What my mother didn’t know about self-improvement

Let me share the following personal memory as a prelude:

My mother used to tell me that the best way to improve (or learn anything) was through experience, irrespective of whether it was a positive or a negative one. I, however, was convinced that a pile of good books (that have been read, of course) was the only way to learn more about life and fundamentally improve as a human being. I found it very old-fashioned and almost foolish to just do something and expect to get better after each iteration – I mean REALLY?

We humans invented books so we could pass down experiences and wouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel every time, right?


It took me more than 20 years, a myriad of  books as well as failed learning attempts through experience to realize that both of us were wrong. Humans don’t improve by just reading books or through mere experiences. Being hit by lightening probably feels similar to how I felt at that moment of realization.

The real man smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection. (Thomas Paine)

So how do humans learn and improve if not from books or their successes/mistakes? Had science discovered a “secret method” that fundamentally changed my understanding of how we can learn and develop ourselves?

Wrong again – in fact, the “secret” to how humans learn best is probably as old as humanity itself.

The “secret” is SELF-REFLECTION.

Even more than 2500 years ago, people such as Confucius new about it. But if it’s that old, how come humanity is still struggling and is unable to learn from past experience or from books – well, because it requires more than just reading up on theory or doing something over and over again.

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest (Confucius)

Fact is, judging by the shear number of books claiming to show you everything you need to know about how to get rich, healthy, happy, successful, and other things I can’t think of right now, it becomes obvious that humans are not able to learn from books alone – or to put it differently humans are unable to learn anything long-lasting from “theoretical knowledge” without applying it. Similarly, looking at all the wars and human tragedies that have taken place in the past century, humanity obviously can’t learn from pure experience either.

The winner takes it all – or in this case – the wise man uses both of the tools, experience as well as theory in a very structured way!

This is where the paths of the successful and the less successful separate – those who are willing to go the extra mile and reflect in a structured manner on what they have read and experienced will reach their ultimate destination of living a happy and fulfilling life, whereas those who believe they only have to consume books or “just do it” will deflect from the right path, which ultimately leads to self-destruction through emptiness and self-doubt.

A short introduction to structured SELF-REFLECTION

According to Wikipedia, human self-reflection is the capacity of humans to exercise introspection and the willingness to learn more about their fundamental nature, purpose and essence. The earliest historical records demonstrate the great interest which humanity has had in itself. Human self-reflection invariably leads to inquiry into the human condition and the essence of humankind as a whole.

Experiential learning posits that learning is the major determinant of human development and how individuals learn shapes the course of their personal development. (David A. Kolb)

But is thinking about an experience or a book equivalent to reflecting on it? The short answer is NO, the long answer is that reflecting on a situation or life in general is only one part of a structured process, or to use a more appropriate term part of the “Experiential Learning Cycle“, a method developed in the early 1970s, by David A. Kolb and Ronald E. Fry, which is composed of four elements:

  1. Concrete Experience – (a new experience of situation is encountered, or a reinterpretation of existing experience)
  2. Reflective Observation (of the new experience. Of particular importance are any inconsistencies between experience and understanding)
  3. Abstract Conceptualization (Reflection gives rise to a new idea, or a modification of an existing abstract concept)
  4. Active Experimentation (the learner applies them to the world around them to see what results)

Effective learning is seen when a person progresses through a cycle of four stages: of (1) having a concrete experience followed by (2) observation of and reflection on that experience which leads to (3) the formation of abstract concepts (analysis) and generalizations (conclusions) which are then (4) used to test hypothesis in future situations, resulting in new experiences.

Kolb learning cycle

Kolb’s Learning Cycle

So, now you know a bit about where it all comes from and even start to understand what the theory is about, but you may be wondering how to implement all of it in your daily life – because after reading this far, you know that theory without applied action is worthless.


The easiest way to start would be – and you may already be aware of it, or even be using it – to use a DAILY JOURNAL. Let me be very clear, I’m not talking about keeping a diary where you list the things you ate during a given day or the people you’ve met (of course there’s nothing wrong about that kind of diaries, it’s just not what I’m talking about here).

I don’t want to live in a hand-me-down world of others’ experiences. I want to write about me, my discoveries, my fears, my feelings, about me. (Helen Keller)

The DAILY JOURNAL is much more – it’s a conscious effort to go through the aforementioned four elements of Kolb’s learning cycle. It is meant to assist you on your journey of self-reflection, it will serve as a tool, a reminder to go through all relevant steps of the learning cycle without skipping any step.

Because, depending on your personality, you may have a natural tendency to reflect more than to actually implement something, or the opposite where you want to try out a new strategy without actually going through the necessary steps in your mind to work up the issue.

Let’s walk through a theoretical example:

  1. You first think about a real experience you had during the day and write your thoughts about it (e.g. what went well, what went not so well, what did you feel during the experience)
  2. You write down why it didn’t go as expected – i.e. the outcome you expected was in direct conflict with reality, hence it felt bad and this needs to be put down – you reflect on the situation, your feelings, your wrong perceptions/expectations, etc…
  3. During that process, you will most likely be able to think of new concepts – ideas of what you could improve or do differently the next time – thereby adapting your expectation to your new understanding
  4. Finally, you put down action items for how you will act/react the next time you face a similar situation

If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking this is great – and quite simple to do. Which is true, but don’t underestimate the willpower needed to write every day and not to fall into the trap of skipping days. Having said that, here’s the truth – it will happen – you will have days where you won’t be able to write, won’t have the time to write, or plainly won’t feel like it. Let those days pass, don’t get hung up on them, they’re just part of life.


Here you have it – all the information and the tools you need to successfully start your journey of self-reflection.

The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are. (Chauncey Depew)

I’m not claiming that this is all you ever need, the tools and methods presented in this article are but the first steps on a life-long journey towards self improvement and a life full of awareness. There is more to reflect upon, more to uncover, more tools to share and more to talk about.

But we’ll leave that for future articles. So watch this space and keep coming back for more.

Let me know in the comments section if you’re using a daily journal to reflect and whether it’s been helping you.

This is my first post on this blog (or anywhere for that matter), if you liked it, follow my blog here or my pages on Facebook and/or Twitter, where you will soon find more articles authored by me as well as other material to download and use, to ultimately help you on your personal development journey.