Stretch Your Capabilities

Life is a journey. Actually, it’s many journeys. And one of the most important of those journeys is from wherever you are now to the land of increased capabilities.

This is an important journey because the more you stretch your capabilities, the more easily you can dial in the life you want: doing the activities, accomplishing the goals, and achieving the level of success that will help you feel happy.

Stretching your capabilities doesn’t happen quickly, however. It requires a willingness to persist over a period of weeks, months, and years while you’re taking risks and enduring some disappointments. In fact, your efforts to stretch your capabilities need never end.

As with anything that’s extremely demanding and difficult, the rewards are usually commensurate with the effort you put in.

Here are some techniques to help you succeed on this important journey:

Dial In Your Degree of Difficulty

Stretching your capabilities works best when you practice moderation. That is, it’s best to try for just a little improvement at a time. When you set performance goals that are too high, too demanding, too far beyond your current capabilities, you nearly guarantee disappoint. You also increase the chances that you will ultimately stop trying to stretch your capabilities.

Whatever your current capabilities, it’s helpful to aim for no more than a ten percent improvement. As your efforts to stretch succeed and your capabilities ramp up, you can try to improve by another ten percent, and then another ten percent.

This may take a little more time that trying for the whole 30 percent improvement in one go, but it’s a result that’s also more easily achieved.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, you’re wasting your time and effort if you try for only a one percent improvement: it’s too easy to achieve, and the natural variability of efforts and success may mask your improvement, or – worse – signal an improvement when you’ve actually made none.

When attempting to improve your performance, there’s a “sweet spot” of dialing in the degree of difficulty: just enough to challenge yourself and allow for a solid chance of success, not so much that you’re overtaxing your capabilities and setting yourself up for disappointment.

Gain the Benefit of Compounded Effort

Those of you who are mathematically inclined may have noticed that improving your capabilities by ten percent, ten percent, and ten percent produces a bigger overall increase than a single improvement of 30 percent.

You can fruitfully think of this as the benefit of compounding your effort to improve. It works – up to a point of diminishing returns – because, as you stretch your capabilities, you reach higher levels where it’s easier to improve even more.

For example, if you’re just learning to sell an item, completing the first few sales is likely to be very difficult. As you stretch your sales capabilities, however, you’ll find it easier to sell more and more of the item.

As your capabilities improve, your ability to improve will itself accelerate. The same effort that took you from “beginner” to “novice” will later take you from “moderately skilled” to “pretty darn good.”  As you work to improve, your capabilities will increase faster and faster.

But not forever.

You eventually reach a level where stretching your capabilities even further requires much greater effort for much smaller improvements.

In sports, for example, once you are performing at a high level – running a distance fairly fast, or jumping fairly high, for example – you’ll need a large amount of training and extra effort to perform even a little better.  

Regardless of how well you perform at particular tasks, projects, and goals, it’s important to know you can’t chalk up dramatic improvements forever.

Get Comfortable with Discomfort

As you probably recognize and appreciate, stretching your capabilities takes drive, effort, and persistence. It’s not something you can do easily or comfortably.

That’s a big reason it’s important you understand that stretching your capabilities requires leaving your comfort zone and accepting the “no pain, no gain” philosophy.

Stretching your capabilities never gets comfortable. But it will bring you the benefits of improved performance.

Match Study with Practicum

Most of the tasks, projects, and goals you’ll attempt in your work and your life require a certain amount of knowledge, including specific data and proven techniques. You can generally acquire these by reading and by watching others.

But studying will not be enough on its own to stretch your capabilities. You also need the kind of practical experience you can acquire only by actually trying to complete relevant tasks, projects, or goals.

For this reason, your efforts to stretch your capabilities should include a judicious mix of both “classroom” work, where you study the theory and knowledge underlying what you are trying to accomplish, combined with “field” work, where you apply that theory and knowledge to real-world, trial-and-error challenges.

Maintain a Log of Your Journey

Your efforts to stretch your capabilities will have a bigger, longer-term impact on your ability to accomplish more demanding tasks, projects, and goals when you write down and regularly review your experiences, failures, successes, and lessons learned.

This “log” of your journey toward expanded capabilities helps reinforce what you learn, weaving this knowledge and insight into your thoughts and practices. It also helps by providing a tangible way for you to remember and extract extra benefits from the experiences you’ve accumulated over the weeks, months, and years of your efforts to improve.

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