How Gratitude Can Help Your Career

I was opening the mail (the real mail, the one delivered by an actual, live person) and between the bills and solicitations, was a single letter, addressed to me, in sloppy — but recognizable — handwriting.

Recognizable because the handwriting was mine.

At first, I didn’t recall sending myself any mail. I opened the letter and began to read. And then I remembered. This was a letter from past Peter to future Peter. At the Bregman Leadership Intensive, participants write a letter to themselves that we send to them months later. This time, I had participated and written one to myself.

My letter included reflection, assessment, and new commitments. What am I grateful for? Where can I improve?

As I read through it, I couldn’t help but laugh. It all sounded so familiar. Not just because I had written it, but because I had written it so many times before. I found my file of previous letters, some years apart, and read through them. They were all, essentially, the same.

Which, for the things I am grateful for, is fine. But what about my new commitments? Why can’t I get real traction on them?

As I reflected on this question, and sat with all my letters, I began to see something that had eluded me before, a relationship between what I’m grateful for and what I want to change that represented a way out of my fruitless cycle of failed self-improvement.

When I ask myself “where can I improve?” my list usually comes from my shortcomings, things I don’t like about myself. For example, I can talk too much, waste time, move too fast (sometimes even multitasking … I know, I know), and focus on low priority things.

So, when I think about what I can improve, I just reverse that list: I should talk less, be more productive, move slower, focus on high priority things.

Trying to fix my shortcomings is familiar. And, with concerted effort, it usually works … for a day or two. But, very quickly, I revert to old behaviors.

We almost always revert to old behaviors.

Which got me thinking. What if reverting to old behaviors is the goal? I know I can achieve that — it’s what I do anyway.

The key is being deliberate about which old behaviors to revert to. That’s where the question, “What am I grateful for?” comes in.

The things I am grateful for are, by definition, already a part of my life. I am grateful for the undistracted time I spend with my family. For the sense of presence and focus I feel when I am writing. For the times when I really sink in to listen to another, without any need to fix them or the situation they’re in. For the clarity I have come to in the past year about what’s important to me and to my business — and the time I spend in those areas of focus.

In other words, those things I want to improve on? I’m already doing them. Those are, actually, old behaviors. Habits, even.

When I really sink in to listen to another, without any need to fix them or the situation they’re in, I am talking less. When I am present and focused while writing, I am moving more slowly, more deliberately. When I experience undistracted time with my family,

I don’t feel like I am wasting a minute. When I spend time on my areas of focus, I am settling into my highest priority items.

In this context, the path to improvement may not be effortless, but it should be familiar. And just knowing that can make a difference.

Consider the ways in which you want to improve. How do they relate to the things for which you feel grateful? I am willing to bet that, at least in some areas, the things for which you are grateful mirror the things you want to improve.

Which means that your path to improvement is hidden in your pleasure, not your discontent.

You are most probably already living your life in a way that you aspire to. Not all the time, but some of the time. You are not moving from nothing to something, you are moving from something to something more. The improvement gap is about consistency more than anything else.

Who are you in those moments when you are grateful? How do you show up? What are you doing? How are you behaving with yourself and others? Go back to those moments of gratitude and bring them into your present.

Reminding yourself of what you have already done in the past is a much more reliable way of shifting your behavior — much more believable, reasonable, doable, repeatable, sustainable — than starting a whole new behavior in the future.

You’re remembering, not inventing. You are already the person you aspire to be.

Originally published on Harvard Business Review.


  1. Alistair says:

    Great one Peter, its so counter intuitive, but we need to wake up to the fact that beating ourself up on one more failure sure isn’t making us better.

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