The Problem with Self-Improvement

Elderly man standing on shore watching a sailboat go by
Are you stuck on the shore? Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay

Sooner or Later You Must DO Something

In the late 1970s, long before self-improvement became a thing, I was traveling in Europe after 2 years of college and struggling with what to do next. Sitting on the beach at the Black Sea, one of my companions told me the following:

Say you want to sail that boat to the other side of the sea. You can read books about sailing. You can take lessons in how to raise and lower sails, how to tie knots, and how to steer with a rudder, all from the safety of the dock. But until you cast off the lines and move out onto the water, you will never learn to sail, let alone reach your destination.

He was right, of course. But my indecision and procrastination were strong. They were fueled by fear.

  • What if I can’t do it?
  • What if they laugh at me?
  • What if that’s not the right destination?
  • What if I get in trouble?
  • What if it’s not the right thing to do?
  • What if nobody likes me because of it?
  • What if XXXXX quits loving me?
  • What if I don’t belong anymore?
  • What if I end up all alone?

What ifs are often the killers of dreams, and aspirations, and souls. Twenty years after my friend told me that story, I had finally come to the point where I was done trying to figure out what others wanted, trying to live up to their dreams and expectations, trying to determine the “right” thing. But I’d been stuck in that mode for so long, I didn’t even know what my dreams were.

Faced with a choice between a life of “quiet desperation” like so many around me or finding a different route, I chose the latter. It took me reaching rock bottom before I finally took action and did something about it.

I’ve always been good at learning. I generally excelled in academic environments, as long as the goals were clear and there was structure. For the most part, learning is a part of who I am. But putting what I learn into practice is another story altogether. I’m one of the Great Procrastinators. Why?

Even now, twenty-five years after making that life choice, I still struggle with the doing. I’ve read books and articles. I’ve been through counseling and self-improvement classes. I even have friends who make a living in the self-help and self-improvement fields. Yet I still get stuck.

I’m fighting this tug of war right now when it comes to employment. Work with only a paycheck in mind is stifling. I make a lousy corporate drone. It’s hard to keep work issues at work and not bring them home. So, I decided to approach things differently. I decided to do contract work from home.

I realized that I wanted to do this last June. It took until yesterday to sign up with a service that specializes in matching up folks like me with companies looking for remote contractors. That’s right. A whole year of hemming and hawing, of researching and checking things out. Of procrastination and fear.

Fortunately, a couple of friends decided to try out my services before I gave up completely, and that has proven beneficial on both sides. But I still need to get out there and “sell myself” to enough clients to keep comfortably busy and pay some bills. Growing up, the saying was “Fish or cut bait.” Either do it or settle for less.

I suspect I’m not the only one that struggles with follow through. The size of the self-improvement industry gives testimony to the issue if nothing else does. Too many of us seek out magical listicles, again and again, or pour money into training, seminars, and gurus, yet never seem to accomplish what we want. It’s not because we aren’t worthy, or dumb, or don’t pray hard enough, or don’t spend enough money. It’s because we don’t take action on what we’ve learned. We let fear overrule us.

Young boy sitting on a dock fishing with a home-made fishing pole, his line in the water.
Fish or cut bait. Image by Lorri Lang from Pixabay

Remember the story of Jesus walking on the water in Matthew 22:22-33? When Jesus called to him, Peter got out of the boat and started to walk on the water, too. But then he let fear grab him, and he began to sink.

Regardless of who or what we put our faith in, fear can rob us of growth, fulfillment, and accomplishment. But only if we let it. Sometimes the choice is a big one, sometimes it seems inconsequential.

When I feel especially fearful and vulnerable, I try to find something small to start with. Maybe I’ll drive a different route to the grocery store. Try a new recipe. Rearrange my desk. Anything that changes the status quo to something different but unthreatening. That accomplished, I can face something larger.

We can practice tied up to the dock for the rest of our lives, or we can cast off and learn to sail, whether we have exotic destinations in mind or not.

We can put our line into the water and see what bites, or we can sit on the shore and cut bait.

What are you going to do?

Grace, Peace, and Hugs!

Leave a Comment