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If You’re Not Improving, You're Degrading

Updated: Jan 25

"Improvement is like sailing against the tide. If you're not moving forward, you're being pushed backwards."

 —Chinese idiom

A key insight from this idiom is that we need to put conscious effort into our improvement every day; otherwise, we will unconsciously degenerate! I reflected on some examples for myself:

  • If I don't consciously try to improve my humility, then I will habitually use ego to interact with others, and my ego will grow.

  • If I don't consciously try to improve my carefulness, then I will habitually make careless errors, and my carelessness will grow.

  • If I stop writing for a while, then my writing skills will definitely deteriorate.

  • If I stop exercising for a while, then my muscle gains will disappear and my energy levels will reduce.


In my experience, most people would agree that self-improvement is important, but very few people deeply believe it and act on that belief. I think it's similar to exercise. Most people would agree that exercise is important, but many of us don't have a regular exercise routine. I'm certainly not criticizing people, as I have this exact problem. Rather, this is a reminder to myself and to all of us that we must not lost sight of the important things due to distraction with unimportant things.

Part 1: The Importance Of Self-Improvement

Although we intuitively know that self-improvement is good for us, it's helpful to get more specific and clear on the benefits. The clearer our goal, the stronger our motivation. Thus, I briefly summarized four benefits of self-improvement:

  1. Prevent problems

  2. Gain joy

  3. Relationship harmony

  4. Career success

Icon Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4


1.1: Prevent Problems

In The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey talks about four types of activities:

  1. Important and urgent (e.g., emergencies)

  2. Important but not urgent (e.g., exercise, learning, self-improvement, planning for the future)

  3. Not important but urgent (e.g., phone call, doorbell)

  4. Unimportant and not urgent (e.g., mindlessly scrolling through social media)


A key idea from the book is to do more of the important but non-urgent things, and in doing so, we not only feel more productive, but we prevent emergencies from arising. For example, if we take care of our health by exercising and sleeping well, we can prevent a health emergency. If we are constantly improving our character, we can prevent relationship disasters.

1.2: Gain Joy

 Socrates said,

"Just as one person delights in improving his farm, and another his horse, so I delight in attending to my own improvement day by day."

It's human nature to find enjoyment in self-improvement. Think back to a time you learned something useful or conquered a difficulty. Didn't it feel great? Modern psychology also teaches us to leave our comfort zone and go into the growth zone.

Staying in the comfort zone will make us feel stagnant. Living in the growth zone might feel a little uncomfortable, but we will gain us a sense of accomplishment. Of course, don't go overboard into the panic zone.


1.3: Relationship Harmony

Self-improvement is not just for ourselves, it's also important for other people. Some people think, "I don't care if other people are unhappy. The important thing is that I am happy." What they don’t realize is that humans are social creatures who get heavily influenced by each other. If you are happy, but the people around you are unhappy, how long do you think you can remain happy?


No one is perfect, and our faults cause trouble to others. If we make others unhappy due to our faults, that will eventually come back to us. If we can improve our character and virtues, then the people around us will be happier. Since we all get influenced by the people around us, when we make others happy, we feel happy too. And when we improve our virtues, others will get inspired too.

1.4: Career Success

Self-improvement is not just for good feels, it's also important for our work and career. According to the World Economic Forum, 94% of business leaders believe that lifelong learning and upskilling are crucial for long-term success. As motivational speaker Alan Zimmerman often says,

"How do you expect to accomplish tomorrow’s goals with yesterday’s skills?"


Highly successful people all invest time and money into improving themselves. While many of us seek entertainment as a way to relax or pass time, highly successful people use their free time to learn. They viewing learning as a way to take a break.


After we gain more clarity on why self-improvement is important to myself specifically, we will have more motivation to invest time and energy into it. But we also need to be thoughtful about what exactly we choose to improve.

Part 2: Areas Of Self-Improvement

Broadly speaking, we can categorize self-improvement into two areas: character and abilities. Which should come first?


In The Great Learning, Confucius said,

"One with virtues will gain people. One with people will gain land. One with land will gain wealth. One with wealth will gain utility. Virtues are the root. Wealth is the result."

(Original Text: 有德此有人,有人此有土,有土此有財,有財此有用。德者本也,財者末也 。)


In other words, we should focus on cultivating our character first. That means cultivating virtues like respect, consideration, humility, and wisdom. It also means eliminating vices like anger, greed, arrogance, and laziness. For more on this topic, check out my book summary on Guide To A Happy Life.

This doesn't mean that we don't invest in improving our skills and abilities, it just means that they come after. It's like building a house.

We have to build the first floor (character) before we build the second floor (abilities). If we build the second floor on top of a weak first floor, then the whole building might collapse at the slightest wind.


A famous Chinese historian, Si Ma Guang, observed the rise and fall of dynasties in China, and he wrote,

"To have the utmost abilities and virtues is to be a sage. To lack both abilities and virtues is to be useless. To have more virtues than abilities is to be a Great Person (Junzi). To have more abilities than virtues is to be a Petty Person (Xiaoren). In hiring, if we cannot find a sage, then hire a Great Person. If we have to choose between a useless person and a Petty Person, it's better to choose the useless person… From history, we can see that ministers who wreck the government and children who ruin the clan are all people with an excess of ability and lack of virtues."


(Original Text: 是故才德全盡謂之聖人,才德兼亡謂之愚人,德勝才謂之君子,才勝德謂之小人。凡取人之術,苟不得聖人、君子而與之,與其得小人,不若得愚人。凡取人之術,苟不得聖人、君子而與之,與其得小人,不若得愚人…自古昔以來,國之亂臣,家之敗子,才有餘而德不足。)


(Translation Note: The terms Junzi and Xiaoren are difficult terms to translate because they have different meanings in different contexts. Generally speaking, a Junzi is someone with great moral cultivation, while a Xiaoren is someone without great virtues and often has many vices.)


Think about it, if someone is extremely talented, but he is very arrogant and has a quick temper, would you want to hire him and work with him? This is why interviewers will ask questions related to how we handle conflicts and difficulty. The worst are the people with great ability but no morality. A person with no morality and no ability might want to do immoral things, but they lack ability, so they can't cause any harm. A person with no morality but high ability can cause a lot of harm. Thus, virtues comes before abilities.


Now that we've looked at the importance of self-improvement and the difference between virtues and abilities, we can talk about some obstacles to self-improvement. By overcoming these obstacles, our self-improvement will be much smoother, like sailing on calm waters.

Part 3: Obstacles To Self-Improvement

The question of how to improve ourselves is quite simple: Cultivate virtues and abilities. Eliminate vices and deficiencies. Moreover we should start with our biggest problem because that will reap the greatest benefit.


The question of obstacles to self-improvement is perhaps more insightful. My mentor once asked, "Why is it that some people spent decades learning about self-improvement, but they barely have any improvement? Or worse, their relationships got worse? It's very important to be identify and eliminate the obstacles to our improvement."


There isn't one standard answer, but I've reflected on some major obstacles:

  1. Blaming others

  2. Self-deception

  3. Ego

  4. Blind spots

  5. Aversion to discomfort

Icon Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

3.1: Blaming Others

This is the biggest obstacle that my mentor talked about. The great Chinese philosopher Mencius said,

"When your efforts do not reap your expected results, reflect on yourself."

 (Original Text: 行有不得者,皆反求諸己 。)


In other words, don't blame other people or outside circumstances. Immature children blame others. Mature people take responsibility for their situation even if they are not fully at fault. Although other people and external circumstances are certainly factors to our results, we cannot control them. If we want to be effective, we need to put our attention and energy on what we can control: ourselves.

There's no way we have zero contribution to our result. It's much more likely that we are the biggest contributor to our problem. If we have this attitude, then we will improve in the face of every problem, and the frequency of problems will reduce.


All the wise philosophers of the past urge us to seek inwards not outwards. The stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius said,

"Today I escaped from the crush of circumstances, or better put, I threw them out, for the crush wasn't from outside me but in my own assumptions."


We often think that other people frustrate us, or that circumstances trouble us. But we must remember that we always have the choice to choose our response. After all, someone else in our exact circumstances might not get upset, so the problem is not the external circumstances, it's our thinking.


For example, if we treat others nicely, but they don't respond well in return, it's easy to blame the other person as just rude or uncaring. If we do that, we've just degraded because we've increased the habit of blaming others. Instead, we can reflect on ourselves:

  • Did I treat this person unkindly in the past?

  • Have I built enough trust with this person?

  • Am I impatient for quick results?

  • Am I sincere with my kindness, or do I have ulterior motives? People can sense insincerity.

  • Although I view my actions as kind, do they view it as kind?

  • Do I really understand them? Or am I just assuming negative intentions from them?


When we can always reflect on ourselves in the face of problems, our rate of self-improvement will skyrocket.

3.2: Self-Deception

This is another extremely big obstacle. It's when we know in the back of our minds that something is bad, but we sweet talk ourselves into doing it anyway. Or others tell us that we have a problem, but we refuse to acknowledge it.

Consider these examples:

  • Someone tells me I am arrogant or have a bad temper, and I say, "No I don't. I'm way better than the average person."

  • I know I probably shouldn't start playing on my phone, but I tell myself, "It's OK, I already worked for an hour, I'll just play for five minutes." An hour later, I think, "OMG how did I spend so much time on my phone!"

  • Everyone tells me that it's not a good idea, but I just really want to do it, so I find all the reasons I can to support my idea.


In order to overcome self-deception, we need to be humble and take other people's criticisms seriously. What do the people closest to you often complain about you? We might think, "They're just complainers." That would be self-deception. We are our true selves towards the people closest to us, so if they complain that we have a certain problem, then it's probably true!

It would be much more mature and humble to say, "Thank you for pointing out my problem. I will work on it in this way. I hope you can support me and be patient with me throughout the process."


When we want to do something, but others disapprove, we can meditate on our intentions and ask ourselves, "Is my intention purely good? Did I mix in any selfishness or ego?" As long as we have a purely good intention, we can have a clear conscience even if the result didn't turn out as hoped.


Self-deception, if not tampered, can grow into deceiving others. For example, we might put on an appearance of diligence in front of others, but when no one is watching, we waste time doing inappropriate things. In the back of our mind, we will be constantly worried about being exposed. When others ask about the matter, we nervously make up half-truth-half-lies to cover up our inappropriate behavior. It's an extremely exhausting way to live, and it's not worth it!

3.3: Ego

In his book Principles, billionaire Ray Dalio talks about two obstacles to our improvement: ego and blind spots. He defines the ego barrier as "your subliminal defense mechanisms that make it hard for you to accept your mistakes and weaknesses."


He also gives us a pep talk:

"When a problem stems from your own lack of talent or skill, most people feel shame. Get over it. I cannot emphasize this enough: Acknowledging your weaknesses is not the same as surrendering to them. It's the first step toward overcoming them."


There is also a common Chinese saying that goes,

"We are not sages or saints, so how can we not have any faults? To have faults and be able to correct them, that is the greatest goodness."


An important point here is that we shouldn't feel arrogant (I have nothing to improve) nor should we feel self-depreciating (I'm the worst). Humility is found in the middle. Humility is seeing that we have many faults, feeling relieved that we know our faults, and then taking action to improve. Don't dwell in negative emotions; channel that energy into productive action.

3.4: Blind Spots

Blind spots are problems that we don't even realize we have. It's like having a dirty spot on our face but not knowing because we cannot see our face. Fortunately, other people can usually see our blind spots and problems. There is a common Chinese idiom that goes,

"The audience sees the game clearer than the players."


That's because when we are in the midst of a messy situation, we are very emotional. A neutral third party can come in without any emotional baggage, so they can think about the situation rationally and without bias or worry. This is why before I make major decisions, I ask a neutral and wise third party, such as my mentor, for advice.


It's great to ask others for advice and feedback, but if we want others to tell us the truth, we need to be humble and appreciative towards criticism. Even better, we can proactively ask others for feedback on how we can improve. If they don’t say anything the first time, it might be because they are afraid of offending us. If so, we can try again a few more times. Once they realize our sincerity, they will be willing to speak the truth.

3.5: Aversion To Discomfort

Let's face it: correcting faults and bad habits is not easy nor comfortable! It's kind of like exercising. We don't want to do it at first, it feels uncomfortable during the process, but we feel great afterwards. Self-improvement is the same! Thus, we can remind ourselves:

"Short-term pain for long-term gain."


For example, I usually don't feel like going for a run beforehand, and even during the run it feels difficult, but I keep going because I know I'll feel a sense of accomplishment afterwards, and I'll have peace of mind knowing that I'm taking care of my health. Also, it's usually not as bad as I expected after I get started. After running for a few weeks, I noticed my energy levels improved, and I believe it's related to running, which gives me even more motivation to continue this healthy habit. For more on building healthy habits, check out this article.

Similarly, I used to always have the urge to win arguments, but I know that if I let arrogance take over, then even if I win in the short-term, I lose in the long-term because of relationship tension. By training myself to value harmony and humility above being right, and this is a very strenuous process, I gain much more happiness and a sense of accomplishment in the long-term.


Our ability to forego short-term pleasure, or to endure short-term pain in exchange for long-term gain, is one trait that makes humans superior to animals. Let's make good use of that trait in our self-improvement journey!


Self-improvement is not just a nice-to-have thing that we can think about in our free time. It's an essential matter for our happiness, relationships, and career success. But the journey of self-improvement is like riding a bike uphill. If we're not advancing, we're going to slip backwards. Thus, we need to make conscious effort to continuously improve.

On the journey, we need to be wary of major obstacles, such as blaming others, self-deception, ego, blind spots, and aversion to discomfort. Of course, we may slip once in a while, and that's OK. The important thing is we get back up and keep moving forward. Do you have any other tips? Feel free to share in the comments!


Weekly Wisdom #272

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