“Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Success and self-improvement are two different games. They correlate, but only to a certain degree.
When I sleep eight hours, get up early, then follow a morning routine, that’s good for my well-being. It supports my physical health and aligns my day with our natural circadian rhythm. It’s also productive. I can start work earlier and capitalize on my high alertness in the mornings.
But when I then decide to stay up late to finish some of that work, that’s just productive. Not healthy. The former was a move in self-improvement with spillover benefits. The latter was a success play at my well-being’s expense.
The number of win-win moves is limited, so after you’ve made them all, finding the line between the two is important. You can then spend your time becoming ever healthier, fitter, smarter — or you spend it working.
What most of us do, however, is split ourselves straight down the middle. We think we’re optimizing, when, actually, we’re playing different games at different times. One day we leave work early to support a friend, the next we cancel dinner plans to write our novel.
Unless you deliberately take one side, which most of us aren’t ready to, there is no easy solution to this problem. We want to be rich and we want to be good. We want to have it all.
I’m still young and naive, still foolish enough to believe I can. And while I’m never quite sure about which habits to add, I realized I can do something else in the meantime: I can just take some away.
We might never find the perfect balance between success and self-improvement habits, but we can eliminate the ones that hurt both.
We can give up what was never our best self anyway.
1. Give Up Reducing Your Dimensions
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” — Walt Whitman
Every time I say no to one thing, but yes to another that’s roughly the same, my head hurts. It shouldn’t. It’s our brain’s pitiful attempt to build a consistent identity in a world that’s anything but.
There are a million reasons to change your mind from one second to the next, but you don’t need a single one of them. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. Justifying your existence decision by decision is exhausting. It just keeps you from doing what matters right here, right now.
Stop compressing a thousand layers into one. You’re not a diamond. You don’t thrive under pressure. You crumble. Live large. Be multi-dimensional. Explode into one thousand directions.
“I am large, I contain multitudes.” — Walt Whitman
2. Give Up The Imitation Game
“We have more faith in what we imitate than in what we originate.” — Bruce Lee
When you copy, you’re always in good company. You’re never really alone, but, often, you also don’t stand for anything.
When you stand for something, you know. Because your legs are shaking. When’s the last time you chose to do something not because it’s cool or useful or even valuable? When’s the last time you said: “I’m going to do this because it’s me?”
There’s all this talk about reinventing ourselves, but most of us never invented ourselves in the first place. Creating your life is the scariest thing you’ll ever do. But it also breeds confidence. It helps you step up and speak your truth.
Slowly, then surely, until you do it all the time.
3. Give Up Looking In Favor Of Seeing
“Must there be a Superman?” — “There is.” — From Dawn of Justice
When we look, we look for things. When we see, we just see what’s there. Our best self never jumps to conclusions because there’s never enough context to safely land anywhere.
What if you could suspend all your judgments in mid-air? Let them hang there, like laundry on a line. And then, you’d turn back and see. See ideas, opinions, opposites, and superstitions. But you’d always see two sides of one coin. One reality.
And you’d realize truth and knowledge are often subjective. Even your own.
4. Give Up Living In Outcomes
“That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be.” — Saul Alinsky
Professional traders don’t know which direction markets will turn. They bet on one side and form a contingency plan. They don’t need the world to be a certain way because they act with what’s given. In the long run, probabilities ensure they win.
Once you stop judging what’s around you and stay flexible yourself, you won’t require life to give you the outcomes you hope for. You’ll just work with whatever outcomes you get.
That doesn’t make you weak or less determined. It grounds you in the present. It makes you strong.
5. Give Up All Happiness Outside Yourself
“Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” — Dalai Lama XIV
James Altucher once told a story about Joseph Heller, who wrote Catch-22. Heller was at a fancy party in the Hamptons. Some guy pointed at a young fund manager and said: “He made more money last year than you’ll ever make with all your books combined.” To which Heller replied: “That may be, but I have one thing that man will never have.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that?”
Creating yourself, non-judgment, living in the present, these are all ways to find contentment in what you do rather than who you are.
At the end of each day, you should look back and be happy about whatever steps you took, even if they’re part of a struggle. Draw strength from how you deal with what you’ve got, rather than how close you get to who you’re not.
When you work only on deserving what you want, all happiness rests inside yourself. You will always have enough.
6. Give Up Waiting
“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.”” — Kurt Vonnegut
Regret happens when we stop living — either because no one’s watching or because too many people are. Opinions and loneliness freeze us in time when there’s really no reason to wait. To do what you want to do. To be who you want to be.
The person who should be most excited about everything you do in life is you. And that should always be enough to start.
7. Give Up The Make-Pretend
“You should think of the word depressed as ‘deep rest.’ Deep. Rest. Your body needs to be depressed. It needs deep rest from the character that you’ve been trying to play.” — Jim Carrey
There’s a fine line between behaving like who you want to be and pretending you already are. One is changing into the best version of yourself, the other living out the parts of it you’re jealous of.
Of course, the latter only drives you away from it. It’s a shadow character, breaking out in cold sweat on stage. True liberty is being the guy or girl behind the curtain, putting in real sweat, because you’re not worried about taking the spotlight.
Credit always finds a way to those, who deserve it.
8. Give Up Anything But Loving Yourself
“Love yourself like your life depends on it.” — Kamal Ravikant
What’s more, we can practice finding them. We can work on our self-targeted adjectives because all adjectives are made up anyway. So you might as well love yourself.
The truth about ourselves is what we choose to believe. If you love yourself first, you’ll always build on the right foundation. From there, you can pick whatever belief most serves you right now.
Once you learn to do that without rejecting the limits of physical reality, you’ll have all the agency you ever need to flourish.
Success and self-improvement may not always go hand in hand and perfection is nothing we can ever reach. But your imperfect best self can do more good than a shadow version can imagine in its dreams.
Maybe, that’s what it’s really about. To find out wanting it all isn’t wanting all that much. At least not for who you were always meant to be. Maybe, this is our best source of hope.
Maybe, it’s the only one we need.