Why you’re not where you want to be (and why it doesn’t matter)

Today’s post is about self-improvement.

But more specifically, it’s about marginal improvement. Small improvements. Progressive stuff; the kind you can actually see yourself doing.

It’s about forgetting about the big picture, “someday” goals you have, and forgetting about becoming the end-all, be-all as you go through your daily life.

Not forgetting them entirely, but forgetting them day-to-day, as you work and play and live.

Meaning: forget for just a moment about being great. Instead, let’s focus on getting better.

Why ambition is annoying

I’m still not where I want to be. Not ultimately.

And the thing is, I don’t actually think it’s possible to be one hundred percent, without question, indubitably satisfied where you are if you ever have a shot at being a whole and fully actualized person. Because an actualized person always strives, always looks for what could be better.

If your relationship with your spouse is good, you want to make it great. If it’s great, you want to make it outstanding.

If you’re in shape, you wish you were just a bit leaner, faster, stronger, whatever. You wish your ass was smaller. You wish your ass was bigger. Big guys want to be lean enough to have a six-pack and curse their slow metabolisms. Skinny guys want to pack on bulk and curse their fast metabolisms.

No matter where we are in just about any area of our lives, we wish that area of our lives was better. It’s human nature. So you’re at 98 out of a hundred? Well, what would it take to get to 99?

And if you don’t want to improve X area of your life, you want to improve Y. In fact, maybe you’d let X slide a bit in order to focus more on making Y better. And of course, once you do that, you’d want X better again, because settling for a trade-off is a crock of shit. Why can’t both X and Y be excellent?

Whether you’re a go-getter or a couch potato who pretends to want nothing, the truth is that we all wish we had more, or had it better. Things are never, across-the-board good enough.

So when I say I’m still not where I want to be, I mean it… but I think that nobody ultimately is. Everybody is always looking to improve something, which means that they’re trying to get somewhere else. (And this isn’t the same thing as not liking where you are, by the way. It’s about aspiring.)

Even people who are big on practicing acceptance and “going with the flow” ultimately always want to accept more, go with the flow better. Remember: silence, deliberate poverty, nonjudgment, and nonresistance are disciplines too. If you think they’re not something you have to work very hard at, try asking a monk.

For me, I’m trying very hard to move south, and it’s a lot harder than I’d hoped, so it’s taking longer than I wanted it to. I have a great lifestyle right now, but there are things about it I’d like to change that are taking some time to change. I haven’t gotten that six-pack back yet. And while my plan is to unschool my son next year for first grade, we still haven’t ironed out how that could work yet, either.

So no, I’m not where I want to be, and I doubt I’ll ever get to a stage where I say, “Okay, I’m finished. Nothing needs work here.”

Once you stop having a reason to strive for something, you’re kind of “done” in life and really don’t have much reason to keep on existing.

How to deal

So, try this:

  1. Forgive yourself for wanting more than you currently have. Go ahead and be okay with wanting more money, better relationships with your kids, or to fit into those pants. It’s okay to want those things. It doesn’t mean you’re ungrateful for what you have now, or that the status quo necessarily sucks. It just means you’re human, and will always want more as long as you keep being human.
  2. After giving yourself permission to be greedy and want more (I’m being facetious. It’s cool; be greedy), go ahead and start forgetting about the end result you want. Only: “forget” in a specific way. Make note of the goal, but then stop worrying about getting or having the goal and start worrying about moving closer to it.
  3. Repeat. Forever.

Small steps

I once heard about a Japanese concept called “kaizen,” which Tony Robbins, in his imminently cheesy style (a style I like, by the way) bastardized into “CANI,” which stands for Constant And Neverending Improvement. And of course, “CANI” is a play on “I CAN,” which is so hokey that I’d rather not use it and would prefer to use “kaizen” instead, but “CANI” really sums it up better and we can all understand it.

Sigh.

So your objective each and every day is to Constantly And Neverendingly Improve. To, in some small way, get further down the path toward that idealized, fully and totally perfect version of your life and yourself.

Don’t worry about having the perfect business. Instead, concentrate on making your business BETTER — even if it’s just in some tiny way.

Stop worrying about being rich. If you want to be rich, begin working on ways to become RICHER — which, by the way, may mean doing things that won’t pay off for a while, but which are necessary to make cashflow BETTER in the long run.

Me, I want to move to North Carolina. There’s a lot of things that need to happen before we can make that move, but a few are preparing the house to sell, finding a house to buy (both of those are hard, by the way. We have unique needs on both ends of the move), and making a shitload of money or finding a loan workaround on the buy end because my credit totally sucks thanks to my real estate foibles of a few years ago.

So I can let it bother me that we’re not there yet or that it’s taking too long, or I can start heading down the road that will ultimately, eventually lead there. Robin’s halfway through painting the kitchen, which helps make the house more sellable. I’m working on new income streams. My in-laws are scouting properties, and every once in a while I make some calls, talk to a mortgage broker, or do other research.

Are we there yet? No. But we’re heading in that direction.

And that’s how I think you should approach everything. Find out where you want to be. Get a picture of it, and do some thinking on what it will take to get there. And then start moving in that direction. Forget arriving at the destination, because the destination is a mirage. By the time you get there, you’ll have thought of other things you want to do, other ways in which you wish life was better, and what used to be the finish line will disappear before you cross it.

Instead, ask yourself: Am I closer to my ideal life or goal than I was last year? Last month? Last week? Hell: yesterday?

And if the answer is “yes” most of the time, then you’re doing well.

The saying goes, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” so let’s plan and act accordingly. Stop beating yourself up over not arriving at the destination, and instead start making sure you’re making the right journey.
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Did this concept grab you? Then be sure to check out The Tao of Awesome: A Stress-Busting, To-Do-List-Destroying Guide to Kicking Ass in Your Life, Business, Finances, Relationships, Body, and Health, which relies heavily on making big changes through systematic improvements.

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Comments

  1. Sue says:

    Sweet advice, indeed. At the end of my day, when there are things left undone, I have to consciously tell myself that I HAVE moved forward and in the right direction. Too often, my mind is where I want to be long before the rest of my life has had a chance to catch up. Ah, patience grasshopper…

  2. Having worked in the automotive industry for a few years, the word Kaizen used to make me want to vomit. Because in our facility, it was very often change for changes sake, rather than for real improvement.

    Once I walked away from the “shop mentality” of my hometown (Flint, MI, baby!), I realized that kaizen (and it’s cousin, 5-why) are actually incredibly useful tools for improvement on any front. In fact, I use them regularly with my own clients.

    And it’s good to remind ourselves that Rome wasn’t built in a day. It wouldn’t have been built at all if someone hadn’t gotten started.

    The shortest distance between two points still requires some kind of action to get there.

    • Johnny says:

      I think corporations often ruin good ideas… think what images “win-win” conjures when used in a corporate sense. Good ideas, all… but perverted.

  3. Milo says:

    Very well put Johnny – the trick then of course is to arrange your life so you can make progress each day, even if just a little bit. Actually a lot harder to do than it would seem, or so I’ve found..

  4. Beth says:

    This is excellent advice! *Any* forward movement is good…it’s one of those things that you tend to know on a cellular level, and yet ego gets involved and comvinces us that it isn’t enough.

    Thank you for the reminder!

  5. Jackie says:

    People often say to me “you’re never satisfied”
    I take great pleasure in those words..coz hell no..I don’t ever want to be satisfied.

    Its like chasing the horizon, its impossible to reach but a hell of a trip.

    • Johnny says:

      I think it’s important to be satisfied (definition #1) in your life, but to also never be satisfied (definition #2) with your current limits, goals, and aspirations. That’s the tricky balance we face.

  6. Ah yes, progress not perfection. Baby steps.

    Good luck with the unschooling, it’s a real mindshift – that would make a good post someday.

    I know what you mean by it feeling narcissistic to report on the trials, I felt the same when I did them, but I would like to hear how you did.

    • Johnny says:

      Yeah, I’ll write them up soon. I figure people who think I’m just tooting my own horn can… you know… not read it. :)

  7. Brett Henley says:

    Dude, as always you nailed it.

    This one hit like a ton of bricks. I’m knee deep in that resistance-laden fight against the need to plan and address EVERYTHING that correlates with my ultimate goal right now.

    I’ve recently launched into a mini journey toward self improvement by focusing on one “thing” at a time – Primarily small, achievable tasks that in some measurable (albeit small) way move me in positive direction (s).

    Hell, I woke this morning late, got frustrated at the lack of motivation, toyed with how to get it back and then finally realized that I’d have it if I’d just start something.

    Hardest part of the story is always the beginning … right?

  8. Bridget says:

    What if it’s about not constantly improving?
    Why do we need to constantly improve?
    What if we instead chose to observe and transform as we like? Who are we trying to please?

    • Wouldn’t that be an improvement, too? :-)

      I interviewed Jonathan Fields a while back and he said something that really challenged me. Essentially, there’s no “staying put” we’re either moving forward or getting left behind. Staying put is an illusion.
      That’s not meant to “force” you to climb higher, but to remind you that being stagnant is killing you. Progress doesn’t always mean “doing.” Sometimes the best progress we can make comes from choosing to “not do” for a while.
      And that’s an improvement, to me.

      • Bridget says:

        I agree that we’re always in motion, and that stagnancy is a difficult, uncomfortable way to be. But I’m imagining that there’s not just forward or backward, but sideways.
        I get concerned about the lack of self-love that often follows “rampant self-improvement”. I’d rather people create environments that foster growth than that people perpetually kick themselves up the ladder.

        • I agree with you on the “kicking up the ladder” point. That’s just painful for all the wrong reasons. to me, the “direction” isn’t as important as the development. Perhaps that definition is where we breakdown. Sideways is still forward when you change your orientation. So is backwards for that matter. And yea, a lack of self-love is definitely not improvement, and only feeds the “change for the sake of change” mindset. If we’re not seeing SOMETHING change then we must not be “Improving”. Seeds require a gestation period before they sprout above the soil. So too, we need that incubation time to “bloom”.

        • Johnny says:

          I think whether it’s a guilt trip or genuine exploration is a matter of perspective. If “improvement” means losing 5 pounds so that your classmates will think you look thin at the reunion, then I’d agree maybe that’s misdirected in a lot of cases. But plenty of folks want to lose those pounds so they feel better. Or they want to learn a new language because it enriches them, etc. You have to look at the motivations… external, or internal?

          But I do have a really hard time believing that even the most acceptance-minded individuals don’t have anything about themselves they’d like to improve. There’s a fine line between going with the flow and outright apathy.

  9. Bridget says:

    I’m just wondering if that’s the point of existence.
    I’m not a couch potato who wants nothing, but my framework is more about exploration and transformation than “improvement”. I don’t care if I’m better, but more that I serve better and that I be the change that I want to see in the world.
    This isn’t just semantics to me. I see a lot of people on the improvement wagon, and it’s actually just a different form of stagnation. I’m not saying that about you, Johnny. I just want people to be clear that much of transformation is a recognition of what’s already right.

  10. One thing that will kick your whole idea of kaizen or continual self-improvement (let’s leave Tony Robbins out of it) in the rear is chronic illness. Getting through the day makes your day. Each small accomplishment, from washing the dishes to answering an email, becomes cause for celebration. If nothing gets done, that’s okay too. You learn to love exactly where you are. Wish I could have figured that one out without getting sick. Congrats to you for doing so!

  11. We’re trying to move, too. Our big holdup is that we want my in-laws to move with us. We’ve lived across the street from them for most of our kids’ lives, so they’re used to seeing each other every day. We’d hate to end that. Plus, they’re getting old enough that they need help not every day, but several times a week, and without enough notice that you can plan for it.

    As for the schooling, I think I mentioned to you before the online school we put the girls in for the second semester this year. If you’re worried about your ability to do the schooling yourself (or if your wife is worried) this is a really well-supported way to find out. http://www.k12.com/ohva/

    • Johnny says:

      I’m actually more concerned with the big social questions… i.e. how do we get them enough exposure to other kids? That’s what perplexes me right now.

      • Exposure to other kids is easy:

        home school networks – field trips, group classes etc (look up online for groups in your area)
        after school courses – art, languages, science, museum classes etc
        theatre groups
        after school/saturday sport
        youth groups
        cubs/scouts etc
        friends
        family

  12. Archan Mehta says:

    Johnny,

    Thank You.

    I appreciate the photo you have included here: such a bright idea too. I like images or visuals, by the way. Your photo provides the reader with peace and quiet. I can almost see myself walking through the woods in a green and open environment.

    However, I am not sure why you want to leave Ohio for North Carolina. You did not give any reasons in the post. I am sure other readers are also wondering about this.
    There are a lot of people out there who would love to live in a rural place in Ohio.

    Kaizen means continuous quality improvement, a Japanese management term.
    It means that you improve each day in an incremental way instead of taking giant leaps. So, your post resonated with me and you are right on the money here–no doubt about it. Your point of view is interesting and provides food for thought.

    As human beings, we are a work-in-progress. Even sitting still in a lotus position and gazing at your navel is work. Ask those who practice meditation, that is, yours truly. It is not as easy as it sounds to be still, observe your breath, do nothing at all, and refrain from speech. You should try it sometime: I practice this discipline daily and it has done me a whole lot of good. In fact, I would recommend it to others.

    You are one of my favorite writers. I have genuine sympathy for you and your family and hope everything works out for you folks. When you are in the middle of so many projects and assignments, such transitions can take up a lot of time, money and energy. It can also prove to be stressful. My best wishes on your sojourns. Cheerio.

    • Johnny says:

      Dude, Ohio weather sucks. It’s so depressing and overcast here a lot of the year, and it’s super-cold and icy for months. We get 3-4 good months. I’m tired of living 2/3 of my life inside!

  13. Dr. Pete says:

    I struggle with this as friends look for their “dream job”. I have the best job I’ve ever had, but it’s not my “dream job”, and it doesn’t matter. I work from home, get to spend time with my daughter, enjoy most of what I do, get along with the companies I work with, make more money then I did at my last job, etc. From here, I’ll find the pieces I love the most and move toward them, a little at a time.

    If I had taken an all-or-none approach, I would’ve never gotten here.

    • Johnny says:

      Your “dream” doesn’t always look like the grand, sparkling, gilded thing you once thought it would take, does it?

  14. Karri Flatla says:

    I was all annoyed until I got to the part where you explained that standing still also requires discipline. Acceptance is a tough lesson. Even tougher: standing still LONG enough to understand – or see a glimmer of – what is real and true for yourself.

    Very few of us ever do this. E V E R.

    Online and off we’re surrounded by this idea that striving for “ultimate whatever” is worth breaking ourselves for. Sacrificing our sanity for. Our time with our kids for. All of it. And in that rat race we start losing ourselves. I love money and “success” as much as anyone and I suppose I’ve had my fair share of each in life.

    But it’s easy to think we know what we want … when we’ve not really *heard* what our deepest self is trying to tell us. (Speaking from experience on this one too.)

    What Bridget and Lisa said resonates. Sometimes we need to be less concerned with direction and more concerned with growth. And growth happens in a lot of different ways. Sometimes sideways. But sometimes it’s more like expansion and contraction … and learning how to BE in the world differently.

    And that’s enough philosophizing for today :)

    Good discussion.
    Karri

    I admit: I find that last one VERY difficult. Yet in my observation we all reach this point where we need to be quiet

  15. Yay!!!!!!!!!!!!! nuffsaid.

  16. Susan Kuhn says:

    Nice piece, Johnny. A great reminder to observe our progress — and celebrate it.

    You imply something which I’d like to make explicit: that all the beating-yourself-up over not being where you want to be doesn’t help you get there. What does is the quiet steps headed in the right direction.

    A really good tool, which I learned from Barbara Sher (Wishcraft), is to make a backward flow chart. Start with the goal on the right, and work backwards on the streams of action it will take to get there. You are done with the chart when each stream works back to something you can do tomorrow.

    Hot damn! I think I’ll go take my own good advice! ;-)

    • Johnny says:

      Correct! The small steps are positive things, not lesser versions of what we imagine are “the necessary big things” 24/7.

  17. Hi Johnny!

    For a while there, I thought CANI was referring to KANI as in Kani Salad. :)

    Anyway, I like this post a lot. Not because it was well-written (and it is!) but because it acknowledges the fact that as humans, the desire for wanting more is not something that we should be ashamed of. I only think that it’s natural to have these tendencies as we are all striving to be always in a better place than where we are now.

    Great insights. Have a great weekend!

  18. Croila says:

    Interesting article … Although “CANI” wouldn’t work here in Scotland – “cannae” (which is pronounced “CANI”) actually means “can’t”!

  19. Sonia Simone says:

    Even enlightened spiritual masters can have goals they haven’t reached yet. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche talked about this — his plan for the great stupa up in Fort Collins had a 10,000 year arc. “Currently have unmet goals” is not the same as “I do not accept the present as it is.”

    • Johnny says:

      Thanks for making that explicit. I think you can and should definitely do/have both states of mind.

  20. You’re pretty close to on the money here, John. I see the beginning key to self improvement is to really take a hard look at where you want to be (and then figuring out why and if it really comes from your autonomous self or if it’s what you think the world wants you to be). Then two more things; first an even harder look at where you are now -it’s the one I (we?) all struggle with – accepting that and then taking any small step. If we are at a 4 on a scale of 10 to where we want to go, maybe thinking of one thing we can do differently to get to even a 4.1.
    Great Post.
    Right track.
    Mike

  21. Johnny,

    When a talented and successful internet marking guy goes deep and starts tackling spiritual topics, I honestly LOVE IT!

    It shows that you have many dimensions to you.

    The topic of accepting the journey is new to me and I am learning slowly, but surely to learn to appreciate the journey and not be so focused on the “getting there already”.

    Thanks for highlighting this important point!

    Krizia
    Women Entrepreneurs HQ Show

  22. bob says:

    this really hit home. i defintely spend too much time worrying about the finish line. Thanks Johnny

    PEACE

  23. Susan Kuhn says:

    Interesting discussion. May I inject a different turn: the spirituality of striving.

    There is spiritual force in continuing to go after a goal. I learn (from failure) every day to fight the demons of self-criticism. Action in spite of their voice is everything.

    I say this as a woman who in her mid-50s finds herself in a perilous state after severe, simultaneous setbacks: cancer, foreclosure, divorce. Lots of emotion there. But I can either accept the lesser life I now have as permanent — or rev up my afterburners and go for a bigger life than I had before. I am choosing the latter on daily basis — and screwing up on a daily basis, and feeling stupid and a mess on a daily basis. So F—in’ be it.

    Another form of accepting the journey is to keep seeking new ideas. Two days in the past 5 — I’ve felt the clouds clear and the sun of “I know what to do” come in — thanks to mentors Jon Morrow’s Guest Blogging class — http://guestblogging.com — (that Johnny is a fabulous contributor to), and Dan Kennedy’s genius understanding of business building. Teachers are essential in new terrain. Johnny’s new product offering is one I will be buying.

    Being able to act at a high level without being derailed by those emotions is my new goal. That cloud of pain is something to be broken through, not bounced back off of.

    My favorite quote on the subject comes from Sir Edmund Hilary, the first to climb Mt. Everest: “You don’t conquer the mountain: You conquer yourself.”

  24. the muskrat says:

    I signed up for your course! Looking forward to an inbox full of gnarly each week.

    Also: i’d love to see you live in NC! That’d be right next to GA, which means maybe we could get together one weekend for a quiet afternoon of debauchery or chess.

    • Johnny says:

      Yeah man, if only I could get my shit together and get there! We could have a big old Southern party. With accents and straw hats.

      Hope you dig the course!

  25. Jan Schochet says:

    Funny.

    This is a great article and something I’m taking to heart. I always am looking at the GOAL and getting annoyed that it seems so big and so far away. And sometimes–much of the time–that shuts me down in a lot of ways.

    So thank you for this great insight which I’ll keep in the forefront as much as possible.

    On another note, I’m in NC (from Asheville, where I now live half the year, sharing that wi/Chapel Hill my alma mater.)

    Sounds like you have contacts here, Johnny, but I know lots of people/great real estate folks, etc. (I used to take people on high-end niche specialty-themed tours of NC and SC, like “Eating Your Way Across the Carolinas” (which Rosie O’Donnell mentioned on her TV show–a hoot) and others.

    So I do know the area.

    I don’t have kids but have a lot of friends with them and also ones who homeschool (not from the religious perspective). NC has a really supportive home schooling movement and has great groups for homeschoolers to get together within so they don’t have that socializing problem.

    And no we don’t wear straw hats. I think that’s Mississippi. (LOL)

    • Johnny says:

      Yeah, I was looking at Charlotte area. I have a handful of friends there, and we really like it. Although I do hear great things about Asheville from a certain hat-making lady who I could mention.

      We’ll end up there eventually, so any schooling we do now is honestly biding our time until we get there and can use those networks. We know we’re not here forever, so we just need to figure out what to do during this transition time.

      • I got cher straw hat right here! WOOO! Thanks for the anonymous shout, Johnny, were you just seeing if I still read your site? :)

        It is a small small world as I used to buy dance stuff from the Schochets as a kid. I’m glad to know there is another kick-ass person in my beloved AVL.

        I must say while I’m here though that the Tao of Awesome really is a valuable tool; I got a little derailed by an Important and Urgent Event about halfway through so am starting the whole thing over with many more things on my list.

        Like leftover pizza and many other things in life, it is standing up well to a repeat performance. Bravo, Johnny!

  26. Jan Schochet says:

    And, uh, why isn’t my Gravatar showing up? What do I need to do for that? Thx..

  27. This was timely – have been checking the proof copy of my book and swearing about the typos I’m still finding and wishing it would just hurry up and be done already, and why aren’t I selling gazillions of copies yet, huh??? Then I went through your checklist – well last year I had three scrappy chapters and a vague idea how I would get to the end of the novel, but no idea whether I’d even finish it this decade. A month ago I had an ebook on Amazon, but no idea when I’d get a hard copy in my hands. A week ago the designer and I were still wrestling with cover designs.

    Ok, so maybe I’ve made some progress…..

  28. Tim says:

    I lived in Japan for 5 years and speak Japanese but never heard of kaizen,oh well,great idea and it is the thought that counts. I do like the “5 Whys” method as well and think it is a useful tool to help make that small improvement daily.

  29. Jan Schochet says:

    Simone– that would’ve been my mom (possibly my dad) or me depending on your age bracket!

    Where are you now?

    Nice connection. Johnny is a connector-guy!

  30. Jan Schochet says:

    That would be Simone the hat lady.

  31. Oui, Jan, c’ est moi! Come say hi at the Kress Emporium during Bele Chere if you’re in town. Nice to meet you (virtually)!

    • Jan Schochet says:

      @Simone Chicsinger, I was there last week, not for BC, but will come by (as I always do) when in town. Are you there or are just your hats there? I know them well!

  32. Marc says:

    Just finished reading the book “Status Anxiety” by Alain de Botton. Right on topic here, I think. I’m leaning toward the Ralph Waldo Emerson “Bohemian” life style. Less is more.

    • Johnny says:

      I really need to get some more culture. I don’t know the book so will just nod from way over here and go, “Cool.”

      • Marc says:

        From Amazon:

        “Anyone who’s ever lost sleep over an unreturned phone call or the neighbor’s Lexus had better read Alain de Botton’s irresistibly clear-headed new book, immediately. For in its pages, a master explicator of our civilization and its discontents turns his attention to the insatiable quest for status, a quest that has less to do with material comfort than with love. To demonstrate his thesis, de Botton ranges through Western history and thought from St. Augustine to Andrew Carnegie and Machiavelli to Anthony Robbins.”

        I originally watched the documentary, which encouraged me to read the book. Good stuff.

  33. Hey,
    For me it’s about choosing to do the right things, prioritising and being focussed, taking action that actually get me towards my goals! There’s so much I want to do, things to watch, read, courses I want to do, make time for friends and family, get to the gym, my actual job so I have money to eat….

    So anyway, great article, I’m off to check out the Tao Of Awesomeness!

    David

  34. Ani says:

    I came accross this post at the ideal time for me. These days I have overloaded myself with different goals and feel like a loser when they don’t get done immediately.

    With each day I feel closer to each of the goals, so it appears that I am doing pretty well :)

  35. All of your comments are great! Thinking deeper, beyond the surface of just about anything will improve you just for being motivated to learn. Most people on JBT’s site pursue improvement and know it’s vital. I wrote a post recently about telling my 17 year old son what I (currently) believe is the key to life in one word – Accomplishment. I told him I hope the idea will stay with him and that he will ponder how that works, for years to come. I hope sharing it encourages just one someone here, too.

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