I remember sitting by a pool in Bali (the struggles) on my gap year and writing in my diary that I wanted to become ‘a better person’. I had read the requisite amount of Dostoevsky, Hesse, Eliot and Somerset Maugham to know that my previous aspirations – to become rich, successful and renowned – would likely lead to discontent.

I was traveling on my own – to see and experience the world solo. I had dreams of returning tattooed, wise and rich with confidence and tales. Alas, I wasn’t ready. Still painfully shy or at least awash with self-doubt, I found it hard to wander up to strangers and forge new relationships. A lot of time was spent ‘trying’ to overcome these insecurities, or passing time alone, without much of a sense of direction. Certainly, there were moments of joy and discovery – trance parties on the beach, tropical hangovers and characters met – but I was overly-aware of the difference between my own abilities in seizing the day, and those of others who seemed just bigger, more confident and charismatic than I. So ‘becoming better’ became my focus.

There were a number of ways that I realised I might ‘become better’. Through studying, reading, discipline, awareness, compassion, hard work and the rest. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very good at these either. And so time passed, as it’s want to. My gap year wandered on. Then university and ‘real life’.

14 years on, I still have aspirations of becoming a better person. If I remove the improvements gained by time, experience and wisdom, I wonder whether, in fact, I’ve become any better at all. Perhaps I’ve even gone backwards. Certainly, I’m not too bad. I’ve done a bit of work that has had lasting impacts, here and there. But I’m still driven, or is that haunted, by the idea that there is so much more that can and could have been done to ‘improve’ – my aspirations, fueled by those ‘big’ people met, and literary characters witnessed, seem bigger than my abilities.

Despite all these years of trying, I seem to get no closer.

This morning, after reading a couple of chapters of Kane and Able – (people forget that Jeffrey Archer, despite being bit of a dubious fellow – or perhaps because he is one – can spin a gripping yarn) I went for my morning swim in the lagoon in front of my house, determined once again to make this a ‘bettering day’. How much can I fit in? Is there time to write a blog post (yes), write a bit more of a new song on the piano, to do some work, learn some swahili and do some exercise. Can I fit it all in and do it well? Can I leave myself an iota better at the end of today and turn that corner that I’ve been trying to turn for 14+ years.

Or, as it occurred to me as I swam – given the 14 years and lack of progress to change my fundamental being, should I come to terms with my deficiencies, know myself, and embrace what I have rather than what I believe I should have. Surely that is more Simpletomian. Why is it, after all these years of high-expectation, have I not learned the truth? I’m always optimistic about what could be achieved, that what usually is.

Which brought me back to some of the fundamental tennents of my Simple journey – not to be lazy and give into sloth – but instead to embrace natural inclinations. To be gentle with oneself, whilst at the same time making considered improvments, being mindful of patterns and trends and implementing some discipline. Rather than waking up frustrated by a previous lack of progress and expecting that energy to propel toward a new lease of life – to gently accept the way things are and work with them to improve the self, just that little iota needed. With compound interest, those iotas may indeed add up.

Most of us have an inherent ability to improve ourselves that doesn’t need to be forced or cajoled through guilt or self-lamentation. The happiest times in my life have not been when I’ve had a Franklin-esque day, but instead when I’ve cast aside concerns and just been. I still get things done.

I need to trust myself – to be confident that the process will unravel, rather than force the issues. The frustration, rather than compel me to be better, instead initiates guilt, which is deconstructive.

I’m still mostly a nice person. Plus I actually tend to be better when I’m not trying than when I am – without the pressure, or stress, of self-flagellation, I tend to think and worry less and do more.

5 thoughts on “Bettering

  1. Bettering is definitely preferable than battering, which it sounds like it’s a toss-up between here. It’s also cannily close to how I’ve been thinking for years too – must get better, must get better, how can I do it, right I’ll do this, and this, and this, and I’ll even fit in this, and how can I make the most of each day… reading it from someone else’s pov makes me a lot more sympathetic to its potentially damaging effects, and I think given your big, big achievements already (lots of people would be so proud of themselves with your past triumphs, even if you think that underneath it all you’re a big fake who doesn’t deserve the acclaim) you should definitely try to be kinder to yourself. How to do that, I have no idea. I am still struggling with this myself.

  2. Thought provoking as ever T.

    Kierkegaard called exactly this anxiety the ‘dizziness of freedom’. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s how you work out what you’re responsible for, and the choices you have. It’s the motor for closing the gap between what you want and what you do.

    What strikes me is that when you write about “bettering”, are you trying to make yourself better, or the world?

    Thinking about the difference, I’m increasingly reconciled to the fact that as a project for self-improvement, I’m something of a lost cause. I would like to be a morning person who eats well and runs 5 miles a day, but it ain’t ever going to happen. I won’t stop trying to learn french or run a marathon but the returns are likely to be marginal, at best.

    But however imperfectly, if I plug away at it, I hope I can do some work that does more good than harm.

  3. Wow, inspirational replies Jac, Andy. Thank you both…

    Jac, I’m really touched by what you said – it seems more a battle with the demons of self-esteem than a reality – thank you for reminding me.

    Andy – as ever, a reminder for a touch, (or perhaps larger than a touch) of humility. I can get lost in the ‘I’ rather than the ‘we’ or the ‘you’. Thanks.

  4. Hi TOm — Just came across this post and see so much of myself in it. Thanks for the reminder to be gentle with onesself. At your image of never quite being able to turn the corner, I couldn’t help the silly notion that, if you’d just turn around, that corner would then be behind you! 😉

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