When I was backpacking alone through China in the late 2014, I did not know any Chinese. So, I responded to every bit of English I heard.
In the evening twilight, one night in Beijing, I was approached by two Chinese women who asked, in English, where I was from. Glad to speak with anyone, I replied and continued the conversation.
As we talked, I was 100% focused on asking them about their backgrounds, remembering their names, understanding their stories, telling them about myself, and making connections among our interests. I was so focused that I hadn’t noticed that we had walked down the stairs into a tea shop. That we had entered into a room and I sat down at the table furthest from the door. That while one was telling me about her graduate school, the other was ordering tea and wine and nuts and chips and fruit from the menu.
I looked down at the prices and saw they were absurdly expensive. Immediately, red flags went off. I stopped talking. This didn’t feel right. A pit grew in my stomach and my vision got blurry and I stood up and pushed past the women and ran by the waiter and flung open the door and sprinted up the stairs onto the street to safety.
They had set me up. They would order a bunch of expensive items then “forget” their money. I’d be forced to pay. They would split the earnings with the tea shop owner.
What went wrong?
I could have blamed it on them: they were evil and I was trying to be nice. But to what degree was I responsible for that situation?
By reflecting on this event, I noticed a new tendency in my behavior: I focus hard on making a good first impression with new people by giving them my full attention. But for this, I sacrifice situational awareness.
I don’t often feel concerned about my physical danger because I’m a stocky guy. But clearly, maintaining 100% attention on others is not sustainable, because I could find myself in a different type of danger.
So, I decided to change my behavior. Now, I always maintain situational awareness, even when meeting new people. This allows me to make a good first impression while protecting myself.
I think it’s important to always be improving like this. I think of this process as a 4-Step Self-Improvement Engine:
Reflect -> Learn -> Evaluate -> Change
- Reflect: Open my mind through prayer or meditation, and focus my attention on my life choices and events (think about the Tea Ladies).
- Learn: Find trends in behavior, character, thoughts, or actions that were previously unidentified (note my 100% focus on attention).
- Evaluate: Determine the worth of the identified trend continuing. If it adds value, justify incorporating into my behavior. If not, then justify squelching it (it’s bad to lose situational awareness even in new social interactions, because I could find myself in unknown, dangerous situations).
- Change: Both incorporating and squelching involve adjusting behavior (next time I communicate, note where my attention goes and practice noticing my surroundings more often).
Self-improvement enables the character to be better. For me, my best self is good and honest toward myself and others. Being good and honest is positive, sustainable, and repeatable, and should be encouraged. Every day, I should get closer to being good and honest.
But some days, it seems like I don’t get closer to my best self. So why do I sometimes feel off the mark? What else is happening?
To answer this question, I conducted an exercise. Each morning, I wrote the best thing I experienced on the previous day. I ended up writing about people I met, knowledge I gained, unique things I tried, mistakes I made, new places I visited, or things I discovered about myself.
Each “best thing” was new to me and required that I adapt to unknown information. The experience of each involves testing the abilities of my pure character without prior knowledge. These exercises underline the value of my character if I succeed and unearth what I’m missing if I fail. Similarly, a machine algorithm is not valuable if it can accurately crunch only the training data sets it’s already seen. It’s valuable if it can accurately crunch new data sets it hasn’t seen. Since I often fail, every encounter with the unknown enables me to discover something new about myself.
By analyzing the set of my responses to new experiences, I can measure the growth or decline of my character over time. But whether I improved or did not, I always learn something.
Improvement starts with reflection, but relies heavily on learning. Over the long term, the quality and frequency of my learning drive the degree and direction of character growth: better learning -> better measuring -> more improving. If my attitude is prideful and ignorant, then I may not identify anything worth changing in my reflection, and my character does not improve. However, if my attitude is open-minded and honest, then I can address a subtle pattern of destructive behavior that my ego had ignored.
Improving to the most good and honest self requires feeding the self-improvement engine with quality learning. It’s like launching a rocket to reach Mars without knowing any laws of physics. All I can do is start small, compare myself to my goal constantly along the way, and make little adjustments to my speed and direction by firing rocket boosters along the way. In other words, answer the following: “what am I doing now and how does that compare to what I could be doing?” Then, “how do I close the gap?” And then do those things.
Aiming for a goal but not feeding quality learning into the improvement engine is like launching with a hope, but never firing the rocket boosters on the journey. We are guaranteed to stray from the path and miss the mark.
Some people don’t care about reaching Mars, fulfilling their best potential self, nor having any noble aim at all. They are content by passively floating along through life without proacting. I don’t know if that’s ok, but that’s certainly not me. I am happiest when I’m seeking noble aims, learning constantly, improving my character to be the best it can be, and avoiding sketchy Beijing tea shops.