During my high school years I excelled at English and History. I was mediocre at French and German, and downright awful at Maths. Every subject mattered, so it was obvious what subject I needed to study most. But I didn’t. My effort went into what I enjoyed which was English and History, and I became even better at them. Maths? I disliked it, did as little as I could, and it never improved.
Likewise, I know golfers who are good at driving, but poor at getting their ball out of bunkers. What do they practise? They go to the range and work on their driving. What they’re already good at, they do all the more. What they’re bad at – bunker play – they neglect almost entirely.
There’s a principle at work, and it applies across a range of subjects from education to careers, and into relationships, sports, and hobbies. We practise what we like and neglect what we dislike.
Hence we don’t get better.
I believe it’s important to get better. A simple life goal is to fulfil our potential. That means being the best we can be, and never settling for mediocre or worse.
I have four steps towards that goal of being better.
1. We must want to be better
Some of my school friends had lofty ambitions, therefore they studied, and moved on into careers in medical research, teaching, management. Others – equally clever – took jobs as farm or factory workers. We need farm or factory work – we all depend on it – but these school friends drifted into those roles because they were available locally and they didn’t want to prolong their education. They chose the easy way.
I could have done the same. No-one in my family had ever gone as far as the final year of their schooling, never mind continued on into higher education. And, actually, neither did I, at least not immediately. My parents had no lofty academic expectations for me, and the local youth employment adviser recommended I start work in a department store – ‘probably sweeping the floors at first’ he said – and maybe I’d work up to being a branch manager. Happily I didn’t follow his advice, but got interviewed for journalism with a national newspaper, and left home aged 16 to start working life in Edinburgh with The Scotsman.
I learned much in just a few years, including shorthand, typing, law, as well as journalistic skills, and did well. I was a trusted reporter. Then came a complete change of direction because I made a personal Christian commitment which soon led to believing God had a different calling for me: Christian ministry. I didn’t have the academic qualifications for admission to university, so studied at night school and then spent a year at a further education college. After that almost all my twenties were used gaining more education.
So the story could go on, but the only point I want to make is that I didn’t want to settle for what was convenient or easy, but dedicated myself to what was better for my life.
Career paths are personal, and I’m not suggesting everyone should try to reach the top rung of a corporate ladder. But I am arguing against casually settling for the bottom rung. Reaching for the best isn’t only a principle for work life – it applies in relationships, or roles in churches or community groups, or hobbies or sports. It’s good to want to be the best we can be.
2. Be aware of expectations given to you from birth
My parents never imagined that I’d go to a university, or head up large organisations. But they did believe in hard work and improving yourself. My dad wanted to be an architect. But his parents made him leave school when he was 14 because he had to bring money into the household. He started work with the Post Office. They gave him a bicycle and sent him miles each day delivering telegrams. Eventually he progressed to delivering the regular mail. Then World War II took him away for almost seven years. Post war, he went back to the Post Office, but moved to the administration side, did well, and years later finished as Post Master in Burntisland, just across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh.
My dad believed you should be the best you can be, taking into account all the circumstances of your life. It was how he lived. I was given a good legacy.
I feel fortunate to have had those expectations passed on to me. From birth onwards all of us have ideas, goals, attitudes, and ethics bred into us. Parents are usually the main givers, but there are other influencers too.
Then comes a period in our lives when we mature in thought and purposes as well as our bodies. That’s a time when we consider who we are, what we believe, what we want, what we’re willing to give our lives for. We work out these things from the foundation already laid for us. I encourage people to ask, ‘What have I been brought up to think and desire and believe is right?’ And, ‘Is that what’s right for me now?’
The answers can be uncomfortable. For the first time, we may not agree with authority figures, including family. Or, for the first time, we have a different idea to others of what we should do with our lives. Discomfort easily turns into discouragement, and discouragement to settling for the easy road.
We can never make the most of our lives travelling that easy road. I advocate knowing where you’re starting from, defining where you want to go, and working hard to achieve what you believe in.
3. Get someone you trust to tell you how your life should improve
I used to ask interviewees to describe their strengths and weaknesses. The answers were rarely helpful. Then I changed the question to ‘How would someone who knows you well describe your strengths and weaknesses?’ Suddenly I got answers that meant something, including realistic admissions of shortcomings. All that had changed was getting the interviewee to think what someone else would say about them.
How much more powerful to actually ask a trusted friend to describe the areas in your life where you need to get better. They might refuse, not wishing to risk the friendship. But the best of friends will realise you want to know their answer, and they’ll care enough for you to tell the truth.
Most of my life has been lived in the UK, but eight years were spent in the USA. On the whole I found American colleagues and friends more open about their lives. They genuinely wanted to know how they could improve their work, their spiritual lives, their marriages, and so on. Perhaps Brits (like me?) are too ‘buttoned-up’, too inhibited, to expose ourselves to criticism. Or our self-confidence is so low we can’t risk hearing hard truths.
Or it may be that we’re proud. We think we’ve done well, and don’t want anyone telling us we could have done better. And that in the future we’d do better if only we worked on this or that area of weakness.
Actually, perhaps the problem is not pride but fear, fear of knowing we’re not as good as we choose to believe.
Whether it’s low self-esteem, pride or fear that stops us being honest, we need to get over it. Accepting the truth about our weaknesses is stage 1; working to overcome those weaknesses is stage 2. Put together those two stages make us stronger and better people.
4. It’s not just skills that matter; character does too
Skills matter. We should strive for excellence in everything we do.
But probably all of us have met very clever people who weren’t nice to know. They were grumpy, or bullies, or rash, or hard to please, or foul-mouthed, or impatient, or the kind who jump from one idea to the next with no perseverance or resilience in face of challenges. These folk have character issues – flaws – and those flaws need improvement because we carry these traits all through our lives.
On the whole Alison and I have had excellent neighbours. They were kind, helpful, and pleasant to be around. But there have been a few not like that. Some just unfriendly, others critical, one or two downright rude. I think that’s simply how they were; there was never a day when they were different. We did the obvious – we kept out of their way.
Good character builds good relationships, wins people over, generates trust, creates a pleasant atmosphere and makes life a good experience for us and others.
When we think about being better people, we should think about our character. Ruthless honesty, with no excuses, is the right starting point. We probably need a supportive but honest friend too, because we’re blind to many of our own failings. The Scots poet, Robert Burns, wrote:
O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us
If his use of the Scots dialect needs translation for you, he’s saying:
Oh, would some Power give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us
If only, Burns writes, we could see ourselves the way others see us, we’d be freed from so many mistakes. Our characters need that level of insight and change.
In summary, we mustn’t settle for being good where we’re already good. Other parts of our lives need to be strengthened. But we must want to be better, and do whatever it takes to be better. It’s a life-long task, I’ve still some way to go.
 Original verse from Burns’ 1786 poem To a louse with ‘translation’ provided at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_a_Louse