Many years ago I falsely believed that in order to improve, we have to have a hole in us that we strive to fill. We have to be unhappy in order to push harder to get better.
I assumed that being happy meant that we didn’t need to work any longer, that we must have arrived. Seeing individuals at the top of their fields who continued to work must mean that they deny themselves happiness in an attempt to gain more success.
But I have found this to be totally off. While unhappiness around something could prompt a change for the better, it absolutely isn’t necessary or even ideal to have this discontentment.
Years ago I wrote an article about the difference between being content and being complacent. While the two words might be used interchangeably at times, I realized that in my mind there was a big difference.
Being content means that we don’t NEED anything more in order to be happy. We accept what we have and remain in a steady state of calm happiness.
Being complacent means that we give up. I think of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, moping around complaining. We all know people like this and have probably been this person from time to time when things don’t seem to be going well for us.
We get the feeling that no matter what we do; we will still end up the loser. So instead of proving that feeling wrong we buy into it and stop making any progress.
Being content doesn’t mean that we give up. Being content can include a calm happiness and still an incredible drive towards our goals. We can strive to improve without that unhappiness factor.
Once I realized this my improvement skyrocketed. Suddenly I could give a little more during my workout and could put some extra hours in at work. I could eat slightly healthier. I could get an advanced degree while maintaining my work schedule.
The reason I now felt I could do those things wasn’t because I was unhappy and trying to fix that. I was happy, I just felt even better if I was working my tail off to improve. Every small improvement meant a more content and happy mindset.
The other thing that I have noticed is that people tend to gravitate to 1 of 2 extremes if they need to improve or hear constructive criticism. Some people move to the extreme where they do everything to pass off the criticism, blame others, and never hold themselves accountable. The other extreme internalizes it and beats themselves up.
But the person that doesn’t take accountability will never improve because they don’t feel that they need to. They assume their decisions and actions are perfect and any errors or mistakes are someone else’s fault. We all probably worked with a few people like this and may even have had a coworker or two that somehow always blamed everyone else.
The other extreme seems to be better. These people beat themselves up so we assume they will do what is necessary to improve. But it isn’t that simple.
I used to be in this category. What I found was that I would spend all my effort beating myself up and never doing anything to change or improve. I had to learn to take that negative criticism and learn how to improve from it rather than punish myself for making the mistake.
Systems thinking became incredibly helpful. I could see the full system and see the areas where I was responsible. I could also see other areas that I couldn’t have controlled. And this gave me a way to take the negative feedback and start improving because I could focus solely on the things I could control and change.
By doing this over and over again I started to build a confidence that if a problem came up and I was responsible for it, I COULD make a change and improve that area to eliminate the problem. I suddenly had a blueprint for improvement.
This took away the negative emotional response and changed it to one of calm confidence that I could fix the problem. This made me much happier yet I could still use any negative feedback to get better.
This is how we can be happy and content and still improving. We just need to realize that unhappiness isn’t really as great a motivator as it seems and that the illusion of improvement isn’t real unless we are actually doing things to move us towards our goals. That action is what is important and is actually easier if we are happy than if we are unhappy.