Progression Vs. Position: How to Balance Happiness and Self-Improvement

Round & Round at the Vatican by Andrew E. Larsen

Life is a lot like a big, endless staircase. Is your happiness based on what stair you’re on, or how fast you’re climbing?

Complacency and a fire for constant self-improvement seem to be diametrically opposed.

The drive for self-improvement spurs us on to always be better than we were yesterday. It pushes us to keep fighting, keep training, keep working for that next goal. People who are particularly driven by a desire for self-improvement tend to be very ambitious and the heart of ambition is a hunger to improve or to succeed. That ambition makes a person work hard, but it also ties their mood to their progress. They always want more and they’re often not happy until they get it.

On the other hand you have people with a high sense of complacency. These people are happy with what they’ve got almost no matter where they’re at in life. Their happiness is tied to appreciating what they’ve got rather than with getting something else. This sounds nice in theory, but complacency encourages stasis – if things are fine how they are why should you work for something better? People who are too complacent run the risk of living a life dictated by others rather than the one they actually want to lead.

So how do you find happiness while still retaining your motivation for self-improvement? By focusing on progress rather than position.

A Change in Viewpoint

The main problem with both of these ways of viewing the world, the ambitious person always improving and never happy with where they are and the complacent people who are happy but never improve, is that both of their senses of happiness are tied to their position.

Both derive their sense of worth from where they currently are in their progress through life. They interpret that information differently, the ambitious person is unhappy with their position and the complacent person is overly happy with their position but for both where they are right now is the main concern.

Imagine some people standing on a stair case. Our ambitious person, Ms. A, sees someone on a higher stair than she is. She looks down at the stair she’s on, lower than where she wants to be, and she gets depressed. She’s motivated to climb those stairs to get where she wants to be, but at each step she judges herself by the step she’s standing on at that moment and as a result is never truly happy until she’s standing on the stair she wants to be on.

On the other hand we have our complacent person, Mr. C, standing on another stair near the bottom. He didn’t really choose to be there, and he thinks it’d be nice to be up there at the top of the staircase, but he’s decided he’s happy with where he’s at. He figures he is where he is and he should just be happy with the stair he’s on. He is genuinely happy, but he’ll die there without ever seeing the top of the stairs.

For both of them their happiness is based off of what stair they’re on at that moment. That’s the problem – it’s often framed as a choice between one or the other, ambition or complacency. There’s another option.

Rather than base your happiness on position, you can base your happiness on progression.

Imagine another person on that staircase of success, we’ll call her Ms. Z. Now Ms. Z looks up the staircase and sees people up at the top and wants to be up there too. Unlike Ms. A and Mr. C though she doesn’t base her happiness on what stair she’s on, she bases it on whether or not she’s moving.

As long as Ms. Z is climbing up those stairs, no matter how slow, she’s happy. Like Ms. A she’s motivated to keep progressing, but she doesn’t have all the unhappiness Ms. A gets from not being on the stair she wants to be on. Ms. Z is progressing so she’s happy. In fact she’s just as happy as Mr. C, but unlike Mr. C who will stay on the stair he was placed on his entire life Ms. Z will end up higher up than where she started.

Embracing Momentum

Ms. Z is an example of someone who bases their happiness on progression.

When you concern yourself primarily with whether or not you’re improving rather than how good you are at that moment you get all the motivation of a strong drive to improve with all the in-the-moment happiness that would get embracing a complacent worldview. By embracing the concept of only caring about maintaining that momentum you can be happy and fulfilled feeling while still possessing the impetus to be better each and every day.

So how do you switch from being position focused to progression focused?

The biggest thing is to stop worrying so much about where you are now or where you want to be. Recognize that the only thing that really matters is the present moment and that the only thing you have control of in the present moment is whether you’re making progress toward something or stagnating.

You need to start to shift your values toward the velocity you have in approaching your goals rather than your current position in relation to them. That means that a millionaire who has stopped improving is less successful than a penniless homeless person who’s actively working toward improving their situation.

Once you shift your thinking to fall more in line with progression based value as a preference over position based value you’ll find that success and failure isn’t such a big deal anymore. You won’t feel worthless when you haven’t made it to your goal as long as you’re still moving toward it. Even better you won’t be left with the boring, unfulfilled feeling of sitting on a plateau for your whole life.

Have you made the shift to a progression based value system? Do you think the position based one is better? Do you see things in a completely different way from both? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Photo Credit: Andrew E. Larsen

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com