Continuous Improvement Starts from Inside

I’ve been on a self-improvement kick lately. Organizations go through phases like this occasionally, and for many of the same reasons: the ones in charge observe that quality is falling off, people are getting slack in their adherence to standards, or maybe they just want to make a good place better. Since I’m on this kick myself right now, I thought I’d share a few thoughts from my quest to Build a Better Bart.

Recently I’ve found myself with extra time and energy to take stock and examine what I’ve been doing with the guy in the mirror. A bunch of little things that I’d let slide have suddenly become apparent as things that I could stand to improve. Standards slipping? Yep. Emotional reactions less than polite? That happens. Overall focus/motivation lacking? Oh my, yes.

So I’m getting a late start on my spring cleaning.

Pursuing The Next Big Thing

In many ways, I’ve been “living the dream” down here in sunny Florida, with decent-paying freelance tech writing gigs and enough free time to get good use out of my Annual Pass to Walt Disney World. Does that mean I’ve achieved Nerdvana? Hardly.

While I have family here, most of my best friends are out of state. That gets lonely after awhile, and making friends on the near side of 50 is not easy for an introvert used to living alone, wary about sharing my thoughts around strangers, and prone to hobbies that don’t require a lot of talking. Obviously the problem isn’t the people around me but how I respond to them. So that’s on my list.

If I catch myself slipping up on the job, that’s a problem because often I have no backup–the quality of my service is my brand, so if I can’t write well/with minimal rewriting, I’m putting my rent money in jeopardy. So: focus, do the job right. And when I do get caught screwing up, am I responding well or getting defensive? If the latter, that’s another item that needs improvement, isn’t it?

Then there’s the whole focus/motivation thing. I’m one of those people who needs a “mission” in life–some big task that keeps me getting up in the morning, eager to start the day. I started this pattern in my 20s, when I wanted to move on from answering complaints at Walt Disney World and get into the space industry. I had the Big Goal: Get Into Space. Every other task fed into that and so was met with eagerness, anticipation, and gusto. By the time I was in my mid-30s, I’d gotten a Master’s Degree in tech writing, acquired a lot of contacts in the space advocacy community, and (finally) gotten a job at NASA.

What kept me moving after that? NASA had a mission: get humans back to the Moon, and then on to Mars and beyond. That mission propelled my work and for four years I never questioned why I got up for work every morning. Then a new administration killed the program, I crashed and burned in a personal relationship (in part because of my focus on this very-important-to-me career crisis), and by early 2010 I was lucky to still have a job, much less one at NASA. I worked on a couple different things within the agency, but the feeling of mission was gone.

When my friend Jason talked to me about leaving, I was ready to go over to Zero Point Frontiers. I found new energy being the sole English major in a small business full of ambitious engineers. I was still in the space business, but now I was supporting NASA and New Space. Awesome! Then ZPFC got their programs squeezed by government budget sequestration, a shutdown, etc., and suddenly I was out on my own. The last three and a half years have been about establishing myself back in Orlando as a bill-paying freelance technical writer, and by golly, I’ve achieved that.

But as the big machine asked in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, “Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?” So once again, I’m in need of a mission, a plan–something that gets me excited to get up in the morning and want to kick ass on the way toward The Next Big Thing.

So what does “a better Bart” look like, anyway?

I realize that this “mission” thing of mine is a handicap on occasion. If I’m asked to do something that doesn’t match up with that mission/sense of self, I can do it and usually do it well; that doesn’t mean I’m happy or enthusiastic about it. So while I’m still seeking that Next Big Thing, I also need to work on my keeping myself motivated when I’m not serving my “mission.”

As I’ve noted elsewhere, self-improvement (I don’t believe in self-perfection, that’s impossible) is a constant tug of war between pushing myself and giving myself a break. What shortcomings or missed opportunities am I willing to accept so that I can focus on what really needs improving? What aspects of my personality, behavior, or outlook need serious upgrading if I’m going to transform into the newest version of Bart?

I’ve tried a lot of things over the years: concentrating on improving my interactions with and service to others; focusing completely on my own knowledge and life for my own sake. Both routes have advantages, and both paths have huge blind spots. Spend too much time meeting the needs of other people and you can get aggravated by their ingratitude or unceasing demands to the neglect of your own needs. Spend too much time on yourself and you lose touch with others, alienating friends and family through a single-minded quest to make yourself better.

I suppose, as I approach the age of 48 this year, my latest lesson in growing up is that I need to find a balance among my various challenges and opportunities. If I don’t make everyone around me happy, I suppose I’ll at least be able to look at myself in the mirror and not feel ashamed or disappointed. There are worse ways to live life.

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