On the Improvement of Self

Want to be a better person?

The first thing we do is try to change ourselves. Change our habits. We start with the man in the mirror. Make promises. Resolutions. Commitments.

Things start moving. A few days into it perhaps, you feel good about it.

Then a small hiccup in your progress towards a better you. Then an annoying hurdle. Then a giant brick wall. Your wagon of dreams crash and crumble against it.

You are back to that crowded little place called square one.

Let’s back up a little. In our efforts of self improvement, we’ve been focusing too much on the improvement, and forgetting the self.

Let’s start from the very basics. Let’s start with the very thing you are tying to change. Let’s start with “you”.

You are Spongebob Squarepants

Who are you?

You are a copy of everyone around you.

you are spongebob Or – to justify my use of Mr. Squarepants – like a sponge, you are heavily dependent on your surroundings (hopefully, you’re not as yellow and don’t have as many holes).

A lot of people refuse to believe that their surroundings and their company has such a profound influence on them. When I use the word “influence”, I simply mean that the people we interact with will one way or the other, rub off on us. The more we interact with them, the more “like them” we tend to become. Sort of.

Any psychologist will tell you how our behavior is heavily influenced by the people around us. There is ample research that shows how we end up doing what “everyone else” is doing, regardless that thing is socially acceptable or not.

Still not convinced? As an example, consider this experiment. To minimize theft of wood by visitors to a national park (in America), scientists made two signs. One sign stated the fact that “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified forest“. This was true, but provided negative social proof. The other sign simply encouraged the visitors to not steal, without quoting any statistic. And as a control, they also counted the marked wood while there was no sign.

More pieces of wood were taken when the sign told visitors that many people were stealing.

The moment we are stuck on a decision, we tend to follow the crowd. Social Proof encourages us to do what otherwise we wouldn’t. That is why it is not recommended to make “public confessions” of sins or to openly debate the vices of any given society. Although most people say that to “show us the true picture”, the net result is that we are encouraged to do what everyone else is doing regardless it is socially acceptable or not.

We are influenced by the people around us and the people we associate with are our influencers.

So to change yourself, maybe we need to change our influencers.

This is not easy. A big red button doesn’t exist that once pressed, will change your surroundings.

But there is a way.

Your Surroundings Can Be Changed

It’s not easy, but thankfully, it is simple.

As we saw, we can not help but be influenced. But we can choose the people who surround us.

You find your own world in the world of others.

Books. Movies. Lectures. Travel. These things, if chosen appropriately, can give you a different set of surroundings.

I still remember how a pirated copy of a book by Tony Robbins influenced me, twelve years ago. I sure as heck remember reading and re-reading Richard Branson’s take on business, and thinking, “if this guy says it’s OK to think the way I think, I am going to give it a shot”. For all intents and purposes, my life changed.

Because my thinking changed. Because my influencers changed. In that order.

Physically, for the sake of geography, you become very different than everyone around you. But in essence, your surroundings changed first (you become a better rat-killer).

The biggest takeaway is that I can choose my own surroundings, my own community.

the unexamined life is not worth living
Examining our lives lead us to see that we are a product of our surroundings… so much for the inflated ego!

The Social Web Helps

Now, the Internet makes it easier still.

Sure, you can waste a million hours on Facebook, but if you use these tools to associate with the right community, you can swiftly change yourself for the better.

The internet has a higher level of influence, because the medium is richer and allows for two-way communications. The communities are more “life-like” than those provided by, say, books.

With blogs, this “influence” becomes easier to access and pick.

I can read the stuff coming from people like Julien Smith, Chris Guillebeau, Chris Brogan and Pat Flynn. I can let that influence me. I can reach out (via Twitter for example) and have meaningful, two-way conversations with them (like I’ve had with all of the above mentioned highly-cool individuals).

But be warned that the internet can be the black hole that can suck all and any time you may have.

Just like reading bad books is bad, so consuming “bad Internet” can’t be good.

What you consume – may it be your diet, or information – ends up as you. So be selective of both. (Click here to Retweet this if you agree).

That is part of the reason I have not watched television for the longest time. That’s why it is recommended you don’t check your email the first thing in the morning; you want someone else’s agenda dictate yours?.

Key takeaway: To change ourselves, we can become part of a community that we find is more encouraging to the behavior we want to inculcate.

The Power of Communities

The “Self” comes to its full potential in a community. Without getting philosophical about it, it is safe to say that although I am a part of the community because I have let it influence me, I too have an influence on other members of the community.

Within this context, one way to continually improve myself is by serving the community.

Build Communities It is my personal experiences that convinced me, almost a year ago, to start building a community here at LifeETC. I get emails almost everyday where I am thanked for inspiring them to move in the direction where they wanted to move. Towards their own definition of freedom. Their own adventure. This is humbling and a very powerful motivator.

Sure, the community of LifeETC is not for everyone (it’s for people who want to be self employed to live a more wholesome/adventurous life) and I consider myself blessed indeed to be able to serve the community.

It is heartening to see people from exceptionally varied backgrounds come together under a single idea. The LifeETC Community has dairy farmers, bloggers, world travelers, shop owners, restaurant owners, photographers, artists, designers, chefs and bankers and engineers. And then some. Some students, some married. Some young, some old. All awesome! 🙂

It becomes easier to identify the similarity in so much variance. It becomes easier to crystalize the “you” that you wanted to become.

Next Actionable Item: Identify one thing that you want to inculcate. Then identify the influence or the community that makes it easier for you to do that one thing. Finally, become a part of that community by finding ways of serving it. Do not start by changing the “old” you, but incorporate a solid attempt at changing your surroundings that encourage the “new” you.

Question: Did the above information help? Do you think changing your surroundings is easier with the Internet? How are your experiments with self improvement coming about? Share you thoughts in the comments section. Thanks in advance.

Two important updates:

Meetup in Islamabad. Click to ConfirmWant to meet up in Islamabad?

I will be in Islamabad for the weekend (Friday 13 July till Sunday 15 July 2012). A few LifeETC Community members have insisted that we meet. Sorry for such a short timeline, but the this is a small ‘impromptu’ meetup and it’d be great if you can come over. So if you are (or can be) in Islamabad on Saturday, and want to meet up, click here for the exact location & time.

My first guest post!

My post on using Twitter to grow your blog community will be published on the 27th of July on ProBlogger, God willing. I have received email confirmation of this. I hope you guys will enjoy it. This is a milestone for me because I’ve been thinking of “guest posting” for the longest time. Finally got down to it. Hope you will like it, comment on it, share it etc? 😉

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  1. Very thought provoking. The internet has definitely helped me to develop my practice as an artist. The first place that I ever shared my work with people who weren’t immediate family was the DeviantArt community which has been a great source of support and inspiration since. This eventually gave me the courage to start sharing my work in real-time, face to face. And now, what you’re saying is absolutely right. If I want to be a better artist, I need to spend time with other artists and contribute to the local artistic community. I became a member of a local group and am now in the middle of preparing my submissions for the annual members’ exhibition which will be seen by hundreds of people. All of this was unplanned. So, how can I intentionally apply the principles you’ve set out to other aspects of my life? Exciting!

    1. Thrilled to see that it’s working out for you, Mary.
      Active participation in a community, as you are doing, makes you an important part of the community. Comes full circle. Your art is getting the exposure, you are getting the confidence and the community – that already likes what you do – is getting more of what it likes. Awesomeness. 🙂

      For example, if I want to quit smoking, I need to hang out with people who (1) do not smoke, and (2) don’t hangout with other smokers. It’s a change of ‘community’ that encourages (or discourages) a habit.

      Another example: Hang out with fit people (or read their blogs, their books, movies etc), to be more fit. Let them rub off on you. Deliberately. The term “intentional living” applies here more than ever.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I wish you all the best (and hoping to see you at the London Triathlon 😛 )

  2. yes true your company changes your habit, an old saying if i remember correctly “Agar lohar kay pass baitho gay to aag ki chingarian hi parain gi” and “agar atari (the prefume seller) kay pass baitho gay to khusboo ai gi” can’t remember correctly but i have always kept this thing in mind 🙂

  3. I have always believed strongly that others influence you, but I have never made any conscious effort to choose my society, I guess it is something to think about.

    Wow, it’s good to hear you getting a guest-post at problogger, I used to follow it back when I was started blogging, congratulations!

    And while I am commenting here, the italics, with the font-type used in comments, makes them a bit harder to read, you should either change the font, or remove the slant. 🙂

    1. Thanks Aqeel.

      The italics that I have used in the post, you mean? Or italics used in the comments section? Didn’t quite get it 🙁

    2. I meant the comments section. The font in comments, both the font type and the font size, is different from the post. So, even though italics looks fine in your post, it felt a bit difficult to read in comments.

    3. And do remember to comment on, re-share the post when it comes out on ProBlogger 🙂 … I am excited too, because there was a time when I was like, “wow, can I actually do that, can my post be on “Pro” blogger”…

      God is great indeed! 🙂

  4. Great Read as always… It is kinda interesting that your this post comes at the time it did. I am in process of doing a lot of what you said in your post and meeting you is part of the same effort 😉

    Well I look forward to see you inshallah on Saturday.. I have 6 hours surgery tomorrow ( nothing to worry about but I wil be meeting you the day after anyway ) I actually have a test I am taking sat morning and then meeting you later in the evening.. So excited about it tbh.

    God Bless you for being an inspiration that you are for many people. Lotsa kudos for this…lol

    1. Thank you for the kind words!!

      Looking forward to meeting you, God willing.

      Stay blessed and hope all turns out for the best!

  5. Have shifted to a different commenting system… it is supposed to take about 24 hours to import older comments into the blog.

    1. Disqus commenting system! It seems to have its fair share of troubles. Good luck.

  6. Another interesting and inspiring piece…. While the influence of one’s surroundings does play a significant role in shaping one’s personality and beliefs; the contribution of our education system to our personalities and beliefs can not be ignored. I know you have touched on the education systems in your other posts but it is relevant here as well. We recently had a couple of young women join our department for a couple of months of internship. Just before the end of their internship they came over and revealed their passion to join one of the big consulting firms… Nothing wrong with being ambitious of course but when I asked the question as to what they intend to do a few years after their work this consulting firm… they had no clue about it. They were equally dumbfounded when I suggested that they should consider doing something of their own while they still had the opportunity. The fact of the matter is that we have allowed our surroundings (including the education system) to dictate to us what we think we want but if we were to stand outside the crowd and reflect we would find ourselves baffled as to what came over us in thinking the way we were thinking. I came across a very interesting animation (Changing the Education Paradigm by RSA Animate). The animation concludes that the we learn best in groups which of course is consistent with the section of the power of the communities in your post. This animation ignited my curiosity until I bumped into some websites detailing how the Finnish education system is attracting worldwide interest. Digging further revealed that the one of building blocks of the system is group based learning which in turn encourages out of the box thinking. I was baffled to learn that while the system does not have standardised testing up till the age of 16, the Finnish students have continued to secure the top 5 positions in the PISA testing system (OECD Programme for International Student Assessment). Of course there are other very important building blocks that have contributed to this success but it just goes to show that there are other possibilities outside the box that we live in. contd…

  7. The importance and power of communities can not be over-emphasised. I was listening to a lecture the other day, one of the components of which was the story of Prophet Sulaiman (Soloman) PBUH. The Quran mentions the incident of the army of Prophet Sulaiman passing by the valley of the ants. One of the ants having sensed the coming army alarmed the community to get into their homes lest they should be crushed by the approaching army. The lecturer pointed out that there were a few lessons for us as human beings in this one of which is that the ant could have made a run for it on its own not caring what happens to the community but it stuck around and made sure that the community was warned. In a matter of life and death how many human beings would do this? They would just think about securing themselves ahead of everyone else. But is this how we have been programmed or we have allowed us to be programmed in our lives. But all is not lost. Your post has suggested some useful solutions. One other way to tackle this issue is to reassess our belief system…. the mind is a powerful tool and it can be trained to break the shackles around us. The idea is to retrain the brain – especially the subconscious part to open ourselves to the possibilities and more positive way of thinking….