How to Force Yourself to Improve

This article was republished on Thought Catalog.

Gary Cohn owes his first job on Wall Street to a cab ride1.

Cohn was twenty-two and working as a salesman for U.S. Steel in Cleveland. On one particular day, he found himself in Long Island and decided to venture down to Wall Street. While he was there, he decided he wanted a job.

The only problem? Cohn didn’t know anything about finance.

Since he had no connections on Wall Street and little experience that would qualify him for a job, he couldn’t pursue the ordinary route of handing in a resume. So, he went after a different angle. He stood outside of the commodities exchange until he overheard a well-dressed man catching a taxi to LaGuardia. Without missing a beat, Cohn asked if they could share a cab ride.

This gave Cohn an hour in the car with a higher up in one of the top brokerage firms on Wall Street.

Throughout their conversation, Cohn discovered the firm was entering the options business. However, the higher up didn’t know the first thing about buying or selling an option. He asked Cohn how much he knew.

Malcolm Gladwell recounts Cohn’s response in David and Goliath:

When he said, ‘Do you know what an option is?’ I said, ‘Of course I do, I know everything, I can do anything for you.’

That, of course, was a lie. Cohn knew nothing about options trading. But, he was able to score an interview. He spent the next few days reading books on options trading and landed the job.

Cohn knew the best way to improve is to commit to action before you’re ready.

I’m not ready yet.

How often do we delay starting something because the stars haven’t aligned perfectly just yet? Perhaps you’ve always wanted to start your own business, but you’re just waiting to have the cash reserves before taking the plunge. Or, maybe you want to learn a new skill like coding or something adventurous like mountain biking, but you just don’t have the time right now.

The perfect time is never going to arrive.

It’s unlikely that you find yourself overwhelmed with cash resources to start your project or free time to pursue other activities. There will always be something standing in your way of doing what you want to do.

The solution? Commit before you think you’re ready.

This commitment can take several forms. In the example of starting your own business, it can mean telling others verbally about your new product or service even though it’s not 100% finished. Crowdfunding campaigns do this all of the time. If you’re hesitant to learn a new skill, put some pressure on yourself by making a commitment. In the mountain bike example, sign up for a race. If you’re trying to learn to build WordPress themes, offer your services to a friend for a small fee. Just commit to something that raises the stakes.

Committing early and often has a few main benefits.

Anxiety will help you learn.

As with many things in science, we owe much of our understanding of anxiety to the lowly mouse. All the way back in 1908, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson were examining the effects of anxiety on mice2. Their findings were a bit surprising.

Up until a certain point, stress and anxiety actually helped the mice to perform better on a learning task than they would when they were completely calm. After that point, it was all down hill. This level of anxiety has been termed optimal anxiety. The research led to something aptly named the Yerkes-Dodson curve:

yerkes-dodson-300

We typically look at anxiety as a negative emotion and try as hard as possible to sit in our comfort zone. It turns out this isn’t the best idea.

Up until a certain point, anxiety can actually increase performance.

You’ll increase the stakes.

Making a commitment to yourself is one thing. Making a commitment to someone else is completely different. The former is easily broken. The latter? Not so easy, particularly if a sum of money has changed hands.

When it comes to attempting new challenges, you’re often your own worst enemy. You think up excuses in every possible situation.

The act of committing takes “you” out of the equation. Rather than wasting mental energy on whether or not you can accomplish the task at hand, your only option is to just do.

You’ll learn how to fail.

Unless you’re superhuman, you’re going to fail at some point in your life (likely multiple points). Failure hurts for a variety of reasons. It’s easy to feel like you let yourself down or even worse, that you let others down. Failure can leave you feeling inadequate.

There’s an often cited quote in business “Fail fast, fail often” (now a book). The basic premise is that challenging yourself may result in failure. However, failing once leaves you more comfortable with failing a second time. This allows you to take larger risks without fear. Eventually, failure will be a thing that happens, a learning experience you’re comfortable with not something holding you back from challenging yourself.

The date December 14, 1903 probably isn’t significant to you at all. However, if you’re any kind of history buff, you’ll recognize that December 17, 1903 is when the Wright brothers successfully flew the first manned, powered aircraft. Just three days earlier, on the 14th, the Wright brothers had attempted the same feat. Only this time, they fell short with the flight only lasting four seconds and the plane in need of repairs. Undeterred, the brothers stood at Kitty Hawk and made history.

Failure shouldn’t be avoided. It’s a pivotal part of future success.

***

Just this weekend, I committed to doing an adventure race that involves kayaking, mountain biking, rappelling, and trail running. I’ve been kayaking exactly once, and I’ve never rappelled off a free rock. Guess I’m going to learn!

What are you going to commit to?

Categories: Personal Growth, Start