“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle
Frankly, I dislike terms such as “bad” and “failure” when discussing efforts to improve. They tend to be self-defeating. That said, here’s the basic premise of this book: To improve at being or doing whatever, it is necessary to be “bad” during the process of becoming better.
As Erika Andersen explains, “we have to learn to be okay with being continuously uncomfortable in a way that no one in a previous generation has had to do…we have to learn to be ‘comfortable with being uncomfortable’…What I’ll be doing with you here is supporting you in building a few key habits of mind and action — mental skills that will allow you to acquire new capabilities quickly and continuously. This is an essential ability in our world.” I agree.
Time Out. I cannot recall a prior time in my life when a larger percentage of the people I know had more “crutches” than they do now. Self-justifications fill the air like arrows at Agincourt. So many people refuse to take ownership of the consequences of their decisions. Personal accountability is as rare as a unicorn. Let’s be crystal clear: What Andersen recommends will require patience as well as persistence, focus as well as mindfulness, and courage as well as passion. Her mission in life is to help as many people as she can to become the best person each can be. Oscar Wilde advises, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” Andersen takes it a step further: “Be the very best person you can be and never stop improving yourself. Never. And I’ll help you do that. That’s why I wrote this book.”
These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Andersen’s coverage in Chapters 1-5:
o Why Being Bad First Is So Essential (Pages 4-8)
o Three Generations: As Change Accelerates (8-11)
o But Not Knowing Things Feels So…Bad (13-16)
o Mastery Makes Us Feel Good, and, Mastery and Survival (19-21)
o Another Lucky Break (21-24)
o Aspiration (35-38)
o Neutral Self-Awareness (38-41)
o Endless Curiosity (41-43)
o Completely Within Your Control, and, First, Some Self-Assessment (46-49)
o So: We Do What We Want Most (54-56)
o How Aspiration Looks (57-58)
o Imagining a Possible World (61-66)
o Why [Improvement] Matters (69-70)
o How Neutral Self-Awareness Looks (71-74)
o Managing Your Self-Talk (74-78)
o Becoming Your Own Fair Witness 79-82)
o The Power of a Mirror (84-85)
o Setting the Stage for Honesty (86-90)
The book’s subtitle refers to getting good at things FAST and staying ready for the future. I think that claim is overcooked. Improvement in some areas requires more time and attention than it does in other areas. Becoming a much better listener, for example, or earning an introverted colleague’s trust. Keep in mind this sound advice from ancient Rome: festina lente. When appropriate, “make haste slowly.” The point is, getting better is — or at least should be — a never-ending process, not an ultimate destination. As for “staying ready for the future,” Peter Drucker insists that much of it is already here and William Gibson agrees, adding that “it’s just not evenly distributed.” Whatever awaits, it seems prudent to prepare for the most likely contingencies.
Andersen is a world-class expert on personal growth and personal development. The information, insights, and counsel she provides in this volume have been gained from hundreds (if not thousands) of her personal as well as professional relationships. With all due respect to the potential value of the material in the book, however, it is essentially worthless unless and until readers apply it effectively in their lives. So I urge each of those who read my brief commentary to embrace this opportunity to embark with Andersen on a journey of personal discovery. Establish with her help the routines and habits on which success (however defined) depends. I presume to add that a best effort — obviously — offers no guarantee of achieving success. That said…
Here’s what Helen Keller suggests: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” I say go for it. With Erika Andersen, you will have splendid company.
Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.