February 1, 2017
It was dark when Shay Nartker drove to a quiet spot alongside the Ohio River.
Earlier that day, he had met with a friend who had driven down from Columbus, Ohio, to Cincinnati to speak with him about his concerns over what was, or what wasn’t, happening in Mr. Nartker’s life.
His friend saw unrealized potential in him. But Mr. Nartker, who was divorced from a woman he had married in his early 20s, was drinking too much, and his diet consisted of the fast food he ate while falling asleep to Netflix. He trudged through his job as a content creator for an eyewear company, doing semi-adequate work.
Hours after the talk with his friend, he sat in relative calm on the riverside.
“I think it really hit hard for me, that he would take that much time to see me,” Mr. Nartker, now 27, said. “It was important to sit me down and give me the hard truth, not sugarcoat it, but just say, ‘Hey, you have to get it back together and pull yourself up.’”
To do so required the small, incremental changes that we often promise to make but never seem to get around to. But there are those who have managed to pull it off, like Mr. Nartker.
He soon joined a gym and started exercising up to four times a week. He decided he wouldn’t keep any alcohol in the house and would cut back his drinking to an occasional beer or wine at social events. He stocked his kitchen with fruits and vegetables, and avoided anything with added sugar. Soon the idea of fast food repulsed him.
The physical and emotional changes were almost automatic. His weight dropped to 198 pounds from 230. He reconnected with old friends. He had more energy and was more focused in his work. His confidence improved enough that he applied for, and got, a job building promotional content at MadTree Brewing Company.
“I had a renewed sense of purpose, because I had finally cut out all the bad stuff,” Mr. Nartker said of the new job. “And since I made all those other changes, I had the motivation to push through and go after it. You have to take care of yourself.”
Unlike Mr. Nartker, Jamil Muhaisen, 42, didn’t start his self-improvement program from scratch. In 2007, he and his wife, DeeAnne Bullard, left Brooklyn, N.Y., and moved to Austin, Tex., where they became part owners of a successful sandwich shop, Fricano’s Deli & Catering. They had a child and a rewarding life together. All the same, Mr. Muhaisen decided it was time for him “to fix my life,” as he put it.
It started with his weight. After watching his wife shed the pounds she had gained during pregnancy, he decided he didn’t want to be a “fat blob.” By limiting his portions and exercising, he dropped to 185 pounds from 215. He found himself more focused at work, with enough energy to tackle various projects he would not have taken on before.
“It just had this snowball effect of confidence and problem solving and self-improvement,” Mr. Muhaisen said.
When the deli’s soda fountain broke down, he learned how to build one himself. Then he repaired an industrial-grade toilet. At home, he learned how to repair his washing machine and dishwasher.
“I’ve done more fixing and figuring out things on my own after I lost the weight,” Mr. Muhaisen said. “I think I have had more confidence to tackle projects and figure stuff out. We refloored our house Christmas Day a year ago, and I saved thousands of dollars by doing it myself. I never put a floor in before, but I figured it out.”
“I always like to be my own boss,” he added. “I guess that’s the same idea, as far as self-improvement — doing it myself. Self-improvement. Lifestyle improvement. Home improvement. It’s all improvement.”
Dan Shaver fell into a rut of a different kind in the late 1990s. He was doing well in his job as director of marketing at the Sigma Chi Fraternity headquarters in Evanston, Ill., and had started his own business enforcing trademark rights on the side. But somehow he felt adrift. His personal life needed work.
“I was very ambition-focused at that time,” said Mr. Shaver, 46, who now lives outside of San Diego with his wife, Karina, and their two children. “I achieved these things at work. I was probably drinking too much in those days and just had this feeling of, ‘Is this really what life has in store for me?’ I had this overwhelming feeling that it wasn’t enough.”
One afternoon while in the Uptown neighborhood in Chicago, Mr. Shaver stood staring at a scene outside the bay window of the condominium he and a friend had bought. Children from a nearby housing project had found an old mattress and were using it as a trampoline. He felt envious. These children had found a way to make their own happiness. He needed to do the same.
Self-improvement for him didn’t mean changing his diet or working out. It meant training himself to look beyond his own selfish concerns. After much vetting, he joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, which matched him with a 9-year-old boy. The two were inseparable and shared much — Mr. Shaver eventually helped him go to college — and they have continued the relationship to this day.
The routine of being there for someone else made a difference. Mr. Shaver noticed that he was changing, that he was more patient with other people. When he met the woman whom he would eventually marry, she could see in him the kind of father he might become someday. Working as a volunteer had revealed something in Mr. Shaver that he may not have realized was there.
“I absolutely think you can transform your life though a series of rituals, even when they are unintended,” he said. “And in this case, it wasn’t something like the ritual of going to a church or going to meditation or going for a massage. I would call this an accidental ritual that I ended up falling in love with, and it really redefined a stage of my life that ended up changing how I feel about myself.”
In 2008, Chris Tamas, recently divorced, lost his job as a lab technician at a Toronto hospital and began living off his eight-month severance pay. He was now free. But to what end? It didn’t go well at first.
“I did not take care of myself,” Mr. Tamas said. “At different points, I stayed at home for two weeks straight, just ordering pizzas and stuff like that. There were definitely periods of hopelessness.”
When the eight months were nearly up, Mr. Tamas, 37, knew he had to act. He decided to pursue his passion: photography. He built a portfolio while regaining healthy habits. This included the understanding that he needed to treat what many see as a hobby like a profession. Now, he said, he earns more as a freelance photographer than he did as a lab technician.
“I looked at other people,” Mr. Tamas said, “and everyone is complaining about how they are financially in a bad situation and can’t afford anything, but they are drinking all night long and sleeping in really late. I just decided that I was getting too old for that.
“Now I get up early and I get tired by 10 p.m., so I go to sleep,” he continued. “Just over all, everything feels better. There is just a lot more productivity in the daytime, and even though some of my work involves late-night concerts, I stick to my schedule. I feel better, and my life is completely in order. Everything gets done.”
Mr. Nartker — the man who had a moment of reflection on the riverside — feels the same way. He says he is six months into a new relationship, one he believes would never have been available to him had he not decided to fix his life.
“It’s like this whole new motivation I have,” he said, adding that it was about getting “out of bed and experiencing the world around me instead of sitting at home. And I’m going to do everything I can, because you only get one chance at it. So why waste it?”