We’re very strange in the way we go about examining our lives. Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living, yet, as a species, we rarely bother to look carefully at our lives and we react badly whenever anyone dares to question the way we go about them.
This got me thinking, who is best to take a serious look at my own life? Myself, or someone else? Well, it turns about it’s a mix of both.
Other people have fresh perspectives and can perhaps be somewhat more objective as they are not in our shoes and will often not value the same things as us. This is great, as they can often see the obvious things wrong about ourselves that we cannot. The problem is that sometimes other people will not be as honest as they should be because they fear that they might hurt us with their honesty. While this may often be true, a good friend should prefer to hurt your feeling telling you what they honestly think, rather than sugarcoat the truth and let you continue as you are.
What about self-examination? Surely nobody knows you better than yourself? Well…yes. The only problem is that it’s not an easy thing to do, to take a long hard look at your life, habits and thoughts can sometimes be depressing. You may realise you’re not doing what you wanted to do originally, that you have a whole host of vices and terrible habits and that, if you carry on like this, you’re not heading anywhere pleasant.
I think this is often blown out of proportion and that if we truly think about it, we will realise that we are far more fortunate than we think, except we tend to forget about it. We only realise how incredible it is that we have electricity when it cuts off in the middle of the night and there is no air-conditioning.
There are plenty of exercises that you can practice to increase your sense of fulfillment and personal calm. Today I want to focus on this later type of examination, using yourself as a personal life consultant.
The best way to go about this is to try and imagine that you are another person, and then judge that other person’s behaviour, habits, and general attributes. What advice would you give to that person? What is obviously wrong? Remember – you don’t have to focus only on the negative! If there is something that clearly stands out as a positive, then mention it to yourself, see if that is something that can be enhanced further.
This is only the first step. After you have this general list of ways you think you improve, then it’s time to look at how you can modify your behaviour. The best way to do this is to change your beliefs about your personal identity and create goals based on this new identity instead of being based on externals such as other people’s opinions of you. This new identity should give you a clear indication of what type of actions you should take, which will, in turn, have an effect on the external world around you.
Every Action is a Vote
Try and think of this almost as a democratic way to change who you fundamentally are. Every time you complete an action that is in line with a certain identity, such as “I’m the type of person who never misses a workout.”, then you are essentially casting a vote for that identity, and thus are more likely to turn that identity into who you truly are.
This works both ways. Every time you do a negative action, you are essentially voting for a different identity to the one you want. This is why it’s so important to cultivate positive daily habits to slowly turn yourself into the person you want to be.
Switching to this mindset leads one to incredible conclusions. Every single action you take counts, and everyday of your life should be lived in accordance to the type of person you want to be. Does this mean we need to be perfect, or that we need to beat ourselves up over the slightest deviation from our chosen path? Of course not, all that is required is that a solid majority of your actions vote in the correct way.
That’s all that is required.
The only problem with this system of action-as-a-vote is that it requires someone to have a very clear idea of the changes they wish to make. What happens if we’re not quite sure of the changes we want to make, or even if we have absolutely no idea? I’ve written an essay on “How to Never Fail” and I think it’s worth a read, but to summarise, you should view life and everything that it contains as an experiment, and cultivate internal goals that you can control instead of external controls that are out of your control. So if you’re not sure whether a certain action casts a positive or negative action in your life, then my advice is to go with your gut feeling. Then, make sure you keep a check on how you feel about that action, especially if it’s a repeating one, in the next few weeks and months and then adjust accordingly. Clearly, getting drunk can feel great, but a little pinch of logic can tell you that doing that every day will not lead to great results.
Essentially, it’s a variation of the 80/20 rule. What you do 80% time in your daily life matters, and you can get away with “incorrect votes” 20% of the time. On the other hand, a certain part (~20%) of the votes are the most important.
Treat Life as One Big Experiment.
The problem with self-development, with careful crafting a new personal identity, is that you will never get it right 100% of the time. There will be times when you slip up, when you go back to your old ways when you behave in a way you wish you hadn’t. So what can we do? Do we throw in the towel at the first misstep? Do we cry because we are not perfect?
What we need to do is learn to embrace and understand failure for exactly what it is: an opportunity to take a good look at oneself and to learn a few lessons in doing so.
The only possible failure in life is to fail to learn from failure. Everything else is acceptable.
If you fail at something, you have simply discovered something you’re not able to do yet, or that something doesn’t work. Can’t resist a cigarette when you go to the bar to have a coffee? Well, you’ve just discovered two habits that go hand-in-hand in your life. Look at it from a scientific point of view. Try and find the hidden causes, the casual habits and relationships that shape who you really are.
So, as mentioned above, our focus should be on what we do on a daily basis, our habits. If we can identify the cues and the rewards that cause us to act in self-destructive ways, then we have already taken a giant leap forward in eliminating these behaviours.
Going back to the coffee and cigarette, you might decide to run several experiments and see the results, without putting pressure on yourself to stop smoking. The cue for that particular cigarette is going to a particular bar and having a coffee. Perhaps there are other people also smoking, and that is also part of the social cue that prompts you to smoke.
Next, take a look at the rewards from smoking. By smoking you supply the body with the much-needed nicotine fix it has been craving for, and, to some extend, the physical motion of smoking may also be something that one can crave.
If we can eliminate the cue and replace the reward, we should be able to eliminate the routine. In this example we could try a few steps:
- Stop going to the bar
- Change to a non-smoking bar
- Replace coffee with a different drink
- Instead of a cigarette, let yourself have a small pastry (this may not be the best of ideas…)
- Try nicotine patches so the reward of the nicotine fix is taken care of.
I’m sure you can think of several dozen more creative ways to eliminate the cue and replace the reward. The point is not to stop smoking straight away, it’s to see what happens naturally when you change variables. Willpower does play a role, but by thinking ahead of time and putting yourself in situations where you don’t need to use much willpower (i.e. a non-smoking bar), you give yourself a massive advantage.
Becoming your own personal life consultant means taking responsibility for your actions, and also for the results of your actions.
It’s not easy, but the results are worth it.