The 7 Cardinal Sins Of Self-Improvement

If Aristotle was right when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living, then he would be equally right if he had said that the UNIMPROVED LIFE is not worth living.

We’re all in process. None of us has arrived and none of us are complete. We all have work to do. Some more than others, yes. But all of us need some work. We all can improve in some way, to some degree.

But self-improvement doesn’t just happen. It’s not magic. It doesn’t come through wishful thinking. It requires several things. And though there are several things we must do RIGHT in order to improve ourselves, there are a number of things we can do WRONG to sabotage our efforts.

In fact, I would suggest there are 7 Cardinal Sins of Self-Improvement. Things we should be aware of in order to maximize the chances that our self-improvement efforts will be successful.

Sin #1 – We expect results too easily.

Self-improvement is usually challenging for the simple reason that we all have deeply ingrained patterns of thought and behavior that are difficult to dislodge. What started out as something new and different can, over time, develop into something old and binding. Something we’ve come to recognize as providing little benefit or even some harm. We know we need to change this thing. But wanting to change it is not the same as actually changing it.

As the American educational reformer Horace Mann once observed, ‘Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it each day, and at last we cannot break it.’

Old habits don’t die willingly or without a fight. So we must begin any self-improvement endeavor with an understanding that results will not come easily. Nor will they come quickly. Which brings us to Sin #2.

Sin #2 – We expect results too quickly.

When we think about our ingrained patterns and the habits we’d like to break, we must remember that they weren’t formed quickly. It took months or even years before they became part of us. As in the above analogy of the weaving, we may only add a thread at a time. But eventually we’ve woven a cable that’s so hard to break.

For this reason, it’s foolhardy to think that a deeply ingrained pattern or habit can be overcome quickly. It nearly always takes time. But just as time is our ENEMY when it comes to FORMING a destructive habit…time becomes our ALLY when we’re trying to improve ourselves. Small changes over time can make a big difference.

Take losing weight, for example, a challenge that almost everyone faces from time to time. Setting out to lose 30 pounds may seem insurmountable and entirely unrealistic. We think how hard it would be to lose 30 pounds. But if we cut out one slice of bread per day. Or ate only half of the Snicker’s bar. Or ate 2 fewer Oreo cookies each day. If we eliminated a mere 100 calories per day – we’d lose 10 pounds in a year. In 3 years we’d lose the entire 30 pounds.

But you might be thinking, ‘Who wants to take 3 years to lose 30 pounds?’ Of course, you could always lose the 30 pounds FASTER, but it will require more work, more focus, and more denial. We often sabotage our efforts at self-improvement because we demand rapid transformation. Sure, rapid transformation can be attempted. But there are 3 downsides:

  • If we fail to see quick results, we’re prone to give up
  • It’s harder to incorporate major changes than minor changes
  • We tend to react negatively to the self-denial required

The point is that major changes can be made over long periods of time. We’ll still need discipline to make the journey. But there will be less denial and fewer austerity measures required. As the old quip goes: ‘By the yard it’s hard…by the inch it’s a cinch.’ This is a good thing to keep in mind when we need to change deeply ingrained patterns and habits. It will take time. So we should allow for the time and not commit the second sin of expecting results too quickly.

Sin #3 – We set unrealistic goals.

The third sin is commonly committed because, at the outset, we’re highly motivated to make the changes we know we should make. We see a friend who’s made some major personal improvements. We read a self-help book. We see an ad in a magazine of what WE could look like. And we’re off and running. And we set some most unrealistic goals for ourselves.

  • We’re going to run our first marathon in 2 weeks.
  • We’re going to change careers, move to Europe, find our soulmate, and retire in 5 years.
  • We’re going to lose those 30 pounds in 3 weeks.
  • We’re going to read all of the classic novels on our upcoming vacation.

Of course, these are ridiculously ambitious and unrealistic goals. But you get the idea. We set goals that are so lofty that they’re essentially guaranteed to fail. And failure is not very motivational, is it?

So we need to set goals that are ambitious and challenging without being unrealistic.

This is harder than it sounds. We simply DON’T KNOW what a realistic goal ACTUALLY IS. But there’s an excellent workaround for this. The workaround is that we simply BEGIN with a goal we KNOW is realistic. So if we want to lose 30 pounds, we set an INCREMENTAL GOAL that we’re confident we can reach.

Say the goal is to lose a pound a week for 4 consecutive weeks. That would be something like 500 fewer calories each day for 4 weeks. No small achievement, but it’s doable with some focus and a fair amount of discipline. If this seems unreasonable, we can make it 250 calories per day. Whatever we feel we can handle while still being a challenge.

After all, if reaching our goal was EASY, we’d have done it long ago. But reaching the goal cannot be TOO DAUNTING, or we’ll either give up too soon or never begin the journey. It’s all about the BALANCE. Our goals can be out of sight, but they can’t be out of reach. So think about what the end result is. And think through the incremental steps to reach that end result. Set target goals that you’re confident you can reach with some focus and discipline. Then celebrate the incremental achievements. Even small achievements are worth celebrating because each one represents a step closer to your ultimate goal.

As the adage goes: You can’t eat an elephant in ONE BITE. But you CAN eat an elephant ONE BITE AT A TIME.

Sin #4 – We forget that resolve is just the beginning.

In one of my recent blog posts, I referred to a Flemish proverb that says: ‘He who is outside his door has the hardest part of his journey behind him.’ The fact of the matter is that STARTING A JOURNEY of self-improvement can be the HARDEST PART. Overcoming the inertia can be daunting.

But we can fall into the equally common trap of thinking that by STARTING, the work is essentially done. This is not true and we set ourselves up for disillusionment if we forget it. Sure, STARTING IS HUGE on the road to self-improvement. We can never make a journey we never begin. But we must tell ourselves along the way that there are many steps to take and that we will need to take many steps before we arrive at our destination.

That’s okay and it need not be discouraging. But we can be discouraged by the disillusionment as well as by the actual discipline. It’s better to expect difficult points on the journey than to think that once we start there’s little left that’s hard. Not true. Starting is vital. Starting is key. Starting is mandatory. But it’s just the start of the race. It’s the END of the race that determines the winner.

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Sin #5 – We see setbacks as failures rather than rungs.

We need to recognize when we begin a self-improvement endeavor, there will be setbacks along the way. This is nearly certain. Again, if the improvement was easy, we would have already made it. But it’s not easy, so it’s been elusive to this point. But this time will be different. We have the resolve, we have a plan, we have some realistic goals…in a word – WE’RE READY.

But along with our enthusiasm, we will need a dose of reality – there will be setbacks. We do what we can to reduce the likelihood of their occurrence. We plan as best we can. We anticipate the challenging turns on the journey. But setbacks are virtually inevitable.

That’s okay.

But we need to see the setbacks not as FAILURES, but as RUNGS. As if we’re climbing a ladder to our destination. The destination is at the TOP of the ladder. And we can only get there by stepping on each rung as we get to it. But sometimes our foot will slip on the next rung. This is not failure and it should not be seen as such. It’s merely a time to stop and assess before taking the next step.

Rest on the current rung. Congratulate yourself on the progress made SO FAR. Look back at the rungs that have already been passed. No need to panic. Or despair. Take a rest. Enjoy the rest. Use the rest to be restored and revived. Then, when the rest is over, take on the next rung. Rinse and repeat as necessary.

All journeys are incremental. Journeys have many steps to them. There’s no need to be discouraged by that. Accept it as part of the journey. Until we learn how to travel at warp speed, journeys will take time.

Sin #6 – We fail to consider our own weaknesses and our own strengths.

We all have limitations. We all have weaknesses. We all have areas in which we have a history of less-than-stellar achievement. That’s fine. Because we also have abilities. And skills. And aptitude. And talents. And a proven track record of success in multiple areas.

When we’re planning out the journey, we should take time to consider these before we start out. Think through what your strengths are. Where will you SHINE on the journey? Where will the journey be EASY for you? What natural abilities can you parlay on the route? Then plan your journey to maximize them.

For example, if you’re not a morning person, it’s not wise to make a requirement of your self-improvement journey to rise every morning at 5:00 am. This is a recipe for failure. However, if you ARE a morning person, rising at 5:00 am may be your greatest ally. The key is to know what YOUR unique abilities are and use them as leverage to increase your odds of success.

  • If you have a tendency to lose your drive when you work for long periods, then plan to take lots of breaks.
  • If you work better for long stints, then arrange your schedule so you’ll have large blocks of time.
  • If you’re easily distracted—then eliminate all the distractions you can.
  • If you work better with some background noise—then provide the background noise you need.
  • If you work better alone, then be willing to tell your friends that you need some time to focus, and find a place to be alone.
  • If you work better around other people, then take the steps you need for that.

It’s not that one strategy is better than another. Or that one size fits all. The point is that we’re all a bit different than everyone else. Be aware of what that difference is and leverage it to your advantage. Know your strengths and exploit them. Leverage them. Know your weaknesses and allow for them. This will greatly increase your likelihood of success. It will also make the journey less arduous.

If you have a weakness for candy bars, don’t go into the candy store and test your discipline. Avoid the candy store entirely. And if fate finds you IN the candy store, then make sure you just buy ONE SMALL CANDY BAR. You’ll have overcome the temptation without having to totally deny yourself. Then get back on the wagon.

Sin #7 – We forget that self-improvement is a process, not an event.

The seventh Cardinal Sin of self-improvement is that we forget that self-improvement is a process and not an event. This is related to the first 2 sins we addressed. We see this readily enough in other areas of life.

  • We would never plant flower seeds and return in an hour and wonder why they hadn’t sprouted yet.
  • We don’t buy a stock in the morning and expect it to double in value by the afternoon.
  • We don’t catch the flu one night and expect to return to work or to school the following morning.
  • We know that even FAST FOOD requires SOME TIME to prepare.

But we don’t see this so readily when it comes to self-improvement. We want the improvement NOW. At least sooner rather than later. We want to give up because it’s taking SOOOO LOOOONG.

Will I ever finish this degree program? Will I ever get in shape? Will I ever lose this weight? Will I ever be able to leave this dead end job? Will I ever be able to afford my own home? Will I ever be able to afford a reliable car? Will I ever be able to break this destructive habit? Will it EVER HAPPEN?

The answer to that question is WE DON’T KNOW. Only time will provide the answer. But we need not commit the sin of FORGETTING that self-improvement is a process and not an event. If reaching goals was an EVENT rather than a PROCESS, nearly everyone would have reached their goals. It’s the PROCESS THAT TRIPS PEOPLE UP.

We become impatient on the journey. We want to be there NOW. Kind of like kids sitting in the backseat on a long trip. ARE WE THERE YET? No, we aren’t there yet. Journeys take time. A journey is a PROCESS. It’s not an event.

But there’s BEAUTY IN THE PROCESS. The beauty is in SEEING the process unfold. So in a few days we see the flower seeds sprout. And we watch the plant grow. And eventually the plant produces flowers. There’s beauty in the growth process as well as in the blooming. We don’t lose 30 pounds in a weekend. But we can see the pounds coming off over a period of weeks. There’s beauty in the process. There’s satisfaction in the process. There’s reason to celebrate the process – even before the destination is reached.

Like riding on a train from one city to another. We know there are many stations along the way. Maybe a LOT OF STATIONS. But as we come to each station and hear it announced, we know we’re making progress. Each station brings us closer to our final station. In a sense we can celebrate the arrival at each station, knowing that it represents a closing in on the goal of reaching our destination.

So why make the journey of self-improvement?

So why embark on self-improvement anyway? Why put ourselves through a process that may be hard and will take time? Here are some reasons:

  • No one is perfect and no one has arrived. We all need to improve in some way.
  • Self-improvement will give us a sense of accomplishment. A great feeling to have.
  • Self-improvement is often the key to a better life.
  • Self-improvement will make us a better version of ourselves.
  • Self-improvement on a small scale will motivate us to improve on a larger scale.

Henry David Thoreau once said, ‘I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate himself by conscious endeavor.’

Anne Frank said, ‘How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.’

I would add that none of us need wait a single moment before starting to IMPROVE OURSELVES. So let’s get started.

About Author

I was born and raised in northern Virginia near Washington, D.C. My dream as a child was to play professional baseball. I made it as far as a baseball scholarship to a Division 1 college. But it’s a long story. I’m a teacher at core, and love to teach anything and anybody who wants to learn. I started out as a public school teacher. But eventually felt called to the ministry, where I spent 32 years as a pastor. I love the outdoors. I love to read. I love people. I love to learn. Not necessarily in that order. I try to take a long walk every day year-round. I’ve done that for nearly 40 years. It’s where I do some of my best thinking. It also clears the cobwebs from my head and the nonsense that tries to take root there. I now run a blog (which you can visit by clicking here), where I discuss the meaning and lessons contained within some famous quotes.

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