The Hard Work of Getting Better at What You Do

One of the most important “tells” of a person’s professional character comes from their answer to a simple question: “What are you doing to get better at what you do?”

For hiring managers, this should be a stage-gate question. Candidates who pass through the early stages of a behavioral interview, earn the opportunity to navigate this simple but important question.

In my own experience as a hiring executive, most candidates run smack into the gate on this one. The answers are weak or non-existent. The candidate gropes for something to showcase a developmental experience. There’s little if anything on the “Here’s what I’ve read recently” list.

Self-development doesn’t involve Keeping up with the Kardashians or cheering on our favorites on the latest incarnation of “The Bachelor.”

In particular, mid-career…and moderately successful professionals seem to run out of fuel for self-development, perhaps because they sense they no longer need to improve or change or grow. That’s a dangerous assumption in a world where professions and vocations are in a constant state of renewal.

Self-development is hard work

From awareness to initiative to action to completion, getting better at what you do…or adding skills to what you do is a full contact activity backed by deliberate actions. It’s hard, often uncomfortable and sometimes even frightening.

Author, Stephen Pressfield, (War of Art, Going Pro and many others) offers up this powerful perspective on the effort and process of self-development, in his post, How We Get Better (part 2):

“Like climbing Mt. Everest, we claw ourselves up a brutal vertical ascent, only to realize that we stand at the threshold of a plateau of ice that we must now traverse, one harrowing crevasse at a time, to get to the next ascent.”

“When we improve as artists, what is happening is less a process of adding layers of skill or technical expertise (though certainly that is happening, and it’s very important) but more an evolution that is characterized by the shedding of false self-conceptions and the jettisoning of self-limiting ideas.”

Working at “getting better” is not for the faint of heart or the weak of character. As a candidate, if you’re doing it…I want to know where you’re struggling or even failing. It’s particularly powerful to understand where someone is failing…and then striving to overcome the failure.  It’s you people I want on my team.

“What are you doing to get better at what you do?”

How would you answer the question?   

Speaking of Your Own Self Development:

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By | 2016-10-22T17:11:27+00:00 July 16th, 2012|Career|9 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


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  2. Jennifer V. Miller July 16, 2012 at 1:22 pm - Reply


    It’s interesting that you’ve tied “professional character” (love that concept!) to the drive to get better. I do believe that “drive for self-improvement” should be a “price of admission” trait for hiring managers.

    Now, as for the answer to your question, “what are you doing to get better at what you do?” – I have an answer! Two months ago I hired a business coach. Having a sounding board and accountability partner has been amazing. My focus has improved ten-fold and I’m on the path to re-aligning my business to a new set of goals. At first, I hesitated due to the financial investment, but now I’m saying, “What took me so long?”

    • Art Petty July 16, 2012 at 1:29 pm - Reply

      Jennifer, what a great example of “professional character” in action! Kudos to you and thanks for sharing that motivation example! -Art

  3. Jesse Stoner July 16, 2012 at 6:59 pm - Reply

    Love this question, Art.
    When my friends Ken and Margie Blanchard invite guests for dinner, to engage the group in a conversation, they’ll ask an interesting question. I’m passing this one on to them. It’s a great question for any conversation and also for personal contemplation.

    • Art Petty July 16, 2012 at 7:01 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Jesse! It’s a question that I ask myself regularly. If I don’t like the answer, I get to work! -Art

  4. Doug Hall July 17, 2012 at 12:31 pm - Reply

    I love this as a gateway question. Every professional should be actively working to get better, because if they aren’t they will fall behind.
    For my answer, I became an adjunct professor at Purdue. I tend to procrastinate a bit but the discipline enforced by the class schedule keeps me moving forward. I’m getting better at my current job, and preparing for my second career, teaching more than once a week.

    • Art Petty July 17, 2012 at 12:36 pm - Reply

      Doug, thanks for sharing what you are doing to grow. We’re kindred spirits on the teaching front. I set a goal to do that a number of years ago and am a product member of the DePaul University adjunct faculty. Aside from the discipline teaching imposes, the exhilaration of working with a group of motivated students and the lessons I learn from them in the process of teaching are priceless! -Art

  5. MAPping Company Success August 6, 2012 at 3:19 am - Reply

    […] Management Excellence by Art Petty shares with us “The Hard Work of Getting Better at What You Do” […]

  6. […] and requires deliberate actions, Chicago-area leadership coach Art Petty writes in a blog post.4. They went to all the activities. In high school, the popular kids were at every football game, […]

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