What do most people do as soon as they achieve something?
If they're lucky, they enjoy the success for a week or two. Maybe even a couple months.
Then they ratchet their goals up higher, start judging themselves on this new level of not-quite-there yet, and are mentally back to square one.
This isn't all bad. While it causes some neurosis, it's a huge driver of progress. Humans are always unsatisfied and keep wanting more. They get it, and then want more. So we keep improving and building things.
The problem, though, comes when you ratchet your goals up in an optimistic way, and then get demoralized from getting back to the hustle. You have a record-breaking performance that you're not quite on the level to consistently do, but you ratchet your goals up to there and there alone.
At that point, increasing your skill and making incremental progress that's realistically achievable feels failure. It can demoralized and throw people off.
So, shall we toss out our ratchets?
Perhaps not. But it's good to be smart about them.
Good ratcheting looks for a way to achieve a new level of structure, process, method, or understanding permanently. For instance, if you land a big contract, doing a thorough analysis of how you did it, writing out all the particulars you did that time that are good practices, and creating a checklist you refer to always when bidding is good ratcheting.
Bad ratcheting increases goals, aspirations, and minimum levels of performance that you'll be satisfied with -- without taking pragmatic steps to ensure it happens. For instance, after you land a big contract, you set a goal to land 3 more contracts like that in the next 2 months, even if it was your first one, your sales cycle time is still measured in months and you don't have realistic prospects in the pipeline.
A distinction --
The hallmark of good ratcheting is that it reduces ongoing costs. This can mean "absolute lower costs," like reducing complexity, creating more natural workflows, breaking up bureaucracy, finding more reliable suppliers and building a good relationship with them, etc. This would mean lower costs of mental energy and thinking, lower time required going forwards, and/or lower cash costs.
You could also lower cost per action, which makes actions more leveraged. By coincidence, a number of my friends in freelance web development recently re-did their portfolios, and all of them were able to raise their fees and exposure afterwards. By demonstrating that higher level of skill and ability henceforth permanent, you're able to command more for the same amount of time (of prospecting, in fees and contract size, etc).
The hallmark of bad ratcheting is that it increases ongoing costs. When you ratchet up a goal without any increase in skill, process, procedure, methodology, mental approach, capital, tool quality, tool usage, etc, you're placing a heavier weight on yourself going forwards.
Inevitably, "locking in success" by having more or better tools, processes, capital, etc, at your disposal means that you'll be performing at a higher level.
The temptation is to do the opposite. It's to say, "I just performed higher than normal, let's set that as the new baseline!" -- without the required analysis and building structure around you.
It sounds simple, but no one does it. When you're at a higher performance level, reduce the damn costs to keep it going. You can't keep working more hours, thinking harder, and juggling more balls.
To ratchet up to a higher level of performance, cut the costs of achieving your goals.
The idea of always using the last achievement as baseline for new goals also overlooks the often overlooked matter of LUCK. As explained in the book Black Swans, there is some variance in performance due to luck and other temporary factors. You need to do your best to filter out those effects, when you are determining your current normal level. You may be able to do it by looking at longer-term averages, for example. Over time, good luck should be balanced out by bad luck.
There is also the problem of focusing too much on results, instead of processes. As you indicate, you can constantly improve the processes and doing so will probably feel quite rewarding in itself. If you focus on the processes, rather than the results, you will also tend to get less easily demoralized - for example when an economic depression causes even your unusually hard and smart work to produce almost nothing in terms of financial and career progression.
Excellent post there by Scott. I completely agree with the idea of trying lots of different high potential ideas and improving one's skills.
I am not convinced the idea of only looking at the winners and asking what they do right is the best way to go, though. You will find literally millions of people who have tried to duplicate Arnold's bodybuilding strategy, but without his genes and drugs, they are bound to fail.
It would be more informative to look at a population of drug-free trainees with average genetics. Among these, what seems to work and what does't work? Can certain key variables - such as intensity and frequency of training - be manipulated to create progress in even people with very poor genetics? Such questions would create much more interesting and useful insights than just looking at one tail of the results curve.
this is exactly what happened in the past few weeks. After the success of 2012, I became overconfident, and hit a state of depression when I couldn't will power my way to achieving my 2013 resolutions
It depends for me. Some goals are "hygiene" goals, where you need them to reach your perceived baseline. Fitness is a good example: most people perceive that they are below OK.
When I fulfill a hygiene objective, I don't exactly feel the ratchet effect. What I do feel is mental cycles freeing up. This in turn leads me to want do more new things, but it's a less manic driven-ness than with the hygiene goals. More mellow, exploring excellence for its own sake.
More on Herzberg's hygiene theory: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-factor_theory
More on the freeing-up-mental-cycles effect: http://www.leangains.com/2010/03/secret-benefit-of-being-lean.html
Is it just me who thinks that this post is phenomenal? Basically, Sebastian just explained to us why goals are sometimes presented as godlike and sometimes presented as bad. Setting higher goals is fine, as long as you improve your systems/infrastructure/procedures/process/skills to create the capacity for achieving higher goals.
Nice post Seb!
If you're a designer, or any creative professional, this might be the most important thing you read this year. My sensationalist headline aside, it's not about money or being a primadonna. It's about defining how you work, working how you define, having an environment of trust and respect and creativity, and otherwise getting the life you want.
Sadly, many creatives just trust that that'll happen… and it doesn't. They get taken advantage of. This needs to stop.
Some things in here are scary. You don't need to do what's unnatural to you, you don't need to do anything in particular in here, and you don't need to rush yourself. Any given suggestion in here might increase your income by 20% and cut your "client stress" in half.
I'll tell you my story in a moment, so you can assess my credibility and see if this is workable advice. (It is.) I'll give you recommendations on where you can learn more. In exchange, I ask just one thing - if at any point while reading this, you think, "This is one of the most important things I've read this year" - then you immediately share it with as many people as you can that you think it would help.
I think that's fair, do you?
A critical part of the mastery process is internalization.
There's a point that's reached where you'll perform an action. Outwardly, it looks the same. But on the inside is where the immense difference is, and the distinctive factor between two people of different skill level.
To use a physical example, take tennis. Any number of people might approach a standard forehand stroke and have it look exactly the same, but the point may have a totally different outcome.
One person is thinking: Okay, forehand stroke! Move, feet, shuffle, backswing, keep hand on throat, drop racquet, swing up and through, finish, and recover!
And that person will have a good stroke. At the same time, a second person could execute the exact same action and look the exact same, but the thoughts running through their head will be on a higher level.