Earlier this summer, I had the chance to catch up on some reading for pleasure that included a book by Heidi Grant Halvorson entitled “9 Things Successful People Do Differently.” It is a quick read distilling information gleaned from her personal research and that conducted by other scientists who study psychological motivation.
I was particularly taken by a concept touted in one chapter of the book that I have recognized throughout my career whenever I have talked with people involved in the art or athletics at a professional level. That idea is that it is better to focus on “getting better” as a way of building career success, rather than “being good.”
While it is true that one is competing against others always and that it is beneficial to be among the best from the standpoint of earning economic rewards in our society, the truth is that focusing on continuous improvement in terms of “getting better” means that one is more apt to be adjusting to the idea that life is a continuous journey marked by ups and downs that can always be useful for self-development and learning. On the other hand, being focused on always “being good,” in Halvorson’s view, can leave one feeling anxious when confronting something unfamiliar and difficult. Ultimately, that anxiety can ruin performance and be a “productivity killer” in terms of goals being set to measure progress.
According to Halvorson, “Get-better goals are practically bulletproof. When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and mastering new skills, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setback that might occur.”
As she points out self-induced pressure to always “be-good” often results in many more mistakes and inferior performance than would a focus on “getting-better”. Making progress by trying to “get better” gives fuel for a lifelong journey of learning and the possibility of being resilient in the face of adversity.
In the close to this book chapter, she offers two proscriptions that I really see as beneficial to pursuing career progress:
1) Admit what you don’t know in any situation that is difficult or unfamiliar and don’t be afraid to seek out others with expertise that can be beneficial.
2) Don’t compare yourself to others. Instead, continuously evaluate your progress in light of past performances.
The key question is are you improving instead of trying to always be perfect? Are you defining career progress by setting goals to “get better” as the fundamental approach to your career journey?