I – Intent on Improvement

As a Father’s day gift for my sons a few years back I had engraved on a wooden plaque a poem I found. The words read:

“I’m not what I ought to be,

Not what I want to be,

Not what I am going to be,

But I am thankful that I am better than I used to be.”

The words aren’t credited to a particular poet. I don’t know the origin of these. I love the message. The first two lines help us see that there is a space between where we are and where we want to go. The second line suggests we’ve taken the time to define where we want to go. The third line reflects our self-belief. We are confident that we can and will improve. We will achieve our aspirations. The final line provides further confidence that we’ve made some kind of improvement along our journey. Because we’ve been able to improve in some way, we’ll be able to look forward to continued improvement with future efforts. The message moves us to take steps.

A separate acronym I’ve crafted that offers encouragement for us to continue seeking improvements as we age is DADDY or Dude Ain’t Declared Dead Yet. No matter how old we are, we can still, in some way, be bold in our efforts to try to get better.

Socrates is credited with a quote along the following lines, “A man can’t afford to be an amateur with respect to his physical training. It would be a shame to grow old without experiencing the strength and beauty of which his body is capable.” It’s a constructive approach for all of us to consider adopting and applying not just to our physical capabilities but to all areas of our lives. It’s another way of saying life’s too short to suck. We can’t afford to not take all areas of our lives seriously. We have a desire and a duty to develop ourselves as best as we can. High performers believe in the potential of their capability. They, therefore, want to work to explore the edges of their ability. The ambitious and hungry are intent on improvement.

To be intent on improvement is to believe that your purpose is “gotta get better.” It’s connecting with several letters we’re introducing in our Alphabet of Accomplishment. Being Intent on Improvement is stitching together the sentiment of Arete discussed in the first chapter on Ambition, Achievement, and Aspiration as well as Embracing Effort, Facing Feedback, Heightening Hunger, seeking Joy in the Journey, being Motivated by Mastery, and more.

To those intent on improvement, progress is perpetual. Improvement is seen as an infinite game. There’s no end to effort. In Relentless, Tim Grover writes, “Relentless is about never being satisfied, always driving to be the best, and then getting even better.” Pamela Slim writes in Body of Work, “True masters never stop practicing the basics. Martial artists do push-ups and sit-ups every day of their lives. Artists practice brush strokes. Writers write daily.” Professionals pursue practice and progressive improvement day after day, year after year. Their process is never-ending.

Unfortunately, going through the motions is how too many of us approach each day. We grudgingly do our duty and put in our time. We aren’t working on improving. As Grover points out, “Few people know what they’re truly able to accomplish, and even fewer want to find out.” The opportunities for improving productivity, our own lives, and the lives of others are all squandered by our absence of attention, intention, and effort. We’re mired in mediocrity. We’re like the teacher teaching the same lesson from the same textbook for twenty years. We don’t have twenty years of experience; we have the same year repeated over and over.

Improvement is intentional. It’s also inspirational. Work to get better because you can. Because you choose to. Because you want to be fulfilled. Do more to be more. In The 8 Motivational Challenges, Heidi Grant Halvorson writes, “When you have a Get-Better mindset, you care less about what other people are doing and how you compare with them. Instead, you focus on self-comparison and whether or not you are making progress: How well are you doing today, compared with how you did yesterday, last month, or last year?” In other words, as Martin Meadows suggests in 365 Days With Self-Discipline, “Define yourself as a person who’s doing his or her best to ensure the best future possible.”

How much of your day is spent trying to improve? More importantly, do you believe that you can improve? Those intent on improvement have a growth mindset. They believe they can get better at things based on their efforts. David Goggins captures this mindset in Can’t Hurt Me writing, “Starting at zero is a mindset that says my refrigerator is never full, and it never will be. We can always become stronger and more agile, mentally and physically. We can always become more capable and more reliable. Since that’s the case we should never feel that our work is done. There is always more to do.” An irony of being intent on improvement is separating success from an outcome and seeing it as pursuing a process. In The Third Door Alex Banayan shows us this shift writing, “I swore to myself that from now on I would be unattached to succeeding, and unattached to failing. Instead, I would be attached to trying, to growing.” In other words, as Halvorson writes, “Focusing on getting better means always thinking in terms of progress, not perfection.”

Why seek improvement? Because it feels good to be good. Confidence follows competence. Competence is, therefore, compelling. The potential to get better at something is a great motivational force. The drive to mastery can keep us engaged and preoccupied for a lifetime. Mark McClusky offers an example from an athlete in his book Faster, Higher, Stronger, where the athlete tells McClusky, “Part of why I enjoy doing track is that I know there’s room to improve in everything I’ve done.” There is no destination. The joy is in the journey of remaining intent on improvement.

In The Business of Belief, Tom Asacker offers additional support for the idea of improvement as a motivational force. Asacker writes, “We hunger for direction and inspiration. We want what’s important to us to get better—our bodies, work, home, and relationships. We want to imagine ourselves transforming our lives, and the lives of others.” Having an aim makes life more of a game. When we care, we’re more likely to dare. Improvement is inspiring.

Improvement is another word for progress. Progress is something which is motivating for us. Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld writes in Above All Else, “I would guess that for many of us who fall in love with an activity, the degree to which we enjoy it is directly related to our continued improvement. If we reach a point where we stop getting better, we often begin to lose interest.”

Another reason to be intent on improvement is if you aren’t, others are. This is separate lesson sports serve. Michael Hutchinson writes in Faster, “You have to keep looking, all the time. Sport moves on. It gets better, it gets faster. If you stop to catch your breath, you go backwards.” In this way Sport and life are like a treadmill. We’re either working to maintain our place or resting and getting spit off the back end. It’s a constant quest to become the best. If distinction is the destination, you’ll always be looking for a better way. Innovate to become great. Matt Fitzgerald observes in How Bad Do You Want It? “The overarching intention that all competitive endurance athletes share is improved performance.” Behind every action undertaken by competitors is a desire to improve. As Seth Godin asked in Poke the Box, “How often do our heroes stand still? It’s hard to imagine Spock and Kirk landing on a planet and just relaxing for a month or two.” Strivers strive. As Chase Jarvis asks and answers in Creative Calling, “Who is a Striver? Someone with a burning ambition to be farther along than he is right now, to grow and change and perform to his full potential. Isn’t that beautiful?” The ambitious aim and act. Improvement is the result of purposeful action.

Bob Rotella and Bob Cullen write in How Champions Think, “Great performers share a way of thinking, a set of attitudes and attributes like optimism, confidence, persistence, and strong will. They all want to push themselves to see how great they can become.” Those on a quest to become the best are first and foremost in a competition with themselves. They want to improve. They are focused on comparing themselves to who they were yesterday. Comparisons are less with others and more internal. They are committed to the Greek idea of Arete or excellence detailed in our first Chapter. They want sound body, sound mind, and sound soul as Bohdi Sanders writes in Warrior Wisdom, “They seek to balance and improve each area: spirit, mind, and body, on a daily basis.” It’s a commitment to constant and never-ending improvement. High performers live by the question, What can I do today to get better in some way?

Acclaimed and knighted soccer manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, in an autobiography, details characteristics shared by great players. The greats are willing to work harder and longer than others. They evidence extreme conscientiousness. This work-ethic is paired with a deep seeded desire to improve which fuels self-motivation. The call of their craft is more than a whisper. They want to work. They are consumed with improvement. They accept that “The ultimate goal is to get better—stronger, kinder, and wiser—than your past self,” according to Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness in The Passion Paradox.

A final reason to be intent on improvement is that your efforts serve as an example for others. As Shawn and Lawren Askinosie write in their book Meaningful Work, “We all benefit when people pursue excellence—that in and of itself is meeting a need.” When we march after mastery, we provide a path for others to emulate. This is purposeful on its own. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman write in Top Dog, “The value in stars isn’t just in their performance alone. It’s also in how they can motivate their teammates to excel.” As an example, Bronson and Merryman offer, “The top 6% of physicists are responsible for 50% of all physics papers published.” Those that are intent on improvement produce volumes more output than others. This output sets the standard for others to seek.

Laura Vanderkam in What the Most Successful People Do at Work invites us to consider the cost of not seeking improvement writing, “Think about the social and economic cost of the failure to get better—of repeating every day, but not practicing. It’s kind of dizzying.” Working to improve ourselves and encouraging others to do the same is the surest path to solving the ills of society. Improvement in this sense can be considered a moral imperative. The best way to contribute to making the world a better place is to become a better person yourself. Being intent on improvement implies growing yourself so that you can show yourself to the world around you. Crafting your competence is important as it becomes the basis of your contribution. Being intent on improvement offers a compass that will always provide direction.

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