How Improving Yourself Will Improve The World

And how I’ve always misunderstood the notion

Alan Kesselmann
Know Thyself, Heal Thyself


a photo by Birgith Roosipuu, source

You probably have read some of them before, right:

  1. “If you want to change the world, start with yourself.” — Mohandas Gandhi.
  2. “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and make a change.” — Michael Jackson
  3. “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” — Leo Tolstoy.

If you have not seen the quotes above, you probably have read some similar saying. I’m sure of it. I know I have. I never understood them, though. I’ve always thought that “hey, I know so many ways how to improve the world right now”:

  • Stop pollution
  • Stop child trafficking
  • Stop wasting food
  • Stop wars
  • Etc…

There are so many problems out there. Why should I concentrate on little old me when you can scale up instantly and solve such big things?

But it recently hit me — the whole reason one should start with themselves does not mean that stopping polluting and other global problems is less important. It means that when you start working on improving yourself, you indirectly mend the global issues too.

It really means that you often have no idea how your actions affect the world. You are completely unaware of how you already change the world and how your bad habits hurt or change others. You are most likely even not aware of your hurtful behaviour. I know I probably am not aware of most of the things I could change or improve. Vice versa, you are most likely unaware of how you have enhanced people in a good way. You have no idea how positively impactful your life is.

In Estonian, there is this saying: “palki enda silmas ei märka aga pindu teise omas küll”. This roughly means that you notice minor issues with others but do not see the big problems with yourself. Those big problems come from the habits we have formed through our lives or perhaps patterns created by our parenting and the general culture we belong to. Often they are habits that others — our coworkers, parents, friends, teachers — have ignored. They have allowed them to happen, and we probably have gained something of value by using them. They have become a normality. Thus they have been ingrained deeply into our minds, and when we encounter a similar situation, we fall back to those habits.

Why noticing and changing these behaviours and habits is essential is that you stop them from happening again. We stop hurting others by using them, but we also stop “teaching” them to our friends, kids, coworkers and so on. I say teaching because we copy the behaviours from our environment, from our culture. If you or your friends have any kids, you’ve noticed or been told how fast they pick up new behaviour at a young age, right? Our children are like sponges copying everything they see, but so are our friends and coworkers to a certain degree. They accept the abusive behaviour of their parents and are more likely to be abused themselves. But they do pick up generous and good behaviour too. This is why I said “teaching”. This is how we change the world by changing ourselves. And by changing ourselves, we slowly change our culture.

But changing our habits and behaviour is not easy, especially in our fast world. Habits are formed to gain some time and do certain things automatically. They are helpful to us. They make us more effective. It is tough to start with this kind of changes since we gain so much time by using those habits, time that we instantly use on things like watching more tv or playing more computer games. Or some other trivial things.

So what are the first steps that you could take to change the world for the better? A lot of people suggest things like be more generous. Help others. Be humble. Sure — if you did that, you could be a better person. But you do not really change, do you? I mean, you can give your clothes or money away to someone who needs it and then continue being an asshole towards somebody else, right? I know, I’ve done exactly that.

This is why my suggestion is different. Start improving yourself the other way. First — take time for yourself. Use this time to do some mindful things like self-reflection in the form of a diary or meditation. Take time for yourself to write things down that others have mentioned to you as a bad thing. Seek criticism. Take time for yourself and consider this criticism. All this is not simple, either. It takes conscious effort all the time. You can change yourself to map your habits like James Clear describes in his book, “Atomic Habits”. Identify which things you did are negative and work to change them. However, you change yourself does not really matter. However, what matters is the lesson you would be teaching to everybody — that it is possible to overcome yourself and become a better person. None of the above can happen if you do not take time for yourself, though.

Take time for yourself.