We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle
This quote encompasses many different concepts of personal growth and development:
- Building habits: the importance of structuring daily life in a way that aligns with our values.
- Against perfectionism: It’s better to be consistent than to try to be perfect.
- Long term thinking: Small changes every day lead to big changes in the long run.
But when we look at “habits” in a vacuum, there is something missing – something essential.
Looking beyond habits
Doing the right thing, in an of itself, is not enough to make change in our lives. To truly get results, whether they be personal or professional, we have to do the right things for the right reasons.
The intent and motivation behind our action must be set properly, else a relentless pursuit of habit will bear no fruit.
This is certainly true in my life. The days when I firmly set my intent – why I’m doing what I’m doing – it’s much easier to get the work done and accomplish my goals.
When I “go through the motions” of a particular habit, the activity feels less fulfilling.
Seeing the Big Picture
The importance of intent is touched on by most major religions and dogmas, but it wasn’t until recently that I fully grasped the concept. In My Big TOE, a book about consciousness from the perspective of science, author Thomas Campbell breaks down spirituality in a way that is relatable to Western culture.
The books (a trilogy), are long, dense, and present many new and unfamiliar ideas ranging from meditation to artificial intelligence.
Yet despite its fringe appeal, the book has an overarching theme that underlies the technical discussions. If I were to distill the 1000+ pages into one idea, it would be this:
Growing up is not about changing what you do, but who you are.
You’ve probably heard this before. It’s a core tenant of Eastern Philosophy. Being not doing.
Seems simple enough, right? Just change who I am and I’m good to go.
But then, how do you change your being?
Campbell’s reply – one that he reiterates throughout the trilogy – is that improving the quality of your being is not about what you do.
I get that, but then… what’s next?
Where do we start?
How do we change?
Something must be done, right?
Change won’t happen on its own.
Fortunately, Campbell recognizes this and gives his readers a springboard to start with the process of spiritual growth.
I distilled the biggest takeaways into this list. Here are the most important actions we can take to improve ourselves every day:
How To Improve Yourself: 8 Simple Ways
1. Cultivate the desire to improve
Because improving the quality of your consciousness (spiritual growth) is not, and cannot be, an intellectual achievement, it makes little difference how you intellectually approach the initiation of such improvements.
How you start or what you do to improve the quality of your consciousness is insignificant compared to the act of starting. Additionally, an improvement in the quality of your being does not automatically flow from any external activity or practice.
All you need is the will and the insuppressible drive (energy) to grow your being and the path, the process, to do so will appear before you.
So, we have a starting point: the will and the drive.
But where does the will and the drive come from? I don’t know.
But, speaking from personal experience – the times when I’ve been most driven to change are either when: 1) I’ve gotten lots of feedback (pain) that makes changes necessary, or 2) I have an intense feeling that change is not only possible, but within reach (pleasure).
Pain + Reflection = Progress – Ray Dalio
No one likes pain and discomfort — it sucks, but it’s necessary for growth. Adopt the attitude that pain can be a helpful teacher.
Further, viewing others’ successes imprints into our mind the that change is possible – and seeing enough of others’ successes can be instill the belief that we can also change.
2. Become aware of your motivations and intents
Here’s a fun exercise:
Stop what you’re doing right now and look at your whole life.
Your dreams, plans, and daily behaviors – ask yourself, why am I doing this?
The answers might surprise you. If something isn’t moving you forward, immediately stop it and focus on something more productive.
Likewise, if you find yourself doing thing throughout the day that makes you feel uneasy – ask yourself, why doesn’t this feel right? There’s a good chance that it conflicts with your higher motivations or values on some level.
Turn off the TV and get acquainted with your mind.
3. Change your Why
Change the intent and motivation behind your actions and behavior. Cultivate a strong desire to change, and to improve the quality of your consciousness.
The first time I heard someone talking about “changing your intent” in the context of relationships, it sounded easy enough.
A year later, the concept popped up again in business. Simon Sinek talked about the importance of starting with why, showing that great leaders always focus first on the emotional motivation behind our actions (rather than the what or how).
Likewise, I read about changing your intent in MBT read this and thought, “yeah, that sounds easy.”
Which was immediately followed by “… but wait, how do I even do that?”
And then “…and if I do that, how do I even know that I’m actually doing it right?”
To address the latter question, it’s important to note this: the simple act of trying to improve yourself, becoming better, and seeking deeper truths is enough.
That alone is akin to aiming our intent in the right direction.
Doesn’t that remove a huge burden off your shoulders?
The pursuit of truth will set you free; even if you never catch up with it. – Clarence Darrow
With that in mind (trying to set our intent in the right direction will move us in the right direction), let’s look at ways to “properly” set intent.
Here’s a few pointers:
- Intent is easiest to set when there is a very high signal-to-noise ratio in the mind. Therefore, set intents when your mind is calm (after meditation, during long walks, in nature, after a long run run).
- Successful people set their intents in the morning. (See: Taylor Pearson, Steve Pavlina, and a bunch of articles on this topic).
- To truly manifest a change through intent, it helps to visualize and feel the desired change. Taylor describes his process here: “I’ve explicitly written out the most important goals I have in my life and what a day in the life of a person that has over all those are. I write it as if I’m writing the movie script of what I want my future to look like and spend 10 minutes reading and visualizing them.”
4. Reflect on your behavior
Begin to identify the beliefs that drive your actions (or inaction). Understand them and their limitations. Inspect your ego regularly to see if it is growing or shrinking and expose some of its more blatant fantasies to yourself, then to your loved ones, and finally to your friends.
Seeing your own beliefs and ego is, in my experience a rare thing that only happens in moments of intense reflection or pain. Perhaps that’s not the best strategy for removing belief-traps and ego-defenses; they are elusive buggers.
I resonate with Campbell’s idea of exposing your ideas (and even your fantasies) to friends and family. In doing so, you will get quick and immediate feedback on the validity of these ideas.
Sound scary? That’s a good sign that you should do it anyway.
I can think of many occasions where I’ve utterly embarrassed myself by speaking my mind to friends or family, but days or weeks later was very glad that I had expressed my thoughts and feelings because I was able to recognize that they held me back.
The nice part about friends and family is that, in doing this, you will (almost always) be forgiven. The same isn’t always true with new people you meet.
5. Find the truth
Dedicate some of your energy every day to finding and verifying the truth.
Always look for the underlying principle or deeper truth in any situation, whether it be someone else’s behavior or my own. Become, as Ray Dalio puts it, a hyper-realist:
In pursuing my goals I encountered realities, often in the form of problems, and I had to make decisions. I found
that if I accepted the realities rather than wished that they didn’t exist and if I learned how to work with them
rather than fight them, I could figure out how to get to my goals. It might take repeated tries, and seeking the
input of others, but I could eventually get there. As a result, I have become someone who believes that we need to
deeply understand, accept, and work with reality in order to get what we want out of life. Whether it is knowing
how people really think and behave when dealing with them, or how things really work on a material level—so
that if we do X then Y will happen—understanding reality gives us the power to get what we want out of life, or
at least to dramatically improve our odds of success. In other words, I have become a “hyperrealist.”
Seek deeper truth by reading and continuously learning from others who have found (or seem to have found) truth for themselves. Look for patterns between their experiences and your own.
6. Learn to meditate.
This is the easiest, simplest, and most no-brainer doing activity in this guide.
Just do it!
I used to tell people about the benefits of meditation.
Then I read blogs and books saying that, essentially, “meditation is something that everyone has to discover in their own time.”
Or, “don’t be one of those pretentious assholes who meditates and then feels self-righteous.”
So I backed off…
Everyone should be meditating. It is how we understand ourselves better, and understand others better as a result.
Meditation is easy. To get started just do this:
- Get the Headspace app
- Choose 15-20 minute sessions
- Meditate twice a day for 20 minutes both times for three months. That’s it.
7. Be kind and loving in your interactions with others.
Simple, but not easy. When stress and anxiety come into play, it makes it difficult to have empathy for other people and gets in the way of being genuinely kind.
Some things I try to remember in every interaction, no matter how small:
- Every person I meet knows something that I don’t, that has the potential to change my life.
- Every person I meet has had some experience in the past that – if I knew it – would make me cry.
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. – Eleanor Roosevelt
8. And finally…
Stop always thinking about yourself and your wants, needs and desires.
Figure out what your fears are and outgrow them.
Above all, continue to objectively check in on your progress to see see how you are doing.
Only real, measurable, bona fide objective results are acceptable.
If you do not get results after 6 months of effort, take a different approach.
Be patient, real progress takes serious dedication over a long time. Have fun always.
“Do not let the magnitude of these big picture concepts overwhelm you. We get to where we are going by patiently taking one step at a time. There is no other way – it is the same for everyone. Each of us follows a unique path that is defined as we go, one step at a time, by our free will driven intent. The key is to begin stepping out with purposeful intent.” – Tom Campbell
Just go do it. You don’t need to know how.