by Phoebe Atkinson

Heidi Grant Halvorson is the author of the most popular blog post in the history of the Harvard Business Review: “Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.” It’s easy to understand how this post racked up readers, as it is chock full of evidence-based practical application for goal setting.

Revisiting Halvorson’s research on the science of motivation and goal setting is timely, as we start our year-end reflections and focus on planting new seeds for 2020. And, as we begin our time with a new mentoring cohort of WBI Positive Psychology Coaches, one of her strategies particularly stands out for me: Focus on getting better, rather than being good.

In her post (which inspired her book of the same name), Halvorson—who was mentored by Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success—writes, “Decades of research suggest that the belief in fixed ability is completely wrong—abilities of all kinds are profoundly malleable. Embracing the fact that you can change will allow you to make better choices, and reach your fullest potential. People whose goals are about getting better, rather than being good, take difficulty in stride, and appreciate the journey as much as the destination.”

Here Halvorson emphasizes that the “getting better” mindset is a process that can be implemented into all areas of life. Studies show how this mindset correlates to improved quality of work and happiness levels in both personal and professional development. When we frame growth using this kind of mindset, we find two different orientations: improving vs. proving. Halvorson suggests that when we approach life with a “being good” mindset, we are constantly trying to prove ourselves, whereas the “getting better” mindset is more about enjoying the process of learning.

Research reveals that those who adopt a “getting better” mindset are more engaged and perform much better, because they’re motivated to pursue intrinsic goals. Intrinsic motivation is related to Halvorson’s #1 strategy: creating specific goals that satisfy the three basic human needs: relatedness, competency, and autonomy, as conceptualized by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in their Self-Determination Theory. Research also shows that those with the “getting better” mindset are more likely to persist through setbacks, actively cope to overcome obstacles, and have more committed relationships.

This strategy, along with the other eight, is extremely relevant to the practice of coaching and especially to working with developing coaches; we’ll revisit them all throughout the progress of our mentoring course. Coaches would be well served to work with her books as they become more fluent in the science of goal setting and motivation. The author charges her readers to consistently ask themselves: Am I getting better? Am I learning?, and encourages them to compare themselves to their own progress rather than comparing themselves to other people’s success (which is more related to extrinsic motivation). Her nine strategies weave together, creating a recipe for resilience and success as she explains how to harness the machinery of the brain and set challenging goals, while growing confidence and increased capacity for self-control and goal attainment.

Halvorson admits that following her own strategies isn’t always easy. Sometimes even she has to remind herself to pause and ask herself, How can I think about this using a “getting better” mindset, and what can I learn from this? Give it a try!

Find out about WBI’s Positive Psychology Coaching Certification.

Phoebe Atkinson

Phoebe Atkinson, LCSW-R, faculty member for the Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology, is certified as a trainer, educator, and practitioner by the American Board of Examiners in psychodrama, sociometry, and group psychotherapy. She is licensed in New York State as a clinical social worker and is a board-certified coach. Phoebe has been an executive coach with the Executive Leadership Program at Rutgers Institute for Women’s Leadership for more than a decade. As a trainer, she is known for her warmth, clarity, and capacity to design and facilitate interactive learning environments. Find out about Phoebe’s upcoming Coaching in Action workshops.