7 Ways to Get Better at Anything

My 16 year-old daughter Sophie is a nationally-ranked high school racewalker.

Not a runner.

Not a speedwalker.

And DEFINITELY not a mallwalker.

She is a racewalker, a sport that requires you to keep one foot on the ground at all times, and where one leg must remain straight until the body passes over it.

Just as an FYI, I run a 10-minute mile. I’m 5’ 4”.

Sophie walks a 7:16 mile. And she’s 4’ 11”.

This winter, I took her to her first non-high school track meet at Harvard University. As I took my seat in the arena (I’m a much better sitter than I am a runner), Sophie did a warm-up lap, and then came back to me to share her concerned observations of the pack of 15 competitors:

“Mom, there is an all-American racewalker, a guy who is a whole foot taller than I am, someone who does 50K racewalks for fun, and two people who competed in the last Olympics!”

And even though my protective mama instincts wanted to scoop her up and drive her home before she could get hurt, disappointed, or both, I smiled at her, put my arm around her shoulders, and said, “This is exactly who you need to be competing against to get better.”

She got it. She took it well. And she came in 5th overall, behind the Olympians but ahead of the guy whose legs came up to Sophie’s neck.

Like Sophie, most of us find ourselves in the intersection of wanting to win and wanting to get better. What I have found in my coaching work, my mom work, and my working on myself is that one way to get better is to compete against those in the field who are already better. When we can put our egos aside long enough to care less about being the best so that we can be challenged to become better, we’re investing in our futures rather than maintaining the status quo.

As Stanford Professor Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, wrote: “Important achievements require a clear focus, all-out effort, and a bottomless trunk full of strategies. Plus allies in learning.”

Here’s a list of seven strategies to help you get better at anything.

1) Get clear about your “why” in getting better at anything. Are you looking to be able to achieve the same results in less time? Fill a gap on your team? Master it so you can teach or mentor others? Prove a point? Make someone else look bad in comparison? Because someone else thinks you should? Make sure your “why” is one that energizes you rather than enervates you.

One of my clients, Sarah, wanted to become a better public speaker because she had earned a coveted spot in her firm’s Executive Leadership Development Program. She wanted to feel more competent and confident in contributing to the group presentations that would be a part of the program. Her whys? Contribution, confidence and opportunity.

2) Don’t run (or racewalk) away from people who do what you do, but who are currently more seasoned or skilled. Expose yourself to them, observe them, and ask them for guidance. Find out whom they turn to to get better at their craft. Then take the time to reflect on what they’re doing that you can start to do, too.

As a professional speaker, it would be easy for me to sit in conferences, workshops and lectures telling myself about the presenter on the stage, “She’s got nothing on me!” Instead, I actively look for something the speaker is doing, saying, or not doing that would be a learning opportunity for me. And then, I introduce myself to the speaker, and ask for advice. Not only do I learn something, but it makes the other person feel good, too. (Note: only do this if you mean it! False flattery will get you nowhere.)

3) Subtract rather than add. “Getting better” often feels like you need to do something new or in addition to what you’re already doing. Reflect on what you can subtract rather than add. Think about what you can stop, reduce or eliminate in terms of steps, obstacles, distractions, and interruptions.

One leader I was coaching, Bill, wanted to get better at receiving negative feedback without defensiveness. What did he decide to stop doing? Making up stories about what the negative feedback meant about him personally, professionally and for his future. To get better at this, Mark developed a new mantra: “Stop making up stories” to help him remain open, present and curious in the face of negative feedback.

4) Don’t wait for feedback – actively invite other people to give it to you. As business magnate and inventor Elon Musk said, “I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better.”

In a recent workshop I facilitated on Creating a Feedback-Rich Culture, I asked participants to write down one thing they wanted to improve about themselves as managers, and then ask three people to give them feedback on that. Part of the assignment was to ask at least one person who had given them direct, helpful negative feedback in the past, so that they trusted the person not to sugar-coat it.

5) Engage in “kaizen”, the Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices, personal efficiency, etc. Do a little something every day to get better.

A number of my clients are working to reduce their “verbal fillers” in presentations – words like uh, um, like, you know. This is hard to do if you only focus on it during formal presentations, which for many people, don’t happen every day. However, if you focus on noticing them in conversations (which, for most people I know, happen every single day at work and at home), and then taking a pause in their place, you can work on continuous improvement in small daily doses. (Want to make it even more effective? If you’ve got a kid at home, ask him to “catch you” every time you use a filler word. Most kids I know LOVE to point out when their parent is doing something she’s not supposed to be doing!)

6) Define what success looks like. “Getting better” is vague and hard to picture. Describe what you’re really going for in concrete terms that you can visualize.

Several years ago, I wanted to get better muscle definition in my arms. I was annoyed by the fact that my arm flesh kept moving long after I had stopped waving! In concrete terms, “better muscle definition” looked like me, posing for a family photo after climbing Israel’s Masada mountain, without feeling like I wanted to put on a long-sleeve shirt for that photo in 100 degree heat. I had a picture of what success would look like, and then I got to take that literal picture once I achieved it.

7) Vary your default “getting better” approach. If you typically “get better” by reading, consider taking a class. If you typically “get better” on your own, consider getting a coach. If you typically “get better“ privately, consider sharing your goals with friends and colleagues.

My client Amy wanted to get better at meditating – and by “get better” she meant learn how to do the basics, and do something every day. It felt important for her to have some additional tools to help her manage the stress of working, traveling, raising her kids, and caring for an elderly parent. As a busy leader, she typically would read up on something she wanted to get better at during a flight or a train commute. After reading three books on meditating, and downloading some apps, however, Amy didn’t feel like she was making progress. So she decided to ask a friend who had also been wanting to meditate to be her accountability partner. Daily texts to each other kept them on track, and gave them another point of connection with each other.

As Benjamin Franklin put it, “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning” -- whether you run, walk or racewalk to your next goal.

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