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It may or may not (or may) have something to do with why I’m in this line of work, but I love reading self improvement tips, helpful life lessons, and ideas to help optimize one’s situation, self, and journey. But after reading enough of this stuff, 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 all of the water you can possibly find, and so on. Yes, yes, 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
If you’re at all like me, you probably have a decidedly negative gut reaction to the idea of putting yourself before others. Surely, none of us wants to come off as selfish. But the problem with selfish folks isn’t that they put themselves first; it’s only when they put themselves first, last, and everywhere in between that it becomes a problem.
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. Take care of your own needs. 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 for themselves.
2. Be Helpful, Not Transactional
So now you’ve filled 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 for the sake of getting anything “back“ from them, now or ever. This is not about tit for tat, or being owed favors. It’s about the supremely simple concept of helping because you can. Being kind-hearted and helpful is contagious, and it spreads quickly. The good you put out there will no doubt 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 up and inspiring those who are later able to 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. I mean, who doesn’t love a bit of light existential teasing about being closer to death? But here’s my question:
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 view the passage of time as an enemy. We treat 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 a limited resource, true, 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 sometimes controversial life lessons) in some of the most unexpected places – from a child with a uniquely untainted view of the world, a tip on the back of a cereal box, or even from a scary movie. 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
Many of us are so heavily wrapped up in the emotional drive to fit in and be normal, that we lose sight of the fact that the normal outcome of a normal life isn’t even what most of us want. When it comes to the lives we want to build for ourselves, most are looking for some form of abundance, experience, and personal fulfillment. How can you aspire to a life above and beyond what is normal, while limiting yourself to the narrow parameters of normal?
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?
There’s nothing wrong with having normal around, but it’s only a default setting, a starting point. In other words, the lowest common denominator. It’s what you add to it that counts. What spice will you add to your own 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 the insecure status quo take away the special flavor that makes you you.
6. Slow Down to Speed Up
Sometime in the late 18th century, the world suddenly started moving a whole lot faster. Modern machines streamlined production and drove us headlong into the industrial revolution. And, you guys, I’m starting to think it wasn’t the best idea.
250 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 full-time. But, my dudes, take a breath. 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. Make some room to stretch, to feel, to think, to plan, to breathe. You’ll quickly find yourself happier, healthier, and oddly enough, getting where you’re going faster than ever before.
7. Do It Yourself
This world full of experts with increasingly specialized skillsets is pretty awesome, though. As a collective human race, we wouldn’t be able to build all we have without specialization. But on an individual level, we need to counterbalance that tremendous force for the sake of our own happiness and growth.
Learning new skills, picking up a do-it-yourself attitude, and developing self-sufficient habits opens countless doors. Not least among them are the doors to improved physical and mental health, moral and environmental sustainability, and the building blocks of financial independence. On top of all that, a self-sufficient mindset often leads to unexpected opportunities for professional and material success, and new life lessons all their own.
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, then you’re at a turning point. If this thing is something that you truly still want, and still believe is right for your life, then 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 fully and in your favorite outfit. 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 do 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. This is one of those life lessons that the motivators of the world don’t usually tell you. But sometimes you have to ask yourself hard questions to keep yourself on the right track. You’re a whole-ass person with your own passions and a unique suite of skills and value to offer. I don’t want to waste you on something that doesn’t draw out all you have to offer or fulfill you, and you shouldn’t either. It’s okay, compulsory even, to give up if that means getting you closer to where you want to be.
For a full exploration of why quitting is a great thing, plus how to know when to quit and when not to, check out The Dip by Seth Godin.
10. Be a Great Loser
This is a funny one, because they teach us all the seed of this life lesson when we’re growing up, but then no one waters it and it slowly dies. “Don’t be a sore loser,” they say. You lost, and you feel upset about it, but don’t make it anyone else’s problem.
I think the real lesson is one 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 opportunity to learn, to grow, to show others grace, and to become a better you. Accept defeat gracefully, 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 much more fun to have around on game night.
11. Work the Hardest When Nobody’s Watching
From kindergarten and onward, we learn to seek external praise for our efforts. Study extra hard for the test to get that primo 💯 sticker 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.”
But you’re not doing it for them. I know it, and you know it. External validation is nice, but it doesn’t give us the substance we need. It’s like dessert – a nice reward, but it can never fill us up. We can only do that ourselves. Keep your head down and work hard when nobody’s watching. Free yourself from others’ judgment. Build productive habits and remind yourself that you’re trying to earn the respect of the only person whose opinion of you matters: yourself.
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 hold my life together. Whether this completely confirms or in any way challenges your expectations of me as a person, it means that I know about being prepared. It also means that I know, better than most, about being too prepared.
Preparation, strategy, and planning comprise a theme that underlies nearly all practical thought on improving one’s life. Life lessons on planning are important to seek out. 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. I have before and will no doubt again advise the exact opposite. But in your preparation stage, build just enough of a plan to get started, and know when it’s time to get undressed and get in the water.
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. To the contrary, there’s a whole lot that we all need more of. And right up front of that list, along with love, freedom, time, and laughter, is nothing.
Our lives are, in nearly every way, completely 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 is crammed, 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 so 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 minutes not meant to be occupied, more dollars not meant to be spent, and more space not meant to be filled. You will feel your world, and your spirit, open up.
14. You Don’t Need a Reason to Celebrate
Dude, 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 in order 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. Matter of fact, you owe it to me, too. I’m out here every day, trying to give you new ways to make your life even more awesome, and you’re not even going to soak in it once in a while? Come on.
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, and those outcomes drive further happiness, but it’s still on you to keep that wheel spinning.
15. Speak Softly if You Want to Be Heard
This world is loud, busy, and at times overwhelming. And that goes extra for us introvert-folk (introvert gang RISE UP (but like quietly, reluctantly, and then hopefully sit back down before someone calls on us)). It’s a natural response to try to speak louder, more boldly, and more often in an effort to stand out above the din. Which is why nearly everyone does so, ironically serving only to elevate the volume and chaos even more. In turn, we’ve all become even better at tuning out one another’s noise.
If you want your words to be heard, make them special, not loud. The world pays attention to a listener (and I mean a true 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. This de-escalates the arms race that so many conversations become. It’s the cornerstone of healthy discussions. You’ll also be able to see more of the value in what others say, and pick up life lessons from them. And on top of all this, when others feel like they don’t have to compete with you to be heard, they become much more interested in what such a peculiar and wise person as yourself might have to say in response.
16. Let the Bad Feelings In
Well gosh and shucks, we’re really on a roll now. Are you still with me? Good, because the life lessons up to this point have been weird, but like, introductory-weird. This is where we get w3¡®d. Ready? Okay. I think that your bad feelings are good feelings, because 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 is meant to help us survive and thrive. Fear, shame, disappointment, grief and anger are all tools of a complex feedback system. It’s so complex, in fact, 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; And anger emboldens us to overcome what tries to get in our way.
When you experience an emotion that hurts, don’t fight against it. 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 when their job is done, let them go. The only bad emotion 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 is already getting a lot done is someone who 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 concepts here. Makers are people who make.
Everyone should have at least one pastime that taps into the infinite pool of human creativity. Anything at all where you combine your enthusiasm and creative energy with one or more skills 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 so that you’re more enthusiastic to come back for next time. Pushing ourselves too far may feel productive and satisfying in the short term, but 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 for so long that it doesn’t feel like a good thing anymore. Just like we’re always told 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