“I was right then, but I’m righter now.”
Thus spake my grandson. I don’t remember what he was talking about anymore, but that phrase has stuck with me. Sometimes, kids get it “righter” than we do. They seem to know that life is not about getting the one right answer and then being done with a problem forever.
The memory of that conversation came back when I read Jason Fried’s blog post about Jeff Bezos. Here’s what Jason said about Amazon’s founder:
“He’s observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem that they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.”
It’s Tempting to Take It Easy
Once you figure something out, or learn a skill, it’s tempting to think that you’re done learning. But that’s folly. Life and circumstances change, and you probably want to be a better version of you a year from now. That pulls you toward new and better ways to do things.
But if that was the whole story, we would all be getting better all the time. We know that’s not true. In fact, I bet you know at least one person who hasn’t had 20 years’ experience at their job, but one year’s experience repeated 20 times. Why don’t they, and why don’t we, keep working to get better?
The Truth About Constantly Getting Better
The reason that so many of us don’t keep getting better is that it’s easier not to. It’s easier to do it the way we’ve always done it, the way that’s comfortable, the way we know well. One truth about human nature is that most people, most of the simply easier to go downhill than uphill.
Fear plays a part, too. We worry about whether the change we’re considering will work the way we want, or maybe even make things worse. We don’t want to fail, especially if others can see us. And that’s true even though we know that you can’t get better without failing and without being uncomfortable.
Embrace Mistakes as The Price of Progress
The very first thing to understand if you want to keep getting better is that when you try new things, you will get them wrong more often than not. That gives you two choices. You can avoid trying things to avoid getting things wrong and, perhaps (gasp!) getting caught at it. If you choose that way, you’ll be safe, but you’ll never get any better.
The other possibility is to realize that, as Charles Handy has said, “Getting it wrong is often part of getting it right.” If you try new things, if you try to do better, you will get things wrong. That’s okay. Here’s a little secret that may encourage you to try more things. If you wait until midlife to fail, that failure will devastate you. But if you decide, right this minute, that you will try things even though you know you won’t get them all right, your ability to deal with failure will grow.
Here’s a better phrasing of that advice from William E. Swing, retired Episcopal bishop of California. He gave it to Stanford University graduates of the class of 2007.
“Fail early and get it all over with. If you learn to deal with failure, you can raise teenagers. You can abide in intimate relationships. And you can have a worthwhile career. You learn to breathe again when you embrace failure as a part of life, not as the determining moment of life.”
I trained new supervisors for many years. Some never learned to do their new job well. Most mastered the basics and became good supervisors. A few kept learning and growing.
That’s what the great supervisors I studied did. They kept trying new things. They kept and modified the ones that worked. And they kept getting better. We remember them as the great supervisors they became.
We don’t remember all the failures along the way. We don’t remember all the things they tried that didn’t work. We just know that by the end of their careers, they were much better supervisors than they were at the beginning and much better than most of their peers.
My dad used to say that, “Life is the art of new and better mistakes.” Adopt that as your motto. Work to identify things you can do better. Experiment with ways you can be more effective. Hang on to the good stuff and make it better. Ditch the stuff that doesn’t work. Follow the advice of Bishop Swing: “Embrace failure as a part of life, not as the determining moment of life.”