview
Before you open the book, before you even buy the book, you need to learn more about the book. Identify your expectations about the “scope and aim” of the book. For example, does your self-help book on personal finance focus on specific techniques to invest your money, or does it just explain how to have a good general attitude towards finance. Is the book for people who have $1000 in the bank or $100,000? Knowing what you are about to learn not only improves your ability to learn it, it also makes sure that you don’t waste time acquiring information that isn’t immediately useful to you.
Don’t forget to research the author at the same time as the book. Are they living a lifestyle you admire? How will their reputation and credentials affect your reading of the text?
Step two: Annotate
As you read the book, get into the habit of recording your immediate reactions in the margins of the page. Throw away your highlighter; those brightly coloured lines provide you with no real extra information, and can get in the way of your comprehension of a text. Instead, use a personal system of symbols to draw your attention back to areas of the book that caught your attention. A “*” symbol could identify a key idea, and a “!” could mean an idea which is surprising, absurd, or bizarre.
Write down short notes about things that occur to you or seem important, and continuously ask yourself questions: “What does this mean?”, “Why is the author writing this?”, “What are the consequences for me?”.
Step three: Outline, Summarise, Analyse
Outlining means figuring out the skeleton of the argument. What is the thesis, the evidence, the main points, the conclusion. Thinking about a text this way can help you find the assumptions, flaws, and jumps of logic that are often present in the most popular self-improvement books. You can do this mentally, in the margins with your annotations, or by writing it out separately.
Summarising is similar to outlining, except you state the ideas of the text in your own words. Often you do this naturally by trying to explain the concepts you’ve just read to somebody else. By trying to explain the text yourself, you become more aware of the parts of it you haven’t understood, or don’t make sense.
Analysing means evaluating the text, not just restating it. Test the logic, credibility, and argument of the text. Does the author have sound ideas that are well communicated? What are the facts and opinions of the text? What is the strongest and weakest evidence that the author provides?
Step four: Look for patterns
Try to notice the words, phrases, and images that recur throughout the text, or whether the author has a consistent way of characterising people, events, or issues. The choices of the author can reveal both what they consider important (and what they expect you to understand from the text), as well as any underlying agendas they might have. An author who repeatedly makes reference to his other products, for example, may be writing in order to sell to his readers.
Are there any patterns that you expected to be in the text that are absent? Does the author fail to credit others for his ideas, for example? Does he rely on providing real-world examples instead of generally-applicable principles, or vice versa?
Step five: Contextualise
Once you’ve finished reading and analysing the text, it’s time to put it into perspective. Consider it’s historical, intellectual, and cultural circumstances. You’ll need to view a book from 1950 with a different perspective than one from 2010, for example. What parts of the book are timeless, outdated, untested, disproved? You should have a good knowledge of the background of the text from when you previewed it in step one, and these factors should also influence your final opinion on the text.
Step six: Compare and contrast
How is your book related to the other books you’ve read. Does it expand old ideas, or attempt to communicate new ones? Which texts does it agree with, and with which does it disagree? Even if it uses the same words as other books, does it use the same definitions for those words? Does it provide a mainstream or alternative way of thinking?
Reading critically can seem like a lot of work at first, but it’s really only a magnification of what you already do when you read. If you can incorporate this technique into your self-improvement research, you’ll supercharge your learning efficiency – both by absorbing more from each text, and by focusing your time on texts that you are certain will provide useful ideas.
You can use habit-stacking to get started with critical reading by saying “Before I read the first page of a new book, I will research its background and author.”
In our day-to-day lives, most of us live as critics: we spend our time consuming the things that others have created, and then judging them mercilessly. We do this with the films we watch, the books we read, the meals we eat; we constantly form opinions on our experiences.
Occasionally, some of us live life as creators. Whether we are artists, writers, musicians, or speakers, we follow a process that, in the best case scenario, ends with our creation being released to the outside world, to be consumed and judged with no regard for our fragile egos.
More often, however, this creative process is ended prematurely by the self-doubts and practical difficulties that always accompany such tasks. If you find yourself starting many different projects, but finishing few, these simple guidelines may be of some help.
#1: Start small
Ambitious projects appeal to our egos, both because they make us feel as though we are destined for greatness, and because we secretly know that we’ll never complete them and be exposed to the criticism of others.
Often even the smallest projects can grow out of hand as you notice the various ways you could improve on your original idea, or you realise that more effort is required to lay the foundations for your creation than you imagined at the start. Give yourself a chance at finishing your project by limiting your ambitions at first. You can always add to them later.
#2: Create for yourself, but do it with an audience
When you create something, create it for yourself. Be authentic – don’t just try to anticipate what others will approve of and build around that. If you’re writing an article, express your own opinion, not an opinion you think will be popular. If you’re writing a song, don’t be afraid to step outside of standard musical structures. No matter how much you work, you’ll never please everyone. You might as well work to please yourself.
At the same time, expose your creation to criticism from others as soon as possible. Not because you’re going to strive to incorporate their feedback, but because it will push you to to output the highest quality creations you can. It will push you to revise, review, and recreate. When some people reject your work, and you learn to accept that this will always be the case, you will become brave. When others accept and validate your work, you will discover increased motivated to continue.
Creating in secret is almost as bad as not creating at all.
#3: Embrace imperfections
As you near the end of any creative process, you will begin to see the mistakes, the things you could have done better, the imperfections. Don’t be discouraged. Finishing something imperfect is far better than never finishing anything at all. Fix what you can and learn your lessons for next time.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you create, or what happens to the things you make after they are created.
What matters is that they are made.
There are a lot of people who, when faced with a tough task, say to themselves “If only I had more willpower”.
We tend to view willpower as the force within us that pushes us to turn our thoughts into realities; literally as the power to enact our will upon the universe. We associate it with strong motivation and discipline, authority and high status. The best politicians seem to have good willpower. So do doctors, lawyers, bodybuilders, and anyone else in a career that requires hard work even just to reach a minimum standard.
Willpower, we imagine, is what ex-drug addicts use to finally kick their habits, what struggling actors need to make it big, what keeps endurance athletes going when others are forced to stop.
But what if I told you that it is willpower that stops us, that keeps us struggling and reverting to our old damaging habits time and time again?
The Past Self vs. The Current Self vs. The Future Self
Let’s say that you want to, for the first time, start running regularly. It’s Monday, and you’re busy, so you decide to wait until Wednesday when you have the afternoon off. For all of Monday and Tuesday, you feel good about your decision to start running on Wednesday. But when the time comes to leave the house, it’s cold, it’s raining, and you slept badly the night before. You post-pone your run until Friday, hoping for better conditions, but by then something else comes up and in the end you never even lace up your trainers.
Everyone has had an experience like this at some point.
When we make any decision about the future, our current self is essentially giving a command to our future self. When we decide to make a positive change, we get a good feeling inside.This is because our current self is playing the role of “master”. We are demanding something for which we expect to receive future reward, and right now we don’t have to give anything in return.
But when it comes to acting out something in the present, we suddenly find ourselves in the position of “slave” – forced to obey the commands of our tyrannical past selves, who have given nothing while demanding everything. Naturally, we much prefer the role of “master” to that of “slave”, and because taking back control is simply a case of not doing whatever unpleasant task we’d promised for ourselves, we almost always take the easier option.
That is, unless, we decide, against the wishes of our current self, to obey instead.
In order to choose to obey a demand from your past self, you must overcome the willpower of your current self. Your current self does not want to be uncomfortable. Your current self wants immediate gratification, because it can not benefit from the gratification of the future or the past self. Your current self is jealous of the pleasures of your past self, and wants to take it for its own.
And when the strength of your willpower overcomes your power to obey, you quit, you stop, you fail.
Military training almost everywhere in the world has one common trait: it teaches obedience, not willpower. In fact, initial training often involves techniques designed to break willpower, not build it. This is because the military needs people who will not only obey their superiors, but who will also obey themselves. They need people who can face tough tasks without quitting, who are comfortable with delayed gratification, and who have the greatest chance of success in the worst of conditions.
There are parallels in the civilian world too. A popular workplace motif is “working your way from the bottom to the top”. The idea is that by initially working for others, you will eventually have others working for you.
Self-mastery through self-slavery
Anybody can act out the role of “master” of themselves. It’s simply a matter of letting the current self take control; of doing exactly what you want in the present moment and getting immediate gratification in return. But self-mastery is something different. Self-mastery means mastery of the current self. It means overcoming your own willpower in the present to obey the demands of your past, even if it means a little short-term discomfort. It means saying, “I know that I don’t want to do this now, but I must submit to the wishes of my past self”.
This sentence is a little strange, but it’s implications are true: by working for your past self, you’ll have your past self working for you.
I had quit smoking for exactly 18 months when I started again.
Before quitting, I had never been a particularly heavy smoker – perhaps only smoking ten to fifteen cigarettes a day. But I was strongly habitual, always smoking in the same places, at the same times, with the same people. It made up part of the pleasant rhythm of my life, and when I smoked I couldn’t imagine ever living a life without cigarettes.
It took me more than a year of false starts to finally stop smoking. It was tough at first when I finally quit, but as time went on my attitude to cigarettes flipped: “How could I have ever needed cigarettes?” I would ask myself. It seemed impossible that I would smoke again.
I spent a lot of time congratulating myself during the week approaching my 18 month anniversary as a non-smoker. “You’ve finally done it,” I thought, “You’ve kicked the habit.”
And when the day came, my mind was filled with thoughts of cigarettes, and I’d gone without them for so long, and I knew that I wasn’t addicted to them any more, so it wouldn’t hurt if I smoked just one…
For the next year, I was back to the same old habits, ten to fifteen a day. I had hit a milestone that was important to me. I was pleased with the progress I had made. And the milestone tripped me up.
Milestones are important.
Setting effective goals for yourself is a valuable part of the self-improvement process, and measuring your progress regularly is a good way to stay motivated and disciplined. However, in our society, we are accustomed to our efforts receiving financial rewards which we then exchange for the things we want and need. The rewards of self-improvement are not like that. You cannot use your progress to rationalise a return to your previous destructive behaviours.
If you do, you lose ground. And every drop of sweat you spent gaining that ground has to be spent again.
Motivation vs. Discipline
Motivation is the force within you that drives you to overcome difficult, short-term challenges. When our body has an immediate need, motivation is what gets us on our feet in order to address that need. When we set ourselves goals, we are appealing to this power of motivation to help us achieve them.
The problem with motivation is that it is fleeting. Once motivation has done its job and helped you overcome your challenge – once you’ve reached that major milestone – even the strongest motivation can die away.
It is now that discipline must step in. Discipline is what drives you to habitually complete tasks that are rewarding in the long-term, but cause you discomfort as they are carried out. Discipline gets you out of bed at 7:00am each morning to go to work. Discipline is what keeps you in a regular exercise routine. And discipline, once gained, can stay with you for life.
How to avoid tripping over your milestones
Simply being aware of your vulnerability immediately after achieving major milestones can be enough to prevent yourself from using them to rationalise negative behaviours. If you find yourself making those rationalisations, try to make a concious distinction in your thoughts between the person you are now and the person you were before you achieved your goal. Try to re-ignite your motivation by reassessing your goals from where you are, not where you were, and remember that you always have more progress to make.
The best way to avoid tripping up, however, is simply to train and maintain your self-discipline, and consciously call upon it whenever you feel your motivation beginning to fade.
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