If there’s one habit I’d advocate as being the most important for living a fulfilled life, it would be self-improvement. Self-improvement is so important that for most people I’d even say it was essential. As humans, developing new skills and growing as people is central to our vision of self-worth and sense of achievement, but I think it goes deeper than this.
Humans are industrious creatures. We don’t like to stagnate. We hate jobs that lack purpose or ones where every day feels the same. We like to be challenged, and we like to feel progress. If we’re staying in the same place for too long, we become lethargic and our spirits dulled. We need changes of scenery and new horizons; a continued influx of reasons to get out of bed in the morning.
Self-improvement and me
For me personally, self-improvement has taken on a central role. Part of the thought process of deciding how I want to live my life involves observing the habits and lifestyles of people who exhibit the kinds of values I want to achieve in my own life. One thing I noticed was that it was rare for me to hold in high regard a person who didn’t own and read a lot of books – after noticing this I made an effort to start collecting and reading more books myself.1 Adopting the habits of people whose characteristics you admire seems a useful heuristic for developing those same characteristics yourself.
Self-improvement over the years has become the main method for achieving my goals in life. I’m lucky that I was probably always that way inclined – in the beginning I didn’t need a reason to try to learn new things, I just found them interesting, but by actively pursuing these things I’ve allowed my appetite to grow and consequently I think I’ve become a much better person for it. Actually, some of the biggest things in my life I believe are directly attributable to it – it makes for an interesting experiment for me to look back at my life and wonder how different it would be today if I hadn’t spent so much time trying to learn new things.
My relationship with self-improvement started in secondary school. I didn’t enjoy the school curriculum (it actually pushed me away from enjoying most subjects until sometime in college), but fortunately I developed at that time an interest in computers. I learnt various programming languages and became interested in hacker culture,2 and this provided me with an early talent and obvious direction to steer my career towards. By the time I started university, my personal programming projects had made much of the university material already familiar to me, which I remember being very appreciative of, so I was able to spend more of my time either socialising or working on personal projects such as games programming or playing piano.3
Between my second and third years as a student I was hired by CERN4 as a computer scientist and lived for the year on the outskirts of Geneva, and following my graduation (now about six months ago) I was able to take a job working as a software engineer for a large multinational company. Aside from giving me my career, it pushed me at the beginning of college to start practising aikido – something that’s now become part of my identity.
All of these things I feel very privileged for, and all of them I feel have directly resulted from my original ambition of simply wanting to better myself. I hope you can of course excuse me for indulging myself in listing what I feel are some of my personal achievements, but I hope it shows how large an impact my life has felt from adopting self-improvement as a habit to make time for.
This website is in fact itself a result of time allocated for self-improvement: both for writing the code (I hadn’t written a website in a while), and for attempting to improve my writing and quality of thought.
I find it remarkable though how easily my life could be so much different, and I look at figures like Benjamin Franklin and see how much self-improvement altered their lives’ trajectories,5 and I can only conclude that it’s a fundamental component for maximising a person’s potential. Indeed, you’d be quite lucky to maximise your potential without investing vast amounts of time into personal development – or, perhaps, unlucky.
Self-improvement for a fulfilled life
At the beginning of this essay I said that self-improvement wasn’t just important for maximising a person’s potential, but for living a fulfilled life. Living a fulfilled life requires a person to know what they want – knowing what will make them happy. There’s not much worse than living your life according to someone else’s idea of what will make you happy and then finding out at the last minute that it wasn’t for you. Self-improvement isn’t just about skills, it’s about learning.
I quoted in a previous essay Socrates’ remark that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I think he’s completely right. The most important aspect of self-improvement is understanding who you are, and what constitutes success to you.
Success to me is completely detached from financial reward; I’m not swayed either by the idea that the success of my life can be gauged by how high I climb the corporate ladder, and nor do I subscribe to the idea that I should necessarily settle down with a wife, have 2.5 children and maybe a dog, or any other prescribed measure of personal success society wants to dole out.
To me, success means being happy (and making others happy), which means settling down with a wife and having 2.5 children if that’s what it means, or not if not.6 The point I’d like to make is that understanding how to be happy requires self-improvement. The process of self-improvement naturally includes both questioning yourself to determine what you could improve in your life and then the putting of your answer into effect.
People often give the advice to others, “be yourself.” What I suspect they mean isn’t just “be yourself” – surely you’re doing that already – but “be your best self.” Know what you want and endeavour to do what it takes to get it. Don’t let fate or anything else unduly dictate to you who you should or shouldn’t turn out to be7 – be who you want to be. Get an idea of what your best self looks like and work towards it.
Without self-improvement, we’d just drift along wherever the current might take us. Some few would happen to end up where they would have wanted to go had they stopped and thought about it, but most generally wouldn’t. For most of us, we need to continually reassess our lives and keep kicking in the direction we want to go. The fulfilled among us are those who feel they’re heading exactly in the direction they want to be, and self-improvement is the mechanism for getting us there. I owe my life to the habit of self-improvement, but I can’t wait to see where it’ll take me in 20 years more.
Currently I have a room in my flat whose main purpose is simply to house my books – it’s a small room, but there’s something wonderful about being able to call one of your rooms your library. ↩
‘Hacker’ here meaning both the media sense of gaining access to information I hadn’t the permission to access, and also the sense of simply solving problems and overcoming obstacles. ↩
I’ve played for years now but have come to the opinion that I might have the wrong mentality for it. I tend to approach the piano too analytically, and the result seems to be the rote memorisation of music rather than an developing an appreciation for their feeling and character. However, I still enjoy it nevertheless! ↩
CERN is one of those remarkable places where it’s easy to get the impression that everyone is smarter than you – almost everyone’s an expert in their field. You could learn so much simply by being privy to the conversations between the scientists. Nice restaurant too. ↩
If you haven’t read it, I challenge anyone to read his autobiography and not find something useful to learn from it. ↩
I tend towards the ‘not’ side, unless having children includes adoption which I’m a strong proponent of. I’d like to have the dog too, but it would unfortunately conflict with my vegetarianism. ↩
A difficult request to make if you’re a determinist like me, but worth the effort anyway of course. ↩