There is an extremely popular philosophy out of Japan known as Kaizen that has gained great traction in the business world. It is the theory of constant improvement or “constant continuous improvement.” This theory perpetuates itself in the business world today, and can be heard in strategy discussion in board rooms across any major metropolis. Innovate or die has become the hallmark in this school of thought. Yet, you no longer need to be an executive or manager to try and implement this theory. You can continuously improve upon yourself on a daily basis.
Self improvement is one of the fastest growing markets around today. I can remember being a young man and picking up a book about how to develop the ability to talk to women. This school of thought (now mostly non-existent) known as “pick-up” was my first foray into the world of self-improvement. I was an extroverted kid who knew how to approach anyone but still seemed to strike out with girls. One book later and I was approaching women I never had the balls to talk to before. Finally someone had given me a system I could use and implement. I didn’t have to think about what I was doing anymore I could use someone else’s patented approach.
I also can remember keeping it under wraps that I had read this kind of book. I didn’t want the world to know I was “improving on myself.” To improve upon yourself meant that you admitted there was something wrong with you. Then the enlightenment of the information age began to happen. We all started to accept the theory of continuous and constant improvement. A market opened up where you could purchase books to learn about how certain people organized their morning routines, email inboxes, and prioritized their lives. The information age perpetuated the sharing of best practices and self-improvement tactics to a point never before seen. In stepped master-mind groups and now you can take master-mind courses on anything including starting your own podcast.
A person I consider a close personal friend and earliest podcast guest first introduced this concept to me. He actually outlines his argument really well in this blog post. Eventually we hit a point of overload on the self improvement train. Apparently this theory has been extremely well thought out and written about in the discussion of liquid modernity. Basically it is a social theory that points out that it becomes increasingly impossible to find a lasting identity in the age of post-modernism we currently find ourselves in. In other words we can fall into a continuous cycle of trying to find ourselves in a world that evolves over and over with technology.
You probably find yourself falling into this right now. You’re doing all of these things, but you can’t find your sense of fulfillment. You keep trying new methods and none of them are improving you, enough. You’re stuck on the exercise wheel of life trying your hardest to improve in the hopes of making it to the finish line where you will have finally done something worth while. Yet you never reach that sense of fulfillment you are constantly chasing.
That’s because Jim Collins, David Allen, and Barbara Sher are not going to give you the tools to achieve a fulfilled life. As Ben Bergeron points out, “Happiness does not lie on the other side of achievement. It lies in the journey.” Life is not about reaching the finish line. We as a people need to become ok with that. I think martial artists have perfected this craft. They understand that you can spend your entire life working to perfect the execution of a single move. Which brings me to the second trap of self-improvement, getting lost in something very difficult for the sake of it being difficult.
Sometimes you do fall into the wrong process, set of actions, or head down a bad path. This wrong turn requires a reset, or what I like to call a tactical pause. That moment where you stop everything, step up on the balcony and review the actions going on in the ballroom below you before you make a decision. So how do we ensure we are not spending too much time trying to constantly improve vs. doing hard things for the sake of doing hard things?
When we finish trying to optimize everything, improve every process, maximize every return we actually start to make progress toward a goal. When we stop ourselves from getting caught in the minutiae we begin inching toward actual achievement. In the end execution is everything. The perfect plan that never gets executed is never better than the 50% plan that does. It’s a mantra that echoes through the heads of strategists, military personnel, and winners everywhere. Losers don’t execute.
We do not look back with reverence on the stories of losers. Forbes does not write articles about people who fail. Our nation does not give medals to people who have a valiant thought about taking down a machine gun bunker. We reward those people whose faces are marred by dust, and, sweat, and blood. I’m all for optimization. For taking the straight path toward achievement as opposed to the circuitous one. There are always people before us who have learned lessons the hard way so that we don’t have to.
Yet eventually you need to put the book down and do your damn job. You need to execute. Many of us are afraid of failure in the process of doing so. Dealing with fear is another problem entirely. Failure and fear are amazing teachers. If you fail at least you’ll fail while daring greatly. No one wants to reflect upon their life and be list their name in the group of people who didn’t execute. Ensure you are one of those people benefitting from self-improvement and not using it as an excuse to stop you from achieving your goals.