Self-Improvement: A Simple 4-Step Plan

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In 1899, two brothers set out to build the world’s first self-powered aircraft—a feat many considered impossible. The brothers knew nothing about flight, so they began their mission by reading about aeronautics and studying the flight of birds.

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For the next four years, the brothers conducted thousands of experiments that failed. During that time, they designed, built, and crashed countless kites, gliders, and self-powered planes.

Eventually, the brothers began to doubt the possibility of their goal. They were quoted saying that “not within a thousand years would man ever fly.” 1

But the brothers never gave up. They used each failure as an opportunity to learn and continued to press on. Then, on December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made history by flying the world’s first self-powered aircraft.

There’s a critical lesson buried inside this story. That is, improvement is the process of acquiring and applying beneficial knowledge.

What the Wright brothers stumbled upon in their quest for flight is a model for improvement. Thankfully, you can use this same model for self-improvement.

In this article, I’ll break down the Wright brothers’ model for improvement and teach you how to get better at anything.

What Is Self-Improvement?

The term self-improvement often gets a bad rap. That’s because many self-improvement ‘experts’ make unrealistic and far-fetched claims. Since this article is about self-improvement, I thought it was important to share my definition of the term.

In my opinion, self-improvement is not about manifesting Ferraris into your driveway with the law of attraction. It’s not about being better than other people. And it certainly doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. It does, however, have a lot in common with how the Wright brothers learned to fly.

I believe that self-improvement is the process of acquiring beneficial knowledge and using that knowledge to improve your life. Here are a few examples.

If you feel overwhelmed by your to-do list, you can improve your life by learning about productivity. If you frequently find yourself on the wrong end of a deal, you’ll benefit from becoming a better negotiator. And, if you struggle with anxiety, you can help yourself by learning how to manage your emotions.

A Warning About False Improvements

For the sake of clarity, I want to warn you about false improvements—which are the result of sheer luck.

Let’s say you take a multiple-choice test. Assume that you know nothing about the subject, so you guess every answer. The test is marked, and you receive a grade of 40%.

Then, assume you retake the test, but you’re not allowed to review your results from the first test. As a result, you guess the answers again, but this time you receive a grade of 90%.

Technically speaking, this is an improvement. But it’s an improvement of little value. False improvements look good on the scoreboard but teach you nothing and are not repeatable.

Believing that false improvements are real improvements is the equivalent of being broke and financially irresponsible, then winning the lottery and believing that you’ve become financially responsible.

For the context of this article, I’m not interested in false improvements. I’m only interested in improvements that require self-directed and deliberate effort.

The 4 Stages Of Improvement

You pass through four stages when you improve any skill. Those stages are awareness, identification, solution, and application.

To help you understand the four stages, I’ll explain how a new photographer might solve a lighting problem.

Stage 1: Awareness

In the awareness stage, you recognize that there is room for improvement, but you don’t know what needs to be improved.

At this stage, the new photographer would be aware that their photographs didn’t look professional, but they wouldn’t know why.

Stage 2: Identification

In the identification stage, you identify what needs improvement, but you don’t know how to improve it.

At this stage, the new photographer might recognize they have a lighting problem, but they wouldn’t know how to fix it.

Stage 3: Solution

In the solution stage, you learn how to improve what needs to be improved.

At this stage, the new photographer would discover a solution to their lighting problem.

Stage 4: Application

In the application stage, you take action and apply the solution needed to improve.

At this stage, the new photographer would practice taking photos using their new lighting technique.

the 4 stages of self-improvement
The 4 Stages Of Improvement

Why Knowledge Is A Requirement

Without knowledge, there can be no improvement. Let me explain this statement using another photography analogy.

Assume you get your first professional camera. The type of camera with an infinite number of dials and settings.

You take your first picture, and it doesn’t turn out well. Moving forward, the only way you can take a better picture is by learning something about the camera or photography.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways you can acquire knowledge.

The first is through education. Examples of learning through education are reading a book, taking a course, or watching a how-to video. Using this approach, you could learn to take better pictures by reading your camera’s instruction manual or taking a photography course.

The second way to acquire knowledge is through experimentation. The Wright brothers relied heavily on experimentation when building their first airplane. The brothers tested more than 200 wing shapes in their wind tunnel and used the success or failure of each test to give them the knowledge they needed to improve.

Experimentation also explains why practice works. For example, suppose you are learning to play the piano or kick a soccer ball. In that case, every success or failure sends a small amount of information to your brain and nervous system. That feedback is what allows you to improve.

If you wanted to use experimentation to become a better photographer, you could test different settings on the camera and see how they affect your pictures.

Why Knowledge Is Powerful

Your improvement potential increases as your depth of knowledge expands. That’s because knowledge allows you to identify and solve problems.

improvement vs. knowledge graph
Improvement vs. Knowledge Graph

Knowledge also makes you better at experimentation. Trying to experiment without knowledge is equivalent to stabbing in the dark. When you lack knowledge, any experiment is a guess at best.

However, as you gain knowledge, guesses become educated guesses. So, instead of blindly stabbing in the dark, you at least know what direction to aim.

quality of guess vs. knowledge graph
Quality Of Guess vs. Knowledge Graph

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A 4-Step Plan For Self-Improvement

Now that you understand how improvement works, here are four steps you can take to improve anything.

Step 1: Identify What You Want To Improve

You might find this step easy. For example, maybe you want to learn an instrument, type faster, or become a better public speaker.

But this step can also be challenging. You might know you need to improve but have no idea where to start. For example, maybe you’re falling behind in your career and don’t know how to catch up. When this happens, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and, as a result, do nothing.

If this problem happens to you, here are two ideas that can help.

1. Think long-term. If you feel like you are in a rut, it can help to think long-term. First, determine your goals for the next 5 to 10 years. Then, ask yourself what skills you need to improve to achieve those goals.

2. Follow a leader. If you can’t identify what skills you need to improve, try following a leader. First, find someone who has achieved what you want to achieve. Then obtain the skills that led them to success.

Step 2: Acquire Knowledge

As you’ve learned, you need knowledge to improve. So, read books, watch videos, or take courses. You can also experiment, practice, talk to experts, or ask for feedback.

Step 3: Take Action

All of the knowledge in the world means nothing if you don’t use it. Yet, oddly enough, many people get stuck at this stage of the improvement cycle.

I think this happens because acquiring knowledge feels good. Because you are doing something, it feels like you are improving, but in reality, you’re not.

Learning about negotiation doesn’t get you a better deal if you don’t use the techniques. Reading about productivity doesn’t simplify your life if you don’t apply what you learn. And, taking a photography course doesn’t improve your photos if you don’t use your knowledge in the field.

The lesson here is simple. Once you acquire knowledge, don’t forget to use it.

Step 4: Adjust When Necessary

When trying to improve, there are times when you’ll succeed and times when you will fail.

If you fail, don’t let that hold you back. Instead, think like the Wright brothers. Use failure as an opportunity to learn and use that knowledge to improve.

the path to success
The Path To Success

How To Overcome Problems When Following This Advice

Here are two common problems you might face when trying to improve.

1. You use the wrong knowledge. If you’re taking action with inaccurate information, you’ll struggle to get ahead.

People often use the wrong information for two reasons. First, they don’t get their information from credible sources. And second, the information they are using has recently changed.

To prevent this problem, vet your sources and stay up to date.

2. You try to do everything alone. It’s not easy to be self-aware. So if you’re trying to improve on your own, it can be hard to identify your weak points. To prevent this problem, make a habit of asking those you trust for feedback.

How To Know When You’ve Taken These Ideas Too Far

While self-improvement is important, you can take the concept too far. Here are two things to be wary of when following this advice.

1. Don’t expect perfection. Beginners often believe that it’s possible to perfect a skill. But here’s the paradox of improvement. The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.

So, don’t get caught up in the myth of perfection. Doing so will only hold you back. To give you an example, you’ll never get it to market if you expect perfection when designing it.

2. Don’t get caught up in comparison. While some comparison to others can be helpful, too much of the practice can be harmful. People commonly measure their progress by comparing themselves to people with far more experience. Doing so often leaves them feeling inadequate and discouraged.

You can avoid this problem by comparing yourself to yourself. If you are better than you were yesterday, last week, or last month, then you’re heading in the right direction.

In A Nutshell

Here’s a summary of this article.

  • Self-improvement is not about manifesting, thinking you are better than others, or believing something is wrong with you.
  • Self-improvement is the process of acquiring beneficial knowledge and using that knowledge to improve your life.
  • There are four stages of improvement. Those are (1) awareness, (2) identification, (3) solution, and (4) application.
  • Without knowledge, there can be no improvement.
  • You can acquire knowledge through education or experimentation.
  • As your level of knowledge increases, so does your ability to improve.
  • To improve at anything, (1) identify what you want to improve, (2) acquire knowledge, (3) take action, and (4) adjust when necessary.
  • To avoid common problems, (1) avoid using the wrong knowledge, and (2) don’t do everything alone.
  • To prevent yourself from taking these ideas too far, (1) don’t expect perfection, and (2) don’t get caught up in comparison.

Books That Influenced This Article

The following book links are Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase a book after clicking one of the links, I will receive a commission.

7 Habits Of Highly Effective People
Book | Audiobook | Kindle

Book | Audiobook | Kindle

  1. Not Within A Thousand Years.


Chris Thornham 80/20 Financial Planner
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