This month at Groundwork! we are talking about self-improvement. As I sit to write my requisite blog post, I have to ask: What does it really mean to improve oneself? Is self-improvement about losing those 15 lbs? Is it about mastering the optimal morning routine? Is it getting over your fear of public speaking?
I was recently reminded of a massive life failure. I was 31 and I had moved to a beach town in Ecuador, planning the perfect geo-arbitrage scheme of living for $200 a month, eating lots of pineapples, and surfing every day.
It was a great plan until I fell for a local Ecuadorian and moved into his rustic boutique hotel. To summarize, things were great… until they weren’t.
My independent ways were seriously emasculating to this man and the relationship quickly degraded to abusive in a matter of months. Things culminated with a dramatic dispute and him kicking me out in the middle of the night. Adding insult to injury, I had lent him a large sum of money for some improvements to the hotel. I never saw that money again.
I spent about a week crying in fetal position in a cabaña on the outskirts of town. All I remember thinking was:
I’m 31! How could my judgement still be this bad?
I beat myself up over that one for a long time. At that time in my life, I had already done a lot. I lived in several states and countries, volunteered in Patagonia, produced a documentary, spent three years managing a web and marketing team in Buenos Aires… and I had been in a lot of relationships. So why was I still so dumb?
Spoiler alert: In the years since that Ecuador catastrophe, I’ve failed a lot. No, hotel man wasn’t my last boyfriend before I met “the one.” I had many more moments of poor judgement. And no, I didn’t avoid risky adventures such as the move to Ecuador. In fact, I started a business, perhaps one of the bigger risks I’ve ever taken.
So what about self-improvement?
I always thought that growing up was this process of learning from mistakes, so that we’d gradually make less and less of them as we become adults. This is wisdom, right?
While I would never again move in with a man I just met, I certainly continue to take risks and make mistakes in love. And despite having tasted failure, I will continue to take on complicated, risky, and life-consuming projects.
Self-improvement, then, is about cultivating our resilience.
While I’m not making less mistakes as I get older, my response to those mistakes has changed. I care less about how badly I messed up, and more about the growth opportunity each failure presents. And I’m starting to notice that there is a bittersweet and poignant beauty in life when things go to hell. In fact, the most vivid memories and moments of my life arose from catastrophe.
Ultimately, as our response to mistakes changes, our motivation changes as well. When we stop striving so damn hard for results, we truly achieve greatness. There is a subtle balance between not striving and pure, unattached effort.
This is the dance of self-improvement.
So I invite you to reflect on your own massive failures. Savor those sad, messy, and significant moments. And keep doing things that scare you– that is the real secret to wisdom and growth.