Greetings and welcome to Lesson 2 of my ‘Introduction to Mental Fitness‘ course.
If you’ve not checked out Lesson 1 yet, I recommend that you do. Not because it is remarkable or anything, but it does give you some background to the development of this course 🙂
Lesson 2 – Self-improvement
Before launching specifically into Mental Fitness content, I want to spend a few lessons focused on the broader topic of self-improvement.
I define self-improvement as ‘any deliberate activity you engage in with the purpose of making yourself better, coping more effectively with difficult situations, or taking better advantage of opportunities that present‘.
As you can imagine, we can pursue self-improvement in multiple aspects of our life: family relations, intimate relationships, parenting, friendships, career, education, recreation, spirituality, citizenship, and health. In this mental fitness course, I will be focusing on self-improvement that has measurable psychological benefits.
In upcoming lessons I’ll deal with the ‘why‘ of self-improvement – namely why it is that someone might focus their time and energy on self-improvement. Those lessons will focus on psychological needs, values, and goals.
In this lesson however, I want to concentrate on the ‘deliberate‘ part of the definition – namely, why is self-improvement something that you should deliberately focus on.
Yes, you will probably get better, even if you don’t focus on it
When I was in my 20’s and studying here at Flinders, I wasn’t wandering around saying “hi everyone, I am on a journey of self-improvement”. If I had, someone probably would have laughed at me.
However I was mindful that I was at uni to learn information that would hopefully benefit me down the track, even if I couldn’t specifically see what it was that I was working towards (I didn’t realise till much later that I actually saw a future for myself in psychology).
The fact is, if you push yourself into new situations, and follow a general rule of trying to do your best, you will naturally self-improve. Experiences change our brains and build wisdom. It is one of the reasons people tell us to ‘get out and see the world’ – it is because we know that there isn’t a great substitute for actual experience.
It is why I tend to tell students, even if their degree isn’t quite what they hoped, to still engage with it as best as possible, because the experience of doing the degree (not just the content itself) is changing you for the better. Furthermore, performing well at a degree (even if it isn’t your chosen one) opens up new pathways that wouldn’t be there if you neglected your studies.
There are probably areas of self-improvement that you are already focused on, but haven’t named it out loud
At the same time I was at uni, I was also playing in a band. I practised the guitar a lot during that time, and whilst I didn’t get good enough to have a music career, I did get good enough to play live and not have a tomato thrown at my head.
At the time, I wouldn’t have labelled my guitar practise as ‘self-improvement’ but I certainly had the goal of ‘getting better’ and allocated significant amounts of time and resources to getting better. I didn’t really experience it as a ‘choice’ though, because it was something I loved doing.
You’ve probably got areas of your life in which you are actively seeking to get better at something, but which you’ve never really claimed ‘out loud’ as an area of self-improvement. For some people it is sports. For others it is music. For some, it is just hobbies they love that they get better at over time because they are allocating their attention to it.
If you do have areas like this in your life, that is awesome, don’t abandon them. If you don’t however, read on.
But is either of these deliberate?
The types of self-improvement described above require a fair bit of good fortune. I had a good upbringing. I was good at school and found it fairly easy. I had supportive family who helped me in the early stages of my degree and encouraged me from a young age to take responsibility for my education.
My parents also encouraged and supported me to learn music. As I got older, a family friend gave me a part-time job that allowed me to earn money to pay for my guitar gear.
I had all the social and environmental privileges and luck that was needed to make these happen.
Now I am not minimising my role in the process. I took advantage of these opportunities for sure, but I am not sure I can really claim the successes as all my own. An incredible amount of good fortune had to precede these in order for me to have these opportunities in the first place. There was a sense of the path being laid before me and I took it.
Essentially, I was going with the flow and I was happy to go with the flow because the general flow direction seemed good.
At some point, ‘going with the flow’ stopped being the best strategy for me. After graduating, I fell into a couple of jobs which were satisfying (I made some great friends) but weren’t truly fulfilling. In my personal life, people I loved got ill, and I got ill as well.
As a result, there was a point a couple of years ago, where I realised that just going with the flow, and hoping that chance and good fortune would deliver me to a point that I found personally meaningful, wasn’t going to help me create the life I wanted.
That is when I realised I had to be a lot more deliberate about the choices I made.
The challenge is everyone is competing for your attention and claiming they can provide what you need
Think of all the various people, situations and companies vying for your attention and hoping you will ‘choose’ them; studies, work, family, friends, people trying to sell you stuff, people trying to tell you how to live your life, this course. Even your own history, via your memories and beliefs, is competing for your attention and telling you it knows the way forwards.
If you are anything like me, your mobile phone is where many of these demands collide via email, messages, social media, appointments, schedules, apps, photos. If you are anything like me, you might feel a bit overwhelmed by this onslaught.
If you blindly follow and react to these requests for your time and attention, there isn’t the guarantee it will make you or your life better. There are toxic people and situations and things masquerading as beneficial when they aren’t. There are things that provide short-term payoffs but which hamper long-term goals. Even if they aren’t toxic, there are situations that might not really be the best fit for you, that don’t really have the ingredients to make your life better. Even you, via your beliefs and history can lead yourself down unhelpful paths.
Take social media for example. Mark Zuckerberg is convinced that Facebook is bringing the world together. And since being ‘together’ seems like a good goal, we kinda play along. But for many people, Facebook (and other types of social media) have just made them more unhappy. Spending too much time admiring the achievements of others has taken the time and motivation away from them to achieve their own goals.
Another example is the modern food environment. Food advertising tell us that fast and convenient is better, whereas nutritionally and socially, slow and home-prepared food pretty much always wins out. You can’t always trust that going with the flow will deliver you where you want.
In fact, it is possible to find yourself in a situation in which you feel like you are meeting the needs and demands of everyone and everything else, but not your own needs.
Now I’m not interested in telling you what choices to make, but I am interested in the means by which you make them. A big part of that is that I’m interested in you becoming more deliberate about the choices you make in your life, so as to maximise your wellbeing and productivity in the present, but also the future. That is fundamentally the purpose of this Mental Fitness course.
That is why I talk about self-improvement as being a deliberate process, because relying on auto-pilot can be a recipe for unhappiness.
Isn’t this all very selfish?
Yes and no.
Yes, it is possible to pursue self-development in a way that is entirely self-centered. But even at the extremes where someone pursues something purely for the adulation of others, they often still end up building something that helps others, even if it wasn’t their intention.
The development of the individual almost invariably gives rise to benefits for those around them. Most people, when given the space to find their own pathway, end up taking a path that ultimately makes them a better friend, family member, parent, community member or global citizen.
Destruction is more likely when people are caught in the trap of simply responding to the challenges of everyday life, with little thought of who they want to be or who they could be. Then things like drugs, alcohol, gambling, addiction can take over.
I think we actually want people to be a bit selfish.
The very real possibility that you don’t really need such deliberate self-improvement at this time
I doubt I could have convinced 20-year-old me to do a Mental Fitness Course. He was motoring along alright.
I only started developing this course when that passive ‘motoring along’ wasn’t really working for me anymore. When I started here at Flinders, I was actively interested in improving my life, using principles from my profession to do so, and share those experiences with students who wanted the same thing. It was my way of honouring the degree I did (psychology), my own experience of needing to find my path, and the actual job itself, which was to improve the wellbeing of students.
However, you might be reading this and thinking (like 20-year-old me was) that your life is going along pretty well. And there is a good chance it is! I don’t want my talk of self-improvement to put doubts in your mind about the quality of your own life. For those of you who are motoring along nicely, this course may be little more than a curious side distraction and an opportunity to see me get the occasional swear word into a university publication. In fact, if that is the case, then I am very happy.
But if you can see room for improvement in your own life and are curious about how to make that happen, then stick close. I’ll be here on this blog and the FLO topic talking about it. We can pursue self-improvement together. We can bask in the warm fuzzies of self-improvement. Or otherwise you can look at this picture of a puppy and get some short-term warm fuzzies.
The takeaway message
If you are lucky, the intricate functioning of the universe places in front of you opportunities and situations to improve yourself. But you can’t necessarily rely on this happening.
In fact, the modern world is so full of competing choices and demands, that it is very easy to end up feeling like you are simply reacting and not creating your own pathway.
My advice is to get a bit selfish, and try, as best you can, to take control of those choices that help you build a better version of yourself – a version that you want and that you think the world would want.
How to do this is the subject of this Mental Fitness course. In the same way as a personal trainer helps you make the right decisions for your body, I am going to try to help you make the right decisions for your mind. That is a bold aim I realise, but let’s give it a go.
The next few lessons
Over the next few lessons we are going to explore the ‘why?’ of self-improvement. It is all fine and dandy to try and make ourselves better, but what is the purpose? Why do it, when we could easily aim for mediocrity and lack of responsibility. I’ll tackle this question from a few angles, looking at some of the arguments and ideas that have convinced me most: psychological needs, values, goals and a secret 4th one that I am trying to find a good name for.
As I indicated in Lesson 1, I am going to finish all lessons with a couple of reflection questions and suggested tasks, that invite you to apply the ideas from the Lesson to your own life.
For this Lesson’s reflection questions, I want you to think about all the different things you do in your life: study, work, family, friends, hobbies etc. In which of these areas are you deliberately trying to get better, that is, you’ve taken specific steps to improve how you perform in that area? For example, if I think of some of the key areas of my life (e.g. work, friends, family, finances, health), I am mindful that I have put quite a bit of effort over the last few years to get better at managing my finances, by reading books, trying new things and getting specific advice from experts.
What areas of your life are you making specific efforts to get better in?
For this lesson’s suggested task, I want you to do a brief writing exercise.
I want you to spend 10 minutes writing an answer to the following question. Set a timer and keep writing until the time is up. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar.
“Imagine that whilst you slept, something magical happened and you woke up and were skilled and talented in all the areas you’ve ever wanted to be. What skills would you have and how would you use them?”