Self-improvement emcompasses goals. Goals do not encompass self improvement. The distinction is that goals are finite. Self improvement never ends. There is no finish line. Whether I’m trying to have less body fat, get better at my job, or develop a greater tolerance for fear the same notion holds true – it will always be a work in progress; a climb to reach a higher personal altitude void of any finish line. Goals simply serve as landmarks to aid us in our climb.
Within this framework, I believe self-improvement means striving to create a new normal; one that is just a bit closer to our aspirational selves.
This thought came to me in the gym last week. I was frustrated because I felt like my fitness had taken a step back on the shoulders of gluttonous weekend…sitting down to put my socks on before my workout provided all the signaling I needed.
How far had I stepped back? Well it’s hard to say because my current fitness goals are more along the lines of self improvement than a goal: “be in better shape than I was the week before.” It’s been this way since I hung the cleats up. Maybe this might become a more quantifiable goal like “drop 20 lbs” if I start feeling jiggly when I walk up stairs, but for now it will probably stay grounded on the ambiguous “get better than I am now” tracks.
I started thinking about my vague self-improvement mentality vs. setting a goal. Would a quantifiable milestone change my behavior? Yes. I’d probably be more discipline which would accelerate my progress. But once I hit my goal, I’d more or less revert to the same thing I’m currently doing: try to get better than I am now. The race never ends.
How then, can we think about self-improvement over the course of a lifetime if there is no finish line?
Creating A New Normal
One visual framework to think about self improvement is on an infinite horizontal spectrum.
Right now there is a mean on this line. Assuming the absence of outliers, this is our “normal” state. It’s where we stand today in whatever discipline we’re striving to improve. Within a given time window, the points to the left and right of the mean reflect our past performance or states. Points to the right represent moments closer to your aspirational self. To the left of the mean are instances you took a step backward.
By striving and successfully exceeding past performance, we’re continuously shifting the mean little by little to the right, closer to some far off aspirational self.
Unfortunately we don’t always move right. Be it wings and beer on the weekend or a crappy round on the golf course, perfect progress is unrealistic. Even the most talented and disciplined people have on and off days (points to the left and right of our normal state). The reality is that during our quest towards our aspirational selves we’re bound to encounter positive and negative deviations. But if we steadily outperform the past, the mean will move right elevating our “normal state”. Ideally, this means our new off days are better than our old off days and the excellent ones, well, they’re even better. What we consider normal changes.
Why do I think this philosophical mumbo jumbo is important?
Because the realization that improvement is about creating a new normal steadies your climb. It’s very easy to let inconsistency stifle you. One poor performance can trigger a massive landslide on the self-improvement path. It just takes one instance to halt all momentum. Alternatively, one magical performance can cause us to stop pushing the plow. Understanding lifelong self-improvement can be a long slow climb fraught with deviation keeps us on course. It keeps us moving.