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Not Developing? "Take a good, hard look at yourself"

By Angela Lane

If you prefer to listen to the podcast version of this post, click here.

There is a world of difference between wishful thinking and wish fulfilment, especially when it comes to development. Most of us want to be better - it's a healthy psychological state. And yet, not everyone succeeds. Did you know that more than 80% of new year's resolutions fail? Before March!

It's because most growth isn't easy.

Sergey and I are offering a two-part blog series on why development doesn't happen. We'll uncover the inner and outer reasons why development stalls, stops or doesn't happen at all.

In this first part, I encourage you to "take a good hard look at yourself", as the saying goes, and examine the things we do that get in our way. In a future blog, Sergey will look at the environment's role in accelerating our development or putting on the breaks.

When I've failed to learn something I wanted to master, my lack of progress can usually be traced back to one of five origins. I've come to think of these as my "enemies of self-improvement". And, as is so often the case, "we have met the enemy, and he is us".

Reason #1: You don't have a goal

The psychological and practical value of goal setting is undisputed. Those who set goals achieve more than those who don’t. But goals come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Compare these three:

  • I want to learn Python to create a cool video game.

  • I have to learn Python to keep up with my coworkers.

  • I must learn Python so I don't lose my job.

In my experience, a wish to develop, which is a response to a threat, rather than being a true goal, has less chance of succeeding.

It might work in the short term, but feeling confronted with no choice or agency triggers an internal fight. I first heard this years ago from Lou Tice, teacher, coach and founder of The Pacific Institute. Lou would say, "when pushed, humans push back". He meant we are not motivated by feeling “I have to”.

Need to learn something to get a better performance rating? So what? Get a poor rating. What? You don’t want a poor rating? Oh. Then decide to get better. We’re motivated when we take responsibility. When we decide, I want a better rating. Through reframing we can adjust how we think about development. We stay where we are or grow marginally when we "have to, comply with, in order not to..." We change when we “want it, like it, choose it, love it …”

So, if your development isn’t going as expected, take time to think about the “why” behind your development goal. Would you please not do it because of external pressure? Do it for YOU. Decide you want it. Be clear about why. And set a meaningful goal.

Reason #2: You don’t have a plan

Ok. So you have a goal. That's a great start. But it would help if you had a plan. The problem with development plans, in my experience, is that they're often vague. They appear comprehensive on the first look: complicated, complex documents that have lots of actions and activity. But often, there is not enough direction on what you are supposed to learn and how you'll learn it.

Consider "oversee project management for a global, cross-functional project." I see this all the time. And to learn what? To learn project management? Or do we want you to experience dealing with complexity? Or is your skill gap gaining alignment? Or are you honing your cross-functional relationship building skills? Some experiences teach us lots of different things. But if you can't describe the one key thing you need to learn, I am not sure how you systematically learn it.

And while I'm on the topic, which complex project? And what do you mean by "oversee"? And which aspects of project management? Is that as project owner or as a team member?

I favor intensive, short-term development plans, which are uber specific. Consider ditching your annual development plan and replacing it with a "30-day sprint" to master very specific skills. For example, "Demonstrate ability to incorporate lead and lag time concepts into my planning, by drafting the project plan for the launch of "Rosca's Bone*". There isn't any doubt about what you are supposed to learn and how you will learn it. And when you are done mastering lead and lag times on projects, update your plan. And move on to the next aspect of project management you want to master. Gantt chart, anybody?

* Rosca's Bone is Angela's and Sergey's imaginary pet business; Rosca is Sergey's adorable Jack Russell Terrier, and Angela has two gorgeous collies - Zach and Chester.

Reason #3: You don’t know how to practice

Sergey and I have written a lot about good practice. We favor identifying small behaviors that you have the opportunity to repeat. Like exercise, repeating the behavior will develop the muscle. And like our muscles, the process of developing triggers neurons that make repeating an activity easier in the future. Each subsequent repetition takes less brainpower and energy as it becomes more engrained.

In the book “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell identified the 10,000-hour rule: the time it takes to achieve mastery. Our advice? Don’t worry about “mastery”. By focusing on small behaviors that you can incorporate into routines, you’ll get progressively better—bit by bit. In our experience, your weaknesses are rarely going to become mastered strengths. But, you can improve enough through practice to ensure that your weaknesses don’t hold you back. And by the way, the risk of thinking in terms of mastery is that it might all seem so unattainable. And we don't want you giving up before you get started. After all, you're going to be great!

Reason #4: It doesn’t seem to make a difference

You think you're doing great. No one else seems to have noticed a change yet. So what's happening?

Two possibilities.

Others may not have seen the improvement because … you haven't improved yet. At the end of the day, others assess our improvement, not us. So we need to ask how we're doing. Asking for feedback gives valuable input into how your practice is going.

But there's a second reason - others simply don't pay as much attention to us as we think and also they may not know that you are working on something, and therefore they aren't looking to see the change. You, as a dedicated learner, are conscious of your efforts. You feel the weight of your practice. You know how hard you're working. But others might not notice our change without a little bit of "priming". Your leverage point here is to make "confirmation bias" your friend.

According to the American Psychological Association, confirmation bias is "the tendency to look for information that supports, rather than rejects, one's preconceptions, … while rejecting or ignoring any conflicting data."

People that think you're rubbish at project planning won't easily see your improvement as you accurately estimate lead and lag times in Microsoft Project. But they'll notice the only mistake you make. "Angela should never have been allowed to manage the plan for the Rosca's Bone launch…. She's terrible at project management!" They were looking for mistakes, not looking for improvement. So help them look for your improvement!

Telling colleagues you are working on a new skill, asking them for feedback, checking in on your progress with them not only gets them invested in your success but it helps them notice the difference. "Priming", as it relates to development, is a way of helping others overcome an unconscious bias that may stop them from seeing you grow.

Sharing your development steps with others has a beneficial side effect. It increases your accountability for personal improvement. Now it's out there.

Reason #5: You don’t stay the course

Anyone who has tried dieting would be familiar with the journey. We start full of determination, most work hard at the beginning (but only few persevere), make short term progress... and fall back into old habits. Same applies to gym memberships, New Year resolutions, and summer reading lists.

There can be many reasons: maybe we didn't embed new habits. Perhaps under stress, we reverted to old patterns because, at that moment, we didn't have enough mental reserve to make the conscious effort to keep going. But maybe the goal has lost its importance? You moved to a new role, your manager changed, you started a new relationship… and your development fades into the background. Another common reason is the environment. Our surroundings may conspire to drive us back to behaviors that aren't helpful. But more about that next time! This blog is all about what's going on inside of you!

Once you deviate from the course, it's critical to recognize that you are slipping. Out with excuses and rationalizations! Be honest with yourself if you advance according to plan or lag behind.

When you start to slip, I find three things helpful.

  1. congratulate yourself on noticing you're getting off track. It's the first step in getting back on plan. Woo Hoo!

  2. revisit why you wanted to change in the first place. If your motivation was not strong enough, maybe you haven't fully understood the impact of (not) changing? Or maybe you focused on the wrong solution? Whatever the reason, a powerful why makes the development journey easier and facilitates reaching the destination.

  3. don't beat yourself up. You could dwell on how you "can't get anything right", or you can choose to believe that "anyone can get better". Believing that you can is paramount to personal growth. If you need a little boost, consider which guardrails you can put in place to help you stay motivated. Here are some ideas: write a letter about your development goal to a person you trust, find an app that keeps you on track, or block dedicated time in your calendar to regularly work on yourself.

Right at the start, even before you set your goal, you had a belief. You believed that a new skill, experience, or behavior would make a difference that matters. That's where you need to go now, back to that vision of the higher-performing, more-confident-in-your-ability you.

And when you reconnect with that belief, revisit your goal. Adjust if needed. And get to work again.

It isn't failing. It's learning. And with every iteration, you'll grow.

You can do anything!

If your development isn’t progressing, don’t despair. Instead, reflect. Commit to better. Know why you want to change. Set a goal. Make a plan. Take incremental steps. Let others know—fall of the horse. Get back up. You got this!

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