Each year around this time (the new year) the concept of self-improvement seems pretty ubiquitous. I guess it’s the sense of finality a year coming to a close has that creates an imaginary line in our lives. Keep the disappointments behind the line and strategize about how to make everything beyond it better. Don’t repeat the same mistakes. Or something like that. I’m not passing any judgement about it — I’ve done it every year of my life as well.
But most years for most people there seems an inevitable lull waiting in the distance. If your goal was to work out, for example, you’ll probably attend the gym faithfully for a couple months. Then return to your old habits. I don’t necessarily agree that people never change or that there is a core summation of immovable parts within everyone, but I would certainly agree that real change is uncommon. We can talk about change — we can even want change in a wishful way — but real change is hard. It’s not about doing the right things or stopping doing the wrong things, as both of those can be pretty straightforward. It’s about withstanding the strain of upholding both of those without buckling for long enough for it to impact your life.
I’ve certainly done some housecleaning and made improvements in my own life year to year, but some consistent things have persisted. Things that held me back many years ago continue to be a challenge now, and I’m done reflecting on why that is or what elements of my boyhood shaped the now. All that really matters now is ambition and fear. To find something to care deeply about and invest fully in it and to stop allowing fear to be a show-stopper.
I’ve heard a certain truism different places worded a little differently in each, and I find it to be very true. In any creative endeavor an artist is often as afraid of success as of failure. It’s easy to imagine the fear of publishing something and having critics rip it to shreds, or of fans leaving scathing reviews and everyone laughing at you. But at the heart of it the idea of winning is just as intimidating. What would you do if you sold a million copies of something you created? How would that change your life, and what new expectations would arise as a result. Are you ready for all that?
I admire anyone with a zen-like attitude to just accept what each day brings, one event to another, seemingly as amused as an onlooker in the goings on of their own life. It’s a low anxiety existence, but one I’ve primarily seen in movie characters to the point that I wonder if it’s really attainable or, if attained, is actually a path to happiness or simply being content with the outcomes of daily dice throws.
Last year held some major highs and lows, and I fell into a sense of purgatory in both. When things are going well it’s easy to get too comfortable with it or to fail to the see writing on the wall. The writing that says things aren’t exactly as they seem and that people who’ve made you certain promises are unlikely to keep them. And when things are down it’s easy to teeter between feeling powerless over the situation or simply lost as to where to point the sword next. I spent a lot of time confused about how the year had unraveled and the ramifications of all that.
I’m trying hard now to distance myself from all that, to improve body and spirit alike and regain a sense of control over both. I’m training for the Rugged Maniac in May, something of a 5k run meets obstacle course. And I’m reading fiction again and making it a point to write as much as I can. I’ve started meditating again. As I mentioned above, I now find myself straining against the weight of what is being changed. What moves me forward at this point is feeling like there’s no choice — the person I’ve been isn’t going to cut it for some of the goals I have now.
Instead of chasing some fantasy notions about some theoretical life, a folly of years past, I’m admining myself as close to the here and now as possible. Each day is simply a question of “What are you doing that advances these goals?” Improving by a continuous 1% as James Altucher mentions. I have to be honest with myself each step of the way, and I need to be honest with my audience as I craft what is to come. I know essentially what it will be but not what it will look like, but I’m not doing anyone any favors, least of all myself, to hold back or be anything but what I am at the core. Easier said than done, but again for whatever reason this year I regard that as more of a resigned certainty than a wish or hope.
We’re all like that to varying degrees I think, all deciding how much of ourselves we can show. Metering how much raw us-ness we can really put out there without being stung. It’s not duplicitous, but it is a throttled output moderated by fear and assumption. Fear is often irrational, and our assumptions are often wrong. Even when we’re right I find that it’s often for different reasons than we’d insisted upon.
In years past I blogged about being bolder and wondered why it seemed such a tall order to fill. I see now that being bolder in itself is a silly goal, as things can be out of whack in your life that stop you from being the fullest you, and trying to put that version of yourself out there harder isn’t going to magically fix anything. Rather than any grandiose affirmation I could make about the year ahead, this time I choose to keep it simple and plan to be true to myself. Write what feels good. Associate with the people that feel right. Stop dealing with things, people, and activities that don’t. And stop letting people tell me, in their own ways, that I can’t. I don’t feel like I can be more specific about it now because I don’t know what that’s going to look like or where that might take me.
That scares me and exhilarates me, a tough but hopefully fulfilling contrast to years of careful deliberation, over-analysis, and always holding parts of myself back both in person and in my writing. I owe it those who’ve believed in me, sure, but most importantly I owe it to myself. And it’s really time to make more about what I am something that works for me.