A Formula for Steady Improvement

For many years, one of my most important goals has been to steer my efforts and energies toward increasing productivity and success. Naturally, that requires a steady course of personal and professional improvement.

Much has been said, done, and written by a great many coaches, mentors, consultants, and leaders about formulas for steady improvement. Now I’d like to add my two cents to that body of knowledge.

Some of my best – not necessarily original – ideas on how to develop and maintain steady improvement include the following:


I’m putting this first because nothing will change for the better until you’re willing to try something new, often without being sure of the outcome you’ll experience.

This takes courage.

Remember that courage is not the absence of fear. It’s the willingness to take action despite fear.

Fortunately, you can control how much courage you’ll need to muster by carefully calibrating the size of the step you’re taking to move forward. Like the accountant in the Monty Python skit who foolishly hopes to immediately become a lion tamer, if you find your next step too daunting you can dial it down so it requires less courage.


Steady improvement often comes irregularly. For example, if you work to improve a particular skill, over a long period of time you’ll almost certainly experience improvement that varies from one attempt or session to the next: sometimes good, sometimes not so good, sometimes excellent, sometimes only average.

This is the pattern people normally exhibit as they acquire new skills and abilities.

But while your performance levels will inevitably vary, you should strive for as much consistency as possible regarding your training frequency, effort, and regimen. Even when you’re not seeing the results you hoped for as quickly as you anticipated, consistent efforts to improve yield far bigger dividends than intermittent or haphazard ones.

Ongoing Curiosity

Stepping into something new, there’s always a lot of we don’t know but would benefit from finding out. Curiosity is therefore an essential part of generating steady improvement.

And this curiosity should be ongoing.

Oftentimes, when we wonder about the best way to do something or the main reason why one approach works better than another, we get a quick answer to our questions. It’s important to understand these early answers may be misleading, or even wrong.

Steady improvement is fostered by remaining curious, keeping an open mind, and continuing to look for the most meaningful, helpful answers to our questions – not just the first ones we encounter.

Introspection and Reflection

Part and parcel of ongoing curiosity is taking time for introspection and reflection.

You are more likely to steadily improve when you use your brain to:

  • Observe a situation and its context in full detail,
  • Analyze all the many forces and players involved,
  • Contemplate what’s going on, both at and beneath the surface,
  • Carefully consider your best available actions, responses, and plans,
  • Check and re-check all this thinking to increase the likelihood you’re doing the right things, the right way, in the right order.

A critical component of this introspection and reflection is to understand a situation not just on its own, but in relation to your strengths and weaknesses, your values, and your goals. Most important: What’s your best opportunity for personally influencing the situation to make the outcome more favorable?

Go for Breadth of Knowledge

Upon entering college, my younger son asked me whether he should aim for a degree in business or something broader. I advised him to study as widely as he could. After graduation, my son continued this pattern, seeking varied internships and early work experiences. Years later, he earned considerable success in business.

It would be hard to argue that staying away from business courses in college handicapped him in any way. On the other hand, it would be easy to argue his wide-ranging education and work experiences contribute to his success in the relatively narrow world of business and finance.

In my experience, exposure to a wide range of disciplines, ideas, and facts strengthen one’s overall ability to think intelligently, to understand the world accurately, and to make better choices much more often in every area of one’s work and life.

A broad understanding of the world may also help a person stay more informed of what’s important, handle human relationships more satisfactorily, and perhaps even be a better life-partner and parent.

Go for Depth of Knowledge

Yes, this is the opposite of what you just read, above. But the simple truth is you need both breadth and depth: a broad understanding of the world and how to live well in it, and a deep level of expertise so you can make a worthwhile contribution to it.

Many say that Leonardo da Vinci knew every discipline and science of his time: art, science, engineering, architecture, anatomy, music, history, astronomy, even weaponry and war. Given how much we have uncovered about the world in the past 600 or so years, that’s no longer possible.

In order to be able to contribute to the world today, it’s necessary to drill down and develop a good deal of in-depth knowledge in some relatively limited area of human endeavor. Since this takes a lot of time and effort, it’s important you find and concentrate on a specialty, calling, or passion that energizes and fulfills you.

Steer Toward a Better Fit

Recognizing – through curiosity, introspection, and reflection – the “fit” between you and the world you are experiencing allows you to fine-tune your responses, plans, and actions so you can steer more directly toward steadily improving your level of satisfaction and success in both your work and your life.

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