Guest writer Alex Kraft faces a topic we all think about in our day-to-day lives: improvement. How do we go about getting better?
I’m a rookie at social media. While it’s never been that appealing personally to me, I do recognize how it can be beneficial for companies to build awareness, brands, and interest. Companies can share their successes and promote key customer relationships in an informal way that resonates much differently than the email marketing blasts. For whatever reason, there is also a steady diet of inspirational/motivational cliché posts. Every time I log on, I’m hit with posts from people telling the world to “get better every day,” “get 1% better today,” “crush it today.” But these comments are empty statements. For those of us who actually want to improve, how does one get better?
I have a habit of always wanting to go deeper on a subject. Two common answers to this question are practice and experience. Both are important components but don’t tell the whole story. How many of us have worked with someone who doesn’t hesitate to let you know, “I’ve been doing this for 26 years”, and they are mediocre at best? Experience provides context and can help individuals be prepared for situations that arise. You are less likely to encounter a scenario that you haven’t seen before, but that doesn’t make you better at your job. As for practice, I’ve learned how you practice matters more than the time spent. As an avid golfer, I was stuck at a 15 handicap for ten years, spending hours at the driving range. It got me nowhere until I learned the art of purposeful practice. I cut my range sessions down to 15-20 minutes with a specific goal and did it more frequently. I dropped my handicap in half within 18 months. What can I say, it only took me ten years to figure it out.
Within the last few years, I’ve come to understand the other pieces to what drives improvement. In my opinion, personal growth and improvement comes from four areas: (1) trying new things, (2) forcing yourself to do things you don’t like to do, (3) having humility to recognize that you don’t have all the answers, and (4) losing. How did I come to this understanding? Fatherhood. Experiencing these with my kids as they’ve grown over the past 4-5 years has helped me realize the blind spots that I had personally. As I introduced new activities or sports to my kids, it was important to encourage them and provide support in the form of: “no one is an expert when they start”, “it’s ok to fail; we can practice tomorrow”, “the only way to know if you like something is to try it out”. Next, I forced them to do things they didn’t want to do. It’s funny how the things we avoid have one thing in common—they are usually the best things for us. Whether it’s eating healthy foods, daunting exercises, hard tasks that will take a ton of time and effort, all these examples generate the most benefits. Humility naturally comes from the flurry of questions that young children will throw at you. As tempting as it can to be respond with “Because I said so”, a parent quickly learns it’s the least effective response. I was forced to search for answers and come back prepared. Lastly, losing is the best impetus for improvement. Winning, while it feels great, often breeds complacency. It can be taken for granted and very few understand ‘why’ they win. No one wants to hear any critiques either—you’re a total buzzkill if you go down that road. When you lose? Suddenly people are more attentive during those car rides home or at those next practices. Losing teaches us lessons, if we care about improvement, we take to heart and use as fuel to get better. We don’t want to feel that pain of losing again.
I guess I’d found myself in a rut. Despite plenty of ambition, it’s difficult to know whether you are improving at one’s occupation. It doesn’t just come from more experience and more time. I needed the refresher that fatherhood brought. The reminder of children being a blank canvas. It’s helped me tremendously, not just at home, but professionally. It dawned on me that I was giving advice that I wasn’t living myself. Embracing that beginner’s mindset has encouraged me to implement new ideas at work without fear of them succeeding or not. I’ve learned that pursuing new skills actually transfers into other areas that I didn’t realize would benefit. For example, I find myself calmer when unforeseen issues arise. I’m more comfortable in these uncomfortable situations, whereas my younger self probably wasn’t as helpful when problems arose. Anyone who’s worked at a start-up is well acquainted with searching for answers and losing. Creating something from scratch begins with an idea, but you cannot go to market based solely on what you think will work. It’s imperative to research other company’s journeys to foresee any potential vulnerabilities or pitfalls you may have and how to navigate around these hurdles. In this process one must put aside ego and remove confirmation bias. Losing comes in the form of the constant ‘no’s you hear from potential customers and investors. Ultimately losses (if you pay close attention and don’t make excuses) help build a better product, a stronger value proposition to the customer, and a better company.
To summarize, improvement is an active pursuit. Personally, I never lacked the desire or the will to get better, but I needed to remember how it happens. I’m confident that any parent reading this will agree that we can learn just as much from our kids as they learn from us.