It’s that time of year to think about getting better and improving, isn’t it? New Year’s resolutions. Annual performance reviews. Goal setting. We all want to get better, and when we do, we are more fulfilled and move closer to the expression of our best selves. What can we learn from people who excel at self-improvement? What does it take to become expert and be the best?
Set goals that matter to you
The first thing successful people do is set goals. Georgia and Alabama just played for the national title – both teams’ goal at the beginning of the year was to be the number one team at the end of the season. Not everyone wins but successful people’s goals are specific and focused – they make a realistic assessment of what they are capable of, and they pursue their goals with great effort and passion. Want to get better this year? Set goals that matter to you. Goals that you are willing to pursue over a long period of time. Goals that are consistent with your values and what is most important in your life. Your goals may be professional (to develop additional clients). Familial (to be a better parent). Personal (to read more). Write them down. Be specific about what “better” looks like. Keep your goals close to you and review them weekly. Take accountability and monitor your progress.
Practice with intention
The second thing that highly skilled people do is practice. They get in the game, and they execute the things that lead to success. They perform these activities over and over. You’ve probably heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule: the amount of time to achieve a high level of mastery in a complex skill. I agree that practice makes perfect (sort of…), but this rule places quantity of practice over quality of practice. Lots of practice doing the wrong things will not make you better – in fact, it makes you worse. Your practice needs to be “intentional” and focused on doing things deliberately and then learning from your mistakes. I see this error frequently on the golf practice range. Unskilled players hit ball after ball without aim or reflection. They don’t learn anything from their practice, and they don’t get better. The skilled players aim, go through their routine, and practice the shots that will lower their scores on the course. These players get better. Want to get better this year? Have a mental picture of what “excellent” looks like. Find a role model who is skilled in the area you want to develop and observe what they do. Plan what you are going to do and when you are going to do it. Ask for feedback on how to get better. Record your results and review what worked and what didn’t. Adjust and repeat.
The truth is that you cannot make real improvement if you are not willing to fully accept where you are now. It is a paradox that you get stuck if you don’t accept your deficits. This doesn’t mean being complacent, but taking a realistic look at your weaknesses with compassion and without judgment. I love to play on-line chess and regularly match skills with players from Russia, China, Mexico, and around the world. I’m a competitive person by nature and I don’t like losing. When I lose four or five games in a row, there are at least three ways to respond:
- I can throw my hands up in frustration and quit (“I’m just not a good chess player, and that’s the way it is.”).
- I can passively accept my losses (“I like the game and will just have to accept that I’m going to win some and lose some.”).
- I can take the approach of radical acceptance (“I made some bad moves that resulted in a series of losses, but I can learn from my mistakes and commit to becoming better.”).
It is only by fully accepting my shortfalls without blame that I learn and improve. Also, win or lose, I have fun and enjoy the journey (but I have more fun when I win!).
Don’t strive for perfection
Successful people who are highly skilled in their craft are not driven by a need to be perfect. Perfectionism interferes with self-improvement more than it helps. Yes, perfectionists are motivated and strive to produce flawless work, but they also set excessively high standards (for themselves and others) and are overly critical of their performance when they fall short. Perfectionists display an “all or nothing” mindset (“if I’m not perfect then I’m a failure”). When your self-worth is contingent upon your performance, then you will be prone to greater levels of stress, anxiety, and burnout.
Want to get better this year?
Stop chasing perfection – you’ll never achieve it and the need to be perfect will only increase your anxiety and stress. Instead, accept that you have weaknesses and look at them compassionately and without judgment. Change the way that you feel about failure. See it as an opportunity to learn rather than validation that you lack innate talent or capability. Cultivate your sense of contentment and stop habitually comparing yourself to others. Enjoy the process and find fulfillment in the journey to get better rather than solely focusing on outcomes.
Bottom line? Successful people set goals, practice, and continuously strive for improvement. But they also exercise radical acceptance of where they are right now and find meaning in the journey. Balance self-improvement with self-acceptance and you too can find joy in 2022 and cultivate the expression of your best self.