I want to improve. I’d like to be better. In all areas of my life.
Father, husband, leader, friend, coach, manager, teammate, engineer, human being.
I’m all of these things. And I want to be better at them.
But I don’t. Because I make excuses. And shut my eyes to reality.
Life Isn’t a Highlight Reel
I’m now thirty-five. I’ve managed engineering groups for the past eight years. And I’ve always done well.
I’ve had victories and promotions and a string of successes. I sought new opportunities and gained them. I developed new skills which brought more success.
Except somewhere along the line I started to believe my own hype. I would think back on my year and remember the major successes. But forget the ninety-eight percent of other footage that was left on the cutting room floor. Forget about the mistakes that preceded each success.
And I’ve worked with great people. I’m fortunate to have mentors and coaches to learn from. I’m lucky to have great engineers who make leadership a pleasure instead of a burden. I also soon forgot about the contributions of everyone else that made it possible.
I let my ego drive my decisions.
I stopped reflecting on mistakes and failures. I stopped investing in relationships. I stopped growing. And then I stopped succeeding.
A Victim Mindset
It’s a terrible shock to stop being successful. It feels like everything turns against you.
For me, this happened as a series of events over a couple months. I didn’t get a promotion. I couldn’t manage several employees through an issue. A major project failed when the customer pulled the funding.
Each struggle seemed to lead to another. I was miserable at work. I brought those troubles home to my family.
Success stopped being assured. And I had the opportunity to face the situation that my ego had created.
In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull talks extensively on the value of fostering creativity by learning from our failures. He says, “There are two parts to any failure: There is the event itself, with all its attendant disappointment, confusion and shame, and then there is our reaction to it. It is the second part that we control. Do we become introspective, or do we bury our heads in the sand?”
And I decided to bury my head in the sand. I didn’t have the presence. Or the courage. Instead I chose to–in the words of my wife–“act like a five-year-old that didn’t get his way.”
I whined about the unfairness of it all. I complained about others not doing their part. I blamed everyone but me. I was so committed to my highlight reel vision of success, I refused to believe that these difficulties were of my own doing.
So I played the victim. I was committed to it. It let me maintain my illusions. Being the victim justified my behavior even while I achieved poor results.
A victim mindset doesn’t consider how to improve going forward. It doesn’t lead to action. I’m not to blame, why should I change?
And the longer we wear the guise of a victim, the more difficult it is to shed. As Dr. Robert Cialdini–a man who’s donated his life to understanding different influence techniques–describes, “once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.”
Which makes it self-perpetuating. Once I started being a victim, I identified as a victim. And I kept acting that role.
The more I believed that the world owed me success, the more I acted the role of the entitled millennial.
Somewhere, the Pressfieldian Resistance was smiling. He knew his work was done here.
Truly a wretched time in my life.
Then one day, another manager was telling me about his career. He blamed his problems on management not agreeing with his visions. He said they didn’t understand his styles and methods. Outwardly I’m slowly nodding. But inside I’m thinking, “The reason you’re stuck in the same job for the past twenty years is because your ideas are terrible. And you have neither the talent nor the commitment to execute on even the simplest of them.”
As I watched someone who by all accounts should have been fired years ago preach his own misunderstood greatness, it hit me like a kick in the face. I was becoming this guy! I was acting like this guy! I still get chills just thinking about it.
So I stopped being someone who blamed others. I pulled my head out of the sand. I started blaming myself. And I started being someone who learned.
An Improvement Mindset
There’s little arguing that failure is embarrassing. I very much agree with Ed Catmull’s perspective that we need to learn from it. But that doesn’t make it enjoyable.
So acknowledge that it’s unpleasant. But also that it’s temporary. Because introspection brings action. And action brings solutions.
I found out the reasons that someone else was selected for the promotion. Management told me I’m too competitive. That I might not put the needs of the organization over my own team. My initial (thankfully internal) response of, “why don’t you go fuck yourself,” probably isn’t conducive to an improvement mindset. Instead, I considered how my behavior supported those reasons.
I may disagree with the feedback, but the perception is there. And I must have done something to create it. And now I can work on addressing it.
Improvement Needs a System
Sounds great. Leverage our failures. Learn from them and improve. Shed the victim mindset and focus on action. Easy, right?
But how often do we have major failures? Why limit our opportunities for growth to these instances?
Scott Adams, in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, talks about the benefit of systems over goals. He describes goals as putting people into “a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.”
Instead of long-term goals in which our future success is uncertain, Adams suggests a system pursuit, where people develop behaviors on a regular basis and “succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do.”
When I pursue a goal, I base my success or failure on the result. It’s easy to measure. And it’s often black and white.
Which is why organizations focus on them. Because they’re easy and straightforward.
But easy and straight-forward are common and generic. And none of that leads to real improvement.
Goals Are For Losers
Goals emphasize results. Systems emphasize behaviors.
Results and accomplishments are important. But a result that’s obtained with poor behaviors won’t be sustainable. Only behaviors repeatedly set us up for the best results.
We set goals of on-time deliveries. But we can achieve that by shipping a garbage product.
Or we set goals that limit rework. And someone achieves it by never doing any work.
Or we set weight loss goals. And we achieve through crash diets and fasts. And then we fall into our old behaviors. And slowly erase all of our success.
If we can achieve a goal with a poor behavior, then it’s a bad definition of success.
That’s why long-term growth can’t rely on goals. Losers try and fail. Winners create a system.
When I Was a Loser
I had a goal of getting that promotion. I focused my efforts in that area. I picked up high visibility projects. I got to know the right people.
But what behaviors did I develop? They were skills specific to that position. I focused all my investment towards one payoff.
And then it didn’t pay off. And those skills didn’t transfer to other opportunities.
I wasn’t diversified. It was like having all my savings in Enron stock.
A promotion is a goal. Focusing on becoming a better leader every day is a system.
Maybe it results in a specific promotion. Or maybe not. But I’m improving everyday. Which will create more opportunities.
And I’m growing in areas that I choose. Not to follow someone else’s path.
If we truly want to grow, long-term goals aren’t enough. We need a daily system.
Losers Don’t Set Out to Become Losers
We can all look around at people who are successful in their career. And many of those same people are miserable outside of work. They’re divorced and their children are little more than strangers.
Or we can find people who excel at looking productive on a daily basis. But while they always seem to be doing something, they never actually seem to accomplish anything.
I doubt they intended to be in these spots when they started their careers. Yet they all followed a similar strategy that was all but guaranteed to bring them here.
They allowed their goals to justify their actions. And they lost sight of what’s truly valuable.
Most of us are driven. We want to associate results with our efforts. Goals feed off this desire. They give us a target and a positive consequence for our efforts.
But then we bias our efforts toward areas that are easily measured.
If my goal is to answer all of my email requests, I can easily associate this with each day’s progress. I can justify how another hour of focused responses helps set me up for success.
If my goal is to become a better leader, the efforts that support this pursuit become less clear. If my goal is to raise high quality children, it’s even more difficult to see how each day’s investment contributes to this success.
Goal-oriented tasks are often tasks that are the easiest and most-straight-forward. And typically those that have the lowest value.
And easy targets for losers.
If we want to be winners – if we want to focus on improving in areas that will have true value – we need to implement systems. And we need systems that reflect our values and our purpose.
My Improvement System
In A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William B. Irvine credits the great Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, to believe that “the key to having a good life is to value things that are genuinely valuable and be indifferent to things that lack value.” He also states that because of this control, we are “the only ones who can stop ourselves from attaining goodness and integrity.”
What are my values? How does this reflect in my life’s purpose?
To be a loving and supportive father, husband, and friend. To build relationships and help others grow and develop. To create an environment that stretches and challenges my teams while striving towards excellence. To be a constant example of how to lead with character and integrity, regardless of the situation.
That’s how I want to be remembered. These are the values by which I hope to judge my life’s success. These are the regrets I’d have if they went unrealized.
I want to excel in all of these areas. I want to look on each day and be proud. Proud that I’m adding value to people that I care about. That I’m doing something worthwhile. But wishing for it hasn’t led to results.
So this year that changes. I’ve resolved to improve. No more victim facade. No more long-term goals.
This is my system. To focus in these areas. To start a new practice. Or try something different. And just get out of my comfort zone. In all of these areas.
They won’t all be successful, but hopefully a couple will prove to be worthwhile. For anyone interested, this is me as I experiment, fail, and hopefully learn something from it. And work on making a little bit of progress every day.