Better Than Before. A Stimulus For Progress In Challenging Times.
The simple phrase ‘Better Than Before’ is an incredibly useful mantra. If you’re a perfectionist, then it could be your new best friend! In this blog, I want to explore two potential ways in which this phrase could be useful for you and your team. The first, relates to how we respond positively (or as positively as possible) to the current Covid-19 crisis. The second, relates to how we can use this phrase to encourage a proactive, non-judgemental approach to personal and organisational development.
1) A Stimulus For Progress
The phrase ‘Better Than Before’ really leapt out at me when I was reading Dave Alred’s book ‘The Pressure Principle’. This book is about Alred’s experience as a sports psychologist working with some of the most successful individuals and teams of the modern era. ‘Better Than Before’ is an approach he advocates for when players are recovering from injury. Often a player’s instinct is to try to get ‘back to normal’ or back to where they were before. Alred, however, advocates using the injury as an opportunity to develop that player further so they don’t just return to their previous levels of fitness, they return better than before.
This felt like an especially pertinent ethos in our current circumstances. Covid-19 has essentially created a global ‘injury’ - as a society we have had to undergo a period of enforced rest, recuperation and rehabilitation. But rather than get fixated, as many of our political leaders have, with the need to ‘get back to normal’, we should be using this once-in-a-generation opportunity to make our society better than before.
I have been incredibly frustrated by the continued references to ‘getting back to normal’ or the ‘new normal’. Both suggest an acceptance that how things were before the crisis are how we want things to be, or that we are happy to settle for a ‘new normal’ - which essentially is just the old normal but with more restrictions and limitations – ie. worse than it was before! This has to stop!
It is our responsibility as individuals, leaders, organisations and collectives, to use this as an opportunity to enact positive change. And we can do this whether the government supports us or not – the power is in our hands.
Now this change doesn’t have to be revolutionary or drastic – though it could be! I would advocate simply starting from observing how things have changed as a result of lockdown and seeing if there are things we’d like to keep from the experience. This could be any number of things:
- More flexible working
- More time with family
- Better work/life balance
- Increased opportunities for personal development
- Increased access to art and culture within your own home
- Not having to commute.
For myself, some of the headlines would be:
- Remote meetings have saved me huge amounts of time and money.
Before, I would traipse into London or down to Southampton or Salisbury, paying for a train ticket, buying coffees, scheduling back-to-back meetings in one day in order to make the most of the train fare… Now, I can have an equally productive meeting online from the comfort of my own home. I don’t have to fork out money on overpriced rail fares and caffeinated drinks, and I’m not worried about dashing across town for my next meeting.
- Access to theatre and culture online.
I have watched more plays in the last 3-4 months than I did in the entirety of the last two years. I was finding it increasingly hard to justify travel costs and ticket prices for shows, so was missing out on seeing lots of work that I would love to have seen normally. By putting their archived work online, theatres have made their work more accessible to thousands of people across the globe and this can only be a good thing.
- Time and space to reflect on my creative practice.
By temporarily removing the ability to make any theatre, I have been freed up to look at how I make theatre and why I make theatre. This has resulted in a blossoming of creativity, as I have reconnected with the very reason why I do what I do, realising how I have inadvertently drifted away from this in recent years.
- More time with my partner and to focus on home life.
The quality time I have had with my partner has been wonderful over the last few months. We’ve had the opportunity to have really open conversations about our hopes and dreams for the future, to make plans, and to give each other support in our work and personal development. We’re eating better, doing more exercise and giving each other more of our time and focus.
This makes it sounds like lockdown has been a bed of roses and it most certainly has not! BUT my aim here it to focus on headlines we can take away from this period, things that we can look to incorporate into our working lives as we come out of lockdown. Just simply by recognising that meetings could be held remotely rather than everyone having to travel, by structuring your time to allow for space to reflect on how and why you work, to ring-fence time for your family and loved ones, and to prioritise simple things like what we’re eating and how we’re exercising. These are all incredibly important and, more to the point, incredibly actionable across most industries.
If you’re a leader of a team, organisation or group, I strongly urge you to have honest and open discussions with your teams. What positives have they taken from this experience? What lessons have they learnt? If they could keep one thing from this time, what would it be? Gather that together and see what can be implemented. The more your employees or team members feel valued and feel like they have a life beyond their work, the better and more focussed their work will be. Let’s listen to them and see if we can make how we work more enjoyable, positive and personal.
Just by acting on these simple things we can make sure that we make life Better Than Before as a result of this crisis.
2) Progress Not Perfection
The second use of this phrase comes in handy at this stage. It is incredibly important to recognise that the aim here is to come back better than before, this does not mean it has to be perfect! We are not aiming for a new, seamless and perfect working process that is set in stone. We are simply saying – can we make this better than it was before? Can we improve this?
My partner and I moved into our current house almost exactly 2 years ago. Inevitably, there followed a period of re-designing, re-decorating, getting tradespeople in etc. The mantra that kept me going (and still keeps me going!) throughout all of this was: “It’s better than it was”. If we’d agonised over getting everything perfect, frankly, we would never have started anything, or we’d still be repainting the skirting and not actually getting on with living in our home - which was, after all, the point of doing the work in the first place.
My point here is that perfectionism is the death of progress. If we agonise over getting things ‘perfect’ we’ll either never start at all or we’ll never finish. Ultimately, things are very rarely, if ever, perfect. Or if they’re perfect to one person, they’re deeply flawed to another. Accepting things cannot be perfect but that they can be better, is actually incredibly liberating and massively empowering.
It is also, I realised, at the heart of how theatre operates. I think most directors would recognise that their plays can never be perfect. I challenge any director to name a time they’ve watched a piece of their work and not had a note for someone (that lighting cue was late, that actor is standing too far stage right, that scene change was a little clunky tonight, etc). But far from a cause for despair, this should be embraced as the reason we do what we do! Theatre is the ultimate live event; the joy comes from the fact that things can and will go wrong each night. And that’s fine! Because that is why we go to the theatre and that is why we make theatre.
This is especially obvious in theatre, but the principle applies in all walks of life. There is no point clinging to the perfect working method, the perfect product, the perfect process. Even if you think it is perfect to begin with, I guarantee it won’t be perfect next year. Instead of clinging to an ideal of perfection, let’s embrace the ever-changing and unpredictable nature of work and life. Perfect requires everything to be in our control and this is impossible. Instead, let’s embrace what we can control to continually strive for improvement.
No product or service is perfect, but we can always strive to make it better than before.