When we are on the path to mastery, we tend to look in one direction: forward. We aren’t interested in looking anywhere else, because we are focused on improving. We look at the masters and try to figure out what we need to do to reach the same level as them.
This is great, because it gives us motivation to keep working.
The issue though is that most of us gain energy from feeling like we are doing good work. We want to know that our work is paying off, particularly when we have been at it for a long time. This is difficult to square with the fact that we are only looking at those ahead of us. We see our work, compare it to the masters, and then feel bad that we aren’t good enough.
In the grand scheme of things, we are quite good. However, we don’t notice it because we occupy the upper echelon of our chosen field and don’t look backwards. This has the effect of making us feel bad about our inaptitude when we are actually better than 99% of the population. It’s just that we ignore those other people and focus on the 1% that are better than us. We mistake a small population for the whole population.
Because of this, we end up being unhappy with our work. Really, we are doing things that most people wouldn’t do. That in itself is a cause for celebration, but we rarely acknowledge this. Instead, we find ourselves in funks that stem from being too preoccupied with the work left for us to do.
As you become more of an expert, you paradoxically start seeing how there are many things you aren’t great at. This has the effect of making you think less of your ability, even when you are improving. This is why we find ourselves in the curious situation of thinking we aren’t good even though we are better than most people. It’s the result of looking only in one direction.
We need to take the time to pause and look backwards, if only for a moment. Doing so will give us some much-needed perspective on what it means to improve. Instead of always seeming less than everyone else, we will learn to appreciate our path along the journey, and that is something to celebrate.