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What Is Self-Improvement? Steps to Develop Your Self-Improvement Plan

What Is Self-Improvement? Steps to Develop Your Self-Improvement Plan cover

Most of us recognize the value of planning in even the most mundane human activities, like shopping. Yet when it comes to self-improvement, searching multiple Internet sites for quick tips sometimes takes the place of a disciplined approach. Therefore, this article will give you a solid point of view about “What is self-improvement”. We will provide you with ways to develop your process. Also, we will describe how to make a self-improvement plan.

What is Self Improvement?

How do you view self-improvement? A classic definition is improving one’s knowledge, status, or character through one’s efforts. The idea of helping oneself to improve has been around for decades. It has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, replete with books, audio and video cassettes, and self-improvement websites.

To improve anything implies a desired state or end result; and an accurate assessment of the present condition. If you are upgrading your kitchen, you need to not only define where you want to place the sink and what kind of lighting you want but also assess the location and capability of your present electrical and plumbing systems.

Self Deception And Self Improvement

Assessing inanimate objects should be a relatively straightforward endeavor. But objectivity can be hard to come by when it comes to evaluating our present condition. The reason lies in the natural human capacity for self-deception. Perhaps the best definitions of Self-deception can be found on the Skeptics Dictionary website,

  • The process or fact of misleading ourselves to accept claims about ourselves as accurate or valid when they are false or invalid.
  • A way we justify false beliefs about ourselves to ourselves.

Illusory Superiority

Academic experts tell us most people view themselves as above average in various traits. Overestimating our abilities poses a significant obstacle to any effort at self-improvement. Indeed, in some cases, it becomes the justification for rejecting the idea that improvement is desirable or needed. The concept is known as illusory superiority.

In the cases where individuals proceed on the self-improvement path despite their self-deception, they begin with an inaccurate baseline, making success less likely.

To make matters even more problematic, a landmark academic study from Cornell University in 1999 entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Incompetence Leads to Inflated Self-Assessments” found that the very lack of competence in a given area prevents us from recognizing our incompetence.

A person holding a mug written
Lack of competence in a given area prevents us from recognizing our incompetence

A less elegant way of phrasing this effect, now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect after the authors of the original study, is:

The stupid are too stupid to know they are stupid!

How Can Leaders Practice The Self Improvement?

To illustrate, let’s take the elusive concept of “leadership” as an example. Suppose your target of self-improvement is leadership.

One acknowledged hallmark of great leaders is accepting responsibility for their mistakes rather than placing blame on external conditions or other people.

How can you recognize the need for improvement?

The beginnings of a potential answer to that problem have been with us for centuries. It dates back to the Greek Philosopher Plato, who famously said:

An unexamined life is not worth living.

And to playwright William Shakespeare, who said:

This above all; to thine own self be true.

And to French Philosopher Auguste Comte, who said:

Know Yourself to Improve Yourself.

And to Chinese philosopher and poet Lao Tzu, who said:

He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened.

While historical calls for self-analysis such as these are noteworthy. All lack the essential ingredient for dealing with the vexing issue of self-deception. Perhaps the wisest words ever uttered on that subject came from Scottish poet Robert Burns who wrote in his poem “To a Louse”:

O, wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us, An’ foolish notion.

Dr. David Dunning is still at Cornell and still studying this phenomenon. Here is his latest thinking on dealing with the Dunning-Kruger effect:

My take is that the royal road to whether you are on the right track runs through other people. Do get feedback from others, and listen if it is constructive.

That advice is, in essence, the gift about which poet Robert Burns wrote. There are considerations about whom to ask and what to ask. If you genuinely want to know yourself as others see you, ask.

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However, no one seeks feedback on issues they do not believe exist. In short, recognizing and acknowledging that improvement is needed is the second step in self-improvement.

Creating a Self-Improvement Plan

The first step in a disciplined approach to a self-improvement plan is the same as in any other plan, the goal.

1) Define your goal

Think of a goal as a place you want to be or a result you wish to accomplish.

A person looking through a lunette
Where do you want to be in the future?

To a certain degree, the subsequent steps follow from the specific details of the goal, place, or result desired. Here is a general overview of a suggested process for creating a self-improvement plan:

  • Where Do You Want to Go
  • What Do You Need to Do to Get There
  • How Will You Do What Needs to be Done
  • What To Follow Up on And How Will You Keep Yourself On Track
  • How Will You Know When You Get There

Written plans are a must and deserve more time and effort than a quick listing of a few bullet points on the back of an envelope.

The more specifics, the better the plan. As a case in point, consider the core statement of your result. Let’s suppose that after what seems an eternity of being told by family, friends, superiors, work colleagues, and the occasional bold and brave subordinate, that you are not a very good listener, you, at last, get the point! So you want to be a good listener.

2) Be a Good Listener

Are you a good listener? That kind of stated goal is not likely to win you any prizes at a goal-setting competition. Conventional wisdom would say: it lacks the specifics for determining what and when to take the steps, besides measuring if this goal has been achieved. And that is correct. However, we think goals should also include some emotional content, which has the potential to motivate an individual to keep driving toward it.

someone listening to others as part of self improvement
Being a good listener is essential for a good self-improvement plan

So here is an alternative statement: I want to hear from others that I am a good listener. Who doesn’t get a warm feeling from getting compliments from the people we come in contact with?

3) Research The Topic You Need To

Now you have a goal to achieve. In virtually all cases, what you need to do to create a self-improvement plan involves researching the topic you seek to improve. In the case of improving your listening skills, you will undoubtedly come across the technique of active or empathetic listening.

At its core, the idea is simple. Listen to what the other party says to ensure you understand the meaning. Check for understanding by paraphrasing the message and then asking the other party for confirmation that you accurately understood what they were trying to communicate. If that approach appeals to you, you have the second step – what you need to do – in place.

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4) Start Your Improvement Process

How to get it done becomes a matter of structuring steps first to enhance your learning about listening skills and then put them into practice with willing partners in your plan. Some self-improvement issues are more easily measured than others.

Losing weight or learning a foreign language have moderately objective endpoints, while “soft” skills like listening, communicating your message, and leading others to do not.

5) Track Your Improvements

However, all self-improvement efforts share one thing: achieving them can be time-consuming and frustrating. To that end, your written plan must contain achievement milestones with which you reward yourself in some way. The milestones are there to help keep you on track. Be as creative as you like with your reward system.

While some might think it as non-essential, pursuing a goal like improved listening can be a frustrating experience.

Some form of meaningful reward. Even something as simple as a favorite ice cream you rarely purchase. A key point in the plan can help keep you going. Key points might include completing a written form explaining your project to a potential conversation partner and asking for their help.

Create Your Self-Improvement Process Through 360-Degree Feedback

The idea of improving our skills or knowledge through our efforts dates back to the dawn of history. The earliest efforts were aimed at strengthening basic survival skills. The human condition morphed into a social world of collective work efforts where identifying areas for improvement became more problematic. In short, how do we know the things on which we need self-improvement?

The Industrial Revolution ushered in the first efforts at what we now know as performance appraisal systems.

The idea now is the same as it was in its earliest days. A “boss” who supposedly is aware of an individual’s work performance sits down with a worker to review achievements and identify areas of improvement.

The improvement efforts may have included some formal training, but ultimately it was up to the individual to make things happen. Legal appraisal systems have had problems since the beginning and continue in the modern world.

The Quality of The Feedback

The quality of the performance appraisal and subsequently identified self-improvement areas depends entirely on the quality of the boss. Although it is common to refer to any person with hierarchical authority over others as a “leader,” the term washes away the difference between true leaders and managers.

True leaders stay on top of what is happening around them, but managers do. Even at the highest organizational level, they frequently isolate themselves from their workers. Why should an employee take improvement suggestions seriously from someone short on actual knowledge about them?

Academic researchers tell us humans tend to overrate our abilities and skills. Even accurate performance observations and suggested improvement areas can be challenging for workers to accept as valid. In short, when it comes to knowing ourselves, we prefer to think of ourselves as more knowledgeable and more skillful than we may be.

The 360-Degree Feedback

A significant improvement in performance feedback systems occurred in World War II with multiple raters. Individual soldiers received feedback not only from their superiors but also from subordinates and peers, in effect from all around them or from 360 degrees.

Multi-rater systems came into vogue in industrial use in the 1950s; the system has grown to include feedback from customers or clients where appropriate. Fortune Magazine claims that about 90% of all Fortune 500 Companies now use a multi-rater feedback system.

Creating Your Own Multi-Rater Feedback System

Suppose you don’t work for a company that uses multi-rater feedback. Are you interested in identifying things you need to improve in other areas? Can a “do it yourself” 360-degree personal feedback system be created?

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We think the answer is yes, but there is a big caveat here. The critical component of even the most sophisticated multi-rater system is the willingness to listen to and accept the feedback and suggested self-improvement areas provided.

It may seem harder to reject similar feedback from all sides, but the system works best when we trust that those providing the feedback have our best interests at heart.

Identify The Right People To Help You

If you are genuinely interested in improving certain aspects of your operations, identify the people around you most trust and respect. If you are lucky enough to have people who are not unduly worried about “hurting your feelings,” you can try the “ask and listen” approach.

The internet contains sites with suggested survey formats and open-ended questions for eliciting feedback.

Meet Your Contacts

Explain to your contacts what you are doing and that you will get insight from several people. Then meet, ask, listen, and take notes. If that sounds beyond your reach and anonymity is essential, you can try a survey approach. Using the internet as a guide, create a brief survey instrument.

Email the people who think you will be willing to help and let them know what you are doing and how it will work. There are Internet sites that will allow you to send out your surveys and have the recipients return them anonymously.

A variation on this approach would be to have a trusted friend work with you on creating the instrument and then take responsibility for contacting the recipients, gathering the feedback, and sitting down with you to review it.

In Conclusion

We could summarize this entire article by saying objective self-analysis is not essential in seeking individual self-improvement. The first step is acknowledging the human tendency to exaggerate our levels of competence. Further research has shown that very few of us can do that, leading to the answer to the problem. Get feedback from those around you.

Another milestone might be the completion of your first practice session. In the case of our listening plan, it might appear you will know you “got there” when someone compliments you on your listening skills.

However, depending on your life circumstances, you might want to add measures such as when I hear from one or more individuals in each contact category (friends, family, work supervisors, peers, and subordinates) that I am a good listener, I will know I have arrived at my destination. After that, it is a matter of persisting on track to get you there.

In summary, it is possible to improve on our own, and there are alternative methods to identify aspects of your life where you may need improvement. However, the real key is your readiness to accept what you learn about yourself and take action.

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