The swift spread of digital technology has made it possible for us to closely track and measure just about everything in our personal and professional lives — from miles run, to calories cut, to products sold. And, thanks to the connectivity afforded by social media, it’s easier than ever to share and compare our results. Facebook, Twitter, online forums, and other internet communities all encourage at least a little — and in many cases, a lot — of social comparison. The offshoot is that more and more people are constantly striving to be their best, and some cases, the best. But this is the wrong goal. If you want to be the best, you shouldn’t focus on being the best, you should focus on being the best at getting better.
Too often, people focus on achieving a specific end result or some sort of external benchmark. This is problematic whether you succeed or fail to accomplish your mark.
- If you succeed, then it’s all too easy to get carried away basking in the glory. You’re liable to become complacent and next thing you know, you’ve already fallen behind your competition.
- If you fail, then the opposite holds true: you’re likely to become sad, lose motivation, and in the worst cases, burnout and quit whatever it is you were doing altogether.
Any way you cut it, being too caught up in a result is a recipe for disaster. But if you are predominantly focused on the process of getting better, you become more resilient to both successes and failures, which shift from being singularly defining events to waypoints on a broader path of continual progression. This manner of pursuing progress is not only the healthiest, but also the most likely to result in lasting peak performance.
If you want to be the best, you shouldn’t focus on being the best, you should focus on being the best at getting better.
A personal example
A few months ago, I launched my first book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. I really wanted the book to end up on the New York Times bestseller list (who doesn’t) and was told by a handful of knowledgeable sources that it had a good shot. Even so, I kept on reminding myself — I literally did this daily — that my real goal was (and still is) to become a better writer. Upon deeper reflection, I realized that getting on a list actually had little, if anything, to do with that broader progression.
When the book failed to appear on the list, I felt beat down for a little (I’m only human), but I wasn’t broken. I learned from the experience and swiftly got back to writing stories like this one and working on my next book. Had I been driven predominantly by landing on a bestseller list, odds are my funk would have lasted a lot longer. Perhaps I would have given up writing altogether.
Apply this mindset in your own life
Hopefully by now you can see the advantages of pursuing continual progress — of pursuing better — versus pursuing specific, external goals. Nearly all of the great performers I’ve come to know via my writing and coaching embody this mindset. Below are a few steps you can take to embody it too.
Select a specific capacity or area of your life in which you want to grow.Be intentional and remember, it’s really hard to take on too many challenges at the same time.
Assess where you currently stand. Be honest in your self-evaluation. Perhaps even ask trusted friends, colleagues, or advisors who you know will give you a blunt answer.
Ask yourself: what’s the next logical step? A common trap is to take on too much too soon. Don’t fall for it. Remember that small progress in the short-term leads to big progress in the long-term.
Focus on nailing whatever incremental objective you came up with. Once you have, ask yourself what is the next logical step, and then go about nailing that. It’s this sort of upward spiral that you’re after.
If you are in a competitive field, avoid comparing yourself to others.Doing so only leads to insecurity, which either makes you sad or makes you reckless (or sometimes both).
When you do progress through waypoints that come with measureable results, abide by the 48-hour rule: give yourself up to 48 hours to feel happy or sad, but then return to the craft. There’s something magical about doing the work that puts both success and failure in their respective places.
Keep coming back to this mantra: the goal is the path and the path is the goal. Few people are remembered 100 years after they die, and even fewer are remembered 1000 years later. Pursue progress for the inner experience of mastery, not for some type of validation.
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Follow me on Twitter @Bstulberg and check out my new book: Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.
Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a columnist at Outside Magazine and New York Magazine.