Reflections on Getting Better

2020-12-16

As we draw to the close of the year, I am drawn back into a reflective mood. Within Improving, we have small groups who regularly meet to discuss a variety of topics. And recently the topic of 'Getting better' came up. The conversation specifically revolved around whether one can improve without taking a risk? On the whole the consensus was no. You need to risk something, at minimum your time, trying to improve. But during the conversation something deeper was gnawing at me. Getting better had some necessary ingredients which themselves involved an amount of risk. But not the normal loss of a good kind of risk. Something more personal.

Consider this: would you be looking for feedback if you thought you were perfect or had done something perfectly? I would expect such a one to be seeking praise. Seeking feedback implies that what was done could have been better. To seek feedback is in a sense to admit that what was done is not as good as it could be; that what was done was imperfect. Now as a bit of a perfectionist myself, just the thought it make me a little uncomfortable. While I wish everything could be perfect, I accept as a premise that we are fallible and thus I personally will make mistakes. And I think that is the basis for getting better: admitting there may be faults.

But being able to admit that requires something that isn't always easy to talk about. I can freely admit to a small failing, because I know the social or political cost of that mistake are likewise small. What happens when those costs grow? Perhaps you've been in the room when two titans of the department begin circling each other after a big problem is uncovered? If it isn't psychologically or socially safe to admit to a fault, that is the risk is too great, can we honestly expect to get better? Admitting to a fault is to take a degree of responsibility for the results of ones actions. The risk is loss of esteem, or emotional pain born from the failing. And these are just the entry conditions!

Thankfully, most of those costs aren't always as bad as we play them up to be. The loss of esteem is less that we feared, the discomfort is momentary. In some real ways, admitting to making a mistake actually can increase the esteem others have of you. While it is not always the case, the majority of situations I have been in show that the extremes are much less common than I had believed them to be.

Turning from here, as the discussion went on, another element that can be over looked in 'getting better' occurred to me. It's not actually a single action. 'Getting better' as a behavior is more a related system of actions and choices an individual makes. Think about how we talk able improvement too. Normally the conversation will go like: 'I was doing such-and-such, when something happened, and I thought to myself, well that didn't work'. There are actually several actions taking place in quick succession here. Naturally it started with you were doing something. And in the process of doing you recognized an imperfection. In essence you reflected on the nature of the work you had done and what could have been done. And in the next instant you are admitting to the fault that appeared while you reflected on your work.

Now the next step is often glossed over, but usually the speaker will say something like: 'I won't do that again'. What is that step? That is a decision! 'I won't do that again' It is a decision to do a different action in the future. But it is not enough to decide, you also have to do something based on that decision. Saying 'I'm going to lose weight' doesn't actually cause you to lose weight you know?

After Doing something imperfectly, reflecting on what could have been , and choosing that next step, you need to go an do it. You need to make adjustments, and to try again. You might fail again, but you should still try. It might be something you do infrequently... so you might need to make your reflection and decision more durable (read: take notes). But at the end of the day, you don't get better until your apply your reflections. With all of this reflection, I guess the two things I'd highlight are these:

  • Getting better necessarily involves risk. Some of that risk is psychological. So steward psychological safety in groups where you want to get better.
  • For your own practice, recognize that getting better involves reflecting, deciding, and doing something new. Especially for infrequent actions make your reflection and decision durable. For things you are practicing right now, be sure to give yourself time to reflect on the last iteration!

Hopefully this wondering provided some use to you, perhaps for those New Years resolutions coming soon? Until next time, good luck and God bless you.