One way to break down a lifetime would be to think of it as two portions-- the part where the person became better, and the part where he coasted.
In a normal person's life, the getting better part would include everything from his first breath of air, as he learned how to see and feel and breathe, through school as he learned different things, and probably through the beginning part of his job as he developed a baseline proficiency in his trade. The coasting part would be most of his career, as he put his educational investment to work, and, of course, retirement.
There are a lot of ways to get better. You can learn new things. You can travel and see the world, thus gaining new perspective. You can build your personality. You can create a body of meaningful work. You can become more healthy and more fit. You can actively cultivate relationships with people.
At some point, most peolpe will all but stop these things. I've noticed two big catalysts. The first is when someone gets a job. The job validates that they have skills, whereas school tells us that we need skills. Most people in any given company aren't improving themselves anymore, so by taking a job you become surrounded by a peer group that's no longer focused on bettering themselves.
The other big catalyst is marriage. Once a person is "chosen for life" by another person, they get out of shape, pick up their partner's negative characteristics (because it's easy to slack, especially when it's accepted), and stop developing their personality.
These two things don't HAVE to stop people from getting better, but without actively managing their paths in life, most people succumb to it. Actually, a marriage between two motivated and self-aware people SHOULD be a good opportunity for mutual self improvement.
I tend to take extreme positions on certain issues, and this is one of them. I think that when you stop getting better, you're essentially dead. The human experience is one of growth and pushing limits, and once you stop doing that, you're done.
When you're constantly becoming better, you get to see the same thing a few years apart and have it mean something different the second time. You understand it from a different perspective and learn something new when you see it again. It's the foundation of a rich life.
You also have more to teach other people. Think of the stereotypical old guy who tells the same stories over and over because he doesn't have any new ones. Most people are already like that by the age of thirty.
Over the years I've probably called a dozen different things "the most important thing you can do". Let's make it a baker's dozen and add this one to the list. If you have an attitude of constant curiousity and self improvement, I think you get the most out of life possible and give the most back possible. What's more important than that?
As penance for slacking on posting lately (and just because it's a good thing to do), I'll be posting twice a week for at least four weeks.
This reminds me of a podcast I just listened to with Rory Blyth. This Developer's Life: Obsession. In it, they discuss how hard it is to understand people who stop learning. And how they are often judged by others for pursuing things. It actually comes up as well in this episode of Hack The System. Anyway, thanks for the post.
I couldn't agree more with what you posted here. Never really thought of marriage as that big of a catalyst though, but you're probably right.
My view is that most people don't actively become the masters of their life, and instead just sail along with the winds, seeing where they'll end up. They're living the life they're living because that's the life they have been living and that's where they ended up; not because they actually consciously made the decision to live their life that way. Everyone is free to live their life the way they want, but I refuse to live my life that way and deep down I'm scared that one day I might succumb to that mentality as well.
I always find it incredibly disheartening when I talk to someone and somehow, everytime I talk to them, they bring the conversation back to a time in the past. Like those were their golden days, the highlight of their lives and everything since then has gone downhill. It's almost as if they've hit the pause button on their life and have stopped living after those golden days. Like the years remaining in their life are going to be filled with nothingness, like they're already dead and are reading their memoires, over and over again. Compare that to the people who energize me by talking about the cool stuff they're doing right now and the amazing projects they've got planned out for the future.
The way I look at it is that a few years back when I wasn't satisfied with the way my life was going and felt really down about it, I consciously, with my full awareness made the choice to work on myself and my life. At that moment, it's like I turned a giant switch from the "off" to the "on" position. Ever since then, it has been in the "on" position, and I will never be able to turn it off again. If I would spend a considerable amount of time not working on myself, I'd know that I wouldn't be improving myself, and I could never let myself get away with that, no matter how painful it sometimes may be working to improve myself. I'll never again be able not to be working towards becoming the next version of me, and tweaking whatever deficiency I might find in my life.
The downside I find is that sometimes it's hard when I'm comparing where I am right now to the vision of who I will be in the future, and knowing I'm not there yet. Another downside is that I often feel the odd one out or the weird one, because the people around me don't seem to value the same principles of self-improvement I do. I find it really hard to find people with the same mentality.
Do these things sound familiar to you, and how do you guys deal with that?
Brilliant. It's just so hard to come across people with this same mindset though. You have got to become aware of this in order to start taking charge of your life.. but so many people just coast. I get so stoked telling people about the articles I've read on Lifehacker, Zenhabits, 43 folders and now this site (awesome btw) - however, if they are not on the same wavelength yet, its literally futile. Anywho - Im loving the blog posts. Keep 'em coming. :D
I'm a little late to this discussion (I found you through your post on zenhabits), but I think you need a counterpoint here. According to your "normal person" scenario, most people "peak" at college, and it's all downhill from there. Well, I think that greatly reflects your current perspective. As someone who has been married for 15 years, been through 5+ jobs since college, and has 2 kids, I think I've done a lot of "improving" since college. I'm not the same person as I was when I was 22 -- and I think that's a good thing. I've learned lots since then BECAUSE of my life experiences, BECAUSE of the things I've been involved in. I still have lots to learn, and I'm open to it; I have lots of things that I still want to experience with my husband, with my kids. Most of the people I know are similar to me in this attitude. Sure, there are some who still think their best years were high school or college, but those are not the people I want to hang around.
I think self improvement can take a backseat when you have kids too. Sometimes just providing for a family and making sure they're improving is enough for a motivated person. I'm speaking hypothetically though, 24yr old here.
My grandfather grew up in a small apartment in Lawrence, Massachusetts with fourteen older brothers and sisters. His mother stayed at home to watch after the family, and his father worked in a dry goods store.
His parents came from Italy to Ellis Island with no money. He grew up poor.
When he was ten or so he began to work at the dry goods store as well. His job was mainly to run into the rat infested basement and get tins of spaghetti to bring upstairs. He was allowed to keep a portion of the money, but most of it went to his parents.
The Deutsche Demokratische Republik was run as a police state, with as many as one-sixth of the population working as internal security, spies, or informants against their neighbors.
The lifeblood of the East German Police State was the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit; colloquially, the "Stasi."
You can tour the old Stasi Headquarters today. It's preserved as the Stasi Museum with a mix of preservation of the old office setup, cold war espionage and security artifacts and gadgets on display, propaganda, accounts of prisoners and rights activists, accounts of resistance action and how goods promoting freedom and democracy were promoted in East Germany, and accounts East German culture.