Self Improvement & Ambition – aka new year new me
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably going to rediscover your list of New Year’s Resolutions, realize that you’ve accomplished none of them (maybe one or two if you had a good year) and make a naive but definitive claim that “next year is going to be different”. When you think about it, it almost seems pointless to continue going through these motions, making lists and goals, knowing full well you’ll end up in the same position the following year. Yet we continue with the tradition, making promises to ourselves that we will be better. But why? As humans we are naturally filled with the desire to constantly succeed and fulfill some kind of purpose; it is, simply put, our drive. Without purpose, we feel empty and meaningless and for us, the purpose is clear: “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys” (Matt. 6:20)
If that is the case, why does it matter if I start eating healthy in 2021 or start going to the gym? Why should I bother learning an instrument or picking up a new language? If we zoom out even further, self-improvement is embedded in a much bigger bubble: ambition. Why do I need to go to college or make friends or get out of my comfort zone? Without constant growth and improvement, we become stagnant and stale and we surrender to becoming passive members of a dynamic world. It is written about Christ Himself that “He increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). He who holds the world in the palm of His hands values knowledge (Proverbs 20:15); He grew on earth and learned and developed new habits and skills. Likewise, when Adam and Eve were created, they were instructed to “be fruitful and multiply [and] fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28).
It is not by accident or coincidence that we exist in an advanced age with resources and means to learn and grow. When we reject these opportunities of growth, claiming that they do not matter, we become like the last servant in the parable of the talents, who disparaged the opportunity handed to him instead of fostering it. God does not call us to be lazy and wait for the Kingdom, but to build treasures in heaven by making good investments on earth, growing in knowledge and eventually in glory. He interacts with us at many points in our lives and places us in situations that lead us to those interactions. The way I see it, constant growth and self-improvement is a way to optimize our chances of interacting with God.
So how can we get on the path of true self improvement? The reason we do not execute most of our resolutions is because we do not actually care about these goals, we just think they’re the right thing to do because that is what is dictated by the world. It is imperative that we build our own measurement for satisfaction, instead of conforming to what the world views as successful. God equips each one of us with certain gifts and plants certain desires and ambitions in our hearts (things that give us pleasure, activities that we enjoy, careers that we want to pursue and topics we are passionate about). In pursuing these ambitions, whether a big career step or a small personal goal, we have to seek guidance from God and ask that He blesses whatever endeavor we take on and use it for the glory of His name. You might be really passionate about learning a new language but hesitate because you see no use for it, but God in His infinite wisdom will use it for His glory. To put it as blatantly as possible, self improvement is not possible without God. Before anyone can take this journey towards self improvement, we have to come clean about our intentions. Am I seeking success to feed my own ego or do I want to glorify God’s name in the work that I do? What does this improvement look like to me and how can I measure it? God never diminishes our labor, but asks that it is done with fairness and with a pure greedless heart.
When you come to seek self improvement, the spectrum is very wide, ranging from small goals (go for a run every day) to life changing ones (become closer to God). The magic is in the details. For example, I cannot set a standard for myself that in the new year, I will “become more athletic”. What does that even entail and how can progress be measured? In the same way, I cannot set the standard that I will “become a better servant”. Instead, I can set a specific goal and specific means by which to obtain it. I can set a goal that I will become closer with the people I serve, and establish action items, such as taking down their names, praying for them every night, and calling and visiting them regularly. The more specific, the more successful. When self improvement is accompanied by discipline and you are forced to hold yourself accountable, you will be able to truly decipher which goals are worth your time and which were futile from the beginning.
When you come to establish your resolutions for the new year, remember that balance is of the essence. In a world that is overflowing with opportunities, it is easy to get lost in the pursuit of meaningless goals or in trying to acquire as many skills as possible just for the sake of having them. This makes them unattainable and true growth becomes almost impossible to reach. The path to self improvement is by no means a smooth ride but we find comfort when we are told “let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Galatians 6:9).