How to Go from Good to Great — and Enjoy the Rewards — In 4 Easy Steps

Gray haired middle aged man reading newspaper in cafe on weekend.

It was awkward.

A colleague had asked me to revise a sales letter he’d commissioned. He called it “run of the mill.” He wanted me to “bring it to life.”

It was rather ordinary copy, and bringing it to life required changing nearly 30% of it.

But the problem wasn’t the work. It was the fact that the writer, a successful copywriter, was a friend of mine.

I worried that Sarah (not her real name) would be upset I had changed it so much. And that because she was upset, she would “veto” my revisions.

Happily, she didn’t. After reviewing my edits (not knowing it was I who had made them), she sent a letter to my colleague acknowledging the copy was better. She promised to learn from the corrections and “write at that level next time.”

I remember seeing that response and thinking: “Sarah is going to be really, really good.”

This story has two morals:

The first is about pride and its opposite (humility). If you want to accomplish great things and/or learn complex skills, some amount of pride is necessary to push yourself forward. But false or overreaching pride (Aristotle’s term was “hubris”) is a major obstacle.

Sarah was an accomplished copywriter. If I had to rank her against her peers, I’d say she was, at that time, in the top 20%. She’d earned the right to argue with my changes, but she didn’t. The pride she had in herself had brought her so far as a writer already. In this case, at least, she wasn’t going to let false pride halt her progress.

False pride is a very common problem among copywriters — no, among every sort of writer. But when writers believe — or desperately want to believe — their writing is above reproach, they damage their careers because they can no longer benefit from learning from others.

This is equally true for musicians, tennis players, salsa dancers, sumo wrestlers, and CEOs. Those who are willing to say “I am good, but I can learn to do better” do better. Those who say “I am the greatest. Nobody knows more than I” are almost sure to take a serious tumble.

Ego. Selflessness. Pride. Humility. Confidence. Fear. There are so many emotions that play a part in personal development. What you want in your career is the confidence that follows accomplishment, not the pride that precedes a fall.

Or, to put it differently: No matter how good you are at what you do, there’s someone out there who can teach you something.

Think about your strongest skill — the talent or capability that is most important to the achievement of your main goal. Now ask: “Am I willing to acknowledge that there are people in my universe who are better at this than I am?”

If you can accept the possibility that there are others better than you, then you can learn from them. If you extend this perspective, you’ll realize that you can learn specific things from people who don’t have your overall mastery.

And now we come to the second moral of this story: The only good way to improve a skill is to practice it. Reading about it is certainly helpful. Talking about it with people who are experts may work, too. But no amount of reading and talking will do nearly as much as regular, focused practice.

Human beings are designed to get better through practice. Everything we ever learn to do — from walking to talking to writing concertos — gets better through practice. Practice makes our fingers move faster, our hearts beat stronger, our brains think smarter.

Or think of it this way: Nothing in nature stays the same. If you’re not getting better, you’re only getting worse.

And that’s what Sarah should know about her future as a copywriter. If she continues to practice her craft — while taking advantage of everything she can learn from more experienced and skillful copywriters — the likelihood that she will be great one day is better than 99%.

With practice and a willingness to keep learning, Sarah will one day be among the very best copywriters in the business.

So here’s the program for greatness:

  • Have pride in yourself — enough pride to expect that at any given moment, you will do the best job you can.
  • Know that getting better begins with the recognition that there are people out there in the world who know things you don’t and can do some things better than you. Have the humility to seek out such people.
  • As your skills improve and your reputation for skillfulness spreads, resist the lure of false pride. Cultivate humility. Be confident in what you know but open to learning new things.
  • And make learning and improving your skills through practice a lifelong habit.

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