Chapter 7

Like the euphoria from running
a marathon: Self-improvement

Wishful thinking

Being able to do absolutely anything without any effort. In any situation. Like Adonis, bright and handsome – this is how we would like to act on the stage of our life. Doing whatever we feel like doing sponta­ne­ously. And not having to fear that we have to pay for it with some kind of disaster later. Eating and drinking to our heart’s content. Living with whoever you want to at any given moment. Working without being forced to.

But from the time we are small, we are told differ­ently. Something is always wrong. We are constantly warned to be careful of something and to beware of things. We are preached at relent­lessly. We are not allowed to do what we would like to do but we have to do what adults think is right.

Once we have found a way to deal with the environment of our childhood, the shock of the first day of school occurs: disci­pline and being forced to learn. School grabs us and deter­mines our day. Even if we manage to adapt and perform, we have the feeling that we are going a way that is externally deter­mined – and we long for the day when we will become adults, the day when we can do whatever we want on our own authority.

Depri­vation of liberty and the fear of failure

The time I spent at high school was one of the torturous periods of my life. Even if I have slowly begun to realize that school did in fact equip me to deal with life and that this was actually valuable, both the specific and the general circum­s­tances of my school days caused and reinforced fear in me from which I have not managed to ultimately free myself, even today.

The lessons became more and more intensive and impaired me more and more in that which I consi­dered to be “real life”. In the end, I lived in two worlds: the world of school, in which I was constantly plagued by the fear of failure, and the world of my self-deter­­mined activities, such as sports, traveling and earning money.

A key conviction guided me: You can achieve anything if you do it right. Today I would qualify that statement: nearly anything. In order to keep from failing a grade, apart from learning the minimum required to prove some knowledge of a subject, you had to be able to properly assess the teachers’ behavior.

In order to play tennis decently, drive a motor­cycle instead of riding a bicycle, find a girlfriend, have some money in the bank and a number of other things, you had to proceed deliber­ately and syste­ma­ti­cally. When I played chess and bred angelfish, I had the experience that the right moves and measures lead to the desired success, step by step.

I had another experience while I was at university and in the early years of my career – an experience that makes me sad. My hope of encoun­tering a person with life experience who could be a role model and a mentor for me was not met. I did not find a professor nor did I have a boss who could have indivi­dually helped me to move forward. The one wanted auditable output and the others wanted explo­itable output. No one cared about me as a person. This meant that I was forced to seek my way on my own.

The world of our thoughts shapes us

On our life journey, we arrive at points at which others have gone before us. At these points, you can find something like a plaque on which one of the following state­ments is embossed:

  • No pain, no gain!
  • Pride goeth before a fall!
  • A rolling stone gathers no moss!
  • My mind is my kingdom!
  • You’ve made your bed; now lie in it!
  • Rome wasn’t built in a day!

We constantly wish that we could act from a feeling of ingenious dispo­sition – laid back, easy-going and the object of everyone’s admiration. But then we experience the frustration of being thrown back as a result of our own mistakes. The gap between wishful thinking and reality is painful.

Some cannot admit their mistakes and blame people’s malevo­lence and adverse circum­s­tances for their failures. They believe that winning the lottery, getting a dream job or finding a certain model for society would be able to close the gap. That’s a delusion.

Becoming a satisfied person can only be achieved by each of us on our own, based on what we have made of ourselves. “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” (Marcus Aurelius)

The human as a learning package

No living being is born in as unfinished a state as the human being. On the other hand, we humans are born as learning packages. What becomes of us is deter­mined in our early years depending on the surroun­dings into which we are born and depending on the people who care for us. Over the years, we grow into our possi­bi­lities, we become adults and are respon­sible for ourselves.

No one is born lazy, fat or as a glutton. Children are initia­ti­ve­takers and are curious, able to learn and creative by nature. Each of us had experi­ences like these as children, realizing that you have to use your senses to elicit reality, that you have to ask in order to get explana­tions, that you have to try to find something out and that you have to invest effort to achieve something.

But improper or practi­cally nonexistent upbringing on the part of parents, who often then attempt to compensate for their failure with material deeds; the constant stream of the media, which creates a harsh atmos­phere of stimuli; and policies that promise to eliminate the evils of this world while meeting the ideals of social justice – all of this prevents young people from adequately inter­na­lizing vitally important experiences.

This type of environment – the downside of some of their parents’ careers – renders children and young people awkward. It restricts their possi­bi­lities to fully develop and prevents them from becoming adults and being able to cope with life. If despite all this young people manage to get the high school diplomas required of them, some of them are deluded into thinking that life’s learning phase has now come to an end.

They are euphoric: “No more teachers, no more books …”! This makes it difficult to acknow­ledge and accept that you have to continue learning and that now the time has finally come to take personal respon­si­bility for learning.

As adults, too, we are constantly involved in learning situa­tions, even if we don’t notice it because they are not arranged the way a school is. What we do with these situa­tions, whether we are up to coping with them, whether we gain insights and experi­ences from them, all of this depends solely on us and on our attitude toward learning and life.

Learning as childlike joie de vivre

Young children are constantly exploring their surroun­dings, full of curiosity and interest. We should try to find our way back to this funda­mental attitude from our early years. Many situa­tions in our daily life can be understood as learning situa­tions that can enrich us:

  • we meet strangers,
  • we get news,
  • we have a new boss,
  • we change the job,
  • we move to a different city,
  • we go on trips,
  • we immerse ourselves in an unfamiliar environment,
  • we experience strange customs and traditions,
  • we work our way into a new field of work,
  • we discover a new hobby,
  • we get involved in unknown things.

and much more.

Strangely enough, we do not like to acknow­ledge all of this as a learning process. We do not see challenges as a fantastic learning oppor­tunity, but instead, more like a welcome oppor­tunity to demons­trate everything we can already do. We want it to look as though coping with our respon­si­bi­lities is effortless. After all, we have a substantial educa­tional period under our belts. We may have earned a college degree or even a Ph.D. We have so many qualifications!

In general, our “quali­fi­ca­tions” are only fragmentary. Even if we have a top learning aptitude, a high IQ and the best character traits, any type of training and education is patchwork.

To want to learn only on the job after entering profes­sional life means to undere­stimate the challenges of life carelessly and concei­tedly. This arrogance of complacent adulthood can be escaped by those who, like a child, continue to develop and improve as a matter of course. That means: as an adult, recognizing that one is not perfect, but capable of constantly learning.

Athletes show how this works

No one parti­ci­pates in a marathon without preparing for the challenge. It wouldn’t occur to someone to sign up for the New York Marathon just because they jog on a regular basis at home and happen to be in New York when the race is on. But in our daily lives, where more is at stake than just the endor­phins you release when you have managed to run a marathon – in our jobs or in our lifestyle – we think that we can just do things off the top of our head.

And here is another example from the world of sports: No one would think of parti­ci­pating in a long-jump compe­tition without having developed a technique for the approach and the jump and without becoming physi­cally fit. But in our daily lives, everything is supposed to work without any effort. Employment office, find me a job! Top athletes are perfec­tio­nists who  constantly improve themselves for years. The saying “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw and I conquered) makes no mention of the prepa­ration and efforts that led to the success.

Self-impro­­vement means under­standing your life as an ongoing oppor­tunity. It means proceeding consciously and syste­ma­ti­cally. Consciously and syste­ma­ti­cally means using learning tools and methods as a matter of course and with childlike abandon. Selfim­pro­vement allows you to live in a manner that is incre­a­singly insightful and in balance. You don’t suffer from constantly having to learn something because you do not yet know it or cannot yet do it.

Instead, you enjoy the pleasure of your constant expansion of knowledge and your capacity to perform, which leads you to new shores. This is the opposite of the vain and egotis­tical prattle of people who always have to show others what they can do and what they have.

Self-impro­­vement as an attitude toward life

Having self-impro­­vement as an attitude toward life makes tension dissipate. I don’t have to be someone I’m not. I don’t need the show of the smart guy, the clever man, the person who climbs the career ladder, the whiz kid or the rich guy. I have found myself, I’m completely tuned into myself, I’m at peace with myself. I’m aware of my capabi­lities. I’m content – and I’m modest.

If you constantly improve yourself with respect to what you know, you will soon realize that your knowledge is always only fragmentary. “The more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know,” as the proverb goes.

Reflecting on life and shaping it proac­tively is the attitude that we will use to move forward on our pilgrimage. The objection that this will keep us from being sponta­neous is false. People who like to react sponta­ne­ously allow others to define what they react to. Their “sponta­neity” itself is deter­mined by others. Then you also fall for con artists.

It is certainly a good idea to learn how to act sponta­ne­ously. To do this, however, you need to have solid ground under your feet, which you can create by acquiring more knowledge and greater freedom to take action. Then you can sponta­ne­ously vary or create new things and you will experience brilliant moments with yourself.

If you take yourself by the hand to improve yourself, you will not have to force yourself to do anything and will not have to perform a tour de force. It is also not a matter of New Year’s resolu­tions. It is simply leading your daily life based on an oppor­­tunity-oriented attitude toward life.

Everything is capable of impro­vement. Based on the compe­titive field in which they have to stand out, entre­pre­neurs know that what is better is the enemy of what is good.

While self-impro­­vement does not protect us from failure and setbacks, they are not accepted as deter­mined by fate, but rather as learning oppor­tu­nities. The ups and downs of the highs and lows contain a long-term trend: more and more feelings of happiness as a result of deeper insights, recognizing associa­tions, under­standing reasons, incre­asing your personal capabi­lities, situation-appro­­priate action, growing social compe­tence, in short, inner joy about the expanding and deepening shaping of life. This is referred to as selfrea­liz­ation. You find and develop what is in yourself.

Effortless, flying leap

For ongoing self-develo­pment, you do not need to follow a certain program, nor do you need to start from scratch. You just jump in with a flying leap. In line with your new attitude toward life, a new driving style develops on its own and gives rise to everything else. Take the initiative!

You start self-impro­­vement where you are. It always refers to tomorrow. Before I continue tomorrow, I reflect on what I have done today, how I have done it and what I can learn from it for the next time. Thinking in sequences: What happened? How was it?

An example from the banality of everyday life, as it usually happens: After shopping for food, open the refri­gerator, put everything in where there is room and close the refri­gerator; before taking it out again, check or even look for where the purchased items have remained. This process can be improved by creating and maintaining an order in the refri­gerator; order criteria are the frequency of use, the type and size of packaging. This saves time and electricity, especially if there are several refri­gerator users. Oppor­tunity for impro­vement recognized and used, no more searching and always know what to repurchase.

Get ideas, train!

There are plenty of sugges­tions to make constant impro­vement your lifestyle. To do this, you need fitness in your mind. You create that by:

  • active reading,
  • concen­tration and memory training,
  • creating sets of questions,
  • keeping a diary,
  • writing experience reports,
  • language exercises,
  • developing imple­men­tation programs,
  • making detailed travel arrangements.

It is not possible to introduce all of these things into your lifestyle at once. You have to start with one thing or another and make a project out of it. Gradually, you will move forward from your starting position and will transition into an ongoing process. The successes of the “better and better” will ensure progress on their own and will cause it to be extended to more and more areas of your life.

Yet some people are hesitant to take the plunge: What will people think? My partner? My colleagues? If you don’t feel comfor­table doing what benefits you and what has no impact on others in front of your peers, then you should begin with measures that you can implement in the privacy of your own home. If you want to learn to stand on your own two feet, you will have to create this space, unrelen­tingly. Anything else means living at the mercy of others.

The times of survival as if you were under the guardi­anship of a protector are over. If you think you can survive the upheaval of our time without improving yourself, you will fall behind, slowly but surely. Whereas in the past in the world of work, instruc­tions for work were given in detail, today, independent planning and imple­men­tation of the assigned tasks is called for.

Whereas in the past work was delegated according to a strict hierar­chical classi­fi­cation, today, taking the initiative and monitoring one’s self is expected. Whereas in the past, each individual employee was assigned a share of the work on a case-by-case basis, today, groups are formed that are expected to autono­mously complete their work mission.

Self-impro­­vement is the key to perso­nality develo­pment. Take the step to provide yourself with this joie de vivre. You are the only one who can do it.

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