The meaning of progress
The word ‘progress’ comes from the old French word progres which started to be used in the 16th century and which was on the Latin word progressus (an advance) which comes from the verb progredi (to go forward, advance, proceed), which, in turn, consists of the parts pro (forth, before) and gradi (to walk, go). In general usage, the word progress now has come to mean improvement, advance, betterment, growth, development.
While usually ‘progress’ is used to refer to something getting better, there are a few exceptions to this. Firstly, it is sometimes used in the sense of journey made by some important person. Secondly, it can be used to describe the increase in scope or severity of (for instance) a disease. Thirdly, it may have a specific political connotation, when used as an adjective (progressive). In that sense it may either be used in a more or less neutral sense as in ‘policies aimed at improving conditions for the people or refer to liberal or left wing policies aimed for instance at social or fiscal reform.
Let’s get back to the main use of the word ‘progress’ (advance, betterment, improvement). It can be used on widely differing aggregation levels. For instance, it may refer to an individual making a small movement to a person goal but also to a society in which, for instance, crime rates have gone down. Also, progress may refer to widely differing time scales. For example, it can refer to a conversation in which a de-escalation happens by someone saying something nice. But it may also refer to a very gradual betterment of society or civilization such as the gradual decline of violence which has taken place over thousands of years. Also, progress may refer to a wide range of objects. If progress is about ‘things’ getting better, what are those things? I suggest that progress may be 1) personal (feeling better, having more knowledge, having more rational thoughts, more productive habits, skills, deliberate behaviors, etc.), 2) social (agreements, cooperation, relationships, etc.), 3) outcome-related (higher grades, winning a prize, increased sales, market share, or profit, increased customer loyalty, reduced time to market, etc.) and 4) structural (working environment, laws, social arrangements, etc.).
In their book The progress principle, Theresa Amabile and Steven Kramer mention the useful concept of meaningful progress. They say that making progress is the most powerful motivator people may experience in work but only when the progress in question is personally meaningful to the person doing it. What matters, according to Amabile and Kramer, is whether you perceive your work as contributing whatever, or whomever, is important to you. So while increased sales of a certain product can be seen as progress, it will only be meaningful progress and thus have a positive motivational impact on sales people when they, to some extent, believe in or are enthusiastic for the product because they see the product as contributing to something they value. The concept of meaningful progress seems to be in agreement with self-concordance theory (see here and here) and with the concept of fit of goals (which is mentioned here).
It may also be useful to distinguish personal progress from mutual progress. While individual progress may be meaningful to the person, it may, in some cases, be harmful to others. For instance, a burglar may find a more efficient way of breaking into houses enabling him to get more money for himself and his family. In this sense one could speak of meaningful progress. But at the same this ‘progress’ would hurt other people and would imply regress for them. Especially valuable is the kind of progress which is mutual. With mutual progress both parties benefit. Most trade transactions are examples, to some extent, of mutual progress because generally both parties benefit (more about this). When practices of mutual progress become habits and are prolonged and institutionalized large scale collective progress may happen.
I propose that behavior should play a critical role in establishing progress. I suggest that the best way to making progress happen and to monitor it is focus on behavioral progress. While it is commonly assumed that only situational factors (events, opportunities, resources, rules, etc.) and personal factors (talents, capabilities, skills, thoughts, beliefs, etc.) cause behavior this is not so. One factor causing behavior is commonly underestimated and that is behavior itself. More than 2000 years ago, Aristotle was among the first people to recognize this. He said: “Whatever we learn to do, we learn by actually doing it: men come to be builders, for instance, by building, and harp players by playing the harp. In the same way by doing just acts we come to be just; by doing self-controlled acts, we come to be self-controlled; and by doing brave acts, we come to be brave.” About a century ago, William James, one of the founding fathers of the psychology discipline picked this theme up and elaborated on it. He said: “If you want to have a quality, act as if you already have it.” James hypothesized that the way we act influences and determines the way we feel and think of ourselves, what we believe and how we will behave in the future.
In a new book, Rip it up, Richard Wiseman shows how William James’ hypothesis (which Wiseman calls the As if principle) has been tested and confirmed in many experiments. A first implication of the As if principle is that, if you have some idea about how you would like to be able to act, an easy way to start accomplishing that is to start acting that way, even if in the smallest way. A second implication is that if you want to get people to behave in a certain desired way, an easy way is to nudge them to start behaving in that way, again, even in the smallest possible way. Also, direct your feedback to aspects of their behavior which are already in line with the desired behavior. A third implication is the following: if people do not have a goal or purpose, if they do not have an idea of how they would like their situation or life to become, a good way to begin developing those things is to ask them about their future desired behavior, for instance through questions like: 1) what would you like to be able to do?, 2) if things will have improved for your what will you be able to do?, 3) when things will have become better, how will other people see you behave, what will they see you do?, 4) what are you already doing that you works and that you would like to expand or amplify?, 5) when have you, in the past, done things that have helped? How can this be used to take a step forward?
What do you think?