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The 12 Steps for the Rest of Us: General Principles for Becoming a Better You

The original 12 step program was tailor-made for those suffering from addiction. But the general lessons behind them are relevant for nearly everyone.

Years ago, I was close with a handful of people in the recovery community — people attempting to put their lives back together after they were impacted by drug and alcohol abuse. It caused me to take a look at the methods that organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, and its related organizations, use to help people repair damage to their lives and attempt to stop using substances that for so long were part of their everyday lives.

At the basis of recovering from addiction is the phenomenon known as the 12 steps of recovery. The steps are meant to address the spiritual basis of a problem that has always proven to be so very difficult to address through science and medicine. The inventors of the 12 steps — Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson — intended to fight the crippling problem of addiction from its ground zero: the individual’s spirit.

But the spirits of those afflicted with alcohol and drug addition are not the only ones in need of help through this life. We all need help. And this help can come in the form of more general and widely applicable 12 steps. That’s what I offer below: 12 steps for the rest of us. 12 principles to follow in order to simply become better than you were yesterday — and eventually become the best you that you can be.

1. Admit that you are powerless.

You’re powerless over so much, and the failure to recognize that you are powerless is at the root of so many of life’s most robust and devastating anxieties. In fact there is hardly a worse feeling than when something goes terribly badly, and you feel that you could have controlled the outcome.

But the truth is, there are many things that you are — for the most part — powerless over. The weather, the actions of others, gravity, traffic. You name it, and you can’t control it; at most, you can merely contribute — and not all that much. Simply accept that.

But don’t confuse quantity with quality. While there may be few things that you can control, those few things can make all the difference in your life, and the lives of those around you. Focus on your behavior, your attitude, and the choices you make daily, and excercise your control over them to the best effect you can. However, accept that once you’ve done that, you’re effectively tossing your actions and choices up into the spinning vortex of everyone else’s choices and actions — over which you have no control.

That should help you approach things in a more balanced way, and be a lot less stressed as a result.

2. Believe that only something greater than yourself can help you become better than you are.

Steve Wozniak — co-founder of Apple, and legendary figure in computing — once summed up the motivating factor in his journey by saying:

“I didn’t do any of this for the money, I did it because I wanted to bring good computers to the world.”

If you are self-centered, self-serving, and self-involved, the odds of actually becoming a better person are pretty low. Rather, devoting yourself to service — serving someone or something bigger than just your own desires — not only will the rewards be greater, but the motivation will be more persistent.

3. Make a decision to turn your will over to something greater than yourself.

Make the decision that you are no longer operating in each moment to just fulfill your momentary desires — to simply follow your will. Make the decision that your will is now taking a backseat to a greater purpose. Make that decision today. Make it tomorrow when you wake up and don’t feel like following through. Make it each moment when you feel like doing something else.

4. Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself.

What do you regret? What do you wish was different? How have you fallen short, or how do you continue to fall short? Get that stuff down on paper, so it’s there for you to make your peace with. This is how you see yourself, so either work to accept it, or work to change it.

5. Admit to your shortcomings

Write in a journal — a daily one if you can. Work through the things you feel badly about, and label the emotions you feel. Then open up about them to others. Join a forum online, talk with a mentor, see a counselor, or confide in your partner or good friend. Once you have voiced these things to someone else, you can begin to benefit from having a perspective other than your own. You will also feel much better having those things out in the open.

6 & 7. Prepare for Progress

The days come and go at the same rate they always have, and that will continue, no matter what you do or don’t do. If you’re going to leverage those days for effective change, you have to have a system in place to ensure that whatever greater thing or purpose you’re submitting yourself to — you can work toward it.

Here, things like an organizational system, a morning routine, a coach or mentoring meeting, and other things that put you in a better position to do better things by default. Left to our own devices, we human animals tend toward momentary pleasures, comfort, and convenience. The only way to overcome that inclination is by submitting to a principled way of living. That can only be done if you make the appropriate preparations.

8 & 9. Get right with the people of your life

Until the robots and algorithms start running the world, anything worth doing ultimately relies upon people. That goes for both your personal life and your professional one. The more there are unresolved or unspoken issues between you and others, the more friction there is keeping you from achieving what you and others set out to do. So get right with the people you live, love, and work with.

The process isn’t too difficult. Start with an admission of some way that you’ve messed up, and apologize for it. Then ask how you can make things right, or talk about how you’re working on whatever trait caused you to mess up. Have a conversation where you ask someone else about how they’re doing — specifically how they’re feeling. Establish a rapport, build a reputation as someone straightforward, sincere, and understanding. Guard that reputation with your life.

10. Keep track of what you’re doing well, and what you’re not, and promptly focus on the latter

If you don’t write down your goals, dreams, commitments, and other important objectives, your odds of meeting them decreases drastically. Even the act of recording those things gives you the feeling of greater control over your own destiny. Don’t believe me? Try it.

At some regular interval, it never hurts to just write about what you’re doing well, and what you’re not. Then think about how to fix the things you don’t like, deprioritize things that don’t concern you any more, and plan to improve. So many of us are brought up to believe that somehow becoming a good person should be automatic, but that’s absurd. Being a good person, and improving, is real work. And any work worth doing is worth planning out. Planning involves thinking, and the best way to think about something is to write about it.

I want to clarify here: “focus” doesn’t mean ruminate. When you slip, see if you can get back up, or ask for help. The sooner you do it, the more people will be willing to help you, and the better you’ll feel.

11. Set aside time to collect, reflect, and project.

Life comes at you pretty quickly, and if you’re not careful, it can leave you just as quickly. Taking a set period of time — an hour is best — each week to step away from everything, quiet the mind, and reflect, will repay you in exponential dividends.

This is why an hour on Sunday for Christians has been such a boon. It’s a fringe benefit that the hour of worship in a totally different environment also helps to re-calibrate the mind from a week of bombardment, and center it on values and relationships (even if it’s only the relationship between a person and themselves).

Take the time regularly to withdraw from the commotion of work, and think about things. Collect your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Reflect on what they mean. Project an image of what you’d like the future to be like, and work toward that image. Allow it to change each week, as your life in general changes. Make that a habit.

12. Use what you’ve learned to help others

The worst form of greed is the hoarding of knowledge. Those who learn but don’t bother to share or teach are leeches. Don’t be a leech. Don’t simply accumulate knowledge without bothering to share it with others, and help them do the same. It’s not even that difficult to do. It’s actually part of the learning process. The period of time during which I learned the most was the 5 years when I was teaching others. The times at my day job when I learn the most are when I’m trying to train or help others. The best and most self-educating writing I do is when I am attempting to provide information and insight to others.

Question, learn, share, repeat — ad infinitum.

Did this piece of writing add value to your life? Consider subscribing to my weekly newsletter, Woolgathering. It’s my attempt at pulling together the threads in the loom of ideas to weave a better, more productive life

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

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