The power of small improvements
Experimental Discovery

The power of small improvements

Growth is not linear.

Joao Gamas profile image
Apr 20, 2020 • 5 min read

We are terrible judges of character. Though we try, books are judged by its cover - and people are measured by their status or possessions instead of their contributions. We associate success, age, and achievements with a measure of maturity - often confusing professional development with personal growth. 

We lookup to authoritative figures (such as industry/academic leaders or our own parents) as sources of inspiration, and attempt to emulate their behavior. Deep down we believe that if someone "succeeded" they "know what they are talking about". 

They must be self aware, and know secrets that I don't even think exist.

At the same time, we realize that personal development and professional development are related, but one is not required for the other. We know that there are many unhappy rich people, as there are fulfilled humble people. So why do we associate one development with another in some cases but not in others?

Personal development is indirectly related to professional development.

Empirical evidence shows that personal development is not related with success, but with failure. We grow when we are exposed to difficult and challenging situations - which are the situations we most often fail at. Exposure to challenges also exposes us to failure which gives us a native understanding of how much more we need to develop and motivates further growth.

Professional development, or more specifically professional success is also directly linked with failure - in order to succeed one needs to take risks. One definition of success is getting up one more than than you fail. It does not matter how many failures you have, as long as you stick it out until the success comes along.

Success is getting up one more time than you fall down

Personal success and professional success both require exposing yourself to challenging situations, which leads to a much greater possibility of failure. As we make ourselves vulnerable and place our fates in situations that are uncontrollable, we often are rewarded with wisdom (knowledge aplicable to practical situations). It is that wisdom that propels both our personal as our professional growth.

Making failure tolerable

There are techniques to make failure less painful. These are some of the ones that have worked for me:

  1. Internalize projects are experiments
  2. Verbalize your concerns and fears
  3. Shrink exposure to small batches
  4. Have a mission statement
  5. Conduct a retrospective of the results

Internalize projects as experiments

The most basic trick to help us face "learning opportunities" is to view them as experiments. Give yourself the time and the right to fail, knowing that this is "just an experiment". Experiments are, after all, made to fail. It is not about success or failure - its about what you can learn in the process. After a first trial, the second time you go through the motions will be much easier.

So focus on the positive aspects - you took a chance that most people are afraid to take. You failed but now you know more than you did before.

Verbalize your concerns and fears

For this one you need a crucial element for any personal growth effort: a confidant. It could be a life partner, close friend, mentor, or parent (if you are lucky). It should be someone without a vested direct interest on your success, that is only really concerned about your well-being. 

The reason we need a confidant is because growth happens in the moments of panic. It is when things do not go well that we learn, and in order to overcome our personal barriers we first need to understand them. Personal growth really is just another word for "learning to see things in a different, better, way". We grow when we are able to let go of our instinctual responses and replace them with more appropriate ones.

Talking is our primary tool for getting into the core of issues, unpacking them, and replacing our perceptions. If you are not talking about your failures with someone, you are not growing nearly as much as you could.

Shrink exposure to small batches

A batch in this sense is a group of related activities that together compose an ability. Basically it means that we should take baby steps, focusing on each skill (or problematic) at a time. We can do that by taking the learning objective and breaking it down to its elements. 

For example, if you would like to become more productive. The first step is attempt to identify what are the elements of productivity related to your specific problem. What is making you be less productive? Do some brainstorming around what could the reasons be that are preventing you from being more productive. Once identified, work on each element *individually*. The key is to focus on a single issue at a time, so that the whole project is not overwhelming.

This is because when we are faced with mountains we automatically believe they are too high and we should give up. But when we focus on each step in front of us, all we really need to do is take another one. Breaking large problems down allow us to not be paralyzed by their difficulty.

Have a mission statement

A mission statement is a big-picture view of what we want to achieve. It does not specify how, just what the world will look like when we are done. It is a compass that allows us to have a big-picture view of the situation. Often as we encounter challenges we will gain new understanding of what is possible - and eventually change the direction as to where we are going. 

it is natural - when a path ends we must take another path. Do this multiple times and you can eventually lose track of where you were going in the first place. The core of the mission statement is that it describes what you want to get to, not which path needs to be taken there. This will also provide you with some measurable sub-goals so that you can identify if you are improving.

Conduct a retrospective of the results

Retrospectives are not to be done at the end of projects, as many believe. Retrospectives serve to identify what areas we can improve *as we develop*. This goes together with the breaking exposure down to small batches. After each batch, conduct an impromptu retrospective and identify what could be done better for the next round.


You can see how these techniques are interrelated. Have a mission statement, take the project as a learning experiment, break the overall goal into manageable chunks, verbalize internal fears as you enter each batch, and review what you have learned at the end of each one. 

It seems simple, but I suggest you try to incorporate them and improve each one at a time. In the first trial, just try to get it done. Then pick the area you least succeeded in  and try to improve it. Before you know it, you will be at the top of the mountain.

Change Management
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Revision #2
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Created on Apr 20, 2020 15:23,
last edited on Apr 20, 2020 15:28