How to be Successful: Kaizen

The Vetducator - Kaizen kanji.

I spent a tremendous amount of time preparing for my interview for a department chair position.  My talk was about the psychology of motivation, as I believe that is a core principle to understand when leading people. I focused on Self-Determination Theory, which states that people are internally motivated by autonomy, competence, and relatedness with others.  When discussing the competence domain, I wanted to try and express a concept I had been living my whole life, manifested most obviously in my martial arts training.

When you begin training in martial arts, regardless of your age or athleticism, you begin as a white belt.  No matter what talents you bring to martial arts, you start at the beginning because you don’t know about about this specific skill.  As you learn, you progress through clearly delineated ranks. Do this skill correctly, then earn this rank. It makes skill progression visible and tangible.

I have been training in martial arts since I was 12, so this process was largely invisible to me- it was just a way of life.  OBVIOUSLY, if you practice more, you get better at the skill. That is what a growth mindset gets you. But, to get really good, you need to not only train.  You need to identify what you need to improve, work on improving it, then evaluate your performance and improvement. This can be conceptualized in the plan-do-act-check cycle, which is a component of Kaizen.

Kaizen means “good improvement” and describes a cycle of continuous improvement.  The Toyota Corporation was an early adopter of Kaizen, and the principle became more widespread and accepted in the past few decades.  Although originally used in industrial processes, the principle can be applied to any human pursuit. Applying Kaizen speaks to the competence domain of Self-Determination: you get better at something, which increases your competence, which makes you want to do it more.

What can you do to continue to improve in life?  Here are some suggestions:

1) Learn a skill.  “I’m already learning a skill, Vetducator- how to be a vet! (or a better vet)”  Yes, but you can learn other skills, too. I prefer movement-related ones like dancing and martial arts, but maybe you like learning coding, or home repair/maintenance, or cat training.  This is valuable because you never know when learning something new will help you in another area, it keeps your mind sharp, and it keeps you in the HABIT of learning new things.  Find something FUN to learn.

2) Read a book.  “I am reading so many books already for school, Vetducator!”  Yes, but you need to develop non-veterinary skills and knowledge, too.  I prefer non-fiction books for this development, but fiction books can expand your vocabulary and provide other improvements.  I have been on a recent kick reading books about teaching, so I get to expand my knowledge of teaching.

3) Practice social skills.  If you’re already an adroit, socially-competent person, you can skip this.  For the other 99% of us, you can ALWAYS practice interacting better with other humans.  And I don’t mean acting more extroverted, bouncy, and outgoing. Maybe your focus is you need to listen more, maybe you need to think about treating people with more respect, maybe you want to smile more.  I think everyone can improve on this.

4) Diet and exercise.  This is a common trope today, but it is nonetheless useful.  Don’t know how to cook a vegetarian meal? Practice. Not good at making bread?  Practice. Can only do one pull up? Practice. Keep getting better, even if it is incremental.

This principle applies to being a better student/intern/resident/faculty member because you want to be the best one of those you can be.  The ‘best’ will look different depending on the individual, but the principle is to be constantly improving. You don’t need to push yourself every single day (unless you enjoy that!).  But you should always be looking at how you can improve. Don’t just tread water. If you want to be successful, if you want to be a +1, you need continuous improvement.

If you want to get better, it’s not enough to just want it and hope it comes to you.  You need to make efforts and you will achieve. Don’t stop.

1 thought on “How to be Successful: Kaizen

  1. Pingback: The How to be Successful Series | The Vetducator

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