Since my early 30s, I’ve started 3–4 self-improvement projects (SIP) every year. I’ve come to think of these projects this way: I upgrade my phone, computer, operating systems, apps and so on, so why not upgrade myself as well?
Memorable past SIP include starting to invest, learning a new recipe every month and starting meditation. I’ve turned especially valuable ones (e.g., meditation and investing) into permanent habits, whereas others made sense as a one-time project, but I didn’t need to renew them annually. While most of the SIP have a deeper, personal development theme, one of the ones for this year was more prosaic—I started orthodontic treatment at a clinic here in Bangkok and will follow that immediately with a set of veneers to fix some problems with the shape of my teeth.
Don’t worry, this post is definitely not a blow-by-blow account of orthodontic treatment. I struggle to think of anything more boring. I’m heading steadily toward my lightbulb moment about what this treatment reveals about how to pick up new skills, lose weight, become a sex god/goddess or improve ourselves in any other way. To get there, though, I need to tell you that rather than traditional metal braces, I opted for a newer technology called Invisalign, developed by a company called Align Technology based in San Jose, California.
With the Invisalign system, the orthodontist uses Align’s advanced 3-D scanner to create a precise digital model of the patient’s teeth. Align then uses proprietary software and input from the orthodontist to propose a course of treatment. Once the plan is approved, the company custom 3-D prints a series of clear plastic aligners at a factory in Mexico. Each aligner is worn for about two weeks and pushes the teeth a fraction of a millimeter toward their final position. For example, my course of treatment is classified as “moderate” and consists of 25 aligners, which means I’ll be wearing them for about a year.
By far the coolest thing about the Invisalign system is that the aligners are mostly invisible. In the two months since starting treatment I’ve met all my friends in Bangkok at least once, and not a single one of them has noticed or commented on them. Also, you take the aligners out when you eat, so there’s none of the yuckiness of food stuck in braces. And that adolescent über-nightmare of a girl and boy’s braces locked together in a kiss that just won’t end? Not gonna happen with Invisalign.
At some point early in the Invisalign treatment, I had one of those crazy, sometimes promising thoughts I have from time to time—if teeth alignment can be improved this way, what about other, more fundamental areas of our lives? In other words, just as the state-of-the-art in moving messed up teeth is a series of small, precisely directed adjustments made through the application of sustained force (i.e., the aligners), maybe a promising way to change lives is also through small, incremental changes made through the application of continuous effort over an extended period of time.
As someone really interested in personal development and also a big reader, I’ve noticed somewhat amusingly that people love to hate self-help books. Some are better than others, of course, and there are some flaky ideas and woo-woo navel gazing in this area. I think all literary genres are a mix of stronger and weaker works, though, and self-help isn’t any worse or better than other types of literature. And in the end it’s really hard to think of anything more important than developing ourselves as human beings, so this is one of a number of genres I frequently read, though I personally prefer the phrase personal development because it has a more positive, grounded and rigorous connotation. While I enthusiastically embrace efficacious ways of improving myself in key areas, I have no interest in chanting loopy mumbo jumbo or communing with the Moon Spirit while doing so.
I’ve felt for a long time that maybe the biggest problem with self-help literature isn’t the books. It’s us. People rarely change! And when they do it’s only through the application of sustained effort over a long period of time. The idea that we can change our lives simply by reading some personal development book—even the best of them—is as unrealistic as expecting a large comet to suddenly change its course through the galaxy. Or as ridiculous as me trying to be an Italian underwear model, a career choice uniquely misaligned with my personal portfolio of assets and liabilities.
I got at this same idea in a January post two years ago called “Bodies in Motion,” in which I suggested that Newton’s First Law of Motion could be applied not just to physical objects but to human lives—like apples falling out of trees, people’s lives only change course when a sustained force is applied. In the case of the falling apple, striking a Cambridge mathematician’s head (very gently we hope) would do the trick. For our teeth, we now have 3-D imaging, computer modeling of the path toward the desired outcome and a series of small movements made through the force of clear aligners custom manufactured with medical-grade plastic.
And I think the Invisalign system provides promising insights into how to make any kind of major change in our lives. As with teeth, I think the key elements in any personal change are the same:
1. A clear target (i.e., a specific image of where we want to be)
2. The path to the target broken down into many small steps
3. The application of force (effort) in the direction of the target over an extended period of time
For falling apples, crooked teeth and human lives—and everything else that changes course—force equals mass times acceleration (f = ma, the mathematical expression of Newton’s First Law). After a simple algebraic step, what that means is that the rate of change is proportional to the force applied and inversely proportional to the mass (or the degree of inertia of our bad habits in the personal change example). In other words, to change we must apply effort over time, and if the bad habit is deeply ingrained, more effort and more time are required.
I’m about to say something a bit geeky, but don’t worry, I will quickly make it simple and clear—force and acceleration are vectors, not scalars. What this means, in the context of making important changes in our lives, is that we need a clear vision of the direction we want to go in, and we needed to apply sustained effort in that same direction. Invisalign does not, of course, move my teeth willy-nilly around my jaw. It moves them in tiny increments toward a very precise target location determined by advanced proprietary software. This is a precise biomechanical process, and the force and acceleration vectors are aligned.
We humans are messy and fallible, and personal development, when it happens at all, will of course never be this mechanical and precise. We will at times veer of course and slide backward, but as long as we realign the direction of our efforts toward the target and keep pushing, we will make steady progress and eventually arrive at the destination.
I don’t mean to be too radical here, but if you want to run a marathon, you need to train by running. Any type of effort other than running is to some extent wasting your time. Signing up for Zumba classes is going to take you off course. As preparation for a marathon, regular Zumba is of course better than smoking pot and playing video games all day, but the force and target acceleration vectors are not optimally aligned! Zumba may very well be both fun and good for you, but it is not the same as long distance running.
Maybe you can only run a kilometer in the beginning, and that’s completely fine. That’s about what I started with when my own lifelong relationship with running began at age 12. But if you want to run a marathon, you want your efforts to be directed toward running. And just as Invisalign moves teeth in tiny increments, you would naturally up your distance slowly but steadily each week until it’s possible to run 45 kilometers without stopping. The key elements in all types of major change are (1) a clear target (2) broken down into tiny steps and (3) sustained effort well focused in the appropriate direction over an extended period of time.
I think I stumbled on this idea—life change happens only through the sustained application of effort in the direction we want to change—through some of my own personal development efforts that worked. This year one of my other SIP was to read a book every two weeks. This was partly motivated by a couple of inspiring people. I’m a fan of the all-grown-up version of Bill Gates (the thought leader and global philanthropist as opposed to the sharp elbowed and socially challenged ’80s and ’90s tech bro), and apparently Gates reads a book every week. He and Barack Obama are two people I like immensely, and I often get good book ideas from their well-publicized reading lists. Another inspiration to up my reading came from one of my favorite uncles, a famous humanities professor at an elite American university, who I’ve been told reads a new book every day. (I always change/blur details and names when I write about a real person in my life.) “If Bill Gates and Uncle Paul can manage that much reading, surely I can manage a book every two weeks!” I thought.
The really good news is that I absolutely love reading, so the motivation is there. I think much of human behavior can be explained by efforts to increase pleasure and avoid pain, and we very rarely do things we don’t like for a sustained period of time. I always felt lucky that I absolutely love both reading and learning new things, so school was mostly fun and easy. According to a recent Pew Research study, the median American reads four books a year, so the 12–15 books I read in previous years wasn’t exactly slacker level. Reading is a strength, though, and something I love to do, so I do think that I was underperforming in this area.
So, the motivation needed to achieve this goal was there, but to achieve it I needed to make some concrete changes to increase the time I spend reading each week. In a given week there is likely to be a couple days where there’s just too much going on to do any reading at all, so that leaves about 10 days of reading in a given two-week period. That means I need to read 10% of a book, on average, each time I sit down to read. That’s 30 pages of a 300-page book, but I read on the Kindle app on my iPhone (not an optimal screen, for sure, but the upside is that your books are always with you), and Kindle displays the percentage of each book you’ve read. Since I started this SIP, if I sit down to read a book that I’m 20% through, I make every effort to get to at least the 30% point before I stop. I also adjust my daily schedule to make time for reading almost every day.
I’ve haven’t gone back and counted all the books I read this year, but I do think I’ve averaged a book every two weeks. Moving teeth and moving through 25 books a year are really different processes, but these and other personal changes depend on the same key principles: (1) a clear target (2) broken down into small steps (10% of a book each time I read) and (3) sustained effort in the right direction (i.e., reading books, not pleasurably browsing for new ones on Amazon).
Learning to swim, an SIP from four years ago, provides another good example of this model. When most adults want to learn to swim, they probably join a local class or find a private teacher, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach. But just as I choose to make a living without a job, have a love life without a marriage, and travel without packages or tours, I see swimming classes as just the most obvious of a number of options for learning how to swim.
I think that in all areas of life I’m biased toward a more nimble and direct approach. Recently a lady friend, a “salaryman” with a large Japanese company, told me she was taking a three-month seminar to learn how to invest in stocks. “You know you don’t actually need a big seminar to invest in stocks?” I told her, “you can just read a single book and start.” And I recommended two of the best in my series of posts on money. Again, absolutely nothing wrong with taking a long seminar on investing. For me personally, though, it’s just too rigid, indirect and slow. Also, I think elaborate preparatory steps like this can be a way of procrastinating. We can tell ourselves we’re doing something without actually taking any meaningful action. As I wrote in the series on money, I devoured A Random Walk Down Wall Street in a single sitting at a Starbucks in Tokyo, and then I started investing with a low-fee online brokerage (Vanguard is the obvious choice in the US).
So when I wanted to learn to swim, looking up swimming classes in Hua Hin (the small beach town on the Gulf of Thailand where I lived at the time) did very briefly cross my mind, but what I actually did was watch three of the best YouTube videos on the subject (just search “how to swim freestyle”) and got into the pool at my condo. I rewatched the videos a few times after early practice sessions to analyze how I could improve my stroke. For example, “Hmmmm, how is my stroke different than the teacher in the videos? Well, it’s worse in every possible way. Okay, I guess I’ll try to improve everything.” Mostly important, I made sure to practice swimming 4–5 times a week. In the end I think we learn only by practicing the actual skill we want to learn. And we improve only by taking action (not by taking lessons, reading self-improvement books, through counseling, etc.).
The early results were extremely discouraging. In spite of excellent cardiovascular fitness, I could barely swim 10–20 meters without stopping, and my form was awful. After resting a bit I would swim for another 10–20 m and rest again. I think the problems were that I lacked enough upper body muscle and had poor form. My stroke was so bad that I made a point to go to my condo pool right after waking up at 6–7 a.m. so no one would see my humiliation—lots of very pale skin flapping around without going anywhere. I’m pretty sure my condo neighbors would have assumed I was drowning and jumped in to save me. Obviously this would be mortifying and also interrupt my practice, so I made a point of swimming alone in the beginning.
I think this sort of difficulty is really common when picking up a totally new skill, and in the very beginning it’s of course really easy to get discouraged and quit. As I see it, there were two main problems at this stage: (1) I couldn’t swim, and (2) it wasn’t fun. Beyond my determination to be a swimmer, I think what kept me going through this difficult period was having a vision of where I wanted to be (swimming 500–1,000 meters without stopping) and quantifying my steps toward that target. For the first week or two, 20 meters was the most I could manage without stopping, but each week I was able to add about 10 meters to that.
Along with my determination—”I do NOT want to leave this world as someone who cannot swim”—those small but steady improvements kept me going. My swimming ability, as a function of time, was discouraging, but the first derivative was hopeful. That’s a geeky calculus way of saying that at that point I still couldn’t swim, but the rate of improvement was encouraging. Adding 10 meters a week seems really modest, but think about it this way: that means going from nothing to swimming about 500 meters without stopping in a year! After about two years, I could swim 1,000 meters without stopping, a target I achieved during my first year in Vietnam. Last year I picked up breast stroke, which took just a couple weeks (probably because the required muscles overlaps a lot with free style). The lesson here, I think, is that when trying to make any difficult personal change, be happy at the steps you are making toward the target, not discouraged at how far away it still is.
The more I think about it, the more useful I find this Invisalign model of personal change. Developing new habits and skills seems soft and intangible compared to precision-manufactured aligners pushing teeth micron by micron through solid bone bone. But in light of modern neuroscience, we know that new habits and skills are forming new neural connections in the brain. And, of course, with swimming and other new physical skills, muscle mass is added and bones are strengthened. Even if they can’t be expressed in math and precisely planned with computer code, self-improvement must conform to physical laws and be guided by physical processes. We do not get better, of course, through a benevolent fairy’s sprinkling of magic dust! Our world and everything in it is governed by physical laws written in the language of math. Perhaps these concepts can offer promising insights into how to live smarter, more effective lives.