Are You Faking Progress?

April 25th, 2011 by Steve Pavlina

One of the big traps in life is believing that you’re making progress when there’s no actual evidence of it. It’s easy to keep learning and studying new ideas, methods, and techniques that don’t improve your results… while convincing yourself that you must be making progress simply because you’ve invested a lot of time and effort in learning and growth.

It would be nice if effort equaled results, but it’s very common to apply effort without generating measurable results.

Let me share a personal story to illustrate this…

Based on my efforts at studying and practicing the game of blackjack, I could make a case that I’m an expert blackjack player.

In my 20s I read a dozen or so books about the game of blackjack and a dozen more more about casino gambling in general. I did some independent study on games of chance in college, both for fun and as part of my education for my math degree. In high school I even programmed my Casio fx-8000G calculator to play blackjack, including drawing all the cards pixel by pixel.

However, I soon learned that it’s one thing to hold this knowledge in my mind, and it’s quite another thing to apply it as a real-world skill to get positive results.

Shortly after my 21st birthday, I made my first adult trip to Las Vegas with some friends. Before we left, I practiced counting cards just as I had learned from books. It took hours to memorize the correct play of every hand and to practice counting down a deck until I could do it in 13-14 seconds consistently (about as fast as I could physically flip through all the cards). I felt very well prepared before I ever set foot in a real casino.

On that first trip, I played the lowest limits available, mostly varying my bets from $2 to $10. I won $125 total, giving me a nice reward for my efforts.

This positive result encouraged me to keep playing. I made the 4-hour drive from L.A. to Vegas dozens of times, taking advantage of the cheap rooms and food that were in abundance at the time. I continued to invest in learning more about blackjack. I studied advanced techniques that could add a bit more edge. I learned more about the social aspects of the game. I started betting a bit more, usually $5-25 or $10-50 ranges, sometimes $25-125. I got used to bigger swings, such as losing $700 or winning $900 in a single sitting. I got kicked out of a casino for winning $200 in a few minutes, so I learned to disguise my play better. I learned how to get comps. I was very disciplined and never risked rent money or went on tilt. For me it was mostly about the challenge. I loved the combination of mathematics and emotional discipline that was required to do well.

Now fast forward 20 years. I’ve been living in Vegas since 2004. There’s a popular casino just 5 minutes from my house. I can walk there if I want. I could go play blackjack at any time of day. But I rarely do these days. And if I do play, I don’t count cards. I would only play for fun, and only at a betting level that’s so far below my means so that it can’t possibly make a difference in my finances. I would never go as high as risking even half a percent of my income over the course of a year.

So on the one hand, I can claim that I have a lot of expertise in this area. I invested a lot of time in learning, and I have many hours of real-world practice. But what are the actual results? I certainly didn’t do anything like the M.I.T. blackjack team did. Given my low betting levels and infrequent play, I wouldn’t even earn enough to reach minimum wage. Over the long run, my results were insignificant from a financial perspective.

If I evaluate this pursuit through the lens of study and effort and practice, then I could argue that I’ve grown tremendously in my skill at blackjack. But if I use the lens of real-world results, then I must admit that I have virtually no results to speak of. I never did what would have been necessary to generate serious results from this pursuit. It was merely a side hobby that I explored for fun.

So can I claim to be an expert blackjack player? That may be an issue of semantics, but I certainly can’t claim to have won any serious money at the game, which is generally how a blackjack player would measure their long-term success.

Evaluating Your Progress

How do you assess your progress?

Do you feel you’re making progress if you’ve studied and practiced a great deal? Or do you only give yourself credit for real-world results that other people can perceive as well?

I think that both types of assessment are valid. I don’t think we should completely discount learning, study, and practice as ends unto themselves. However, I also think many of us need to move our evaluation criteria further in the direction of measurable, real-world results.

Here are some questions to get you thinking about the differences between study and results…

Study: Do you think you know a lot about relationships? Have you read books or attended workshops on relationships? Do you know how to approach people and start conversations? Do you know how to build rapport? Do you know how to communicate well with people?

Results: Are you currently enjoying positive relationships in your life right now? Are you happy and fulfilled in this part of your life? Do other people notice how happy you are with your relationships? How many people would name you as a friend? How many invites do you get in a typical month?

Study: Do you think you know a lot about making money? Do you have ideas about what you can do to increase your income? Do you have goals, plans, and to-do lists? What financial skills have you acquired?

Results: How much money have you earned so far this year? What does your financial balance sheet look like? If an independent financial consultant looked at your balance, would s/he say you’re wealthy, average, or pretty much broke? Would s/he see evidence of positive change over the past 3 years?

Study: Do you believe you’re a caring and compassionate person? Do you care about people, animals, and the environment? Do you have ideas regarding how to make the world a better place? Do you ever wish more people would think as you do?

Results: What is the measurable evidence of your ongoing contribution in the real world? What results are other people now getting that they weren’t before, thanks to you? Which specific people will testify that you’ve helped them, and how will they say you’ve helped? Which parts of the environment are better off now, thanks to you, and how are they better? Is your caring and compassion flowing out into the world and affecting real people, or is it just a feeling you have?

When you look back at how your life was 3 years ago, which areas would seem to be about the same if examined by an impartial observer? Where would this observer testify that you’ve made measurable progress? Where would s/he testify that you’ve failed to make any discernable progress?

Have you been assessing your progress as objectively and fair-mindedly as this impartial observer would? Have you been giving yourself credit for non-existent results? Have you been failing to credit yourself for results you really did achieve?

Results-Orientation

If you’re beginning to realize that you have a strong bias towards over-crediting yourself for study, effort, and practice as opposed to real-world results, I’d encourage you to shift your evaluation criteria to the results side. This may feel a bit alien at first… perhaps a bit harsher than you’re used to… but I think you’ll like it better in the long run.

I’m a person who loves to read, explore, and experiment, so it’s easy for me to get caught up on the learning side and convince myself that I’m making real progress simply by making an effort. But I’ve learned over the years that my study tends to flow much better when I’m working towards a results-based goal.

During college I got a contract job to program some computer games for a local game company. At the time I only knew DOS game programming, and they were developing games for Windows 3.1. Windows game programming was a whole different animal, so I committed myself to the project before I really knew what I was getting into. But as “luck” would have it, I got jury duty right when I was supposed to begin working on the first game, so the start of the project had to be delayed. I went to a bookstore and bought a stack of books on Windows game programming. Since there was so much downtime during the court case, I was able to go through those books in a matter of days. Since my learning was results-driven from the get-go, I was able to learn a lot faster. I could focus on the concepts that I would need to apply and ignore the irrelevant bits.

Consequently, I had a working demo of the first game running only 9 days after I started the project. About six months later, I got to see the 4-pack of games I had programmed selling in stores like Comp USA and Software Etc. I also received royalty checks for more than $20K in addition to my contract pay. My learning efforts generated measurable results. I wasn’t just learning for the sake of learning. Later I applied those skills to design, program, and publish other games as well. And I helped teach other independent developers how to do the same.

When I engage in learning just to learn something new, I almost always learn more slowly. I learn fastest when my learning is results-oriented, such as if I’m figuring out how to implement some particular feature for a specific project.

Learning just to learn can be very seductive. Read any random nonfiction book, and you may be able to convince yourself that you’re doing something valuable and worthwhile. But what are you going to do with that knowledge? Will it be largely forgotten a year later? Or will you apply it in the real world?

I’ve read so many books that it’s hard to keep them all straight. I have bits and pieces of knowledge about a great variety of subjects. At the time I studied these topics, they usually seemed important. Yesterday I was reading a fascinating book about the history of Goldman Sachs, a powerful investment bank that started in the 1800s and took a lot of flak for its role in the recent financial crisis. But what can I do with this knowledge? How will it generate fresh real-world results? It may be an educational, eye-opening read, but since I’m not reading it with any results-orientation in mind, I could say that I’m better off learning something else that I can apply right away.

Learning for the sake of learning can indeed be pleasurable, and it can offer up hidden benefits over time. But my experience suggests that learning for the sake of creating real-world results can be just as pleasurable — and a lot faster too. You not only enjoy the learning process, but you also get to experience new results. All else being equal, doesn’t it make more sense to learn with a strong results-orientation in mind?

What are the results you’d like to achieve next? Can you direct your learning to help you achieve those results faster?

The Best of Both Worlds

Study, effort, and practice needn’t be in opposition to real-world results. The truth is that we can enjoy both.

A straightforward way to do this is to clarify some new results you’d like to achieve, and then focus on learning what you need to learn to achieve those results.

While I enjoyed learning to play blackjack, my blackjack knowledge doesn’t do much for me or anyone else in terms of real-world results; it never did. On the other hand, learning how to create a web business has allowed me to enjoy life without the hassle of a regular job, to provide a worthwhile and sustainable service for people around the world, and to give me sufficient freedom to keep learning and growing.

Never say “I don’t know how” to excuse yourself from pursuing a particular result you desire. “I don’t know how” is the mantra of fools. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know how yet,” but better still is to drop such phrases from your repertoire altogether. Just dive in and start learning what you need to learn. Don’t excuse yourself due to a lack of knowledge. If you don’t know how, learn how. You learned how to walk and talk. Surely you can learn other skills too.

I like Jack Canfield’s advice to “lean into it.” When you don’t know how to achieve a particular result, don’t worry about learning everything overnight. Just lean into it. Get one book that seems remotely relevant, and read it. That book should give you new leads to follow. It might turn you on to other books, teachers, workshops, or experiments you can try. Keep following the trail of breadcrumbs as you gradually learn how to achieve the new results you desire. But be careful not to fall back into the seductive trap of learning merely for the sake of learning.

Again, learning for the sake of learning is still perfectly okay. I think it’s well and good to broaden your horizons, and not everything you learn has to be so results-oriented. But when you’re pursuing a particular goal, stick to results-oriented learning, and don’t let yourself get sidetracked.

When you look back on the past several years of your life, are you pleased with the results you’ve achieved? Can you see that your investments in personal growth and learning are paying off in terms of measurable results? What is the evidence of your real-world progress? Is your “progress” all in your mind? Are you happy with your current balance between learning for the sake of learning vs. learning to achieve specific results?


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