2 Ways To Change Your Life For The Better

Sean Kernan

Steven started smoking at 13.

I met him when he was 21 and the dude was a chimney, easily plowing through nearly two packs a day. He was in so deep that I just assumed he’d never quit.

I visited him years later and noticed he’d stopped. He’d never made any noise about wanting to quit or even needing to.

When I asked him about it, he said his uncle had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Steven visited him in his final days and was horrified. His former elite powerlifting uncle looked skeletal and pale.

On the way home, Stephen realized, “Years from now, I’m never going to look back and say, ‘You know, I wish I’d smoked a little longer.’”

And he quit cold turkey — and had little trouble doing it.

You are capable of making abrupt changes, and it doesn’t require a traumatic wake-up call with your doctor.

Here are two ways.

Alter your identity

We often feed into the labels we are given. For years, I’d been told I was disorganized and forgetful, so I subconsciously began to feed into it. My behaviors mirrored and even worsened those traits.

Sometimes, you just need to give yourself permission to let go of negative habits and break free of an identity that isn’t really yours.

One way to do this is to build behaviors around that desired identity. If you want to be someone who is capable of change, make small changes first to prove and reinforce that you can do it.

I did this with my office. I made it a point to clean and tidy up every day, rather than be a complete mess all the time. That 2-minute drill was easier than setting a goal of having a spotless house and car. Then, I built upon this habit with another.

Step 2

For years, I was so forgetful and perma-lost my wallet on an almost annual basis. It felt like I was on a first-name basis with the DMV employees.

I set a rule that my keys, phone, and wallet would be inseparable triplets. I kept them with me and all in one place. The moment I started casually setting things down while daydreaming, was when things started disappearing.

And just like that — I stopped losing my critical items.

One by one, I started getting rid of these toxic unproductive habits — and feel far more organized now than I have ever been.

It can feel hard to shake traits and labels that have been put on you for so many years and by so many people. But if you can build up a sense of momentum on being capable of change, and build an identity of being a change agent, you boost your confidence to actually get better.

This can feel counter to the way the world views us. When I was in manager’s meetings in my corporate days, I hated the way employees were spoken about.

“He’s no good.”

“She’s an idiot, there’s no hope.

On some level, I understood that blunt conversations were needed in some sense to get a feel for employee performance and manage the company. But there was such a sense of finality in the way these workers were spoken of — like they were broken toys incapable of repair.

People are capable of change and evolving, but they have to learn to break out of their cemented patterns.

The second way to improvement

It’s not always obvious when you are attaining progress. Not every endeavor can be measured like a track race.

This was particularly true when I began writing. I had just taken it up as a hobby, and hadn’t aspired to make money, but I did aspire to get better. I thought of writing in the way that many men think about golf — where they are constantly analyzing their swing and monitoring how they shoot (I hate golf, btw).

I’d spent my entire life working with numbers and being so analytical, but had this yearning to express myself creatively, but also had this embedded corporate line of thinking around optimization.

“How do I know I’m getting better?”

“Is this article any better?”

My annoying subconscious wanted some type of KPI.

And it wasn’t easy to measure — because I didn’t trust internet points. I didn’t particularly like the content that was doing well. And the stuff I did like seemed to tank in many cases. So I knew I was flying blind.

Getting comfortable with that performance ambiguity became a helpful exercise of living as a writer — which is absolutely loaded with ambiguity and grey areas.

In 2016, just after I’d started writing online, I stumbled across someone mentioning my name in some subreddit. And the most upvoted comment was, “Yeah he’s that cringe writer on Quora.”

As much as I wanted to call them haters, I couldn’t help but be bothered that it was the top comment. A bunch have people had seen this comment and felt the need to upvote and agree with it. I (mostly) forgot about the post and moved on.

About a year later, I began looking at old posts I’d written — and completely died inside. The content was loaded with cliches. It was boring and sometimes sounded arrogant (unintentionally). The jokes were so try-hard and self-indulgent. Some of the content sounded offensive and poorly worded.

And I realized two things: One, the people in that subreddit weren’t haters — they were right.

Two, this is the sign of growth that I’d been looking for. This is that metric I’d been chasing. It’s a feeling. A realization and self-awareness that the person you are today, isn’t the person you were.

And in that moment, I was sure, “OK — well now I’ve got it all figured out. I’m not this cringe writer anymore, because I see what they were talking about.”

I was wrong again — there were moments of cringe to come — albeit not as bad or as frequent as before, but it would still cause me to wince occasionally when looking back.

I had to look back. I had to review old content. That was my progress meter, not some follower count.

If you can’t enact bold and immediate change, accept that sometimes it’s going to be more subtle. Have faith in the process.

As a writer, you are always going to make mistakes — even when you were so sure you had chosen the right tone and path for content. You are always going to look at older posts you’ve written and realize weren’t your best work, where lessons you’ve gained weren’t yet present.

Yes, I focus heavily on writing in my example, because it’s my life, and it’s so introspective, but you can map this to anything you care about improving at.

Remember the words of Allan Watts, “You’re under no obligation to be the same person you were 5 minutes ago.”

So remember, there are two proven paths to change:

  1. Build an identity around your ability to change. Start with small changes that reinforce that identity, then build from there.
  2. Accept that not all change is observable in the immediate term. And then — continue applying effort and pressure to make that change over time.

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