10 Self-Improvement Musts

The world’s shortest course in self-help.

Posted Jun 08, 2019

Jeff Turner, CC 2.0
Source: Jeff Turner, CC 2.0

Some people who want self-improvement prefer deep dives into a particular technique. Others prefer quick-and-dirty. This article is for the latter.

As I think back on my 5,500 career and personal coaching clients, I believe these 10 items are most central to self-improvement:

  1. Put in the time. There’s no substitute for time-on-task. “Working smarter” takes you only so far and, chances are, if you’re reading an article on self-improvement, you’re probably already working as smart as you can yet still feel the need to significantly improve. Whether it’s building on a strength or remediating a weakness, your choice is to push harder or to be satisfied with modest growth. I don't necessarily criticize the latter: It's called “satisficing” and it can be a wise approach. Perhaps your time could be better spent getting better at something else, taking care of necessities, or simply having fun.
  2. Avoid time-sucks. That is what enables people to put in the time without working too many hours. Accomplishers avoid such time-sucks as excessive TV watching, chatting, clothes shopping when you already have more than enough clothes, video-game playing, time-consuming sports like golf, and going to a second cousin twice-removed’s third wedding in Kalamazoo.
  3. Focus on what you can control. Successful people spend little time jawboning about their illness, politics, or people they can’t stand. They focus on what’s in their sphere of influence.
  4. Specialize. In our ever more complicated world, it’s more difficult to be good enough as a generalist. You need to be at least relatively expert in some niche. For example, the generic marriage-and-family therapist could well be beset by the imposter syndrome because there’s so much science and especially art to marriage-and-family counseling. Unless you’re unusually brilliant and hard-working, it’s wiser to specialize in something: for example, interracial couples, transgender couples, intellectually gifted children, physically abusive parents, men with stay-at-home wives, etc.
  5. Take low-risk actions. Excessive rumination can lead to more fear and less accomplishment. So after a modest amount of reflection and perhaps research, follow that widely-agreed-on key to success: Ready, FIRE, Aim!  That is, it’s far easier to revise your way to excellence than to think it up in the abstract. You need the feedback of empiricism to adjust what you're doing. I like to invoke the metaphor of the person who'd like to sail from San Francisco to Hawaii. Yes, s/he should plan, but after just moderate planning, s/he'd be wise to set sail. On encountering the winds, the weather, s/he can adjust the plan. S/he'll likely get to Hawaii far faster than would the excessive planner.
  6. Spend time with people who bring out the best in you. Whether it's a boss, romantic partner, platonic friend, or activity partner, some people bring out the best in us while others drag us down. Of course, you can't always control who's in your life but, when you have discretion, spend time with those who help you flower.
  7. Take the time to find a fine mentor(s.) A generous person who is successful and ethical in what you’re trying to develop or who is an all-around winner, is a treasure, and usually having such a mentor is requisite to success for all but the most gifted people. How to find a fine mentor? Ask a question of one or more respected people. If s/he responds well, offer to be of help in any way you can. After a while, if you do your part and you’re lucky, your mentor will offer more help, become your cheerleader and champion, and be willing to open crucial doors for you.
  8. Chart your progress. That can be as simple as, next to your desk, hanging a hand-drawn thermometer with milestones on the side, like nonprofits when they're trying to raise money. Or give yourself a daily letter grade A to F. Keep that grade to yourself or share it with your social-media friends or real friends.
  9. Look inward. My unsuccessful clients tend to blame their setbacks mostly on externalities: their boss, the economy, their race, their gender, etc. In contrast, my successful clients mainly look inward to see what, if anything, they need to do differently, for example, acquire a new skill, upgrade their attitude, slow or stop their substance abuse, revise their job target upward, downward, sideways, or to a new career that's more aligned with their natural abilities.
  10. Resolve to rebound. You’ve heard it before but it’s true: Even highly successful people fail. The difference between them and other people is that successful people tend to force themselves, yes force themselves, to rebound, not wallow. They see if there’s a lesson to be learned from the failure and then resolve to succeed at something at least as big. At the risk of being personal, when I was let go as a columnist in the San Francisco Chronicle, after an hour—yes just an hour—of feeling outraged, I channeled the anger. I said, “I’ll show them. I’ll go national! That very day, I sent clips to 10 national publications and since then, I’ve written a lot for such publications as TIME, The Atlantic, and yes, Psychology Today.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

This is part of a four-part series. The other three are 12 Self-Improvement Books. Feedback, and Journaling for Personal Growth.