1. Set mini goals and benchmarks.Practice makes permanent. I know the best way to learn something new is to just do it all the time. That’s why the easiest way I like to measure my own progress is to set “mini goals” for myself, then look for ways to practice them. For instance, I might set this as a goal for myself: “I want to get better at extemporaneous speeches.” In that case, each week, I would look around and ask, “What can I do this week to get better at that goal?” I might notice that on Tuesday, I am kicking off an event at work, so maybe I’ll decide to use that as an opportunity to practice speaking on the fly. I might also notice that my husband and I are hosting people at our apartment on Saturday, so maybe I’ll commit myself to giving an impromptu toast / welcome at some point in the evening. That’s already two chances in a single week to get more exposure to the thing I want to get better at doing. While it’s unlikely that you’ll see noticeable progress in yourself on a week to week basis, focus on the thing you can control -- giving yourself exposure to it. From there on out, you can pay attention to other things that come next.
2. Do the same thing over and over. Look for micro-improvements.One of my favorite videos of progress is watching this skateboarding Christian Flores tell the story of how he attempted the same trick 2,000 times before nailing it. What’s interesting is -- even with no prior understanding of skateboarding, you can tell he’s getting a little bit better when his feet start to land on the board before he falls as opposed to missing it completely. That said, you can only get that granular in seeing your own progress if you do something enough times to find patterns. So look for an activity to repeat enough times to measure this in yourself. As a personal example, last year I went on a blogging spree where I committed to publishing something every day for four months. While it was actually pretty hard for me to answer the question, “Am I a better writer?” at the end of that, one of the biggest tells for me was when I came back to something I had written a year before. And it sucked. To me, that was a sign of progress. My first drafts are better than they used to be. For now, I’ll take it.
3. Keep an eye out for third-party observers.It’s always easier to watch someone else and gauge their process than to observe it in yourself. If I’m lucky, sometimes a third-party observer will share indications of progress with me. But this doesn’t happen nearly as often as I wish it would, and it’s rarely as direct as I would prefer. That said, here are a few examples of ways I’ve noticed people share this with me:
Direct: “Wow. That presentation really blew me away. You’ve come a long way since last year.”
Indirect: “Here’s an article I found that reminded me of one of the questions you asked in your presentation from the other day."
Observational: “I noticed you’ve been doing a lot more lately.” As with any piece of feedback, I try to treat it as a single input. But I do use these examples as indications of what things people around me pick up about my day-to-day habits. Whether I agree or not is a separate matter. Pro Tip: It’s incredibly rare to receive “direct” observational progress as shown in the first example. If you come across someone who actively shares an observation about your progress with you like that, you should keep them around. And if you’re looking for people who might help you in this way, try finding people you see only every few months or a couple of times a year. They’ll be the most likely to pick up on changes from one interaction to the next.
4. Pay attention to introductions.A question I sometimes ask myself is, “How would my colleagues or friends describe me in a reference to someone else?” Of course, it’s impossible to answer this question in a vacuum. Instead I try to pay attention to whatever subtle clues cross my path. Sometimes, I’ll get mini-indications of this in the way that people introduce me to colleagues in email or in networking situations. For example, there’s a big difference between these two intros:
“This is Bethany. We work together.”
“This is Bethany. She runs our portfolio network.” One may imply a sense of collaboration, teamwork, and camaraderie. The second tends more toward a sense of ownership, trust, and autonomy. While there’s no “correct” answer, understanding how different people introduce me can offer tiny clues of how I’m perceived more broadly. Pro Tip: If you find a lot of inconsistency in how people introduce you, maybe this means you need to crystallize your job or personal brand better. If you notice people inserting flattering adjectives in their introductions, take that as a very big compliment. And if you don’t like something about the way you’re introduced, ask yourself, “What behavior can I change to adjust this person’s perception of me?” Then go try that thing. Then listen again the next time and see if anything has changed. If you’re feeling bold, you can ask this question directly: “What would you say about me in a reference to someone else?” While it’s likely that people will only tell you nice things to your face, the trick with this is to listen to what they aren’t saying, then decide if there’s a growth area in there for you to work on.