How independent are you? 

Becoming more independent is the first (and most important step) to living life the way you want to. While social contact is important and necessary, life is ultimately a personal journey – no one else can live it for you. You must be able to make decisions for yourself and act on them.

While most of us would not enjoy an entire lifetime of solitude, there’s immense value in being more independent. The less you need to rely on others, the more you will be able to achieve by yourself. You will be able to focus more on your own goals, and dedicate the time necessary to attain them. In short, you will find yourself becoming the captain of your own life – and others will respect and envy you for it.

So how do you become more independent? The 3 key steps are:

Step 1. Learn to be comfortable alone 

What’s the longest time you could spend alone (and still enjoy it)? 

For most, the answer is: not long at all. This is not surprising, as we are social creatures and constantly look to others for help and support. Whether it’s playing sports, eating, working (or doing just about anything in modern society), it usually involves at least one other person. Simply put, we are not used to being alone – it feels unnatural.

Unfortunately, there’s no way around it. As uncomfortable as it may be, you must learn to be comfortable being by yourself. Just like with anything, it’s all about practice and repetition. If you’re highly dependent on the company of others, aim to spend just 3 hours alone to start. Work your way up to a whole day (24 hours) spent alone working on your own projects or simply relaxing. Practice and internalize it until you’re fully comfortable.

Practical ideas for becoming more comfortable spending time alone:

  • Go to the cinema and watch a movie by yourself.
  • Spend a day at the cafe or local library – read a book or just relax.
  • At night, go to a busy bar or lounge by yourself and have a drink.
  • Go on a long walk through your own city/town, as if you’re a tourist discovering it for the first time. Take some pictures along the way!
  • If you want to really test your progress, try going on a trip all by yourself. Pick a place, buy an airplane/train ticket, and go! This is not something most people even consider, but you may find it’s just as enjoyable discovering a place all by yourself.

Important: in this day and age, just being physically alone may not be enough – most of us are plugged into various social networks through our smartphones and tablets, constantly receiving and sending updates from others. It is important that you learn to switch these off too. Start by only checking for updates/email every hour (this may be hard enough for some), then work your way up to only updating yourself once a day.

Man on a mountain peak

Enjoying your own company is a skill worth having

Step 2. Start saying “no” more often

This one is simple: if you don’t want to do something, just say “no.”

As a general rule, your new default answer should be “no” unless you are truly excited at the idea of doing something. You can start off with excuses if it makes saying no easier (e.g. say you’re busy, you have already done that recently). Eventually, the goal is to be confident enough to say, “no thank you, I am not interested.”

Your time is valuable – don’t waste it by doing things you’re not even interested in. If you upset a few people in the process, so be it. Be very clear with people about what you will (and won’t) do.

The only exception to this rule is if you’re being invited to something that makes you somewhat nervous. That is, if you feel that it’s an opportunity to push yourself to do something new and exciting (e.g. skydiving, scuba diving, public debate, your first 5K run). Say “yes” to these kinds of invitations – chances are, you’ll be glad you did.

I’ve written a whole post about the importance of saying “no” – check it out.

Step 3. Develop a habit of relying on yourself when solving problems

When most of us come across a difficult problem or a seemingly impossible challenge, our first instinct is to ask someone else for help. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially if it means we can get to a solution quicker.

However, the truly independent person thinks differently. Instead of running off to get help, he sees and opportunity to learn something new. He is industrious, resourceful, and self-reliant.

Before asking for help, try solving/fixing the problem on your own. Here’s how:

  • No matter what, relax. Breathe. Keep calm, and your thinking will be clearer.
  • Think about a time when you had to solve a situation in the past. How did you do it? What tools did you have at your disposal?
  • Is it a practical matter – such as fixing a household object? Try searching for a solution on the internet (search for “hot to fix/solve [your problem here]” on Google). I would be surprised if someone hasn’t already listed out detailed steps for solving such an issue. In many cases, you can even find an instructional video for it!
  • If it’s a quantitative/intellectual problem, don’t panic. Break it down into parts and list out all your knowns and unknowns. Then, figure out how you would determine each unknown. Write it all down as you go – getting it all down on paper is a great way to organize your thoughts.
  • If you’re still stumped, try going for a (solitary) walk. It happens to us all – unable to arrive at a solution after staring it in the face, we end up discovering it at a seemingly random time (e.g. in the shower).

If you have exhausted every possibility, go ahead and ask for help. However, try to make self-reliance a habit. Whenever possible, aim to tackle a problem on your own.

Step 4. Growing a Thick Skin

If you’re going to cultivate independence, it’s valuable to build an immunity to rejection and failure. And trust me – you’re going to face a lot of naysayers when you demonstrate that you’re walking your own path.

Fear of rejection is very common.

Some fear for their reputation (or public image), while others are afraid of having their feelings hurt. Many do not like the idea of failure in general (used to being praised for their efforts, they do not take criticism well). Rejection is perhaps the most extreme form of criticism – it’s a flat out “no” to whatever was proposed.

You have to learn to overcome this fear. You won’t be able to take action when it counts if you are worrying about what others will think or say. Constant fear of failure will leave you paralyzed, unable to begin whatever it is you want to do. To achieve what you want, you have to build up an inner courage – be confident that you will succeed.

The first step is to realize and accept (truly accept) that rejection is universal. It happens to everyone, everywhere. Any time we ask for anything, we must accept the possibility that we won’t get it. Simply put, you are not going to please everyone in the world.

Secondly, consider this: people aren’t against you – they are for themselves. Everyone acts in his or her own best self-interest. When someone rejects you, don’t take it as personal insult – instead, recognize that the person is just trying to look out for themselves (and they are gambling that there are better alternatives than whatever you proposed).

Finally, you must be willing to experience failure and rejection more often – this is the only way to truly overcome your fear of it. As Thomas J. Watson (former president of IBM) succinctly put it: “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” You must learn to pick yourself up and try again. And again.

So how do you practice failing? Identify what you’re most afraid of failing at – and force yourself to go do it more often. A few examples:

  • Are you intimidated by the idea of asking out someone you are attracted to? Many a grown man, for example, shudders at the thought of being rejected by an attractive woman in public. Try this: go to a trendy, active bar on a busy night and order a drink. Then, stand by the bar and talk to every person that comes by to stand next to you – be flirty, playful, and maintain eye contact. If you do this, you will end up talking to at least 10 new people every 30 minutes. A quick and effective confidence builder.
  • Are you still in school? Perfectionism is rampant in academia, where many strive for 100% / A+ / 4.0 GPA. If you have been playing it safe, try pushing yourself – take a challenging or more competitive course. Your grades may suffer, but the experience will be invaluable. Whatever failure means for you, it’s better to experience it (and learn from it) sooner rather than later – harden yourself up, because life after school gets a lot less predictable.
  • Are you a creative type afraid of releasing your work to the world? Don’t be afraid of ridicule – your biggest problem will be getting people to even read/watch/consume it! It’s a competitive world out there, and the more practice you get the better. Get your work out there – don’t apologize for it, and ignore the critics (no one remembers the critics anyway). Start anonymously if you have to – if your work is online, you can just register a blog (e.g. tumblr) and start publishing immediately.
  • Are you afraid to apply for a job at your dream company? Please don’t put them on a pedestal – they are mortals, just like the rest of us. You have nothing to lose – just send the application already. Worst-case scenario is you don’t get the job – not the end of the world. Being rejected now is not going to hurt your chances of getting the same job in the future, so don’t be shy. In fact – start applying to companies/positions you’re apparently under-qualified for (note: don’t just apply blind – genuinely craft your résumé/CV to the position).

The way to overcome your fear of rejection is simply to get rejected. Over and over again. 

Over time, you might even develop a standard defense mechanism – I have personally found laughter to be the most effective. I don’t take the rejection seriously, and in doing so I refuse to let it get me down. If you take it personally, try going for a run (any kind of workout helps) or watching a funny movie/show to get your mind off of what happened. Eventually, you will get to a point where most rejections don’t faze you at all.

The best thing you can do after a rejection (or failure of any kind) is to try again. Don’t accept no for an answer. Pick yourself up and have another go. Most people will be outright amazed that you have the courage and will to do so – and you will immediately earn their respect.

Most importantly, try not to consider rejection a bad thing at all. Take it as a sign: if you’re not being rejected at all, you may not be aiming high enough. Most things worth pursuing are not easy to come by – you have to want it bad enough.

To summarize: getting used to failure and rejection is a key step to strengthening your mind and preparing yourself for big undertakings. Just as with anything, practice is key – get your failures in early, and learn to get up, laugh rejection in the face, and try again.

Fear of rejection is common (“what if she says no?”)

Step 5. Becoming More Adaptable

Independent people, while set in their ways and confident about what they want, are also able to adapt – when the situation calls for it.

Being adaptable means to be able to easily adjust to new conditions. It means dealing with different cultures, people, and environments. More than anything, it’s about getting used to being outside of your comfort zone.

So why become more adaptable? 

Simply put, it’s the best preparation for the unknown. By getting used to being out of your comfort zone, you will be ready to take on life’s challenges and setbacks. And when it comes time to seizing the opportunity to get what you want, you won’t hesitate. You can’t possibly prepare for every possible outcome, but you can take steps to give yourself the best possible chance at coming out on top.

Becoming more adaptable is both a mental and physical exercise.

You must prepare your mind for the (bumpy) road ahead. Life is not fair. Life is tough, and there will always be obstacles that get in the way (e.g., rejection, unexpected relocations, family/societal pressures, sickness). You must internalize the idea that you are tough, strong, and unyielding. That you are going to get through this, no matter how hard it gets.

The worst thing you can do is pity yourself. It will be tempting, but you must resist. If you ever find yourself thinking that someone (or everyone) seems to have it in for you, just remember this: people are not against you, they are for themselves. Every person simply acts in his or her own self-interest, in a way that they think will maximize their own happiness and well-being. In short, you may be overestimating just how much people even care about you. Don’t pity yourself – instead, believe that you have the power to improve your situation.

If you want to be adaptable, it helps to throw out any prejudices, stereotypes, or assumptions you may hold.

Do you have something against a particular country, race, or ethnic group? Are you uncomfortable around religious people, or perhaps can’t stand the sight of atheists? Do you assume that you’re more intelligent, simply because you support a certain political party, or because you have chosen a certain career path? This kind of thinking will only hurt you in the long run: whenever you (inevitably) discover that your assumptions don’t match reality, disappointment and frustration will set in.

Learn to see the world for what it is, and draw your own conclusions. Negative, judgmental thoughts hold you back by preventing you from thinking clearly and making rational decisions. There is no one “right” way about things. Life is not a movie (read: it’s not black and white). The easiest way to start is by questioning everything, and making it a habit to draw your own conclusions. An open mind will take you a long way in this world.

From a physical standpoint, you must prepare yourself to deal with new environments and situations. If you’re used to a sedentary lifestyle (indoors, perhaps in school or at an office), try doing the opposite – spend more time outside (start by going on a walk once a day). If you tend to drive everywhere, try getting around by walking or taking public transport. Challenge yourself by disrupting your typical, comfortable routine – a minor discomfort once in a while will only make you stronger.

Some practical ideas for becoming a more adaptable person:

  • Go travel (preferably to another country). Nothing will open your mind faster than full immersion in a completely new environment. If possible, go alone – the more you have to think on your own feet, the better.
  • If you ever get a chance, seriously consider living (or studying) abroad. This is the fastest way to becoming more open-minded. You will come back home with a brand new perspective on life – it will help you empathize more for those who may be new to your city (or community). For a real challenge, try living in a place where people speak a different language.
  • Throw yourself into unfamiliar environments. This is especially easy to do if you live in city: if you’re not much of a nightlife person, try going to a bar or nightclub. Take an improv class, or go to a few yoga sessions. There are always local businesses offering low-cost introductory classes for new members – take advantage of these offers and try out something new.
  • Put yourself into situations where you interact with different people. Try crashing a cultural festival in your city/town. Go to parties where most of the attendees are strangers. Have a chat with a homeless person. In short, talk to as many different kinds of people as possible. It’s if you don’t fit in – the point is to have fun and challenge yourself.

As you become more adaptable, you will toughen up. You will develop a thicker skin, and be less affected by public embarrassment.

Chameleon sitting on a wooden log

Be like a chameleon – a truly adaptable creature

* * *

Phew! That was a long post, I know. But that’s it!

As you internalize and practice these 5 techniques, you will find that you are becoming more independent. Increasingly, you will be seen as the person who gets things done – and more people are likely to ask you for help. Rare is the person who takes initiative and claims responsibility.

Don’t be surprised if you start receiving better treatment from others as a result, too. Just like how banks and investment companies seek out clients who are already well off, people are generally more willing to help if they feel you need their help the least. This is somewhat of a paradox, but it’s all in your favor.

Independence gives you both freedom and responsibility. Freedom to act as you wish, and the responsibility to make your own decisions (without the guidance of others). Above all, it offers you the chance to take control of yourself.

There’s plenty of more work to do. The path won’t be easy, and there are no quick shortcuts. Becoming more independent you are giving yourself the highest chance of long-term success – at the very least you will know that you have the willpower to go it alone.