Photo by Moon on Unsplash

What I’ve Learned After Two Years of Trying to Be a Better Person

Jeremiah Luke Barnett
Sep 17 · 17 min read

The following are in no specific order of importance. But each contains a piece of myself that I find to be invaluable.


When the World Doesn’t Care

Realize that the world does not much care about you. Now consider the fact that the most important deadlines, the most valuable accomplishments, and the most meaningful decisions will all be made between you and yourself. When it counts the most, no one but you will keep you in line.

Self-discipline is priceless and achievable, but incredibly hard to earn.

When you begin to take responsibility for your life, you start to see all the amazing things you could do with your time and attention. The possibilities are vast and the opportunities awe-inspiring.

But the bridge to realizing those opportunities is built through self-discipline and not-so-easy decisions.

Consider the caterpillar, cocoon, and butterfly. The caterpillar can fly one day, that is an incredible opportunity. But, it must first build and then break free from its cocoon. If anyone were to help the caterpillar in the not-so-easy process of breaking free from the cocoon, the caterpillar would never fly as its butterfly wings would never have been tested as they ought to have been through the breaking of the cocoon.

The caterpillar must act on its own in order to fly.

In a similar way, you must be able to make not-so-easy decisions of your own free will with no one breathing down your neck, no one waiting for you or checking up on you. Most of the time, no one will even know you are struggling and making difficult decisions. No one will know of the little victories you achieve every day except for little ole you.

No one will know that you wake up before dawn, dump coffee down your throat and get to work on the thing that seems to be important to you but that no one else seems to notice.
No one will know about the decision you make after you get home from a long day to change into running shoes and go for a god-awful jog in the cold because you respect your body and want to keep it healthy.
No one will know whether you watched Netflix all weekend or tried to put a dent in the reading you’ve been meaning to do your entire adult life.

You have to be OK with that. You have to be more than OK. You have to cultivate stalwart self-discipline that comes from within yourself and is not tied to the shifting world around you. You have to think clearly about what matters to you in life and rejoice alone when you align your decisions with those life values.

If you want to fly, you have to break out of your own cocoon alone.

Listening Sucks

I will never forget the shame I felt at failing someone who truly cared about me. They took time and energy out of their life to give me the directions I desperately needed and when they finished speaking, I realized I had heard none of what they shared.

My initial failure to listen became obvious over the next few weeks as my work suffered alongside the reputation of the person who had vouched for me.

It was just so hard to pay close attention to someone’s stream of speaking for more than a few minutes before wanting to interject or drift off.

It’s frickin hard to truly listen but it’s worth the effort to learn.

A few months later, I was making progress on my desire to listen more and respect the people speaking with me. I was now able to listen to mentors and people I admired and absorb all their wisdom and goodness.

But I applied my listening skills selectively. Only those who had something I did not, received the benefit of my silent absorption.

It took a crisis of friendships for me to realize that this selective application of truly listening was hurting the ordinary relationships in my life. By not practicing a deep and intentional level of listening with my friends and peers, I developed poor and shallow relationships that eventually came back to haunt me.

The experience was either humbling or humiliating — perhaps both. Either way, the crisis of friendships opened up the door for me to try something absurd:

to listen to everyone with equal interest regardless of what I thought they had to offer me.

Listening has brought me the strong friendships that I have today. Listening has taught me about nuance in accepting advice, opinions, and guidance from well-meaning mentors and those senior to myself.

Listening has brought about the best dating experiences I have had to date.

Listening has connected me to strangers in an instant in a way that surprises the both of us and leaves a lasting, meaningful and lovely memory.

Listening has shown me more of the iceberg below the surface that represents all that I don’t yet know.

Listening has humbled me, raised me high, given me an advantage, protected me from myself, opened doors, closed others (rightfully so), and introduced me to an entire world that I previously rushed right by as a product of being the first to open my mouth.

Close your mouth. Work hard to open your mind. Listen.

Push Some People Away — Draw Others Close

Good people are drawn to honesty and reflection — Bad people are repulsed by it. Some people do not have the time of day to entertain any honest reflection. They wish to pass through life with the least amount of friction possible.

Honest reflection can produce friction even in just the fact that it takes a few extra seconds to think deeply and respond from a more profound place.

It can produce friction in that what comes out may be challenging to accept, difficult to parse, or it may even be complete nonsense that no party can understand; such is the risk of honest reflection, it’s not always perfect.

But, if you deign to expose yourself to the dangers of honest reflection, you will quickly see who is capable of meaningful connection through honest reflection and who is not capable.

Although I believe all of us have the capacity to speak from the heart, so to speak, not all of us allow that capacity to manifest. Therefore, some are capable, and some not.

The number of times I have seen a conversation and a personal dynamic shift dramatically in only a few seconds due to someone’s willingness to honestly reflect and bring something of substance to an otherwise substance-less table is astounding.

If you are someone who values your time, relationships and what it means to share a common humanity with strangers, let honest reflection push away bad people and draw good ones closer to you.

Invest Mostly in Bonds (Some in Bitcoin)

Your entire life is a game of extrapolation. Show me what you’re doing today and I can tell you who you will be tomorrow. You are setting tomorrow’s foundation by the decisions you make today. The ultimate stumbling block for the everlasting procrastinator is the necessity to climb each stair before arriving at the top.

Some wait for the installation of an escalator and refuse the climbing of the stairs. Others realize that the top is not so far after all once they’ve climbed up the first step. And, as it happens, the first step really isn’t that terrifying when you look at it as separate from the entire climb.

Investing today in what will matter in 10-years is not everyone’s cake, which is partly why there is such disparity between existences of people who began at relatively similar starting points.

Invest at least something in bonds, as it were, a long-term investment that makes very little sense to focus on if all you want is short-term gains.

To some, as it was the case for myself, the statement that tomorrow was made yesterday is mortifying as we immediately recall every “yesterday” in which we did absolutely nothing of value. We conclude that it is too late for us.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

— Chinese Proverb

One long-term investment category I began to invest in was reading even when it held no obvious or immediate reward. First of all, even after only 1-year of reading, I saw the effect; after 2-years, I could not be more grateful for that invested time. Secondly, I am certain that the habit of reading will become exponentially more valuable as the years pass and my life goes on.

What is something you are investing in today that will benefit you in 10-years? A difficult question to honestly entertain and yet one that can lead to real changes in your life.

Invest in your future self. Your future self says thank you.

Invest Some in Bitcoin

Make a concerted effort to invest in something that will benefit you in 10-years. But do not discredit the short-term investments, the “Bitcoins,” as it were.

Consider the Bitcoin-type investments to be the overt risks we consider taking in our lives. The practice of reading clearly falls into the 10-year investment category and would be difficult to pass off as a risky investment.

Approaching a speaker at a conference after they step off the stage in order to meet and speak with them, however, is a far riskier investment; the speaker could reject you, they could misunderstand your motive, you could find you actually do not get along with them, you could make a fool of yourself.

On the flipside, by daring to approach the speaker after the conference, you could meet a life-long friend, you could discover a business partner or investor, you could connect in the most uplifting and human way and redefine your life after one risky decision.

You have probably met a few people who invest 100% of themselves in the Bitcoin category of decisions and actions. Although I have not yet lived a full life, I believe this to be a short-fused way of living that sputters and sparks but ultimately disappoints.

If you are consciously investing in both the long-term and short-term categories (the reading AND the Bitcoin) you will find your decisions develop a powerfully equipping, mutually complementary effect; when you approach the speaker at the conference, your bold 10-minute move will be substantiated and made-meaningful as a product of the 10-hours you invested in reading relevant texts from which you then draw in order to speak with the person you approached.

Go buy some Bitcoin but not without first having invested substantially in reading (so to speak).

Think Till You Hurt Yourself

Deep thinking and reflection are not in and of themselves enough. If all you accomplish is a profound patting of yourself on the back, you have missed the point.

Although not a recommended perpetual state of mind, occasionally we should delve into a self-checking mental place that allows us to look critically at our motives, actions, investments, relationships, and the list goes on.

We should seek out painful realizations. We should arrive at answers or questions which hurt.

The first step to improving or fixing anything is to identify where the fault lies.

For the firemen to put out the fire, they must first be informed of the negative aspects of the particular situation; namely, that the house is on fire.

Do not let the fires within you burn recklessly without intervention. Think carefully and honestly at regular intervals in order to find a fire and begin to address it.

It can be especially useful, and especially painful, to find other people in your life who can help with this fire-checking, as it were. Establish a level of trust with someone where you can bring difficult questions before them and expect an honest and often painful response. Then act on it. Your relationship will not last long if you do not act, so really, it is in your best interest to act for more than one reason.

Reflect until you find something that hurts and find others who can help you ask hard questions that lead to action.

One Man’s Rejection is Another’s Opportunity

When you are denied something in spite of your hard work, your world seems to grow a bit darker. But this is because we are focused on ourselves. We forget that as a product of our not receiving something, someone else will receive that thing; be it a job, raise, scholarship, fellowship, award. And who is to say that the person who ends up receiving what you were denied is not more prone to excitement, fulfillment, and joy as a product of receiving the thing in question?

In all likelihood, the door of opportunity that your rejection opened for someone else will be far more significant to that person that it ever could have been for you.

This is not an easy lesson to learn and by no means an easy lesson to practice. But we are not here to discuss those things which come easily to one’s nature. These are lessons with impacts as significant as the difficulty with which they are embodied.

Do your best but do not be bitter if your best is not enough. Consider the joy that the opportunity you missed will elicit from the other person who is bound to receive that which you were denied.

Not All Stars Will Align

Some people don’t belong in your life. Learning to recognize, acknowledge and disembark from a leaking boat will save you (and others) pain and time which you do not need to waste.

Sometimes no matter how fantastic someone seems, they should not be in your life. Sometimes no matter how marvelously you *click* with them, the stars will not align, your lives will not meld well and the end will not be what you envision.

We can tell ourselves very pretty stories when it comes to the desire to attract and keep some people in our lives, especially if you love people as I do.

But the cold hard truth is that at the end of the day you will not get along with everyone and therefore you will get along poorly with many.

It is up to you to learn how to maneuver the human relationship waters. You can begin the learning process by accepting the fact that not all people along your path through life should be welcomed into your boat.

Be Afraid But Don’t Wet Yourself

It’s ok for change to scare you but don’t let it petrify you. Fear is not the enemy. The absence of action in the face of this fear is the enemy.

We often mistake fear for weakness or warranted uncertainty and therefore turn the boat back toward shore before we ever even breach the first set of waves. Fear said to do so and therefore we speedily tucked our tail between our legs and fled as commanded.

But no ship was built for the harbor. The changing, uncertain and frightening sea is where you belong.

Change in our lives comes in many forms and at many stages. But perhaps the one unifying standard of this change is the fear it induces in each of us; fear of failure, pain, embarrassment, mistakes.

We are right to be afraid. The whole world in all of its ferocity stands before us when we embark on the voyage of change. But sailing with full acknowledgment of dangers and fears is entirely different than never leaving the dock.

One leads forward.

One is stale and leaves not much room for life.

Set foot on the deck of your ship, press onward fully knowing the realness of your fears and embrace change.

Human Plasticity

Much has been written on both sides of the argument regarding the capacity for a human to change. Not a physical change but, rather, a change of one’s mind or character which is quite hard to measure but can be very real in experience.

I hold that one can change. You can bring about change in yourself through concerted effort.

My reasons for this are twofold:

ONE, I was a rather self-obsessed careerist in the making not so many months ago but today I see that past person to be a person nearly entirely separate from the me that I live through today. And this change, from my analysis, was fuelled by the critically synergistic relationship between two things: one, life and its many happenings which I have no control over and everyone experiences, and, two an ongoing conscious effort to understand my behavior in the midst of life’s many happenings and nudge that behavior toward an ideal which I held to be worth mimicking (which required discovering things to mimic).

Essentially, a proactive approach to engaging what life threw at me with goals in mind; namely, the alignment of my behaviors with those which I deemed to be valuable; delaying gratification for a future gain, entertaining a counterintuitive degree of vulnerability at the risk of harming my image for the purpose of nurturing a new type of relationship in my life, identifying methods of critically analyzing all behavior goals (if you will) in order to avoid losing myself in a feel-good pursuit of nothingness.

And TWO, if a human cannot change themselves (their character, behaviors, habits, future) in this way and they are doomed to live the same life regardless of what concerted effort they purportedly give — therefore that I would be the same person I am today regardless of my belief that I can/did change myself. But said human still believes that they can change themselves, who is harmed? No one.

The person in question will merely hold an idea with which you do not agree, but according to your reasoning, they will live the same life regardless of the holding of this idea, therefore, they are not harmed, merely deluded. If you are harmed as a product of an idea they hold which exerts no control on your own life other than the control that you angrily grant it, then I am afraid you are doomed to live a bitter and unsavory life according to your logic of one’s fateful future.

On the contrary, if a human can change themselves through concerted effort but you spend your time convincing them otherwise, you have brought about the vilest of harms. You have precluded one’s bright future by convincing them that there is no future but that into which you stumble blindly.

The best way to predict the future is to create it.

Assholes and Nipples

Everyone has ‘em.

Most everyone you meet is going to have an opinion differing either from yours or those of the five other people to whom you’ve posed the same question. Since everyone has a different opinion, you must learn how to act in the face of conflicting opinions and advice.

Learning how to move forward in the face of conflicting suggestions is paramount yet not often explicitly taught.

Most people who give advice want you to follow their advice, that’s why they are giving it in the first place. But when it comes to admitting that their advice taken entirely on its own will not be enough for you, most advice-givers fail to take that extra step.

Think of someone’s experience or advice as a single ingredient to the cake you are attempting to bake. You must gather several ingredients in order to bake the cake. You also must not forget the importance of your own thoughts, given the fact that it is you who will be baking this cake (aka making the decision).

Go gather conflicting opinions from mentors, old and varied bits of wisdom from books and meld it all with your own thoughts and opinions to make the best decision possible.

Inevitable Pain, Unavoidable Failure

You are going to be wrong. You are going to mess up. You are going to fall down. Things are going to get worse and dark again, no matter how bright or high you feel right now. So, learn how to deal with the troughs, my friend.

Life will not remain calm, sunny and warm forever. The rain will eventually break the constant warmth of the sun.

The evening kills the day and opens the door for the night.

Bad will follow good just as surely as one breath follows another.

The inevitability of failure, pain, and difficulty is the same as the inevitability of death. You will fail just as surely as you will one day die. To live in denial of either your inevitable failure or death is to spend every moment dying rather than living.

“If I am killed, I can die but once; but to live in constant dread of it, is to die over and over again.”
— Abraham Lincoln

I have injured myself severely as a consequence of not having accepted my eventual failure. As a bold skier, one of the most important things to learn is how to fall properly. But, one will only learn how to fall properly after acknowledging the inevitability of falling.

The alternative is to never risk falling or failing, to stay on the bunny slopes of life and never venture onto the rewarding but dangerous slopes of the mountains. This type of life is not for me. I have chosen to venture out onto the slopes of life and encounter difficulty. Therefore, I will accept the fact that I will fall. I must learn how best to fall in order to stand back up as quickly as possible.

Pain is Pain, Love is Love, Happiness is Happiness

You are incredibly adept at adapting. From the lowest of lows to the highest of highs, you will still carry the same emotions with you, pain will still be pain, joy will still be joy, love will still be love. From the lowest of lows to the highest of highs in life, you will remain human. You will still see the world through your own eyes, feel the world with your own hands, and remember it all with your own brain.

No matter how much money you acquire, you will still need to eat, sleep and defecate as you did when you had nothing.

No matter how powerful you become, you will still feel pain as if you were the weakest person alive.

No matter how beautiful, smart or accomplished you create yourself to be, you will still experience love and hate as you did before.

Pain is pain. Love is love. Happiness is happiness.

In the early 1900s, a crew of explorers under the command of a man named Sir Ernst Shackelton was stranded in the Antarctic for two years. At times, they lived in worn-out, ramshackle tents on chunks of ice only a few hundred yards in diameter with no hope of rescue, barely enough food to remain alive and a constant threat of death from a hundred different sources. Sometimes, the crew would wake in the dead of night to the terrible sound of cracking and shattering ice. The ground beneath their sleeping bodies would literally split apart and threaten to drown them in the sea or crush them between the heaving chunks of ice if they did not act quickly enough.

The men of the crew kept detailed journals in which they revealed that at times, in spite of the worst living conditions imaginable, they were happy, content and felt fulfilled each day. They found meaning in the simple act of waking up, working their job as cook, hunter or watchmen, and surviving one more day. They found happiness in the words of the one or two books they possessed in spite of having read them multiple times already.

Shackelton’s crew found happiness and contentedness in the simplest of things while living on a chunk of ice hundreds of miles from salvation.

You will also find sadness, joy, and happiness at all levels of life. So, do not fill your current state with bitterness and sadness based on the belief that once you rise to a certain level you will put all pain behind you and find for yourself nothing but contentedness. Find it now, find it here. This will change your life.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.

Jeremiah Luke Barnett

Written by

Finding Ways to Stay Outside My Comfort Zone | jbarnettucla@g.ucla.edu

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade