Being good at what you do

Samuel SmilesImage via Wikipedia

It may be of comparatively little consequence how a man is governed from without, whilst everything depends upon how he governs himself from within. The greatest slave is not he who is ruled by a despot, great though that evil be, but he who is the thrall of his own moral ignorance, selfishness, and vice.

Samuel Smiles Self-help 1859

I recently came across what must be one of the first ever self improvement books. Self-help by Samuel Smiles was first published in England in 1859, but was widely translated and sold in thousands worldwide.The book largely chronicles the lives of remarkable people, making much of how ordinary they were at birth. They achieved great things through perseverance and dedication, toiling away through hardship and unremitting hard work.

For example, after about sixteen years labor during which he burnt his furniture to keep his furnaces going! – Bernard Palissy managed to create enameled pottery.

These sixteen years had been his term of apprenticeship to the art; during which he had wholly to teach himself, beginning at the very beginning … But he never rested satisfied with what he had accomplished. He proceeded from one step of improvement to another; always aiming at the greatest perfection possible.

Orison SwettMardenImage via Wikipedia
Still in the nineteenth century, Orison Swett Marden founded Success magazine in the USA. He also wrote “Pushing to the Front”, published the year after the stock crashes and general panic and despondency of 1893. According to W.Clement Stone, Pushing to the Front was instrumental in

changing the attitude of an entire nation from negative to positive. And that influence was felt throughout the world. He demonstrated that a burning desire can generate the drive to desirable action that is imperative for great achievement

Orison Swett Marden, like Samuel Smiles, was big on character – to him the cornerstone in building and maintaining success. He felt building a “noble life”, being of true integrity and “well rounded” character counted for more that a ruthless pursuit of money. To him someone who sacrificed everything (family, reputation, health) to make millions was an utter failure.

“The golden opportunity you are seeking is in yourself. It is not in your environment; it is not in luck or chance, or the help of others; it is in yourself alone.”

Times have changed – certainly Samuel Smiles would be shocked that women have the vote, let alone lead remarkable lives! But are their messages still relevant?

Brian Tracy, perhaps a modern day equivalent of Marden and Smiles, uses similar arguments to them when talking about self esteem. A simple definition of self esteem being how much you like yourself. If you like yourself, if you are emotionally in a positive state about you, then it follows you are going to be more efficient in your work. Equally if you start with doing your work well, you like yourself for doing so.

That may sound simplistic, but look at it another way. If you direct your energies at doing a good job, working really well, doing the best you can – how do you feel afterwards? Don’t forget, the quality of the work you do is something that should be within your control. Knowing you have done something well, whatever else is going on and whatever others are saying, should give you a positive self image.

So you can focus on just getting good at what you do, and getting better at what you do and your self esteem goes up and your image improves. You have more energy. You feel happier with yourself. The more you like yourself, the better you do, and then the better you do the more you like yourself, and you get on an upward spiral of life and the two go hand in hand. Brian Tracy

Tracy reiterates, you cannot be in a downward and upward spiral at the same time. Its hard to like yourself unless you know you are pretty good at the work you do, have some sense of pride in its completion. And you cannot be really good at the work you do unless you like or respect yourself.

No one who was successful or respected or esteemed was not good at their job.

So – work hard and get good at what you do?

brainmenu May 1, 2008 at 8:01 am

Interesting post and it was good to read about some of the history of self-improvement.

Maybe I got the wrong end of the stick but the Brian Tracey concept of work hard = feel good seems like a very simplistic view of self-esteem.

There are many people (perfectionists, depressed, low self-esteem) like myself, who work incredibly hard and are very good at what they do but it isn’t enough.

For me, doing good and even being rewarded for being good can actually make me feel guilty and even worse about myself. It would be nice to think I was the odd one out but the huge number of books and web sites for people like me seems to suggest the problem is widespread.

David May 1, 2008 at 11:29 pm

Kim. Thanks for your informative comment. I think Brian Tracey’s point assumes that whoever is doing a good job is also mentally accepting that they have done so.
I agree with you, if your critical self talk undermines whatever you have done then it won’t help your self esteem. If you’re a perfectionist who can always find fault with what he has done, the same applies.
The simple answer, then, is to look at ways of challenging your thinking – but I appreciate its not as easy to do in practice. David

David’s last blog post..Being good at what you do

Jenna May 2, 2008 at 2:41 pm

Great post : ]

I love the quote “The golden opportunity you are seeking is in yourself.”

Thanks for sharing!

Jenna’s last blog post..In Search of the Truth

NJ Website Designer May 7, 2008 at 3:20 pm

It seems true enough to me that at least feeling like you are good at whatever you do for a living has a lot to do with your overall self esteem.

The first thing that comes to mind as I consider this topic is how we get to know new people. We find out one another’s name, where they live, and soon thereafter, what they “do.”

I might do a lot of things, like struggle with a flower garden or anticipate a peaceful night out with the wife while somebody watches the kids, but when somebody asks what I do, they’re looking for “web design.”

Our occupation has a lot to do with how people think of us.

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