Promise #5 For The New Year: To Develop The Personal “You”

The social “you” is always under scrutiny. Your employer and clients evaluate your work. Your spouse and children match your behavior to their expectations. Under such circumstances, the achievement-oriented person naturally improves because he feels the censure of his critics and strives for the approval of those he cares to please.

But what about the personal “you”? The “you” that you are when no one is looking? The person you turn into when you are by yourself? Who is that person — and, more importantly, who do you want that person to be? Let’s make some resolutions about that part of you today. Let’s talk about the intellectual/artistic/athletic/creative/scientific/poetic/lazy/useless/perverted “you” that you are when you are by yourself. Staying healthy — mentally and physically — is everyone’s primary duty. Making a living (or running a household) is another. Being a good parent/sibling/cousin/citizen is certainly another responsibility of importance. And so, too, is making yourself into a better person intellectually and spiritually (for lack of two better terms). Today’s resolution is about making yourself more interesting. It’s about knowing more, caring more, discovering more, and enjoying more.

Several months ago, I came across a quote by Goethe that made great and immediate sense to me. (See Message #465.) It suggested that the perfect day is one that includes:

* contemplating a work of art

* carefully reading a poem

* engaging in a good conversation

That may be a very good place to start today’s recommendations. For the improvement and enjoyment of the personal “you,” I strongly recommend that you spend a few minutes each day studying a poem and/or a painting. I’ve been doing so for about six months now and can report nothing but good things about it. If you take a little time to prepare your desktop library, you’ll be able to accomplish this goal easily and continually — and you will feel very good about doing it.

The trick I’ve found is to peruse a few dozen poets until you find two or three that you really enjoy and that you believe you could read repeatedly with enjoyment. For me, this has turned out to be Robert Penn Warren and Edna St. Vincent Millay (neither of whom I would have rated as favorites before) and William Shakespeare (no surprise there). Once you’ve identified the poets you’ll be reading, get a good collection of each writer’s work and leave them somewhere convenient. For me, it’s on top of my desk, next to my task list.

Sometime during the day (the time changes for me from day to day), pick up one of those books, sit back, and enjoy. I do the same thing with paintings, although I haven’t narrowed my focus to a few artists. Instead, I keep several large anthologies on my credenza. When I get the urge, I flip through one of them until something catches my eye. Then I spend a good five or 10 minutes looking at it. I note the painting and the poem in my daily journal. Sometimes, I add commentary.

The point is not so much to educate myself academically, but to develop a more sophisticated and instinctual appreciation of painting and poetry. I find that by treating it all as fun — including any note taking I do — it does seem to make a deeper, more useful impression on me than any sort of “studying.” And don’t tell me that you are not interested. There is no person on earth who can’t learn to enjoy poetry and painting — and very few who would not be improved by becoming familiar with them.

So that’s a strong start: poetry and painting. What else can you do to make yourself more interesting to others and interested in life? Here are some of the things I’ve tried:

1. Speak a foreign language.

It’s great fun to speak another language. You can learn how to speak the basics of one relatively quickly if you spend just 10 minutes a day learning the most important stuff. The most important stuff would include the basic conjugations (past, present, and future) of the 20 most common verbs (most of which are irregular); all the basic adverbs, conjunctions, and articles; and about 500 to 1,000 common nouns and adjectives.

2. Dance a new dance.

You can become a pretty fair ballroom dancer by practicing only 10 minutes a day.

3. Say something intelligent.

Your strength as a speaker will improve immeasurably if you (a) employ a new, useful word, (b) practice thinking before speaking, and (c) learn a helpful fact every day.

4. Write something.

It can be a bit of a novel, short story, or screenplay. It can be a journal entry, essay, poem — what have you. Even if you have only 15 minutes to write three times a week, I’d recommend you do it. It will make you a stronger writer. And that means you’ll be a better thinker and a clearer communicator — two skills that can pay off handsomely.

5. Engage in a hobby.

Play a game of chess on the Internet or search eBay for an antique cigar lighter to add to your collection. Having a hobby is an immeasurably good thing to do with your personal time. The more intellectually demanding the hobby, the more you will eventually enjoy it.

6. Read something stimulating.

It could be a scientific paper or a philosophical essay. It could be a sociological treatise or a political tract. It could be an economic analysis or a movie review.

7. Meditate.

You don’t have to go transubstantial. Just spend a few minutes thinking about how lucky you are to be alive. Count your blessings. See the world around you. Inhale deeply. Smell the Beaujolais.

8. Listen to music.

I’ve maintained a good deal of innocence about music. I don’t know much about the history, the movements, the debates. But I do find it instrumental in my life (excuse that) and I’ve noticed that a mind fed on only one sort of music is not unlike a body poorly nourished.

9. Sing a song.

10. Tell a joke.

My brother, ALF, says that spiritual growth occurs when you do something different from what you are accustomed to. When coming up with your own ideas (drawn, perhaps, from the suggestions above), keep that it mind. And lest you be concerned about fitting these new resolutions into your schedule, I’ve noticed that when it comes to making personal improvements of this kind, it doesn’t take all that much time. A half-hour a day is good. An hour is plenty.

Over the course of a year, you’ll make a great deal of progress. In two or three short years (and they do get shorter), you will transform yourself. Oscar Wilde was reported to have said, “I drink to make my friends more interesting.” Don’t drive your best friends to drink. Make yourself more interesting. Do it and you’ll find that the whole world becomes more interesting to you.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]