We are not living in a time where we have the luxury of looking out for number one and living selfishly. It doesn’t work like that. The only way we get better and get to where we need to be is together. It’s with a sense of shared joy and shared pain.
Becoming someone that people actually and actively want to know is about recognising your place in that and rising to it. It’s not about personal charm, it’s not about aesthetics. It’s about the person you choose to be in the face of a great need. That great need is good fucking people.
Where is this coming from?
In 2018, I was a sad son-of-a-bitch, and a total asshole. I used people, betrayed people and hurt people. I was focused on myself, above all else, and prioritised my pain and my hurt over the needs of the people around me, and the people I loved.
It sucked. I sucked. And a lot of people started to realise it. By the time I recognised who I was and where I was going, I had lost contact with folks because they could no longer watch me sabotage myself and treat the people around me like a disposable Kleenex.
I dragged myself out of that hole. And 3 years later, I’m a version of myself that I’m proud to be. I’m surrounded by people who love me, who I love in return. I am truly blessed to have a beautiful family of my own. And I know that I am someone I would be proud to know.
What does it take to get there?
In my (very fucking real) experience, it takes 4 things:
1. Radical, dangerous, terrifying honesty
2. Doing the next right thing — no matter what
3. Taking personal responsibility and refusing to make excuses
4. At every point, at every opportunity, being kind
1. Radical, dangerous, terrifying honesty
Telling the truth doesn’t come naturally to me. My natural instinct is to lie about literally everything. If my partner asks me what I had for lunch, and I ate leftover pasta, my instinct is to say I had tacos. Where does that come from? It’s a classic sign of someone who had an abusive and difficult childhood, someone who built habits of hiding the truth from their abuser as a form of self preservation — me to a T — but I don’t look at that as an excuse.
Instead, I have challenged myself to tell the truth in every moment and in every situation. I don’t leave room for bending the truth, telling half of it or obscuring my true meaning. I’m honest with my friends, my family and my partner. My partner knows the passcodes to every device and email account I have, and knows she’s welcome to pick them up and use them whenever she wants. There’s nothing to hide, because I live without secrets.
That kind of honesty is valued by everyone. Because we are surrounded by artifice, lies, smoke and mirrors. We’re surrounded by half truths and Instagram aesthetics, masking authenticity and meaning. When you refuse to be a part of that, you become a beacon.
2. Doing the next right thing
Let’s not kid ourselves. In almost every circumstance, we actually do know the right thing to do. We know what we’re called to do, morally and ethically and equitably, and the only reason we struggle is because doing the right thing *is fucking hard.*
I believe that we know the right thing to do, because I believe that human beings are generally speaking, pretty damn decent. I am an optimist and an idealist at heart, and I have learned that we are faced with a choice; to believe the worst of people, or to believe the best of people. If you look for it, you can find evidence to back up either side of that debate; but I’ve chosen the side that lends itself to hope.
Doing the next right thing comes from my favourite piece in Frozen 2 (shut up, it’s incredible) and I think it’s a pretty fine way to live. If you square up, take a deep breath and do that right thing, even if it’s hard, even if you don’t want to deal with the consequences, you’ll always come through okay. And you’ll come through with the respect of the people you value.
Sometimes the next right thing is giving yourself away, through your time, your resources and your bandwidth. Sometimes, it’s breaking up with someone because you know you don’t love them, and you know they deserve to be loved. Deep down, you know the next right thing.
For me, the next right thing, at my darkest point, was putting down the bottle, flushing my coke and making amends. I’m coming up on 2 years sober and I’m not looking back. It works.
3. Taking personal responsibility
I could make all kinds of excuses, if I wanted to. I could point to having faced hard times, going through trauma, losing people I love to violence, dealing with sexual assault, being flat broke, losing my home, losing my fiancé, being transgender and transitioning in the face of prejudice, and being an alcoholic. And I could use any of that crap as an excuse for being an asshole.
But that wouldn’t help me, and it wouldn’t help the people I love to understand me, and it wouldn’t give me the fuel and the tools I needed to become someone better.
I take full, personal responsibility for my failures and fuckups. Because ultimately, the buck stopped with me. I was the person making those decisions. I was the person making those choices. I was the person going down those roads.
And I was the person who needed to change direction, for myself.
Writing for Forbes, Kathy Caprino points to personal responsibility as a bias for action.
“Instead of thinking that your current challenges are all about what someone else is doing or factors outside your control, accept that you’re 50% of this situation. What are you doing, thinking and saying that is sustaining this problem? How can you shift your behavior (and do something VERY different from what you normally do) to intervene in this chronic pattern of conflict? It’s been said that if you’re unhappy about a situation, you have only two choices: Change the situation, or change your feelings and thoughts about the situation. It’s time to change what is happening by recognizing your role in it.”
Once you take full responsibility, your only option is taking action. Doing what must be done to make the changes that must be made, to be the person you must be. People respect and admire that. People are drawn to the folks who get it done, instead of hiding behind reasons not to try.
4. At every point, at every opportunity, being kind
Be kind. No matter what happens, no matter what someone says or does, no matter how hard you’re finding your own situation, be kind. Kindness is hard, but it’s also free. You can give it away and it won’t cost you a dime.
Kindness doesn’t mean turning the other cheek, necessarily. It can mean practicing non-complimentary behaviour; choosing not to respond to unkindness with unkindness. Choosing not to respond to cruelty and callousness with your own selfishness.
In a 2018 study by the University of Sussex, researchers found there are real, actual benefits to kindness;
“Psychologists at the University of Sussex have confirmed that the warm glow of kindness is real, even when there’s nothing in it for you. In their study, published in NeuroImage, they undertook a major analysis of existing research showing the brain scans relating to over 1000 people making kind decisions. For the first time, they split the analysis between what happens in the brain when people act out of genuine altruism — where there’s nothing in it for them — and when they act with strategic kindness — when there is something to be gained as a consequence.
Many individual studies have hinted that generosity activates the reward network of the brain but this new study from Sussex is the first that brought these studies together, and then split the results into two types of kindness — altruistic and strategic. The Sussex scientists found that reward areas of the brain are more active — i.e. use up more oxygen — when people act with strategic kindness, when there is an opportunity for others to return the favour.
But they also found that acts of altruism, with no hope of personal benefit, activate the reward areas of the brain too, and more than that, that some brain regions (in the ‘subgenual anterior cingulate cortex’) were more active during altruistic generosity, indicating that there is something unique about being altruistic with no hope of gaining something in return.”
Kindness is good for us. Psychologically, socially and honestly even sexually. Kindness is the game changer. If you’re able to use it as your North Star, and temper your interactions and actions with it, you’ll be able to become someone who draws people to them not through positivity — a bullshit, new age concept — but through altruism.
I don’t want to write about popularity. That’s not the point of this. I want to write about being a decent human being — someone who brings light and love to other folks’ lives — and be a better version of yourself. You can surround yourself with good people only by working to become a good person. That’s the paradox, but it’s also the challenge.
The good news is, you don’t need any special abilities, privileges, super powers or life hacks to get there. You just need to do the work. And sometimes — believe me — that work is going to suck. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to ask you to drag the skeletons out of your own closet and face your shitty self in the mirror.
But at the end of it, is the promise of More. More love, more care, more happiness, more meaning, more intimacy, more engagement and more support.
“These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes. These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill. It is a time when there is much in the showroom window and nothing in the stockroom. A time when technology can bring this letter to you, and a time when you can choose either to share this insight, or to just hit delete…
Remember, to spend some time with your loved ones, because they are not going to be around forever. Remember, say a kind word to someone who looks up to you in awe, because that little person soon will grow up and leave your side.
Remember, to give a warm hug to the one next to you, because that is the only treasure you can give with your heart and it doesn’t cost a cent.
Remember, to say, “I love you” to your partner and your loved ones, but most of all mean it. A kiss and an embrace will mend hurt when it comes from deep inside of you.
Remember to hold hands and cherish the moment for someday that person might not be there again. Give time to love, give time to speak! And give time to share the precious thoughts in your mind.”
— Bob Moorehead
Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, angel investor, communicator and creative director. She is the founder of branding and PR firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.
Her writing has appeared in The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. Her regular work can be found on Pizza Party, a blog about creativity, culture and technology. Joan is the creator of Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source workplace inclusion hack.