One of the key misconceptions with popular self-help advice is the idea we ought to “be ourselves” or, even worse, “unleash our true or real self.”
First, there is no real self. As Aristotle noted, we are what we repeatedly do, and that’s the end of the story. Everything else happens inside our minds and is only interesting if you care about metaphysical ruminations.
Second, what we think of ourselves is of limited importance compared to what others think of us. Our success is always a function of the impressions we make on others throughout our lives. It is not whether you think you are great that matters, but whether others believe it or not.
Lastly, scientific research dating back to 1999 has shown most people have a rather distorted view of themselves, mostly because they are not as good as they think they are. Every brutal dictator this world has seen tended to see himself—yes, dictators were usually men—as some sort of moral crusader or savior of humanity. It is feasible to suggest that they were being their true or real self, too.
There is a much more sensible—yet largely neglected—view of change, which still predicates self-improvement though focusing less on one’s own thoughts and feelings to prioritize instead how others think and feel about us. This other-centric perspective of change may appear superficial at first because it is based mostly on appearance and impressions. It also seems somewhat cruel and conformist because it makes us much more dependent on others. Additionally, it defies the cliché that we should not worry about what people think of us.
Yet, this alternative perspective is inherently more prosocial and less self-centered. No form of civilization would be sustainable unless we cared about what others think of us and adjusted our behavior to make a positive impact on others. Even if our ultimate motivation may be selfish, it’s human nature to get others to like or rate us more.
Thus, the goal of any self-coaching intervention should be to improve one’s reputation. Get others to see you in a more positive light, or as the person you aspire to be. This involves three simple steps, which contribute to a dynamic change cycle that concludes only when you don’t want to improve further.
This first step is critical to close the gap between how you view yourself and reality—or, how other people see you. It requires identifying key blind spots between the person you think you are and the person others think you are. Although humans in the Western world are pre-programmed to seek positive feedback and react more to compliments than criticisms, the most helpful form of feedback we can gather is negative feedback—critical and honest reports on our weaknesses and developmental opportunities.
This type of feedback is not just hard to request, it is also hard to provide—most people are too conflict averse or politically correct to tell us what we are doing wrong. Ironically, this is harming rather than helping us. You can ease their task by asking—particularly people whose judgment and expertise you admire—what you could do better.
One of the reasons why change interventions fail is that they are overly ambitious. People want a personality transplant, but even New Year’s resolutions tend to be broken within the first month. The key to managing self-change is to aim small. Target tiny habits and keep your list short—two or three behaviors would do.
Also, remember that change involves two types of behaviors—those you want to stop and those you need to start. Stop doing counterproductive things, and start doing productive things. There will be certain behaviors you will want to maintain because they contribute to your current effectiveness. This approach is summarized by the “stop doing, keep doing, and start doing” formula.
Evaluate the success of your self-intervention as the final step. Has change actually happened? You find out only by requesting feedback from others again. Ideally, you would consult the same group of people and try to get as many impressions as you gathered the first time. People will not always agree, but they will have some common views. Those are the once you should focus on.
Much like with your initial request of feedback you must make it easy for others to provide negative feedback and criticism. Instead of asking whether you have improved, ask for specific evidence that you actually got better. Be skeptical and your own worst critic, without indulging in fake self-deprecation.
The third step will lead to a repeat of the second step for as long as you are interested in improving. One of the key differences between extremely successful people and the rest is that they are able to remain dissatisfied with their accomplishment, including self-change. Ultimately, the main goal is to keep improving, and that will require judging yourself against more talented and successful people to raise your own bar, and getting feedback from people who are more and more impressive, as well as harder to impress. Most people rise to the level of their own incompetence, but at the same time, everyone can control what that level actually is.