Self-improvement myths that may be holding you back
February 16, 2018 | 6:03 pm| | | Start Conversation
Advice on how to improve one’s self is everywhere. A recent report in the Journal of Management noted that of nearly 25,000 academic articles on performance, only a fraction include what psychologists call “within person” variance, which describes ranges, such as that between individuals’ top, average and worst performances. Advice too often mistakenly assumes performance can be compared across people, using the same gauge. That’s absurd.
Our observation of hundreds of performance seekers largely confirms the report and has led to delineating a series of myths that hold people back when trying to improve:
— PERFORMING AT THE TOP MEANS CONSISTENT PEAK PERFORMANCE.
Reality: Top performers experience variability in their performance.
Advice: Expect variability. There’s just no such thing as linear, unwavering, improvement paths. There will be ups and downs. If the path is generally up, all’s good. To the extent you know and appreciate that, you’ll be more patient and less likely to be discouraged.
— WE GET BETTER BY BENCHMARKING OURSELVES AGAINST OTHERS.
Reality: Improvement involves repeating the actions and circumstances that lead to our best performances so that over time they become ingrained. It doesn’t come from mimicry. But research shows that we do, indeed, compare ourselves to others all the time, with negative consequences.
Advice: A better approach is to pursue real opportunities for improvement by reviewing mistakes and taking stock of how experiences can lead to improvement.
— SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE ENGAGE IN “SINGULAR DELIBERATE PRACTICE” OF ONE WINNING STRATEGY.
Reality: Although Major League Baseball pitcher R.A. Dickey won the Cy Young Award in 2012 in part because of his mastery of the knuckleball — a pitch that’s difficult to learn but almost unhittable when executed well — he also practiced, and perfected, more traditional techniques.
Advice: There is no one way for you, or anybody else, to improve.
— IMPROVEMENT STEMS FROM UNWAVERING FOCUS ON YOUR MOST CHALLENGING GOALS.
Reality: Evidence suggests that setting goals and pursuing them may actually inhibit improvement.
Advice: Create some separation between goal planning and doing.
In the end, improvement comes from knowing our own unique challenges and abilities, not from following pop-culture formulas. It’s about understanding valleys and peaks, comparing ourselves to ourselves, adapting along the way, and staying small while staying big.
(D. Christopher Kayes is a professor and the department chair of management at the George Washington University. James R. Bailey is a professor of leadership at the George Washington University.)
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