The Japanese have a concept I love: Kaizen. While it can translate to “Improvement” it means much more than this. A more useful interpretation might be, “Continual Improvement,” or even the admittedly bit much, “Continual, ongoing, gradual improvement.”
When it comes to achieving goals or developing new or better habits we too often judge ourselves by how far we still have to go, while downplaying or even dismissing how far we’ve come.
Say our goal is to lose thirty pounds. We step on the scale, and sigh, “I only lost one pound? That sucks.” We fail to see that one pound for what it is: Real progress. A win (If you doubt that then open your fridge and take a look at a one pound tub of butter).
This is foolish. It’s lends itself to unrealistic expectations. It also tends to become an excuse to give up. “I’m not making progress fast enough, so fuckit.”
That’s why we need Kaizen. Master Kaizen.
Enter Master Kaizen
Say . . .
You haven’t written anything in months, so you set the goal to write five hundred words a day on your manuscript, five days a week. At the end of the week you count up your words and discover that you “only” averaged three-hundred words a day.
“I failed,” you moan like a whiny bitch.
That’s when Master Kaizen kicks in the door, swoops in and says, “Three-hundred good. Next week, four-hundred. Better.”
Then he does a back-flip, leaps out the window, and disappears into the shadows. A single tear falls from your eye as you whisper into the night: “Thank you, Master Kaizen. God speed.”
Or . . .
Say your goal is to draw a comic. All you see are the lines that don’t work. The mis-proportioned limb here, the clumsy cross-hatching there. “Amateurish!” you scold yourself.
Suddenly Master Kaizen leaps out from under your desk, dramatically flips open your art pad, points to a drawing from two weeks ago and grunts, “Worse!”
It takes a moment but the message sinks in. Yes, you may still have a ways to go, but you are improving. Before you can thank him for helping you understand, Master Kaizen throws a smoke bomb to the floor, and in a flash he vanishes.
But not really. He just crawled back under your desk. You can see his robe thingy peaking out, for fuck sake. Now it’s all awkward, because you have to pretend you don’t see him hiding there. But you just push it out of your mind and get back to drawing.
Why Master Kaizen seems to be a borderline racist Asian stereotype is an eternal mystery. It’s best not to think too much about that, and instead focus on how awesome and helpful he is.
Master Kaizen works especially well with habit-oriented goals, things you track daily or weekly like pounds lost, words written, cigarettes (not) smoked, beer (not) downed, push-ups pushed up.
But he can work with finite goals too. If, for example, your goal is to get a better job, Master Kaizen asks if you took any steps today, or this week, to bring yourself closer to the target. If you planned to create a new resume, update your LinkedIn profile, and post on Jobs.com but only accomplished one of those, Master Kaizen sees this as progresses.
Then he reminds you to strive for even greater progress tomorrow.
For Master Kaizen it’s not about how far you’ve still got to go, so much as about how far you’ve already come. He is no pushover, but he is patient. He knows the goal isn’t going anywhere and so long as YOU keep moving forward, you’ll get there.
So, keep moving forward, day by day. If you do, the day will come when Master Kaizen slowly nods his wizened head and with a sage smile says, “The student has now become the master.”
Before throwing another of his damn smoke bombs.
And hiding under your desk.