The 5 Self-Improvement Steps to Take for a Stronger Mind

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Unbeatable Mind" by Mark Divine. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What self-improvement steps can you take to build resilience? What techniques do experts recommend to improve your mental strength?

Former Navy SEAL Mark Divine wrote his book Unbeatable Mind to teach readers his techniques for self-improvement by focusing on developing the entire self. In the book, Divine explains his five self-improvement steps for building mental strength.

Read on to learn Divine’s five self-improvement steps to strengthen your mind and resiliency in life.

Divine’s 5 Self-Improvement Steps

Is your mind strong enough to weather all storms you face in life? Are you struggling to achieve what you want most? In Unbeatable Mind, Mark Divine offers a guide to training your mind to be stronger so that you have control over your whole self and can maximize your success. In our article, we’ll explore Divine’s system, which features five self-improvement steps along with tips for how to traverse these steps. We’ll also examine the science behind these ideas and techniques, as well as how other experts in the field recommend achieving the goals he sets out for the reader.

Step 1: Fulfilling Survival Needs

The first self-improvement step Divine discusses is about survival. When you’re at this step, you’re devoting the majority of your time and energy to getting your basic survival needs met. You’re making choices based largely on instinct. 

In this stage, you focus on yourself and possibly a small circle of loved ones, and you ignore people outside of that circle. You can develop behaviors that are damaging in the long term, including abuse of others or of yourself in the case of substance abuse or self-harm. 

To transcend this step, Divine advises that you find a way to get your basic needs met and deal with the emotions caused by struggling to survive. Practicing certain disciplines and virtues can also help you ascend to the next step.

Divine offers the following tips for getting through step 1:

Take on an abundance mindset: Understand that there’s enough to go around and that you don’t need to be focused on getting “enough” for you and yours.

Hold yourself responsible and accountable: When you take responsibility for both yourself and your team (and hold yourself accountable when you fail to meet your responsibilities), you’ll expand your sense of self to include others and gain the trust of those around you.

Stay determined: Understand that every day is a battle. Stay in the present moment and keep driving forward through hardship.

Step 2: Being a Protector

Once you’ve met your survival needs and successfully processed the emotions involved, you’ll be able to tackle self-improvement step 2. This step is where you’re acting (in your mind) as the guardian for your group or a specific structure or way of life. At this stage, Divine says, your choices are based on deeply rooted biases or unexamined emotions. It’s easy to get stuck here if you aren’t exposed to—or if you refuse to consider—perspectives or beliefs different from your own. 

(Shortform note: Certain types of ideology such as tribalism and nationalism derive from step 2. These kinds of ideas elevate certain groups of people over others and can cause social issues such as bigotry and large-scale conflicts—including warfare—that can be devastating on a micro and macro level.)

When you focus only on your own emotional needs without considering the needs of others who may be different from you, you may engage in illogical or emotionally manipulative behaviors. 

(Shortform note: Certain mental illnesses may make it difficult for a person to focus on others’ emotional needs. People with a narcissistic personality disorder, for example, tend to lack empathy and prioritize themselves over others. These people may need help learning the emotional skills necessary for connecting with others emotionally and may benefit from therapy.)

To move past this step, Divine suggests that you examine the beliefs that you feel you’re protecting and eliminate the ones that are unhelpful or damaging. If you’re helping someone else through this step, make sure you approach their beliefs with respect while offering other options that benefit them and others without shaming them. 

(Shortform note: Others agree that confronting people directly about their biases in a way that places blame on them isn’t productive. In The Anatomy of Peace, The Arbinger Institute writes that telling someone they’re biased in an attempt to change their biases won’t work, and that you must approach them from a place of understanding and compassion.)

Divine offers the following tips for getting through step 2 in his self-improvement system:

Practice authenticity: Make sure your beliefs and behaviors are in line with your goals and with serving others. This will improve your character and the way others view you. 

Practice good leadership skills so people will be more likely to believe in you and invest their time and energy in you. 

Authenticity Facilitates Leadership

Other experts have discussed the links between authenticity and the ability to lead others. They have outlined a distinction between the authentic self, which is the embodiment of who you really are, and the adaptive self, which consists of the behaviors you developed in order to fit in with others and do what you’re told. Standing by your word, being mindful about how your actions affect others, and being brave enough to face the frightening discrepancies between the authentic self and the adaptive self builds trust with others, which makes them more likely to be willing to follow you.

However, others have suggested that it’s not always beneficial to listen only to the authentic self and that your adaptive behaviors can also be useful in leading others. Their recommendation is to strike a balance between the two that allows you to act in a way that speaks to your true self while actively managing the way others perceive you through your adaptive behaviors. 

Step 3: Pursuing Accomplishments

Once you’re secure in your survival and belief system, you’ll move on to step 3. At this step, Divine says, you’re striving to improve your life through accomplishment. You’re making choices based on logic and hard evidence, and you may dismiss ideas that are not possible or easy to “prove.”

(Shortform note: The idea of relying only on scientific or provable evidence can be comforting, but scientists have pointed out that science is not as objective as we would like to believe, and that the beliefs of the people who are establishing this scientific evidence can influence the results. If you base your beliefs on “provable” scientific evidence, your beliefs will still be subjective, which may be frightening to someone at step 3.)

The dangers of this step are that when you focus only on achievement, you risk becoming a workaholic and experiencing stress from over-work, as well as prioritizing your gain over the greater good of humanity or the planet. 

(Shortform note: Success through achievement is extremely tempting, but as Divine points out, it can come at the expense of others’ well-being. Billionaires are an example of almost unimaginable success, but researchers have suggested that the means they often use to achieve that success can have such consequences as causing catastrophic climate change or severe mistreatment of workers for the sake of higher productivity.)

However, there are some positive aspects of this step. People at this stage are independent and innovative and have a strong devotion to their loved ones and support networks.

(Shortform note: Experts agree that the skills associated with step 3 are highly beneficial in the workplace because they drive people to continuously improve processes, policies, and products even when those things are working well as is. When people innovate, they go above and beyond to make life better for themselves and the people around them, which adds value to both their personal and professional lives.)

To transcend this step, you’ll need to align yourself with your purpose and achieve a balance between work and personal life, and you’ll need to devote yourself to serving others. 

(Shortform note: In The 12 Week Year, Brian Moran argues that a work-life balance is actually not as productive as creating a deliberate imbalance in your life, because trying to give equal attention to all the different aspects of your life can cause burnout. He suggests focusing intensely on a specific goal for 12 weeks at a time, and then shifting your focus to another goal for your next 12-week period.)

Divine offers the following tips for getting through step 3 in his self-improvement system:

Practice compassion: Divine notes that western culture has historically portrayed compassion as a weakness, especially in men, but many other traditions that focus on creating warriors have recognized it as an invaluable skill that should even include your adversary. 

Be generous: Recognize that giving more to others also increases your own share, and practice offering your time, talent, and love to other people.

Cultivate humility: Focus your attention on the needs of those around you. 

Focus on Connecting With Others

These three tips all center around the recognition and validation of others and their needs, and around taking steps to help with those needs. These practices are mutually beneficial and build upon each other, and orienting yourself toward others can help you build relationships that can balance your need for achievement.

Unfortunately, as Divine points out, there are some obstacles to employing these practices. Western culture’s view of compassion as a sign of weakness in men continues to negatively impact both men and women in the workplace. Studies show that men who are seen as kind and compassionate by their colleagues tend to be paid less and be viewed as less competent than men who appear stoic and seem unconcerned with the needs of others.

However, compassion is a necessary facet of generosity and an important tool in any relationship, and as Divine points out, it’s beneficial for both the giver and the receiver. Compassion also can help you cultivate humility, as it’s an important part of overcoming interpersonal conflicts. In Crucial Conversations, the authors emphasize the need to be humble when approaching someone else’s viewpoints in order to reach a solution that’s beneficial for everyone. 

Step 4: Creating Equity

Once you’ve met your survival needs, expanded your perspective beyond yourself, and begun to seek equity over material gain, you’ll reach step 4 in Divine’s self-improvement system. At this step, Divine explains, you’re devoted to the ideals of equity and creating a world built for everyone. You’ll work to advocate for policies or actions that elevate those at the bottom and bring those at the top down to an equal level. 

(Shortform note: Divine uses the word “equality” instead of “equity,” but the principles he addresses, such as making changes that bring people to the same level, actually match up more closely with the definition of “equity.” Experts point out that “equality” means treating everyone the same way, but this only works if everyone is already on a level playing field. The solution to inequality is actually equity—giving everyone what they need—and only after that can we implement equality—treating everyone exactly the same.)

The drawbacks of this stage are that focusing only on strict equality can lead you to feel envy toward others who have more, to overcompensate in areas of social justice, or to exclude people with different perspectives.

(Shortform note: People who experience justice sensitivity, or a strong negative reaction to situations of injustice or unfairness, may be particularly susceptible to the drawbacks of step 4. Studies show that people with justice sensitivity can demonstrate symptoms of depression, including guilt and rumination, when they perceive injustice. People with this quality may need to find a way to gain some emotional distance from a situation in order to change it.)

However, there are benefits of this stage as well: At this stage you’re focused on humanity and the world at large. You tend to work toward human connection and against systems that divide or marginalize people. 

(Shortform note: This kind of work is difficult and not necessarily in our nature. The phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility can lead us to wait passively for someone else to help, but equalizers take the initiative to help everyone whenever possible.)

To transcend this step in Divine’s self-improvement system you’ll need to combine the positive aspects of all four step and overcome the drawbacks of each while aspiring to a higher level of intention and spiritual attainment. Divine offers the following tips for getting through step 4:

Embrace simplicity: Teach yourself to be happy with where you are right now instead of focusing doggedly on things that haven’t yet happened. This doesn’t mean you don’t still strive to improve the future for yourself and others, but it gives you a sense of contentment that will keep you going when you experience hardship.

(Shortform note: Being content with where you are involves recognizing that you have—or are—enough, and it’s necessary for both happiness and growth.) 

Practice dedication: Moving to the next step requires a strong commitment to your development and the ideals of the first four step.

(Shortform note: Ideals without dedication won’t get you very far. In High Performance Habits, Brendon Burchard explains that success doesn’t result from strong work ethic alone but from dedicated habits that push you toward your goals.)

Step 5: Bringing It All Together

This step is the amalgamation of the strengths, values, and skills of all four previous steps in Divine’s self-improvement system. At this stage, your mind is in control of your self rather than the other way around. 

Divine explains that at this stage, you’ve taken on a holistic view of the self, humanity, the earth, and the cosmos. Though you may still experience negative thoughts and emotions, you’re aware of them and work toward eliminating them. You’re courageous, compassionate, generous, forgiving, and loving. 

(Shortform note: Putting your mind in control of the self means having agency over your own thoughts and actions. Because of the way the brain matures, this is difficult or impossible for children under a certain age, and like many of the traits Divine espouses, becomes easier when we enter adulthood.)

Integrating the first four plateaus can have some negative consequences when one of them begins to dominate. Focusing too much on self-growth can cause other things to fall by the wayside. For example, if you commit too intensely to the belief that everyone is equal, it can lead you to view everyone as “perfect,” and you risk being taken advantage of by others. Also, if you focus too much on spiritual attainment, you may begin to feel detached from reality.

(Shortform note: It’s important to maintain balance in your integration of the four steps. You should try to avoid becoming overly fixated on personal development to the point that it interferes with other aspects of your life or leads to obsession, self-doubt, and conflict in your relationships.)

While the goal is for you to operate mainly from the fifth step, Divine explains that you won’t eliminate the other four, but instead will become aware of how to integrate them into your life or behavior as needed. Sometimes you’ll be operating at different steps in different areas of your life, like if you feel you’re achieving what you want in your marriage but feel like you’re in survival mode at work.

The 5 Self-Improvement Steps to Take for a Stronger Mind

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  • Advice from a former Navy SEAL on how to maximize your success
  • Tools for training your mind and developing mental toughness
  • Why you should come up with a mantra for yourself

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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