It may or may not (or may) have something to do with why I’m in this line of work, but I love self-help. I love reading self-improvement tips, helpful life lessons, and new ideas to make life more engaging.
But after reading enough of it, you start to see patterns. And a while after that, you tend to get a little sick of those patterns: practice gratitude, chase your dreams, drink enough water every day to drown a mammoth, and so on. That’s all well and good, but if you’re like me, and looking for something new, check out my 19 weirdest and most controversial life lessons for self-improvement.
1. Put Yourself First
Many of us (especially the ones who are me) struggle with the idea of putting ourselves before others. Surely none of us wants to be selfish. But there’s a galaxies-wide gap between making yourself a priority in your life and being problematically selfish. And that gap still leaves plenty of room for you to be loving and considerate to others. It just means not neglecting yourself to do so.
It’s just like they tell you about the oxygen masks when you board a plane: see to your own before trying to help others. It feels uncomfortable, yes. You want to think about others and do well by them, and that’s wonderful. That’s what I love about you. All I’m saying is that you’ll be in a much better position to do that if you look after yourself first. Make sure your needs are being met. Feed yourself in mind, body, and spirit first. Fill yourself with strength, love, and security, and then use those tools to help others do the same.
2. Be Helpful, Not Transactional
So you’ve filled up your own cup, and you’re ready to save the world, huh? Good for you (protip: you can read that statement sarcastically or not, and either way, I meant it). When you commit to treating the world better, the world treats you better right back. That’s all there is to it. When you make an effort to make things easier for people, good things gravitate toward you.
But don’t be transactional about it. Don’t help others only to get something “back “from them. Being helpful is not a matter of tit for tat or collecting favors. It’s about the straightforward concept of helping because you can. Being kind-hearted and generous is contagious, and it spreads quickly. The good you put out there will undoubtedly come around to you and others, not out of any force of indebtedness, but rather as an inevitable result of you being a helper and lifting and inspiring those who can later support others.
3. Time Is a Friend, Not an Enemy
I’m pretty sure that we’ve been celebrating birthdays entirely wrong. The focus of an adult birthday celebration always seems to be poking fun at the person’s age.
Why is the focus never on the new experiences lived, wisdom gained, or new life lessons learned as we add each ring to our tree?
Everything good gets better with time invested – personal growth, whiskey, money, YOU. And yet we treat the passage of time as an enemy. We look at each birthday as nothing more than a step closer to running out of time. But the total amount of time we’ll have in our lives never changes. All that changes is how much of it you have seen and experienced and how much is still unknown. Time is indeed a limited resource, but it never passes by without giving us something new along the way.
4. Look Under Every Rock
Life lessons don’t only come from high-powered motivational speakers, sweet-awesome blogs with sweet-awesome anvil logos, or serene old grandparents in rocking chairs. Inspiration and opportunities for growth are all around if you open yourself up to the possibilities.
If your mind and heart are open, you can find new perspectives (and controversial life lessons) in some of the most unexpected places – from a child with a uniquely untainted view of the world to a tip on the back of a cereal box, or even from Star Wars. So let go of your preconceptions of institutional wisdom, and start embracing unexpected life lessons and new opportunities to think, feel, and discover.
5. Get Weird and Stay Weird
At the risk of sounding like the moral of every 90s-00s era Disney Channel movie, what’s so great about being normal? Have you looked around at normal people lately? Most of them are struggling, and almost none are having any fun.
We’re all looking for our version of a life of abundance, fulfillment, and joy. Now show me the normies who have that. How can you aspire to a life above and beyond the ordinary while limiting yourself to its narrow parameters?
Let me ask you this: Who have you ever looked up to or idolized in your life because they were just so freaking impressively normal? What life lessons did you learn from that person?
Embrace your quirks, don’t hide from them. Bring your whole self to everything you do, and have fun! What spice will you add to your unique recipe for a beautiful and fulfilling life? When you find that spice, don’t give it up because others tell you it’s not normal – it’s not supposed to be. Don’t let an insecure status quo take away the unique flavor that makes you you.
6. Slow Down to Speed Up
Sometime in the late 18th century, the world suddenly started moving a lot faster. Modern machines streamlined production and drove us headlong into the industrial revolution. And, you guys, I’m beginning to think it wasn’t the best idea.
Two hundred fifty years later, we find ourselves in a world obsessed with velocity. We have countless productivity experts telling you how to optimize your life. I would know; I cosplay as one of them all the time. But, my friend, sometimes the best way to go faster is to slow down first. Make more room for your thoughts — more room for yourself. Sprinting in a straight line nonstop isn’t always the fastest way from A to B. Take time to stretch, feel, think, plan, and breathe. You’ll quickly find yourself happier, healthier, and getting to where you want to be faster than ever before.
7. Do It Yourself
Our world is full of experts with increasingly specialized skillsets, which is fantastic. As a collective human race, we wouldn’t be able to build all we have without specialized skillsets. But on an individual level, we need to counterbalance that trend in order to preserve our own happiness.
Diverse skills, a do-it-yourself attitude, and self-sufficient habits open countless doors. Not least among them are improved physical and mental health, sustainability, and the building blocks of financial independence. On top of all that, a self-sufficient mindset often leads to unexpected personal and professional opportunities.
8. Half-Assing is the Worst Amount of Assing
What are you half-assing in your life right now? And more importantly, why? If you’ve lost interest, hit a roadblock, or started doubting yourself, you’re at a turning point. If this thing is something you truly still want and believe is suitable for your life, stand up, double-check your shoelaces, and throw yourself into it.
On the other hand, if you find yourself half-committing to something because you’ve lost passion, your plans have changed, or you never wanted to be there in the first place, it’s okay to admit that and divest yourself from it.
Everything worth doing is worth doing enthusiastically and in your favorite outfit. So stop half-assing the things you don’t want to be doing, and save as much ass as you can for the parts of your life that matter to you.
9. Give Up Sometimes
And on that note, all this “never give up” kind of advice could do with a pinch of nuance. If we’re talking about going after your dreams and losing courage when you stumble, then yeah. Absolutely. Get back up, punk; you can do this.
But if “stumbling” means realizing that something isn’t really what you want, or it’s not the best fit for what you do best, then GIVE UP. Do it right now. Quit today. You’re a whole-ass person with a unique suite of skills, passion, and value to offer. I don’t want to waste you on something that doesn’t fulfill you or draw out all you have to offer, and you shouldn’t either. It’s okay to give up if that means getting you closer to where you want to be. It’s one of the best things you can do for your future self.
10. Be a Great Loser
They give most of us the seed of this life lesson when we grow up. But then no one waters it, and it slowly dies. “Don’t be a sore loser,” they say. Winning isn’t everything.
The real lesson is a step beyond that: be a great loser.
Allow yourself to feel some of the pain of things not turning out how you wanted. And then turn it around and enjoy the opportunity of it. The chance to learn, grow, show grace in the face of adversity, and become a better you. Accept defeat with courage, and be proud of the lessons you learn. These are signs you’re evolving. Great losers grow faster and feel a stronger sense of self-confidence. Plus, they’re way more fun to have around at game night.
11. Work the Hardest When Nobody’s Watching
From childhood onward, we learn to seek external praise for our efforts. Study extra hard for the test to get that big red “100%” on top. Go the extra mile for that client, so your boss will pat you on the back and say, “well done, Jenkins. Capital work on that report.” I don’t know; it’s been a while since I’ve worked in an office.
But you’re not doing it for them. I know it, and you know it. External validation is nice, but it doesn’t give you the substance you need. It’s like dessert – a nice reward, but it won’t fill you up. We can only do that ourselves. So keep your head down and work hard when nobody’s watching. Free yourself from others’ judgment. Work to earn your own respect first.
12. There’s Such a Thing as Too Prepared
I’ll admit it: I’m calling myself out here. I’m a planner, a preparer. Lists, schedules, and spreadsheets are the glue that holds my life together. The point is that I know all about being prepared. But, unfortunately, it also means that I know, better than most, about being too prepared.
Preparation, strategy, and planning comprise a theme that shows up in nearly all conversations on improving life. But the planning stage can extend into the infinite, whereas our time does not. An excess of preparation comes at the cost of how much time and energy we spend actually doing. Of course, don’t throw strategy to the wind and dive into everything without looking. But in your preparation stage, build just enough of a plan to get started, and know when it’s time to go from 0 to 1.
13. Get More Nothing
One thing that I humbly and honestly believe that every person on this blue and green Earth needs more of is nothing. And be careful not to misread that sentiment. I’m not saying that there’s nothing we need. On the contrary, there’s a whole lot that we all need more of. And right up in front of that list, along with love, independence, time, and laughter, is nothing.
Our lives are, in nearly every way, full. A typical person’s day has 100 things to do and 1,000 things that won’t make the cut. Their schedule is nonstop, their budget has no wiggle room, and their house is overwhelmed with “stuff.” There is so much beauty, wonder, and joy that a world like this affords us, but it also creates many new opportunities for stress, fear, anxiety, and overwhelm.
We can’t fix the problems of “too much” by adding more. The only remedy to this world of muchness is to balance some of it out with more nothingness — free space in life for its own sake. Create more happiness and freedom for yourself by striving for more negative space. You will feel your world and your spirit open up in response.
14. You Don’t Need a Reason to Celebrate
Have you tried this “celebrating stuff” thing that all the kids are into these days? It’s a hell of a drug. Holidays and birthdays are great (if you’re doing them right – see #3), but you don’t need to wait for landmark events to celebrate.
Give yourself the gift of joy for personal or professional milestones, minor occasions, or just simply surviving another day. Sometimes that’s a feat all on its own. So dim the lights, put on your favorite music, dance it out, and celebrate your life. You owe it to yourself.
If we’ve learned anything from the explosion of “gratitude” as a self-help topic these days, it’s that life gets better when you choose to enjoy it. It’s not the other way around. It’s a cycle: happiness influences better outcomes, which drives further satisfaction, but it’s still on you to keep that wheel spinning.
15. Speak Softly if You Want Them to Hear You
This world is loud, busy, and at times overwhelming. It’s a natural response to this environment to speak louder, more boldly, and more often to stand out above the din. As a result, nearly everyone does so, ironically serving only to further elevate the volume and chaos. In turn, we’ve all become even better at tuning out one another’s noise.
Make your words thoughtful, not loud, to get others’ attention. The world pays attention to a listener (and I mean a good listener; waiting restlessly for your turn to talk is not an improvement). When you listen to others wholly and honestly, you make them feel appreciated and heard. Attentive listening de-escalates the arms race that so many conversations become. It’s the cornerstone of healthy discussions. You’ll also see more value in what others say and have more chances to learn from them. On top of all this, people notice when conversations with you don’t feel like a competition. When talking to you helps people feel heard, it makes them much more interested in listening as well.
16. Let the Bad Feelings In
Your bad feelings are good feelings. You read that right. In fact, all of your feelings are good feelings. It’s just that some of them hurt, and some of them don’t.
Every emotion we feel helps us survive and thrive. Fear, shame, disappointment, grief, and anger are all tools of a complex feedback system. It’s so complex that we often pay therapists to help us decode it. The feelings that we typically view as “bad” are actually some of the greatest motivators we have for positive movement. You cannot turn a victim into a survivor without healthy fear; guilt and shame teach us using the library of our own mistakes; anger encourages us to overcome threats to our health and safety.
When you experience an emotion that hurts, don’t fight against it. Instead, listen. Listen for the message it’s giving you, draw on the power it lends you, and take whatever steps you need to take to get to a better place. Let your emotions in, accept them, and then let them go. The only bad feeling is one that overstays its welcome and causes undue pain.
17. If You Want it Done, Give it to the Busy Person
This one is a paraphrase from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The idea is that when you look for someone who can get things done, you’ll have a better chance of reliable results from someone who already has a lot on their plate and is already getting a lot done.
Funky, right? You might think it makes more sense, if you need someone’s help, to go to someone who seems to have more free time. Covey argues that those who have a lot going on are the people who are already motivated to get things done. Someone who doesn’t have a lot on their plate likely had just as many opportunities as the busy person but simply wasn’t as driven to pick it all up. In contrast, a person who gets things done knows when to say yes, and when to say no. And when you look around for someone you can rely on to get things done, start with the people who are already proving themselves.
18. Be a Maker
Speaking of people who get the job done, let’s talk about makers. Who are makers, you ask? Fair question, but you already know the answer—no tricks or elaborate concept life lessons here. Makers are people who make.
Everyone should have at least one pastime that taps into the infinite pool of human creativity. Any activity where you combine your enthusiasm and creative energy to make something is an excellent activity. Even a craft that may not look immediately “useful” from the outside can be an endless source of self-satisfaction, mental exercise, and constant reinforcement of a can-do attitude.
19. Stop Before You’re Done
And for the last of our weird, unconventional, controversial life lessons, stop before you’re done. Always leave them wanting more. Leave yourself wanting more, too. When you’re running out of steam and your initial motivation is fading, you may be better off stepping away to be more enthusiastic about coming back for next time. Pushing ourselves too far may feel productive and satisfying in the short term. Still, it can also build a negative association with that activity and lower our motivation for it in the future.
Don’t let a good thing run so long that it doesn’t feel like a good thing anymore. Just like we know to cut our losses when it’s time to move on, we should also know when to cut our winnings, step off stage, and always leave the crowd asking for