I write long guides like this for one purpose: to help people.
So if you read this and don't get value out of it, it's a waste of time for us both. That's a tragedy.
Because of this, I'm going to give you hard truths right out of the gate. Anything else would be a disservice.
Here it is:
Most people will never achieve mastery over their life.
Most people will regret the things they were too afraid to do.
Most people will not show up as the best person they can be in their relationships and workplace.
Most people will live lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau said.
What this means is, if you want to improve yourself, you're already in for the fight of your life. Your biology, the environment, and the people around you exert pressure to keep you in the same place.
So the first thing you must know going into all this is just how hard it's going to be and how the math is against you.
That's the bad news.
The good news is: people beat the odds all the time.
1% of the global population is still an absurdly high number. So maybe you'll find yourself in the 1% category at some point.
You can do it. Really. That's not some stupid slogan; you can do it if you decide and commit to doing it.
I tell you this so you will start preparing yourself for the reality: building a great life takes years of effort and struggle.
The sooner you embrace this reality as integral for getting there, the sooner you can start.
As you venture down the rabbit hole of self-improvement, recognize your greatest struggles as your greatest opportunities for growth... if you take advantage of them.
Of course, most people don't take advantage of their struggles and instead do everything they can to avoid discomfort. This keeps them weak and fragile, and it's why they end up living lives of quiet desperation: because they become addicted to comfort, never challenging themselves.
So they stay in the same place year after year.
Most people also become weaker from the stress of life. It confuses them, makes them erratic and emotional. This is not an effective way to live and it's definitely not going to help you improve yourself.
You will accept this as par for the course and use your obstacles as fuel.
I'm rooting for you.
The dictionary defines self-improvement this way: the improvement of one's knowledge, status, or character by one's own efforts.
That's reasonable. The thing that sticks out to me is this, "one's own efforts."
That's extremely important.
In their attempt to level up, most people look to coaches and gurus. They fall for the myth that success is about getting access to secret information. So they buy courses and training and coaches. Yet 9 out of 10 times, they don't get results.
Why is that?
Because the entire premise is flawed: there is no secret information.
Information is more abundant than ever, and most of it is free online.
What people need are time and action.
In the early stages of your self-improvement journey, you don't need to spend money until you've absorbed free information and used it to take action.
That is why gurus, courses, and coaching usually fail for people: because they are trying to buy results rather than taking action in the real world.
That said, I believe in investing in yourself with books, audiobooks, courses, etc., and even coaching if/when you're ready. There's a time and place for buying information and help, but it's usually not at the start of your journey.
There is also a problem with the thesis of buying information. I'm going to explain why this is the case with my theory of self-improvement.
Let's try to break this down.
Growth comes through putting yourself in tough situations as often as possible. The more you put yourself into situations you are not comfortable with, the faster you will grow.
Most people think personal development comes from getting access to secret information. Years ago, there was some truth to this due to the difficulty of accessing good information.
Today, we have the Internet, which gives you more information than you could consume in a thousand lifetimes.
This brings us to a couple first principles of self-improvement:
Let's look at some examples.
Say you want to start a business. Should you take a course or hire a coach to show you how to write a business plan so you can then go look for investors?
No. Please don't. Do. That.
That is the absolute worst way to start your entrepreneurial career for one simple reason: it keeps you from solving potential customer's problems, which is the foundation of entrepreneurship.
Instead, talk to people (potential customers) and figure out how you can solve problems for them.
Next, take this data and develop a product or service that solves their problem better than anyone else.
Finally, develop that product as cheap as possible—think prototype or beta version—and get it into your potential customer's hands as fast as possible. Then listen and watch.
And don't waste your time with anything else until you've done these three steps.
Because it goes back to my law for self-improvement: the more you put yourself in real life situations, the faster you grow.
In the example above, you'll talk to people and put yourself in new, uncomfortable situations. You might have to do cold reach outs. You'll have to persuade people to give you the time of day, and then you'll have to get them to open up to share insights. None of this is easy, so when you do it, you'll have a big win under your belt already—you'll have improved far beyond anything you could imagined had you hidden behind a coach or guru or course.
You also learned a ton about your potential business. The experience, knowledge, and confidence you get from getting out there is GOLD.
You'll also end up with useful skills such as:
These skills will serve you for years.
You took action, got feedback, leveled up your skills, learned something about yourself and business, and are now better in every way.
That is how you improve your self.
Let's say you're trying to find a romantic partner.
What's the best way to do that?
Well, let's first define the worst way: become obsessed with the first person that gives you attention.
If that's the worst way, the best way probably involves going on a lot of dates and meeting people so you can learn what you want and what the options are. This data is integral to making a well-informed decision.
Say you want to get in shape.
So you do what most people do, you spend money—you buy new shoes, workout clothes, and some personal training session on top of your shiny new gym membership.
Don't do that.
Trying to buy your results is a common strategy. It's another form of hiding from the real work. If you were ready to do the real work, you'd go outside right now and work for 30 minutes. (Hint: that's a challenge if you happen to be in this place in your life. Go outside, right now, I'll wait here for you.)
If you've never worked out in your life, what makes you think buying a gym membership is going to commit you to this new habit?
Millions of people fall into this trap every year with the New Year's Resolutions nonsense. This is why Jan/Feb/Mar are the best months for gyms each year. It's why the summer slumps every year, like clockwork, as those poor souls cancel their memberships after not using it for a couple months.
What is a better strategy for improving your fitness?
Focus on something you can do each day and make sure you can get that done consistently before taking on anything else.
This could be a 10-minute workout, or a 20-minute walk while listening to an audiobook. It could be 20 pushups, 20 squats, 20 sit-ups.
After you've proven you can commit to a basic routine like this, you can level it up. Maybe you start working out in your backyard three days a week for 15 minutes. After you've done that for a while, you decide you're ready to start going to the gym.
The key to getting new habits to stick is creating the smallest habits so that you will do them consistently. Anything less and you'll rack up failures, which will have a negative reinforcement that will lead you to eventually quitting. There is a ton of habit research that supports this. Recommended reading: Tiny Habits, The Power of Habit
You could read 100 books on fitness, but until you train, the knowledge won't help you look better naked.
The more action you take, the more chances you get to fail and learn and iterate with that new knowledge.
In the startup world, this is called the Lean Startup method, and the analogy applies perfectly to improving yourself.
Based on Eric Ries's book The Lean Startup, the lean startup method is based on investing the minimum amount of time and money in building an MVP (minimum viable product) and getting that into potential customer's hands as fast as possible. This generates feedback and data, which is used to decide how to build the software, and if you should.
Compare this to the traditional model of using support groups or feedback forms or just ideas to build software. Millions have been spent on building software that no one wants because it sounded like a good idea or because some focus group said it was a good idea. Until someone is ready to pay for your product, it is just an idea.
This lean method applies to self-improvement eloquently: getting to real data as fast as possible by taking action.
Until you can get real-world data, everything is a pipe dream.
No one talks about this in personal development, but it's integral to the process. Instead, gurus try to sell you coaching, courses, books, and so on.
Those things are fine when you're ready for them, but since your reading this article, you probably aren't.
The other founding principle of self-improvement is consistency.
Consistent action is how you improve your self. It's the not-so-secret secret to being successful in anything. I'm surprised more people don't talk about this. I guess it's not sexy enough.
Well, the truth is rarely sexy. And you would probably struggle selling a book with the title "Be consistent or you'll fail."
You should ignore most of the self-help content out there.
You don't need access to secret information. You don't need RaRa jumping around motivational nonsense.
What you need is an obsession with taking action.
There are books on taking action and forming habits, which can be good investments. Remember, nothing you buy will remove the mental blocks you might have holding you back. I can't go into all this today, so hop on my mailing list (bottom of page) for more content around mindset and taking action that will help you on this journey.
Do something outside your comfort zone each day.
This could be a big thing or a small thing, doesn't matter as long as it's something that pushes you each day.
Try asking the barista for a 10% discount off your next coffee.
Compliment a member of the opposite sex.
Ask the front desk person you walk by everyday how their day is going. Try to learn something personal about them each day.
Call an old friend you haven't talked to in years.
Do anything that you know you need to do that you resist. Park at the end of the parking lot. Take the stairs. And so on.
The more you do things you don't want to, the easier the doing-things-you-don't-like-to-do-muscle will grow. Over time, this will become who you are.
Eventually, you'll become an action-taker and you won't even think about improving yourself, you'll just do it every day.