The Antidote to Languishing? Make It Better.

Posted 01.04.2022

In the last month of 2021, Wharton professor Adam Grant wrote a widely-read and quoted column for the New York Times titled There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.

As is his gift, Grant described something many were feeling but couldn’t quite articulate. The suspended animation aspect of the past two years and the feeling of a lack of control over our circumstances have left many of us in a state somewhere between depression and flourishing. Grant’s word for that place is languishing.

To move past it, Grant suggested that we focus on accomplishing small goals. I agree with him and would offer a finer point on his suggestion. What if 2022 was the year you put languishing in your rearview mirror by setting a series of small goals throughout the year to make different things in your life incrementally better? My take is that it would move you forward and make a positive difference for you and the people you love, lead, work with and share a community with. This year, I invite you to join me on a journey of reclaiming your agency and moving past languishing and feeling helpless or hopeless by making a daily choice to be better or make something better in some small way.

And by better, I don’t mean the best or the greatest or perfect. I just mean better. So much of being the best, perfect or the greatest is not within our control. Being better, though, is within the grasp of all of us. What if you organized your life around the principle of making things better and leaving things better than you found them? What differences would that organizing principle make for your physical and mental health, your relationships, your work, your outcomes, your community?  Again, not making all of that perfect or the best; just a little bit better in each exchange, each day, each week, each month. Maybe it’s only five percent better. That doesn’t sound like much but if you were consistent with that, not perfect but just consistent, things would be a whole lot better by the end of the year.

I’m going to be writing, speaking and creating a lot about making it better this year. For today, here are a few make it better principles to get started with that have worked for my clients and me:

Keep It Do-able: Over-optimization and the desire for perfection kills momentum and progress. As you look for ways to make things better, keep it do-able. My favorite technique for doing that is to look for short-term action steps that are in the sweet spot between relatively easy to do and likely to make a difference. The really cool thing about that approach is that if you focus first on the easiest steps that will make a difference then the steps that were initially harder but meaningful become easier over time.

It All Matters: There’s an old story about a guy who was walking along a beach filled with starfish that had washed ashore and were slowly dying. As he walked, he would pick up a starfish and throw it back into the ocean. Another guy saw him doing this and asked him, “Why are you doing that? There must be a thousand starfish on this beach. You can’t possibly make a difference by throwing a few back in the ocean”. The first guy picked up another one and threw it in as he replied, “Made a difference for that one.” And that’s pretty much my point; none of us alone can solve big problems but we can all make incremental contributions in making many of them better. It starts with asking yourself, “What can I do today, now, in this moment, in this exchange to make it better?” It all matters.

Gradually, Then Suddenly:  Fans of Ernest Hemingway likely remember the scene in The Sun Also Rises where Bill asked Mike, “How did you go bankrupt?” Mike’s answer was “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” The same answer could easily apply to the question, “How did you make things better?” Gradually, then suddenly. One of the biggest lessons of my life has been that progress comes incrementally then suddenly. I first learned it over ten years ago when, after two years of serious struggling with multiple sclerosis, I was encouraged to go to yoga to mitigate the impact of the disease. I started out by going to three classes a week and within a few months could feel significant differences in my body. Encouraged, I upped the class count to 6 or 7 days a week and pretty much stuck with that until the pandemic shut the studios down. Over the course of those years, I went from not being able to walk around the block without support to doing headstands and arm balances not just in the yoga studio but for fun in front of audiences I was speaking to. I didn’t start out doing that; it took years to get there. It was little steps and little bits of progress that most days were imperceptible that eventually made things a lot better. Since then, I’ve seen that principle play out in so many aspects of my life and the lives of my clients that I’ve lost count. How do you make things better? Gradually, then suddenly.

Applying any of these make it better principles is a low-risk strategy because you’re not placing big bets. They enable you to place a series of small bets that give you the opportunity to test, step back, learn and adjust. If it seems to be working, keep going. If not, try something new or different.

I’m committed to and excited by the idea of making things five percent better a little bit at a time because it’s both focused and broad. It’s a simple but focused idea with broad application. A couple of years ago, we started shifting the tag line of the Eblin Group from Lead at Your Best, Live at Your Best to Building better leaders; For leading better lives; To create a better world. I was tentative about going in that direction at first because the vision sounded so big. It is a big vision, but the realization I’ve come to is it’s not all up to me. It’s just up to me to contribute where and how I can to creating better leaders, better lives and a better world.

Small steps consistently taken can make a big difference. As I said at the outset, I invite you to join me in taking a series of small steps this year to make it better. I look forward to travelling with you and continuing the conversation.

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