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How to Avoid 2 Hidden Dangers on Your Self-Improvement Journey and Feel Better About Your Progress

We crave the certainty of a formulaic approach to personal growth, but in many cases, it serves to hurt more than it helps

There is something wrong with the way that many of us approach personal growth, and it has everything to do with ignoring a basic principle of life: certainty is an illusion; almost nothing is guaranteed.

The fact of the matter is, while tomorrow may be very likely, it’s never certain. You could die tonight — whether as a result of your own actions, or through events that you couldn’t have foreseen. It happens to people every day around the world.

In the backs of our minds, we all feel this uncertainty. And yet, we fight — and fight hard — to obtain certainty and guarantees.

We strive for tips, tricks, routines, and hacks that promise to get us the results we desire. We buy apps, tools, books, and services that we hope will deliver certain changes in our lives. We want the simple guide that lays out the 3 or 4 steps that will guarantee a given outcome.

But that simple guide doesn’t exist. There are no guarantees — as hard as we might try to get them.

Our approach to self-improvement is flawed in two ways — how we approach the process, and how we measure our progress:

  1. We pursue formulaic approaches to growth that treat growth as if it’s guaranteed — so long as we follow a certain formula.
  2. The way we measure self-improvement demands a feeling of psychological certainty.

Flaw 1: Formulaic Certainty

As someone who has written about self-improvement for a while, I look back on my work and the work of others and find it skews quite a bit on the side of pursuing certainty. A lot of it is in the form of a formula, or recipe:

if you do X and Y, then Z is the certain result

But what I’ve found is that there is no such recipe or formula. You may do X and Y, bu Z is not a certain result. It’s possible — maybe even probable— but not certain. You may do all of the things that the experts tell you to do, but the results still don’t come — or not in the way you’re expecting.

And when that happens — when things don’t shake out as the self-improvement formula seemed to promise — there’s all sorts of Monday-morning quarterbacking that self-improvement “experts” can do in order to defend their positions and theories. In many cases, it involves insisting that the person in question didn’t follow the formula exactly — so it’s their fault. I think that’s insincere and wrong-headed. We need to acknowledge that when it comes to the quest of self-improvement, our methods simply don’t guarantee certainty.

Why is this? Because we still lack so much knowledge. Even if a given method is based on the most up-to-date science, said science still doesn’t provide certainty. There is still room for error, and there are still unanswered questions. Read any scientific journal articles, and you will be hard-pressed to find absolutes. There are outliers in every study, and even if there aren’t, the sample sizes and sets of controls are not large enough to accommodate the numerous variables present in the real world and life as a whole.

Flaw 2: Certainty as a Metric

When we make investments in improving ourselves, we look for ways to measure how well those investments have panned out. We want metrics — simple and clear-cut ones. But it’s important to pick the right ones, otherwise, we can get discouraged quickly and give up on our self-improvement experiments.

Sometimes those metrics are simple, clear numbers: income increase, weight loss, job offers received, certifications and awards obtained, etc. Other times, though, the improvement we’re after is more qualitative. The bigger and more long-term the improvement you’re chasing, the less you’re often able to use simple metrics to evaluate short-term progress. You have to go by how things feel — which to some people is difficult to measure and evaluate.

There’s nothing wrong with navigating by feel. In fact in many cases, feelings can be one of the best indicators of how things are going. The problem comes in when we pick certain feelings to use as metrics for how our self-improvement process is going.

In may cases, we ask ourselves how certain we feel that things will pan out — and we use that feeling as a metric. If we feel pretty certain, we asses our growth positively. If uncertainty abounds, we tend to think that we’re not improving — that the tools & methods are not working for us. And that’s a mistake.

Perhaps a certain amount of this yearning for certainty is unavoidable. After all, uncertainty invokes a stress response in humans, so our default position is to either resolve the uncertainty or retreat from it. Part of our picture of what it feels like to become a better person is feeling better. So when we are able to avoid or resolve uncertainty, it makes us feel like we’re doing better — even if we’re not.

What we need to do, then, is to push ourselves to live with uncertainty, and use it in a constructive way on our journey of personal growth.

The Metric Of Uncertainty

The fact of the matter is that uncertainty is always in play, and the further along in the self-improvement journey you are (i.e., the bigger, more complex, and riskier your ventures are), the more uncertain things will be. The more you grow, the more uncertainty, risk, and emotional roller-coaster riding there is. So chasing after certainty is actually a terrible way to approach growth. You need to embrace uncertainty.

The metric for measuring personal growth systems, then, isn’t how certain you are to succeed as you go along. It’s how well you can accept and navigate the inevitable uncertainty. The less the uncertainty deters you in your journey, the more you’ve grown.

Growing means taking on new ventures, and all the uncertainty that comes with them. At the outset, you should be uncomfortable with all the new uncertainty as you start new ventures; it’s part of the process. But your progression will bring you a level of comfort with the uncertainty, and thus progress. After a while, the process becomes clear: venture into new territory, acknowledge the discomfort of the uncertainty, continue on through the uncertainty, evaluate your progress based on how you’ve been able to become okay with that uncertainty.

Becoming okay with this uncertainty requires inner strength, and that will develop as you go along. There are many methods for doing this. Most involve some sort of spiritual practice — be it mindfulness practice, prayer, yoga, energy work, or a mixture of all of these. The one that is right for you can really only be discovered through experimentation. But once you discover it, you will know. You will approach the inevitable discomfort and uncertainty of your journey with a tool that helps you become okay with it — rather than obsessing over how to get rid of it through formulas and guarantees. From there, not even the sky is the limit.

Written by

Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”:

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