Getting from where I am to where I want to be.
February 14, 2011 12:55 PM   Subscribe

You know those people whom you admire - those people who are confident, smart, funny, humble, kind and a gazillion other qualities besides? Those people who have had a lifetime of experience and are sagely, and take troubles in their stride calmly. Those people who have fortitude and courage. Those people whom others wish to emulate. I want to know how I can be like them.

Where I am at right now (21yo, male, about to enter college soon):
I'm impatient, short-tempered, judgmental and critical, frequently have mood swings (going from happy one moment and suddenly becoming quiet), am easily irritable, and have a million other flaws that are just too exhausting to list out.

But the major ones are these: I'm easily irritable. I (might) have slight OCD, and sometimes when things don't go the way I intended because someone doesn't agree with me, I will become very irritated inside, yet not say anything because I don't want to ruffle any feathers. Yet people can still see that there is something bothering me, though they don't know what. In a related vein, prolonged teasing can suddenly (not always though) make my mood turn, even though this ribbing is nothing new to me. I want to know how I can become more accepting and less inflexible, to be more open to change.

I'm often too proud. Because of the way that I obsessively research and work, I am often the go-to guy for many things. This bloats up my ego, and I can be an insufferable prick at times. Other times I bury my head in the sand and refuse to take advice, or treat people in an abrasive manner. This hubris and arrogance has been my downfall more than once. I think this might in part stem from my desire to impress others. I've always hungered to excel, to shine, and so I feel as though this need to prove myself is the direct cause of my attitude of superiority.

Too, because of my insecurity, I have always resorted to a shield of snark and sarcasm to hide my insecurities. I can be very hurting, even towards the people I care about. This insecurity also cripples me at times. Some times I stop to wonder if I truly am good enough, if I can match up to other people. It seems weird, because I have a superiority complex and an inferiority complex at the same time. When I put myself up against the standards set by others, I'm paralyzed by this fear that I can never achieve those standards.

So here's where I want to be:
Confidence without hubris
Intelligence without being condescending
Funny without being cutting
Humble and kind without being a doormat
Competent without needing to be showy (think speak softly, but carry a big stick)

I've been lucky to have friends to help me along the way, who put up with my flaws and accept me for who I am. But it's not fair to them to have to deal with this shit all the time. Over the last 2 years, I took a working sabbatical off school to re-center myself, and I've made some progress to correct my flaws. I've become a little more willing to listen to others, a little less cutting. It has been a good break, but what little progress I've had isn't enough. Not by far. And this is where I need your help to be a better person.

I'm sorry for the mental verbiage, but I'm trying to cover all the main points, as I see them. Any advice is gratefully accepted, and thank you for your time!

/throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (34 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
Life experience. Sounds like you are on the way. (21 is still very young, honestly).
posted by plep at 1:00 PM on February 14, 2011

Fake it 'till you make it. Seriously.

I have massive social anxiety; at one point I picked up the trick of putting on a brave persona when leaving the house - this person COULD leave the house, could be charming to strangers, calm when i would be stressed, etc. Funnily enough, after years of this, the me inside is a lot closer to that persona. I can even forget to be her when I leave the house, and I'm still able to be all those impossible things.

Act as you wish to act, even if it's just a front, and your outside will start to shape itself to your outside.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 1:01 PM on February 14, 2011 [12 favorites]

er outside > inside.
I never pretended to be an accurate typist and look where it's gotten me.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 1:02 PM on February 14, 2011

Begin training yourself for mastery of a demanding physical discipline. I recommend lifting weights, but you could take up a martial art, or gymnastics, or rock climbing, or any number of things. The important part is that you choose something difficult that you can do by yourself, you set long-term goals, and you train consistently to achieve them.

You will gain an objective yardstick against which you can measure yourself. You will be encouraged by your progress and yet humbled by your setbacks. You will gain inner confidence as your mastery grows.

See also: The Iron by Henry Rollins.
posted by Anatoly Pisarenko at 1:04 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think that a lot of these things come from how you approach life, generally. I feel like I am closer to being those things on the days when I remember this: I am lucky enough in my life that I will never be homeless or starving. I am not homeless or starving right now because I work very hard at a job I like; but if there ever comes a time I hate this job, I still won't be homeless or starving, because I am lucky enough to have family and friends who love me and will help take care of me.

When i can remember that to be true, I am able to take most things in stride. when I forget that truth, I get very stressed out and I snap easily back into a world where I'm easily irritated, etc.

Maybe your mantra is something else. But for me, knowing that little piece of information puts other things in perspective. So, that's a long way of saying: to start, figure out what puts life in perspective for you, and hold on to that.
posted by dpx.mfx at 1:09 PM on February 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

My personal motto/mantra/mission statement is "be the person you wish you were." If I'm feeling slouchy or whiny or procrastinatey, I repeat that motto to myself and instantly nicen up a little. (I don't have it in mind as often as I like, though. I've been considering carrying around a little token to remind myself.)

You know what you're like and what you want to work on, and that's half the battle right there. The rest is practice, patience, and remembering your intention. There's not much more strategy to it than that.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:15 PM on February 14, 2011 [10 favorites]

A HUGE part of the problem is that you're 21. (Which isn't really a problem -- everyone is 21 at some point.) I am only now getting to the point where people ask my advice and I don't feel like a fraud when I give it to them. And I'm 45.

You've probably heard that it takes ten years to master most things. That's true. Ten years ago, you were 11. So, first of all, cut yourself some slack.

The secret to being confident is hard work: hard work at specific things. Your work isn't over when you've solved one problem or built one computer or knitted one sweater or learned to play one sonata of survived one relationship. Really, your work is never done. Still, you CAN become a captial-P pianist. But you're not a capital-P pianist or a capital-K knitter or whatever until you've worked really hard at it for many, many years. That's the bad news. The good news is that this route is open to anyone who is willing to put in the hours and effort.

The other good news is that this same technique -- working at something until you've mastered it -- is the answer to the ego question. Be so busy that you can't spare the time to think about yourself. And focus on the WORK. When I direct a play, it's not about me. It's not about proving how good I am as a director. When I direct a play, I am SERVING Shakespeare or Sam Shepherd or whoever. Make your life one of service. If you're into beekeeping, serve beekeeping: work to make beekeeping better.

There is no shortcut to confidence. As soon as you accept that, you'll be able to start working towards it. It will come when it comes. And along with it will come all the other stuff, like humor, because when you're confident you'll be relaxed. Meanwhile, you'll be too busy to care if you're confident or not. SO many people never become confident because they're always searching for the Confidence Button. There's no button. You must work.

You need to expect failure and play past it.

You need to expect boredom and play past it.

You need to dot all the I's and cross all the T's. Don't let yourself get into the habit of saying, "Okay, I get the basic idea. I don't need to finish the work." Finish the work and finish it well. Then start all over and do it again, just as well or better. (Or worse. But keep doing it.)

One last thing: a huge part of confidence -- and to be honest, I didn't even start to get this until my late 20s -- is honesty. I'm not talking about "not cheating on your girlfriend," though that's helpful. I'm talking about being honest about your imperfections. If you're spending huge amounts of energy trying to hide your fears and inadequacies, you're "doing it wrong."

I've finally reached a place where I'm confident enough to say this: I'm a fuckup. Not in every way. Not all the time. But often enough. THIS is who I am, warts and all. I am far, far from perfect, but I'm working on it, and I'm working hard. Sometime in the next hour, I am going to try something and fail at it miserably. Then I'll try it again and fail at it again. Then I'll try it again and fail again. It's probably going to be funny when I fall on my ass. Want to watch? Cool.
posted by grumblebee at 1:16 PM on February 14, 2011 [37 favorites]

You're 21.

I know that's not the answer you want to hear, but it's the answer I have for you; people like you (and me at 21, obviously!) tend to mellow with age. In the meantime, you may want to seek some way to let off steam and/or turn off the Type A thing for a while: weight training, running, writing, meditation, yoga, hiking, model-building, photography, massage, hot-tubbing, maybe a little weed now and again? Find what helps you let go for an hour or two, and then pursue it (and yes, I know, letting-go is probably hard for you, if not like eating poison. That's why it's so important). Seek balance. Learn to deal with failure by actually failing -- as a plus, disciplines like the above will help teach you that.

Also: fake it 'til you make it.
posted by vorfeed at 1:17 PM on February 14, 2011

You've already got the most important ingredient: self awareness. If you continue to examine your life on a regular basis, you'll find patterns in your behaviour that you can start to fix. Diagnose yourself - find out why you think or act that way and change it. In addition, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People will give you some invaluable pointers on how to deal with others effectively.

Having said this, do take you time. Sure, you want the finished article soonish, but human beings don't tend to change all that fast. A person's third decade is commonly a time of immense development, so don't be too impatient. What you want will come to you, especially with your attitude. Go for it!
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 1:18 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your body and your brain are still changing at an amazingly fast rate - biologically, you're still in a portion of adolescence.

Getting older and gaining experience - life, work, relationship, etc. - will all help. But one of the things you can do while you're getting older and gaining experience is to use your ears and mouth in their proportions: listen more than you talk.
posted by rtha at 1:24 PM on February 14, 2011

Learn to accept to be yourself - only then you can accept others how they are.
Learn the difference between commanding and leadership. Leadership is something surrendered to you by others. Commanding is something everybody can do, if given the power to enforce it.
Read the mediations for guidance and self-improvement, written by an emperor and solder.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 1:26 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Classic advice from Greg Nog in a previous thread

The question isn't exactly the same as yours, but I think the advice applies.
posted by auto-correct at 1:26 PM on February 14, 2011

Beyond the physical discipline, I found it useful to do something that put me out in front of people a lot. A great transformative force in my life was being a part-time whitewater guide: It both got me the physical discipline that others have mentioned, and let me find my own style as an entertainer in a situation where I had some other prowess.

Whenever I got cocky, the river kicked my ass. Which was great for the hubris: If I was arrogant, the forces which took me down a notch were impartial and impersonal. The sympathy from my fellow paddlers after a day in which I'd gotten beat hard also helped understand that the people around me largely had all the same fears and shadows that I had.

And through that I learned that even when I was totally humiliated in my own eyes, the show goes on.

On having the inferiority and superiority feelings at the same time, it makes perfect sense: You wouldn't have the feeling of arrogance if you were truly confident in your own abilities, the arrogance is there as a defense against exposing your underlying fears.
posted by straw at 1:33 PM on February 14, 2011

Be patient with yourself. Think before you speak. Keep a journal.
posted by EvaDestruction at 1:47 PM on February 14, 2011

I asked one of the most calm, cheerful and courageous people I know how she does it today. (Not because of this question, it was related to a compliment I gave her.)

She said yoga. You might try it.
posted by saveyoursanity at 1:53 PM on February 14, 2011

We divide life-phases up in a really arbitrary and not-very-helpful way. I used to think that the only major phases were childhood (including the teen years) and adulthood. You were either a child or an adult. Which meant that when I was 21, I figured I was in the same category as people who were 31, 41, 51, 61, 71 and 81. We were all grownups, right?

This put me at an incredible mental disadvantage. If a 50-year-old seemed more mature and together than the 21-year-old me, that had to be because he was doing something right and I was doing something wrong. It couldn't possibly be because he'd been an "adult" for 30 more years than I had.

It didn't occur to me that he very gradually become more confident over the course of those 30 years. I assumed he had some secret which he wasn't telling me.

When I was about 22, I figured out a way of directing plays that was pretty different from the way my peers were doing it. I was SURE my way would work, and I was very confident about it (about the idea of it) -- but I wasn't a confident person in general. In theatre school, I had a very hard time articulating my method. So even though I felt like I was onto something, I also felt childish and less together than other people.

The funny thing is that now, more than 20-years-later, I'm still directing plays that way -- the way I came up with two decades ago. Other than minor details, nothing has changed. Except that I've now had the experience of actually directing over 30 plays that way. And I've had to pitch my method to hundreds of people and deal with all their questions and objections. Very gradually, I was able to just do it and stop apologizing for it. But it took years. And there was absolutely no secret. It was just business-as-usual for 20 years.

I've noticed that, with me and with most of my friends, there was a phase after the teen years that I wish had a name. When you're a kid, no one expects you to be like a 36-year-old. But when you're 20, people do -- often YOU do. I bet if we had a name for those years, roughly between 20 and 28, it would solve a lot of problems. We have "young adult," but that has "adult" in it.

I know lots of "young adults" may be offended by what I just wrote. They consider themselves to be adults and want to be called that. I sure did! Fine. But my point is that, for most of us -- certainly for me -- there's a HUGE difference between being 21 and being 31. Huge. Every bit as big as between 11 and 21.
posted by grumblebee at 1:55 PM on February 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

If you would prefer a more practical plan, check out Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis. It is based on the Jewish spiritual practice of Mussar but what it really does is provide a specific, practical approach to cultivating certain virtues (there are 18 including humility, patience, gratitude, compassion, and more that are on your list). As I remember, there are readings about each one of the virtues and how you might practice them in daily life. Then the core of the work is make a list of the ones that you wish to strengthen. Take the one on the top of the list and consciously focus on practicing that every day for a week. Every evening, keep a journal about how it went. The next week, move onto the next virtue and continuing to practice a different one each week. (The previous ones will be retain some improvement and you will get back to them when they come back to the top of the list.) One thing I like is that it is about practice, not perfection. The second is that journal is chance to be honest with yourself about how you think you are doing. Anyway, try to borrow a copy and see if it seems like it would work for you.
posted by metahawk at 1:57 PM on February 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Fail more. Do things you suck at. Suck at karaoke? Go do it.

Stop yourself and sincerely apologize every time you say something snarky. Every time.

Don't hang around people who regularly piss you off on purpose or tease you. Don't hang around people who are nasty or talk a lot of shit or think that sarcasm = intelligence and earnestness = lame. Make it easy on yourself.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:09 PM on February 14, 2011 [9 favorites]

In addition to my previous advice, I have to add to the chorus recommending yoga, physical challenge, and finding something you're not great at and steadily, measurably improving. All three have been tremendous forces of good in my life and I wish I'd known that when I was 21.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:22 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Learn to recognize your ego. Try to minimize its influence on your thoughts and actions.
posted by Uncle Ira at 2:31 PM on February 14, 2011

The main issue is your self-esteem. Really. You're looking for outside validation and haven't yet figured out that validation comes from inside of you.
There's a lot of other good advice above, but until you realize that it doesn't matter what other people think of you, it matters how you think about you, you're going to find it hard to change. The reason is that you want people to look at you like "this" but often they'll look at you like "that" and when you're seeking outside validation that mismatch can cause angst and stress.

Relying on outside validation also results in some negative things, even when it's positive validation (as you've recognized already). If person x and y admire you, then you'll expect z to as well ... of course z may not really know you and it's easy to come off as arrogant to them.

My advice (in addition to what others have said): Realize that the person you have to satisfy is yourself, and that you should be satisfied with constant improvement. It's fine (and often helpful) to set concrete goals, but realize that the journey doesn't end when you reach that goal, people won't suddenly like you more because you've accomplished it. However, if you look at self-improvement as a journey, and that as long as you keep moving in the direction you want, you'll find that as a matter of course your issues with yourself will diminish.
A side affect of the "life is a journey" outlook is that you begin to look at other people as travel companions rather than milestones. By that I mean, attaching to people because they are traveling in the same direction as you, not because they fill a missing need inside of you.

I was a lot like you until I changed my world-view from one of I must accomplish x, y and z, to one of continual progress in the direction of my goals (and continuing that movement even after I've achieved my goals).

One more thing. Don't beat yourself up too much about your self-perceived flaws, you have them, we all have some. If you think they are negatively influencing your life, work on changing them and if you keep at it, you will find that you can change (though it may take a while). But don't judge yourself based on them, judge whether you are taking steps to improve. An analogy is keeping a clean house. If you set the goal as "the house must be clean" you'll drive yourself crazy, you might get it clean for a moment, but pretty soon it will be dirty again. However, if your goal is to spend X hours a week cleaning, you can achieve the same state of cleanliness without having to re-commit yourself to the same goal again and again.

Good Luck!
posted by forforf at 2:41 PM on February 14, 2011 [8 favorites]

It's great that you recognize these things. If you can see it in yourself then you're good part of the way to dealing with it.

You say you have some issues with irritability and maybe OCD (sounds a little bit OCPD actually). A good therapist can help you pin this down and work out some coping strategies. It might not be nearly as bad as you think.

I sometimes have to remind myself that it's not worth getting torqued up about anything unless it's really going to change my life.

Also, amen to all the meditation, yoga, sports and foolish experiments suggestions.
posted by mr.ersatz at 2:55 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Imitate the behavior of other people who you admire. If you have no one in your life who you admire, you either need to meet new people or look harder at your friends. Seek out venues where you can listen to and speak with people who have cultivated good habits. I think self improvement is easier when you have a model to work towards, not some unattainable laundry list of ideal characteristics that only exists in your own head. Learn to accept flaws in other people, and most of all in yourself.

For a model of intelligent humility and kindness, I recommend Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke. The compilation of letters is very short, but you can see how apparently divorced Rilke from his own ego when he is writing to a young student and giving him advice.
posted by _cave at 3:02 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

May I recommend that you watch The Straight Story. It features an old wise man who has earned his wisdom through mistakes. I think you will enjoy it.
posted by therubettes at 3:02 PM on February 14, 2011

I don't really know you, but I feel like we're trying to be on the same path. It took me a long time-- too long, really-- to recognize that unkindness and callousness and hubris were not things that I actually wanted to cultivate.

For me, kindness is a muscle, and you have to exercise it like everything else. Start with the easy things, like rescuing a kitten on the street, then work your way up to being able to offer a nonjudgmental, not-thinking-about-what-you're-going-to-say-next-but-truly-listening ear to a friend. After a lot of practice, you might even be able to work on the really difficult stuff, like being compassionate towards yourself and George Bush (that might not be hard for you, but you get the point.)

For me, stories have always been a huge, important, inspirational part of my life. It's important to me to have heroes, and most of mine are fictional. If it's helpful for you, adopt story-characters that you can 'put on' in a pinch-- ones whose behavior you can emulate. Of course, all good stories have complex characters who fail from time to time, and when things get really bad, that may provide you some comfort-- to know that they too have moments of utter fuckupery. Sometimes I process my internal journey by remembering the journeys of mythological characters who went through some more extreme version of the same thing.

I have discovered my virtues are absolutely proportional to how well I'm taking care of myself. When I'm getting enough sleep, when I have time for exercise, and hot showers, and I'm not about to cry tears of blood due to the amount of homework my professor just assigned me, I'm much better at cultivating virtue. I recognize that these things are crutches, and my ultimate goal is to have virtue as a knee-jerk reaction regardless of my own situation, but we all have to start somewhere.

Service is a good idea. Service is a big part of becoming this person, for me. Look into local volunteering opportunities; travel if you can. Traveling makes me feel very humble-- the kindness of others towards total strangers often astonishes me. Finally, I feel like the people who have helped me most with this are other members of my Friends Meeting. Quakers as a whole are very much about living by kindness, justice, service, simplicity and other good things-- and what's more, they are incredibly forgiving when you mess things up, and they are willing to help elder you in a way that helps you not do it again. I don't know if you're interested in a community that can help you exercise these virtues, but if you are, I recommend Quakers-- and if you can't get Quakers, then an extremely close, extremely well-knit and intentional community of friends is a good substitute.
posted by WidgetAlley at 3:27 PM on February 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Okay, I dispute the "you're 21" answers. A 21-year-old can be confident without being arrogant, intelligent without being condescending, funny, humble, and competent. I have known 21-year-olds like this. I have known 20-year-olds like this. It is possible, you are right for wanting to grow in that direction, and don't let anyone tell you different.

The starting point is confidence, and you're right to list that first: if you're confident, truly confident, everything else falls into place. But real confidence comes from within. I think the problem you're having is that your self-confidence (and maybe self-worth) derives from what others think of you, and that means that when people criticise you (even indirectly, by giving advice) it feels like they're attacking your sense of self. Similarly, you get an ego boost from being snarky and tearing someone else down, because that makes you feel like you're better than them.

Which, well, if you think about it, really isn't true.

So I think the first step is to let go of that. Convince yourself that confidence is something that comes from being the best you you can be, not comparing yourself to other people on some kind of imaginary percentile ranking (education systems in general encourage this sort of thinking - "I scored in the 90th percentile and thus I am better than 90% of people! but 10% are still better than me ..." - but it's not a good way to live). You are not better than someone because you know more about X than them, and they are not better than you because they know more about Y than you. It just means you know more about X and they know more about Y.

When I put myself up against the standards set by others, I'm paralyzed by this fear that I can never achieve those standards.

Set your own standards. Or just find better standards to follow. There will always be people who are better than you at something, or worse than you at something, people who care more and people who care less. Decide for yourself what defines "good enough".

Also, most people who are really really good at something have put a lot of time and effort into it. You said it yourself - you obsessively research and work, and so you're the go-to guy for stuff. This is a good thing! Look at it this way: you've already proven you can develop an expertise in something. This means you can do it again whenever you feel like it, for whatever you feel like, and so you really have nothing more to prove to other people in that arena.
posted by Xany at 3:29 PM on February 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Put yourself into situations where you never thought you would be. Need a pay increase? Go ask for it. Something broken like your car or computer or faucet – fix it. Spot a beautiful girl or guy, go ask for a date. Constantly challenge yourself with difficult situations and eventually you will have confidence without even thinking about it.

For humility, just listen to some reggae.
posted by alfanut at 7:08 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ask all the people you admire and want to be like how they are who they are. If they do something that is the opposite of what you do, ask them if it comes naturally or if they had to learn how to do it, and how did they learn.

Finally, if all else fails....fake it til you make it. That's my life's motto and it hasn't failed me yet!
posted by thelastgirl at 10:20 PM on February 14, 2011

Have a positive outlook on life.
posted by sandmanwv at 6:22 AM on February 15, 2011

I've thought about this a bit more, and I've got another suggestion: Learn to fail.

When i was a kid, my family went skiing fairly regularly. One day I spent the day trying to not fall once. I mentioned something about this to my dad, without context, and I don't remember the details of the exchange but my takeaway was a realization that, yeah, not falling was a goal, but if I didn't fall I wasn't discovering my limits.

Part of arrogance may be that you don't see the effort of others, the struggle that it can take to be good at one thing, and how it's impossible to be good at everything. So pick something that you absolutely suck at, preferably something where you're going to have to go to other people to help you learn, and start struggling. Fail often. Fail regularly. Push the limits of what you can do and continue to fail.

This is how I internalized that failure is part of excellence.
posted by straw at 8:38 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

1. Do hard things, and persevere when you fail/have a hard time/need more practice. You will feel like an impostor at first, that is okay because the only way you get to be a real expert is to spend a lot of time doing something - and for the first part of that time, you're still just learning. Don't quit just because you're not "a natural" - the people who are 40 and have a lot of skills and confidence are the people who stuck with things they were not "a natural" at and kept practicing.

2. Don't be a jerk. If you have a jerky impulse, restrain it - take the high road, treat people well. This is easier if you surround yourself with other people who aren't jerks.

3. Try to be fair in your dealings with others.

4. Remember a lot of this stuff does get easier as you get older and have more experiences to draw on, and also even the best most confident/wise people screw up sometimes. Try your best, but don't beat yourself up if you screw up. Apologize, try to make things right, learn from mistakes.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:28 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

OP, your aspirations are admirable. I struggle with the same issues you have. A lot of times, what works for me is listening. My father, who is a smart man but rarely speaks his opinion, once told me that he prefers to hear what everyone else thinks, even when he knows the answer. I think a lot of his quiet confidence and discipline comes from the gravity he acquired through years of martial arts. He never shows his badassitude, but to know that he's capable of it is enough.

Grumblebee: They're called the Odyssey years.
posted by therewolf at 3:32 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not saying it's right for you (or anyone for that matter), but Buddhism has helped me with these sorts of issues. I've never really meditated, though it too can be very helpful.

You already have something to aspire to, which is a great place to start. Even better, your goals are admirable and wise and require nothing more than your own mind to achieve. You have as good a starting point as anyone could hope for.

What you need to do is start trying, right now, to live in your ideal way. While "fake it until you make it" can get you most of the way, you have to fight a lot harder if you feel like it's all fake. You seem very capable of seeing where you acted wrongly when you look backward, so what you really need do is strive to bring ever nearer your awareness of your error to the point in time that you're making the error.

The best way to do this constantly pay attention to yourself. That can sound self-centered, but it's not. If you constantly pay attention to your inner state of mind, and realize that you're feeling like you're likely to do something you will later regret, you can intervene on your own behalf and prevent, say, an argument that you don't really want to have. This "self-centeredness" is thus a way for you to help yourself, and the person who you were about to make party to your anger.

It's not easy, and it's not fast, but it really works. If you try to live in this way, it's easy to get disheartened. Especially if you hadn't been very attentive, starting to pay attention to your thoughts can feel like you're backsliding. (Not because you are, but because you're aware of your condescension, etc. before you see its impact on the world.) But if you stick to it, you will be able to look back on who you were a few years ago and wonder how you used to be like that.
posted by davidbhayes at 10:48 AM on February 16, 2011

Over the years I've noticed that people who embody those character traits on your list do the following (and probably a lot more I haven't noticed):

They interact/communicate with everyone as equals. These are the sort of people who really listen and respond thoughtfully to what you're saying even if it's damn near unintelligible. If they don't understand, they ask for clarification—but never in a way that makes the person they're speaking to feel like an ignorant, insignificant worm. These are the sort of people who don't have to use highfalutin mumbo jumbo to let people know just how intelligent they are. We know they're intelligent because they choose their words carefully and they communicate effectively. And yeah, they also often have some variation of encyclopedic-type knowledge to boot. They're also not afraid to say, “I don't know.” Because of their sincere interest, and because of their carefully chosen words and collected demeanor, they set people at ease.

They approach the world, and everyone they speak to as a student. They believe they have something to learn from everyone they encounter.

How does one do this? I am an advocate of the fake it 'til you make it approach, as well. You already desire these qualities, so I think in some sense they are a part of you. I do think the first step is cultivating the approach to people I outlined above.

As for the teasing/button pushing/ribbing. They are in the same boat. You probably know that. It's easier when you are able to deal with it in such a way that they end up looking like the ass, and it doesn't take your being snarky to accomplish that. Snark just exacerbates it and makes everyone look like an infant. Sometimes you just have to call them on it—ask them why they are so concerned about this or that, or what they're trying to accomplish, in so many words (calm and collected, with that sincere interest and all). And as another wrote, try to limit your exposure to such people.

...oh, and I second what Xany wrote. You can be these things at 21—or at least be way ahead of the crowd. Yeah, life experience will probably do wonders for you, but not because life experience by default endows one with more character or wisdom. Please. Only if you seek it. Only if you want it. And you obviously do.
posted by katherant at 12:15 AM on March 1, 2011

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