I have read over 130 books since January of 2018, when I started down this road of self-improvement. Not all have been winners, but more have been great than have been duds. The vast majority have been in the vein of leadership, productivity, and brain science with a few detours into faith issues and novels. These books, paired with my career in nonprofit leadership, have formed key beliefs that I use to make my decisions, improve my habits, prioritize my non-negotiables, and help others.
Not Self-Help Slop
I believe strongly in self-improvement but cringe at the term self-help. I think the latter has become loaded with negative meanings and conjures snake oil peddlers hawking a quick fix. Like with your home, improvement requires investment and intention, not a quick fix. The beliefs below are the primary tools in my self-improvement toolbox, some borrowed from better minds than me, some forged in the furnace of leadership and service.
You Can Tell by the Tools
You can tell a lot about a person by their tools. I hope that the list below helps you get to know me a bit better and might inspire you to catalog the beliefs that you carry and whether or not they are helping you move forward.
Here mine are:
You can’t have it all, but you can have the best parts.
So much of the cult of productivity and success is targeted at “having it all.” I’ve seen too many leaders crash and squander their potential by trying to do too much, to have too much, to give too much.
You can’t have it all…
But you can have the best parts. You can make changes in your life that open up opportunities and success in the areas that are most crucial to your goals, both personally and professionally. I sincerely believe you and I and all of us are capable of having the best parts of the life you dream of.
The dog you feed wins
There is an oft-told story that appears in several of the books I’ve read:
“Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins I answer, the one I feed the most.” -Sitting Bull
I have had two significant career transitions that did not go the way I would have liked them to. Both were jobs that were deeply personal and in which a lot of my identity was wrapped up. After each, I carried a lot of hurt, bitterness, and anger. In time, I was able to gain perspective and let go of the negativity, but for sure, during those first few months, the angry, bitter dog was fed far more often than the forgiving, understanding, optimistic dog. So many self-improvement gurus tell us, “think good things and good things will happen.” That is definitely BS. However, I really do believe that I have control over my response to the negative situations in my life, and through my response can take control of a bad situation. It’s not easy, and my negative dog is definitely not as malnourished as I’d like, but the optimistic dog is sure looking like a better contender.
There is more that can be done
“Creativity is the optimism that there is more that can be done.” -Wallace J Nichols, Blue Mind
I love this whole book, but that quote in particular spoke to me. This is a belief at the root of who I am. I’ve always been creative and wanted to help. I am an Enneagram 2, a helper, an optimist. It takes a lot of tries before I will write something off as unchangeable, and even then I usually tell myself, “There’s nothing I can do…yet.” Paired with the compound effect and the law of the flywheel , even small inputs can slowly create a different reality. There is always more that can be done.
While we’re talking about “yet,” let’s talk about Mindset by Carol Dweck, probably in the top 3 of quoted books in all of the other books I’ve read. Her groundbreaking research points to the incredible difference between individuals with a “fixed” mindset that stops growth from occurring, and a “growth” mindset that sees challenges as temporary and able to be overcome or outgrown. Whenever I find myself feeding the negative dog with defeatist self-talk, I can turn that around into a growth statement, simply by adding the word “yet.” to the end. It’s some of the most powerful three letters out there. Give it a try for a day and see how different life looks at the end of that day.
Each one is connected to many
“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!'” -Matthew 25:23
Most of the changes that I have needed to make in my journey of self improvement have not been herculean feats of willpower or effort. They have been small starts and consistent effort.
“How you do one thing is how you do everything.” – Susan Scott, Fierce Leadership
Acting with intention is the key to moving forward. Small goals, small habits, small routines, and soon you’ve accomplished big things. According to Jeff Haden in the Motivation Myth, the best way to get and stay motivated is to have small success after small success, priming your brain to expect more success in the future. Each small win both moves you that much closer to your goal, and creates the motivation you need to tackle what’s next. This is why part of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology includes identifying the next actionable step of each item on your list.
Self improvement/care isn’t just for you
I’m a helper/giver by nature and am more motivated by the benefit to others than to myself. When I was younger and rock climbing, I actually enjoyed belaying others more than I enjoyed climbing myself.
Because I am motivated by benefits to others, I have a hard time spending time on self-focused activities. Luckily, self improvement and self care are not just beneficial to me. As I have worked to improve myself in leadership, awareness, and knowledge, those improvements have made me a better husband, father, leader, and friend.
Early in my career, a mentor of mine said often,
“You can never lead anyone higher than you yourself have gone.”
So invest in yourself and it will spill over into benefiting those around you.
It’s never too late
I’m nearly 40. I wish I would have learned a lot of this years ago. But I can say with confidence, it’s better late than never. There is an incredibly low bar of entry here that means you really don’t have an excuse not to do something. No matter where you are in life, you can grow and learn in ways that will benefit the rest of your life.
Now, ready go.