Why Worry About Self-Improvement? Why Not Just “Go With the Flow”?

When I was a young boy, we would spend a lot of our summer days in a small farming community where my grandmother lived. A couple of miles below the town, an irrigation canal ran slowly to the south. One time I went with my cousins to float down the canal in car tire inner tubes (back when tires had inner tubes). My aunt dropped us off north of town and west of the garbage dump, where we could access the large irrigation canal. We lazily floated down the small current of the canal to the appointed pick-up point where we chased lizards and waited for my aunt to come get us. It was a great summer activity to do with your cousins in the middle of nowhere, USA.

Our lives are a lot like floating in an irrigation canal. If we don’t do something to change our course, then we’d better be content with where the current is taking us, because that’s where we’re going to end up.

We can look at this analogy in various aspects of our lives. Here are just a few to consider.

Where is the current taking your thoughts?

If you make no effort to direct your thoughts, where would the current take them? What things would make up the current of your thoughts?

Despite being told not to look at your phone the last thing before you go to bed and the first thing when you get up, I suspect many of us do just that. In my case, I use it as my alarm clock and sleep tracker, so it is the last thing I look at and the first thing my hand touches when I wake up. That doesn’t mean I have to check email, social media, texts or any of the other myriad apps that reside in the device. Give in to that temptation at any time of the day, and our thoughts are now going in the direction of the current.

The smart phone is unquestionably changing how humans behave, and some medical professionals have christened a new form of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) as Acquired Attention Deficit Disorder (AADD), implying that is is largely self-inflicted.

Smart devices aren’t the only things that constitute the current of thoughts swirling around us. The 24-hour news cycle for information junkies provides an on-demand fix for mental relief when we no longer want to think for ourselves. Gratefully there are plenty of outlets that let us know what is going on in the world, and what we should think about it.

Where is the current taking your health?

If we don’t take initiative when it comes to our physical well being, we are floating with the current of our surroundings. Generally this is not where we want to go.

According to a CDC report on obesity from the year 2000 to the year 2016 adult obesity rates have increased from 30% (already high) to nearly 40% of all adults. Clearly the current of health is not flowing in the right direction.

Where is the current taking your education?

A study completed by the Pew Research Center shows that nearly one fourth of all Americans report having not read a book (hard copy, electronic, or audio format) in the last year. In contrast, a 2015 study showed that over 50% of adults play video games. Here again, the current doesn’t necessarily seem to be in a good direction.

Among the self-improvement conscious there is a metric referred to as the “E to E ratio”. This is the education to entertainment ratio, or a comparison of how much time you as a person spend on education vs. entertainment. The above statistics would indicate that ratio in the “current” around us, is not going in a good direction.

Is the current all that bad?

It could be argued that despite the picture the above anecdotes paint, things are not all that bad, even going with the current. Some have asked, “What’s wrong with being content with where you are?”

The answer lies in the current.

Even if you do nothing, you are not going to stay where you are. The current will influence you. It will take you downstream. Slowly, imperceptibly perhaps, but you are moving, whether you recognize it or not.

For me that realization came a few years ago regarding my health. I have no idea when it happened, but at some point, I discovered that I had a portable armrest with me whenever I sat down. It was my stomach. A nice comfortable place to rest my folded arms, but where the heck did it come from?

I realized I needed to start swimming against the current. Not fun. I had some ground to make up and it still takes effort to resist the flow of the current, but 35 pounds later, I am still swimming, and better for it.

The case for continuing personal development.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great titled the first chapter, “Good is the Enemy of Great.” The premise is that when something is good, people quit trying to get better, because it’s “good enough”. That is when we start to go with the current, and it takes us downstream.

You don’t have to start self-flagellating or beat yourself up emotionally, psychologically or otherwise, but I strongly encourage you NOT to go with the flow when it comes to your personal development. Reach for your full potential.

Here are a few recommendations to go against the flow:

  1. Read something educational every day.
  2. Exercise regularly — Alternate days between strength and cardio exercises.
  3. Limit your entertainment to appropriate levels.
  4. Limit the use of social media, news intake and other sources of mental junk food.
  5. Limit the monitoring of your email.
  6. Leave your cell phone in another room when you’re home.

Floating down a stream in an inner tube can be a relaxing diversion and a great source of renewal. If however, you’re floating down the stream of your own personal development, I encourage you to turn around and start swimming the other way.

Take this two minute quiz to see how you’re doing overall with your personal development.