Think You've Reached the Top? There's Always a Way to Improve.
Here's the good news and the bad news: The better you get, the harder it is to get better. But, how do you go from great to greater? This is the biggest challenge we all face at one point or another, whether at work or in our personal lives. And it isn't just a personal challenge to keep improving. Your competition is getting better too.
The roadside of business history is littered with individuals and companies who were once the highest fliers but who were unable to sustain, let alone improve upon, their success.
The goal of the best is to keep getting better.
Better at what?
Now the basic question: Better at what? Better at what matters to you. Better at being someone whom others respect, emulate and trust. Better at being someone who continues to improve and achieve. A person who motivates, challenges and inspires others through his or her example. You may not have considered it, but these qualities and others define leadership; they make up the little metrics that allow us to start gauging how and where we're actually getting better, actually reaching more of our potential.
Once you've determined where you want to get better, how do you do it?
Six actions for bettering your best
1. Go from emulating to innovating.
You emulate to learn but you innovate to earn. One of the best tests of continual improvement is that you are adding expertise to your profession that others will emulate. Try using FIT (Frequency, Intensity and Technique) to not only practice but to make that practice effective, as innovation -- and change -- will only come when great technique supports good performance. For years I've exercised five or six days a week. For me, the minimum effective dose is enough to maintain health and energy. Sometimes I've become discouraged that I wasn't improving. After consideration, I realized this was the result of something wrong in one or more of these three FIT categories.
2. Go from "back to the basics" to "forward with the basics."
Nobody wants to go backwards. That's why I've never liked the phrase "back to the basics." But, you do go forward by building on the basics. Sometimes growth and improvement are hindered when you get away from the basic building block skills. Consistently reexamining the basics can tell you what might have changed, what may have been disproved or what is in need of updating.
3. Go from learning from experts to learning from masters.
There are lots of "experts" (and many are simply self-proclaimed). When you are among the best, the field of those you can truly learn from narrows. You'll need to spend more time seeking out those at the very top of your field. Try this exercise: Pick an area of professional or personal interest. Write down the 10 most important lessons you've learned about that area of interest. Another variation is to pick a mentor or an influence from your life and write down the 10 most important things you learned from him or her. This mental rehearsal will bolster the good ideas you've captured in the past, as well as from who, and you'll find new opportunities to apply them.
4. Go from performing to perfecting.
For someone committed to continual improvement, perfection is always the goal even when we know it is never ultimately possible. But, by aiming for perfect performances you are able to improve your craft. The best aim higher than the rest. George Leonard, in his classic book Mastery, pointed out that improvement isn't a linear, upward-sloping line but rather a series of stair steps. You improve, keep working, but plateau temporarily. It seems as if you are not getting better, when suddenly -- and often unpredictably -- another improvement occurs. Mark your progress over time, looking for periodic but identifiable improvements.
5. Go from good enough to positive discontent.
Be proud of what you've accomplished but don't stop there. Be positively discontented by refusing to accept your current level of accomplishment as your final level of accomplishment. Use feedback, both from others and yourself, and instead of being your own worst critic, be your own best evaluator. Process whatever emotion you need to work through, and then become analytical: What worked? (Do more of it.) What didn't work? (Understand why.) What could have worked better? (Figure out how.) These are questions that will lead you to useful information.
6. Go from "good answers" to "better questions."
The best don't just know the right answers: they also ask the best questions. For example, ask yourself questions like these:
- What two to three changes in the next three to five years will most disrupt the way I've done business?
- Who are my three biggest competitors (individuals, companies or technologies) and why?
- What increased expectations have I seen in my customers?
The only thing that can keep you from getting better
Before anyone can become better, they've got to believe they can be better. Those who don't think they need any help won't seek it and will ignore it when it's offered. Often, the person becomes defensive at recommendations because it suggests that they aren't as good as they think they are.
An optimist believes the glass is half full. The pessimist believes the glass is half empty. But there is a different, and better, way to think about the glass. The half-full or hall-empty assessment misses an important nuance: There is still room for more.
Leaders look for the space for more in situations. They assume the situation is neither empty or full. They focus on increasing, and acknowledge that there is still plenty of room for more enrichment, enjoyment and success. Considering this, what can you do to start looking at the glass differently?
But, before you answer that, remember, better always beats best!
Related Video: Why the Key to Self-Improvement Is Not Complicated