"........When Change is the Challenge."
HOW TO GET BETTER
(WHEN YOU'RE ALREADY GOOD!)
by Jonathan B. Weiss, Ph.D.
Imagine cutting down trees in the forest, clearing a circle. At
first, the circle grows rapidly; each new ring of trees you cut
expands the space noticeably. After the circle gets to be a certain
size, however, you notice that it takes more and more effort to cut
another ring, and the amount of difference it makes when you finish
is barely detectable. At this point, you seriously question whether
it's even worth the effort.
This is what it's like when we are already pretty good at what we
do, and face the challenge of getting better at it. The common wisdom
for handling this situation is to just keep practicing, pushing,
repeating, trying to be perfect and never being satisfied that it's
good enough, yet.
This strategy unquestionably produces results; the dramatic
results obtained by Olympic athletes, among others, attests to its
power. The extreme concentration usually makes it possible for the
person to make finer and finer distinctions about what they are
doing, and each distinction creates another area in which to focus
and practice. At the same time, this strategy has the disadvantage of
being very intense and narrowly-focussed. Someone who improves this
way is rarely in balance in their lives, and can easily become
obsessed with the project. They have a tendency to underdevelop other
important areas of life.
A less obvious way to go about getting better at something
involves learning or doing something entirely different than the
original area of focus. This strategy works especially well when the
new learning is in an area that has always been a background
interest, but never pursued. I was surprised to find, for example,
that learning to play the piano (I have loved music all my life) was
having an impact on how well I was listening to clients, how
comfortable I was meeting new people (networking) and how much energy
I had available to bring to the other areas of my life.
A third way of improving at something also involves taking the
focus off that specific activity, and concentrating on learning to
understand the key factor in any success -- yourself. There are many
well-established technologies of personal growth and self-development
that could be summarized under the heading of "Sharpening the Axe."
In individual coaching, personal growth seminars, self-development
classes, retreats or psychotherapy sessions, you give someone else
permission to challenge you to do and think about things you would
not ordinarily pay attention to.
Most of us understand that we react to the events and people
around us. It may surprise you to discover how many of your reactions
are actually created by your own unconscious and automatic patterns
of assumptions, habits, choices and preferences. In deliberately
chosen personal growth settings, the combination of unfamiliar
activities and skilled guidance gives you an opportunity to examine
these automatic patterns and observe how they actively contribute to
what happens in your life. You recognize that the way you are going
about the new activity is a very clear sample of the way you already
go about other things in your life. The learning from this kind of
experience can be invaluable: you can discover unconscious patterns
of choices and decisions, and become empowered to reinforce the
patterns you want to keep and drop what you no longer need.
I experienced this the time I had an opportunity to learn to
rappel down a 50-foot cliff. As I stood at the edge of the cliff,
with my back to the precipice, the instructor showed me the rope that
was fastended to the harness on my chest, and how it went over a
pulley in front of me and back down behind me, where it ran through a
bracket on the lower back part of the harness. He showed me how to
put my right hand in front of me, grasping the rope attached to my
chest, while my left hand held on to the rope that hung down my back.
He carefully explained (he thought) how I could easily control my
descent by pulling the back rope out away from me at an angle.
However, the moment I stepped off the cliff, the "training"
disappeared! As I started dropping down, the fear of falling took
over, and I grabbed (with my most-used hand, my right) for the most
immediately obvious lifeline -- the rope right in front of me,
fastened firmly to my chest! The faster I fell (since I was doing
nothing to slow my descent with the other hand), the more tightly I
tried to hang on to the wrong rope!
What I learned about my own process from that experience was the
importance of getting clear and reviewing what information I need
before going into a situation that is likely to be stressful. If I
don't do that, I'm likely to react primarily to the stress, and
fixate on something familiar and easy to "grasp," whether it has
anything useful to contribute or not.
Most of the time we do not deliberately choose to put ourselves
in these personal learning situations (even though I think we
SHOULD!). However, life itself seems to enroll us in an endless
series of personal growth classes, which we seem to have to repeat
until we learn their lessons. The learning process is considerably
easier if we choose to handle them by challenging and examining our
No matter what method we use to improve and develop ourselves
beyond our current state, we will encounter some predictable
obstacles. The key to producing consistent, sustainable improvement
in performance is to understand and manage these factors.
The most important predictable pattern to understand about the
growth process is the balance between progression and regression. The
common phrase, "two steps forward and one step back," expresses this
idea, but implies more frustration than is actually necessary. What
actually happens is that any forward movement into new territory will
trigger an impulse to retreat from the unfamiliar newness back to
safer and more familiar areas. The original model for this process
can be seen in toddlers; the child eagerly and energetically charges
out into the world, looking for anything and everything that is new
and different. At some point, however, there is a moment of
recognition that the attachment to the familiar has been stretched
too far, and the child turns around and rapidly retreats to the
security and comfort of the safe caretaker.
This "regressive" process is not only natural and built into our
systems, it can be predicted to appear any time we step beyond
whatever our previous limits have been. This can be easily managed,
unless we react to the regression by getting upset at ourselves,
thinking we should always and only move directly forward and upward
to higher and better results.
If we only step a little beyond our limits, the regressive
process simply looks like being quiet and introspective, reflecting
on what we just did, and perhaps thinking about what we might have
learned about ourselves from the experience. It is usually
unnecessary to do anything about this part of the process, other than
go back to doing what it was that produced the small breakthrough.
If the step over our previous limits is significant, however, the
regressive tendency can take us as far below our usual level of
functioning as the breakthrough took us above it. The specific form
this takes is different for each person, but common examples are
negative thoughts and feelings, discounting the achievement ("I was
just lucky, I could never do that again, it was an unusual situation,
I really didn't like doing those things," etc.). These feelings can
be summarized as a fear of failure. We become reluctant to go back to
doing the successful behaviors, and feel an urge to maintain
ourselves in our familiar comfort zone.
Managing this reaction properly means getting reassurance and
support that you really DID produce the extraordinary results, you
ARE really capable of such things, and that you HAVE done them before
and CAN easily do them again. A friend, manager, loved one, or a
mentor or coach are all appropriate people to give this kind of
support. You may, however, have to specifically train them by telling
them exactly what you will need them to say and do when you hit this
point. Ask them directly, preferably in advance, to give you
reminders of what you have actually accomplished, and to keep
pointing out that it was YOU who did the things that you did.
DO NOT ASK FOR THIS SUPPORT FROM PEOPLE WHO WOULD BE
UNCOMFORTABLE WITH YOUR GROWTH, OR WHO WOULD UNDERMINE IT BY
ENCOURAGING YOU BACK INTO YOUR COMFORT ZONE!
If the breakthrough is far beyond your previously highest level
of functioning, the regressive process will trigger a fear of
success, which is less dramatic and obvious than the fear of failure.
At this new level of functioning, there is a direct threat to your
sense of identity, and the discomfort from that often shows up in
very subtle forms. You may forget things, break things, shift your
attention entirely in a different direction, and behave as though you
have forgotten that you had ever done the breakthrough activity. The
return to the comfort zone is thoroughly rationalized and justified.
Our daughter had dreamed for years about living in Japan after
graduating from college, and planned her once-in-a-lifetime trip down
to the last detail. Two days before she was due to leave, she
suddenly decided that she just needed to get a job and an apartment
of her own.
A supportive person at this stage must understand the
progressive-regressive process, recognize what you are doing, and
activily confront your shift of attention away from your goal,
insisting that you go back to the area of breakthrough and
consolidate what you have accomplished. Again, if you know what to
expect, it is possible to pre-program your support people, telling
them what to expect and what they will need to do to help you
maintain your gains.
Our reaction to our daughter's "decision" was to do everything
short of carrying her to the plane and putting her on it. We reminded
her of all the reasons why this had been important to her, how she
would feel later if she didn't do it, and helped her recognize and
feel the very real fear of striking off into such unknown territory.
You can make it through life just fine without someone to give
you the kind of support I am describing, but imagine what your life
would be like if you did have someone in that role. Think about who
you could invite to take that position with you, and what the
trade-off would be for them to be willing to do it.
Jonathan B. Weiss, Ph.D., is a partner in Empowerment Systems, a
Littleton, Colorado consulting and counseling firm that specializes
in Personal and Professional Development Coaching. He can be reached
at (303)794-5379 or by