13 Lessons from 5 Years of Self-Improvement
The best way to make the world a better place is to improve yourself
My self-improvement journey began the day I decided to take charge of my life. It was a day like any other for me. I was in my room, lying in bed. It was 5 p.m. I was not sleeping — I was crying, suffering.
Not just from pain, but from impotence. I had social anxiety and it was affecting every corner of my existence. I couldn’t connect my inner world with the outer one. I was trapped inside my thoughts and fears.
I had social anxiety ever since I could remember but it had gotten worse those days. I was suffering more than ever. I was already mature enough to see my life slipping away through my fingers, unable to close my hand to keep it.
But that day, I had a revelation.
It was the first time I imagined my future. How would it be if I didn’t do anything to escape that hell? How could I work? How could I have a healthy relationship? How could I raise a child when I couldn’t even take the lead in my own life?
The fear stopped for a moment. I stopped crying. I felt some inexplicable force within. Something bigger than that moment, bigger than my fears. Bigger than I.
I was able to see myself in the future, like a bright star.
What I could be.
And I knew what I had to do; I would live by following that star in my firmament. It wouldn’t matter what it took me. I could always go back to look at that star to know what I had to do.
And I’d do it.
The never-ending journey of self-improvement
5 years? More like all my life. I don’t think I’ll ever stop improving. The more I improve the more I see aspects that I can improve.
There is no finish line.
I won’t get to a point in which I can’t go forward anymore. I’ve changed a lot these years and yet I feel there are more things I want to improve now than when I started.
And I know it won’t take just a few weeks or months. Or even years. I started fighting social anxiety 5 years ago. Then I discovered other issues that I wanted to focus on. And I’m sure I’ll find others down the way. I’ll be 40 and I’ll be facing new challenges in need of new improvements.
As I see it there are two ways to live life:
Either you consciously decide to go towards the direction you want — Improvement — or you go where circumstances take you.
Time will pass anyway so why not take responsibility and try to find the best direction possible?
Take life as an improvement journey.
Don’t expect others to accompany you
I remember the first months after I discovered I had social anxiety. I had the strongest will to overcome it.
I only had one thought repeating in my mind: “I know I’ll do it.”
I didn’t care if experts said it wasn’t possible. I didn’t care if there were no registered cases of people overcoming it. I didn’t care if people said that I would never overcome it completely.
There were times I felt alone in my journey.
I wasn’t sure anyone besides me believed it was possible. But then I thought: “Of course, how can they believe it if they have never done anything like it?”
Would I let that stop me? No. I had found the only thing that was stopping me from being myself.
I had found the only door I could open to going forward.
Why wouldn’t I go through it to find the world on the other side? What could stop me from getting what I had wanted all my life?
If I had to go alone, I would.
Reflect on your past to improve your future
I always say that I live twice. I live the first time and the second time I think about what I’ve lived.
Having experiences that move you forward is the first step. But what use they have if you don’t understand what has happened?
To not get lost in the noise of life I do three things: recollect, reflect and rebuild.
- Recollection: What I’ve been doing? What has happened? What experiences of what I’ve lived will matter in the future?
- Reflection: How can I make sense of these experiences? Have they a special meaning? Have they changed the rules of the game in some way? Can they teach me something new about me or the world?
- Rebuilding: How can I add the new things I’ve learned to the knowledge I already had? How can I integrate this information into my mental models? Do they conflict? Do I have to change or even remove beliefs or values?
By doing this my life experiences double their value.
I can keep putting brick over brick in my understanding of the world. I won’t forget the important things just because a lot of time has passed.
Everything that “has been” affects in an organized way what is now.
Live life twice and you won’t step twice on the same stone.
The most important relationship is with your emotions
Reality is tricky. We often forget that what we live in is customized for us. Not another single human is living the same reality.
Your emotions are the last filter of your reality.
A situation would be completely different for you if you are happy or sad. How you feel paints of its color the world around you.
Reality doesn’t define your emotions, your emotions define reality. It’s important to learn their workings.
I aim to have the best relationship possible with them. To do it I follow this 4-step process:
- Recognition: What is the name of the emotion I’m feeling? Where does it come from in my body?
- Listening: What is it trying to tell me? It’s something that makes sense or it’s foolish?
- Understanding: Where is the cause in the external world for what I’m feeling? Has something happened now or is it from days ago? Are there several sources?
- Teaching: Is there a discrepancy between what the emotion tells me and what I knew it should be telling me? How do I teach it to not react?
This way I assess my emotional state and by repeating it many, many times I get to master my emotions and get along with them.
They learn to adapt to the world better and that makes me more resistant to external influence.
Doing a good action makes you feel amazing
I’ll tell you an anecdote that happened to me around 4 years ago.
I was going home from Uni on the train. I had arrived at the station and was going to the turnstiles as usual. Next to me was a father carrying his baby in a cart. The kid was unruly, wouldn’t stop moving. The father seemed to not have done this many times before.
I was walking at the same pace as them and we got to the turnstiles at once. The turnstiles were those that you push with the hand to pass, no need for a ticket. The kid was touching everything around and he pushed the turnstile way harder than needed.
The turnstile hit hard the other side and was coming back directly to the kid’s face. The father was carrying the cart and couldn’t react fast enough to stop the thing.
I had been watching the whole scene. With a fast movement, I reached with my hand to stop the turnstile just 20 centimeters away from the face of the kid. The thing was going fast enough to send the kid to the hospital immediately.
The father looked at me with a horrified look in his eyes and said: “Thank you.” I welcomed him and continued my way home.
But now I had the biggest smile on my face. I felt incredibly well.
Never lose an opportunity to help another person. It’ll make their day. And it’ll make yours.
There are no days off from going forward
I’ve had weak days. Days where I didn’t feel like going forward at all. I felt extremely tired of carrying the burden of life. My emotional state was not with me.
But did I stop? No way. I did less and that’s OK.
There is a big difference between giving up by lack of motivation and doing just a little bit because your body can’t do more.
Your mind has to want to keep going.
This resilience is only built by doing it a lot. And doing it every day.
One day off is not a problem but the next day you’ll be in a difficult position; If you fail, the second day you’ll enter a streak of off days, and that can be a problem. As James Clear says:
“One mistake is just an outlier. Two mistakes is the beginning of a pattern.”
Take a big step. Take a tiny step. It doesn’t matter. If you get off track find the way to come back.
And never stop going forward.
Life isn’t about the destination. It’s about the journey
When I was younger I thought about life as something that happened while I was preparing for what was coming.
Then I realized nothing was coming. Life is the compound construct of all the instants that we live. The only thing that exists is each moment.
I realized life was not about sacrificing time for a better “later”. Whatever I was sacrificing was part of life. I had to decide what I was willing to sacrifice. Because each instant that I wasn’t living fully was a part of life I was missing.
You gotta find the balance between living an instant or saving it to better live the next.
If you live every instant without thinking about the future you’ll find ugly surprises down the path. But if you save every instant to secure the future, you’ll realize life passed by while you were saving.
Some time ago I read an article about Bronnie Ware’s book “Top Five Regrets of the Dying”. I still come back to it from time to time to remind me of what truly matters.
What people on their verge of death most regretted were these five things:
- Not having the courage to live a life true to themselves instead of the life others expected of them.
- Having worked so hard.
- Not having the courage to express their feelings.
- Not having stayed in touch with their friends.
- Not having let themselves be happier.
I live guided by the image of myself on the verge of death. What would I regret? Whatever comes to mind I’ll make sure to do it while I still can.
Being a good person is the peak of meaning in life
The question of the meaning of life has been asked since the origins of time. And we all ask this question to ourselves at least once in life.
Why are we here? What do I want my legacy to be? What is the ultimate goal of everything I do? I always get to the same answer:
Doing the most good possible.
Of course, this can take so many forms for each of us.
I may choose to work in the field of neurotech to develop solutions for people that have mental problems. But another person may choose to work teaching young students. Another may want to be an entrepreneur and build the next great viral tech device that will bring progress a step further.
However, when I talk about being a good person I refer to the commonalities of all those paths:
- Don’t hurt others if you can avoid it, even if you’ve been hurt.
- Be kind to people in general, not just those you care about.
- Take care of the feelings of those you love.
- Work to make the world a better place.
- Put people before money, status, or success.
All those things are easy to say and difficult to accomplish. Life gets always in the way.
And more so, many people simply don’t want to be a good person.
For me, I’ll try to meet my criteria to be a good person.
Consistency > motivation
Motivation is like emotions. It goes up and down and there is no way around this. You can’t keep motivation up for enough time to do the work for you. If it were that easy everyone would do big things.
You’ll find yourself lacking motivation in any improvement journey. It’s the same for learning to play an instrument, getting fit, studying artificial intelligence, or fighting anxiety.
It’s consistency what you have to aim for. It doesn’t feel half as good as motivation, but its strength depends only on you.
You’ll be motivated from time to time but it never lasts; it’s not its purpose. This is the main reason many people fail in long-term goals. Because they don’t understand motivation.
Aim for consistency instead.
Don’t look around and people will look your way
We often navigate life looking at what other people are doing. We base our decisions and our path on what our life examples have done.
But what happens when you are the first trying something? Are you going to change your decisions because no one is doing what you are doing?
I knew I’d have problems ahead but I’d figure them out later. What I had for sure was that I wouldn’t take a different path moved by fear. As George Addair said: “Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.” I took that to heart.
And you know what happened when I started to get results? Those around me started to be interested in what I was doing. You follow others until you start your path.
Then, others follow you.
Use every opportunity to take another step
I wanted to fight social anxiety. What did I do?
I talked to every person I met. I went to all the parties. I talked to all the girls. I did it every time.
I wanted to get a job in AI. What did I do?
I studied by myself for months until I was ready. And I got the job.
I wanted to work in neurotech. What did I do?
I coursed a master’s in neuroscience.
I’ve always loved writing. I wanted to write publicly. What did I do? You tell me.
I wanted to do all these things so I took the chance. And whatever other opportunity appears to drive me forward in any aspect of my life, be sure I’ll take it.
Seeking and taking the opportunities that life throws at us is what moves us forward.
Don’t make self-fulfilling prophecies
We all have a very defined image of who we are. Within this sense of self, there is a part that encloses what we think we can achieve in life. This part is often very tiny, affected by what we see around us or what others have told us.
The thing I do to let this part grow is to not make self-fulfilling prophecies.
If you believe you are unable to succeed in some endeavor you’ll most likely fail at it. And you’ll reinforce your initial idea that you are unworthy.
And you’ll never try again.
You’ll be safe within the coherence of your self-beliefs but you’ll never grow past that.
What I do is always start by thinking I’ll be able to do it. Not just by saying it out loud: “I’ll do it!!!!”. No. That may help but it’s not enough.
Instead, I believe it emotionally. That means that what I feel is aligned with what I think.
This is extremely powerful because whether I fail at something or not, I won’t reinforce an illusory certainty of unworthiness. And more so, because I’ll try again. Failing won’t mean a thing to me.
I’ll only stop trying to achieve something if trying is getting from me so much that I’m losing more than what I would win if I succeed.
Learn from those who have achieved what you want to achieve
I have many influences in my life. My parents, my brothers, my teachers, my friends… But none of them are me. They have their struggles and they walk their paths.
None of them have gone through what I’ve gone through and vice versa.
It makes no sense to me to look at them when I’m going a different way, from a different starting point. Instead, I choose to learn from those who achieved what I want to achieve.
The Internet allows us to find everything we want and transform ourselves in the way we want. We can learn for the best of the best.
As the great Isaac Newton famously said:
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
Go search for those giants.
13 lessons in recap:
- The never-ending journey of self-improvement
- Don’t expect others to accompany you
- Reflect on your past to improve your future
- The most important relationship is with your emotions
- Doing a good action makes you feel amazing
- There are no days off from going forward
- Life isn’t about the destination. It’s about the journey
- Being a good person is the peak of meaning in life
- Consistency > motivation
- Don’t look around and people will look your way
- Use every opportunity to take another step
- Don’t make self-fulfilling prophecies
- Learn from those who have achieved what you want to achieve