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Day 38: Progress comes and goes

November 21, 2023

I’ve always been pretty hard on myself.

Once, after reading a book about self-improvement where the author recommended asking people for feedback to get a better sense of how you can improve, I emailed 10 people who knew me well. That was the only feedback I received.

“You’re too hard on yourself.”

I felt they were either deluded or going easy on me.

The last 5 years, working one-to-one with coaching clients has taught me that we were all looking at the wrong measure anyway. Whether or not I’m hard on myself is irrelevant.

A better question is, “What are the expectations against which you’re measuring yourself?”

Back then, I held the view that improvement happened in a straight line. Once you can do something, you can always do it, so failure to do it is tantamount to a choice.

When it comes to behaviour, this is not true – and believing it as truth is a one way ticket in the opposite direction of joy, whether the judgements we’re levying are at ourselves or other people.

The Practical Implications

Today, I lost my cool quite a few times over very minor things.

An elderly driver going 20 miles below the speed limit when I was in a hurry. An appliance that wouldn’t work properly. A spillage in the fridge. All minor, silly things I know to let go of but today I got riled and THEN had to talk myself down and remind myself that I don’t react to things like that and I have a choice to think and feel differently.

Automatic gratitude isn’t yet a habit so my brain naturally takes me in the direction of my old thought patterns and instinctive responses. To judge myself now would be the death knell for my progress.

In the training room, I often share “The Four Stages of Competence” with groups. We start off with Unconscious incompetence – we don’t know what we don’t know. The example I use is a kid wanting to drive. They think they can take the wheel and steer, and that’s all there is to it.

Once we start learning, we move to Conscious Incompetence – the gaps in our skills and knowledge become apparent to us. Once the kid is old enough to drive and starts taking lessons, the full extent of what’s involved becomes apparent and they have a clearer sense of everything they DON’T know about driving. This is the point at which we’re most likely to give up because the extent of the task ahead of us takes on a level of clarity that was previously missing.

If we keep going, we arrive at Conscious competence – where we can do the thing but we have to think hard about it and we still make a lot of mistakes. This is the second most likely place where we’ll give up – and progress depends on whether or not we trust ourselves to keep improving.

I’m somewhere between these two levels right now when it comes to habitually being grateful regardless of what’s happening.

The last stage of the model is where we reach Unconscious Competence – where we do the thing automatically. If you’ve been driving for a while, you’ll likely recognise these four stages in your learning, and you can probably drive whilst holding a conversation, listening to music or even learning something else – as I do when I’m listening to courses, podcasts or audiobooks whilst driving. Getting here involves the brain making changes that automate the relevant behaviours. It takes time and repetition to get here and only those who persevere through the previous levels make it – only to then repeat the cycle when it’s time to learn something new or improve the skill level.

Judgement and the expectation of progress in a straight line is the enemy of any sort of progress. We have to be ready to go back and forth, to fail multiple times and get back up to do it all again. Only with that level of consistency do we change our habits and, in so doing, change our lives.

Today showed me I still have a long way to go, but writing this reminded me that I can keep going, so thanks very much for reading it! It makes me feel like I’m not doing this completely alone.

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