“Progress not Perfection” is a popular saying of my friend and colleague Dr. Paul Schwager, the associate dean of the College of Business at East Carolina University. While some people might think this saying is an excuse not to be your best, Dr. Schwager is actually promoting a view of goals that is both healthy and powerful.
In the book Succeed, psychologist Dr. Heidi Halvorson devotes an entire chapter to two types of goal motivation. As she describes it, there are “be good” goals and “getting better” goals. With “be good” goals, a person strives to achieve some ideal concept of “good”. Goals are performance based. Be a good mother. Get an A in this class. Be the top sales representative. Be the fastest runner. Achieve perfection! With “getting better” goals, a person strives to improve on themselves. The goal is process based. Be a better mother. Learn the material more in depth. Become a better sales representative. Run faster. Make Progress!
Both types of goals can be motivating. In fact, some of the highest achievers are of the “be good” mentality. But research has shown that the “be good” goals have some adverse side effects, whereas the “getting better” goals do not. One of these side effects is that often with the “be good” mentality, frustrations and difficulties sooner thwart a goal – whereas the “getting better” mentality bounces back from frustrations and difficulties. Halvorson noted a study of pre-med students taking a difficult intro level chemistry class. Students using the “get better” mentality scored similar to students with the “be good” mentality on tests early in the semester, but by late in the semester, the “get better” students performed much better on the exams than students using the “be good” mentality. They were able to get past difficulties and frustrations of the course and keep moving forward.
As if that wasn’t reason enough, the “getting better” goals generally lead to more happiness. Indeed, they see the goal as a journey, not an end-point, so they are much more likely to take pleasure with every incremental improvement along the way. For the “be good” crowd, the only possibility for satisfaction is in reaching the performance metric. They are much less likely to actually take pleasure in the work towards the goal.
This happened to me recently at work. A friend and I were working on a research project in electronic health record implementation that we wanted to publish in a top journal in our field. Neither of us had published in this prestigious journal before, but we each thought it would “be good” for our careers to get an article published there. We were not doing it for our own pleasure nor because we were particularly interested in the subject, but because it seemed like the right thing to do. After spending several months on this topic, I came to realize this was a mistake. I was not enjoying the project and found my motivation flagging because I was defining success by someone else’s standard. That had to stop. Eventually, I pulled out of the project and pursued other research that was more engaging to me and would better help me gain the knowledge and skills in areas important to me. I may still publish in that prestigious journal some day and would like to have the skills and knowledge necessary to do so, but it won’t be because it will “be good” for my career.
Part of the problem with the “be good” goal is that it frames the goal in external terms. Be good compared to what? The standard for success often comes from other people. Consider the goal of getting an “A” in a course. Are you good because you get an A? Why is it good? Is it because other people find it difficult to get an A. Using an “A” be the ultimate motive makes the standard for success in other people’s terms. These goals, as Ayn Rand might describe it, are second-handed. That does not mean the person is second-handed down to their core, but certainly to the extent their goal is conceived. They are comparing their performance, their prestige, their intelligence, or their competence, in terms of others. Generally (but not always), these second-handers see intelligence and ability as static – all they have to do is prove that they have it. Prove it to themselves and prove it to others.
Getting better requires a comparison with oneself – comparing your past self with your current self and future self. It is not externally focused, but internally focused. This does not mean they are unconcerned with getting an A or being a good parent, but they see their performance on a continuum that can be and should be improved. They see intelligence and ability, not as static, but dynamic and malleable. And any change they make to their ability, intelligence is fully credited to the work they put into it. It leads to greater sense of self-worth and self-respect.
So when you think about your goals, remember to continue making progress and banish that perfectionist monster from your mind. Look internally. Get better. Achieving your goals will provide you with greater happiness and success.