What is Progress?

Published by Bill on

I’ve often found myself frustrated at the way we define progress or success.

On the surface of it, the definition is pretty clear. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, progress is “movement to an improved or more developed state, or to a forward position”. But which way is forward? Given two states, how do we decide which is more developed than the other?

Given a starting point and a destination, the definition of progress feels fairly self-evident. If I am at home and I want to get to the office, then I make progress each time I move closer to my destination. Given the goal of being able to recognize 1,000 Chinese characters, then I have made progress if I recognize one new character. I have moved closer to my destination.

But, life isn’t like that. Life isn’t a journey from A to B, at least mine has never felt like that. Given where I am today, I could take any number of directions. But without a destination or goal in mind, how do I know if I’m making progress or not?

If we zoom out a little, life starts to feel somewhat more chaotic. Have I made progress or not? I suppose a somewhat more morbid interpretation could be that whatever I do today, I’ve moved somewhat closer to the inevitable end. I’ve made progress. But this isn’t how most of us judge ourselves.

Our interpretation of progress is heavily influenced by the expectations of society. Bigger? Faster? More? If the number goes up, then we are successful. Some examples closer to home include:

  • Companies that don’t demonstrate growth aren’t seen as successful. You can run a business for 10 years, pay yourself and others a healthy salary, and yet, because the business isn’t growing, you are not making progress.
  • You can work hard, be a valued member of a team, and yet, because you aren’t moving up through the ranks of an organization, be seen as making no progress in your career.
  • You can play an instrument, enjoy it, and entertain others. Yet, because you aren’t achieving higher grades in exams, you aren’t recognized as making any progress.

Why do we let the expectations of others define how we measure progress? Why does society get to determine the destinations we should be aiming for? Are more money, higher grades, a bigger team really the measures we want to judge ourselves against? What happens when our own measures of progress clash with these societal norms? Individuals who measure themselves differently will inevitably face self-doubt, and self-doubt is exhausting. Is it possible to maintain your own measures of progress in the face of a society that judges things differently.

Perhaps I have got this all wrong?

“Why are we so obsessed with progress anyway? The environment is always dynamically changing, it is just neither practical or sustainable to always expect things to get better.”
43, Winnie Lim

Winnie is right. I have been asking myself the wrong question all along. Instead of looking at how we measure progress, perhaps I should be asking why we are obsessed with it at all.