Personal manifesto: Betterness – competent participation

I recently posted the introduction to my personal manifesto. Please read this for context if not already. In this post I’ve included some notes on the second of “three drivers”. The “drivers” are the three key motivations that shape our living. Psychologists vary in how they describe these; my framework draws mainly from the work of Martin Seligman.

I want my life to get better. And I want to get better at the things I am good at. My thesis here is that one of the core motivations in life is continual improvement. That somehow if we were to map our desired life on a graph, the line would be ‘going up’, no matter what we were mapping.

Betterness: competent participation

I love the word ‘good’. It is an over-used word, but an underrated one. Goodness has both a sense of competence (‘I’m good at that’) and a moral sense (‘He’s a good man’). In mathematics, a vector has two dimensions; a size and a direction. An application of this in physics is velocity which has both a speed and a direction. In a centred set, an element not only has a position (proximity to the centre) but an orientation (in which direction is it going?). So while ‘good’ is a concept I like, ‘better’ is one I like more because it not only has a value but a sense of movement. Better is to good, what velocity is to speed.

My business Vocate has a tag line: work better, do better work. I like this because at the end of the day, simply improving my skills, becoming better at the things I do is not enough. I am interested in constantly evaluating what I am doing. I don’t only want to do things better, I want to do better things.

My drive for betterness

I want my life to be better. I want the things that dominate my days and weeks this year to be, somehow, better than last year. Improvement. Not to be confused with bigger, richer, more powerful. Quality not quantity. Swap redundant activity for new habits that increase love, joy, peace, hope and health.

It is a seasonal thing too. Living part time in a caravan was great for six years. In the season that followed, selling it was ‘better’. I completely loved cooking elaborate barbeques for the family; now that we eat much less meat, I gravitate more to mixing spices and herbs with vegies. ‘Better’, but contextually so, not absolutely.

I’m also driven to be ‘better’ at the things I’m already ‘good’ at. Over the course of six years, we figured out how to be ‘better’ at living in a caravan, by refining the rhythms and ‘equipment’ that made life better. I am constantly trying to learn how to be better at my work, to improve my kitchen skills, to love my family better and to understand the world more fully. It is a natural drive and when I’m not improving, there is something that gets messed up in my being. Stagnation is death.

The connections between betterness and feeling good about life

In Authentic Happiness, the renowned psychologist Martin Seligman explains research into sources of reported life satisfaction and happiness. Those who’s primary life goals (in practice) are about ‘getting better’ at things for which they have a talent or acquired skill, report higher levels of happiness than those who are primarily serial chasers of pleasurable experiences. Those who leave the warmth of their bed to get up early and exercise before work, or the professional who puts in the hard yards to master their craft, report higher levels of life satisfaction than their hedonist friends. I have found this to be true. I feel better about life when I am consciously including developmental behaviour than if I gorge on pleasure.

Pleasure is essentially about experience. Betterness is about competent participation in society, about achievement. The two are not mutually exclusive; the sensual pleasure of mixing and brewing a good curry and the pride in ‘nailing it’ are connected.

Questions that help me understand betterness

1. What am I good at?

2. To what extent am I using and being recognised for these contributions? (Not at all / every now and then / frequently / my life is full of doing what I’m good at)

3. What will I do to ensure I am doing more of what I’m good at, and that I am constantly bettering?