How to Improve Every Day

Lessons from a Ceramics Class and the Power of Quantity

At the start of the semester, a ceramics teacher announced that he was dividing the class into two groups. One group would be graded solely on the quantity of work that they produced. Make as many pots as possible, and get top grades. The second group would be judged on quality. One pot — their very best piece — would determine their grade.

At which point, you can likely guess what happened. The “quantity” group started churning out pots each day. And the “quality” group began focusing on making that one perfect pot. But when the professor assessed the quality of each group, surprisingly, the best work consistently came from the “quantity” group. As David Bayles and Ted Orland told the story in Art & Fear,

We improve through what we do every day. Whether it’s making pots, giving speeches, or leading teams, we improve through persistence and commitment.

I don’t know if mastery comes with 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. I’m sure it depends on both the person and the topic. But I do know that we improve through consistent, focused practice.

So the real question becomes, what are you trying to improve? And did today’s actions support that, or not?

What Are You Improving?

Think about what you did today. Consider how you spent the past week. Are these areas that you want to master?

If the majority of your day is spent answering emails, trying to stay awake in meetings, and procrastinating — well, I suppose it’s possible to master these things, but is that really something you want to spend your time doing?

The unfortunate truth is that most of our default daily tasks aren’t focused on things that we actually want to improve. Robert Greene once wrote, “The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.” But which ones? Certainly not those that fill the majority of peoples’ days. There’s little market for someone who’s mastered the ability to go overdue on a project and then blame other people for it.

So what do you want to master? And how do you go about doing it?

In the ceramics class example, it’s relatively straightforward. Practice making clay pots and you get better at making clay pots. With other areas, it’s less clear.

Most of the skills we pursue in life are actually a composite of multiple other skills. So in order to improve in that one area, we need to focus on developing a range of behaviors.

Leadership ability is comprised of skills like communicating a vision, instilling confidence in others, maintaining high standards in the face of adversity, building trust, making difficult decisions, challenging conformity, and self-reflection.

Engineering ability includes technical knowledge, but also problem analysis, determining assumptions and constraints, iteration, and technical communication.

Coaching ability includes technical knowledge, empathy, active listening, asking questions, communicating effectively, offering constructive criticism, and motivation.

Regardless of the area that you want to master, it likely includes a wider set of behaviors. Understanding these behaviors is critical to implementing them in your daily actions.

And one way to shortcut the 10,000 hour thought is by focusing on those behaviors that exist across multiple skills. Improving your ability to communicate will increase your leadership ability, but it will also lead to improvements across other areas as well.

What are you trying to improve? What behaviors does this involve? And how can you start practicing them each day.

Be Ready to Fail.

When you do something every day, you’re probably going to fail every day.

If you’re making a pot every day, you’re bound to make a lot of bad pots. If you’re writing a daily article, they won’t all be winners.

No one likes failing. No one enjoys sucking at something when they want to be great at it. But it’s also unavoidable.

If you want to get good at something, by definition, you’re not good now. But with each iteration, with each challenge, you’ll improve.

After Tom Peters profiled companies that consistently succeeded in the face of challenge, he found a core component was they all had a strong bias for action. Each of them embodied the Karl Weick philosophy that “chaotic action is preferable to orderly inaction.” As Peters described,

This same behavior is often what distinguishes successful people from their counterparts. When the opportunity for action comes up, they jump in, willing to try something out — failing if necessary, learning regardless.

Learning and improvement only happen when we have something to learn from. And the only way to gain this experience is by getting out there and doing something.

If today’s work isn’t great, then figure out where you can improve. And get started with tomorrow’s challenge. Or, in the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt,

Try. Fail. Improve. Try again. Fail better.

Where Do You Want to Improve? Where Will You Start Today?

Consider everything you did yesterday. Now think about how you’re going to spend your time today. How much of your time is going towards things you actually want to improve? How much of your day do you spend developing skills that will create more opportunities for you in the future?

Responsibility for your growth and improvement is not with anyone else. It’s not with your boss or your mentor. The responsibility to improve in areas that matter lies fully with you. And it all comes down to how you choose to focus your daily actions.

If you want to be a great writer, start writing. If you want to be a great leader, start leading. And yes, if you want to master the fine art of ceramic pot making, then start making ceramic pots.

It’s not complicated. But it won’t happen by accident. As Epictetus put it,

Thanks, as always, for reading. Agree? Disagree? Feel like leaving some random thoughts that have nothing to do with anything here? No worries, leave a comment and start a conversation — I’d love to hear from you. Cheers!

Writing helps me realize just how little I know.