The Two Types of Toughness Required for Success
You can either experience baby steps as insulting frustrations or as small, precious achievements.
Change “means setting small, reasonable goals for yourself, one step at a time, one day at a time,” writes Dr. Leo M. Marvin in his book Baby Steps: A Guide to Living Life One Step at a Time.
Spoiler: Dr. Leo M. Marvin isn’t real. Bill Murray fans might recognize the name of the villainous psychiatrist, played by Richard Dreyfuss, from the 1991 film What About Bob? Though the fictional doctor’s advice is, in reality, spot-on, it’s telling that the movie delivered it through such a condescending and uncaring character.
In concept and in practice, small steps can feel inherently insulting, like serial jabs about our ineptitude. They’re also tedious. It’s easy to lose motivation when you’re faced with the slog of incremental change instead of a single, triumphant leap to success.
My friend Ann’s most recent attempt to learn Spanish is a great example of the trouble with baby steps. “I feel like I can read a bit and say words,” she told me over coffee. “But when I hear the language spoken, I have no idea what is being said. I feel like that’s my own stupidity.”
Her response? “Basically: QUIT!” she said. “I think I’m never going to get this. I think, ‘Maybe I’m just stupid in this area, or it’s not my thing. So why should I bother?’ I mean, if I keep going, it’s just going to mean more reminders of how stupid I am.”
Before Ann are two choices: Live happily in the thought bubble of “someday I’ll learn Spanish” or deal with the painful experience of feeling incompetent by actually trying to take the steps to reach her goal, thus seeing how far she is from what she wants and getting disappointed. Facing these two choices, the protective part of her wins out. It’s paradoxical: Ann feels happier about her goal when she’s not actually pursuing it.
Hope is a scary risk
Each hope contains the risk of disappointment. The higher your hope for a better future, the greater potential for a possible fall into disappointment. Not only do small steps raise your anxiety about future disappointments, but they are also a kind of mini-disappointment in the present. Like a tired child strapped in the back seat, you repeatedly ask, “Are we there yet?” and inevitably you hear the disappointing, “No!”
Big changes require incremental steps. These baby steps, in turn, require two kinds of toughness: The toughness needed to persevere through the hard work that these steps demand, and the toughness it takes to accept the humility of the process.
How long can you bear feeling you lack something? It’s a battle between repeated reminders that you haven’t finished acquiring something versus your need to keep your head up, all while remaining hopeful and full of faith. And that’s just the point.
Personal change is not about having one lovely nirvanalike moment of self-acceptance. It’s about accepting yourself where you are — and accepting the fact that, right where you are, you lack something you believe will improve you — over and over and over again. In other words, it’s about embracing humility and, uncomfortably, hope, over the long haul.
The craft of personal change
John Coltrane, the great jazz saxophonist and the composer of the groundbreaking Giant Steps, knew the intrinsic importance of the small, precise, well-scaled walk toward a goal. There are various accounts of how much he practiced each day, but everyone agrees that he was obsessive about it. He was rarely seen around the house without his sax hanging around his neck by its strap. One day, his wife, noticing that his practicing had stopped rather abruptly, went searching for him to find Coltrane asleep on the couch with the sax still in his mouth.
The artists who truly bring something new into the world are the ones who are so ambitious that they’re able to put aside their egos in order to hone their craft. Humility, for them, is intrinsic to success. Ironically, one needs a healthy ego in order to be humble enough to take small steps. Small steps require that you delay the gratification of feeling you’ve arrived at your goal. They are a test to your wish for self-completion.
Each step is both a reminder of how far you have to go, and is a step higher from which you can more deeply fail. If you find small steps difficult because of your fear of hope, you miss out on the motivating rewards that even small steps have to offer.
Baby steps are motivational fuel
Achieving small steps not only gets you incrementally to your goal but also provides the motivation you need to get there. If you were to skip a day of your exercise routine, for instance, that one lost day wouldn’t really change much when it comes to your fitness goals. But skipping one day might result in you losing motivation. By skipping one day, you miss out on the motiving energy of each small step.
All You Need Are a Few Small Wins Every Day
There’s no magical process for creating something of magnitude
The cardinal rule of incremental change is that your approach to small steps will make or break your motivation. Will you see each step as an insult or as a modest challenge worth achieving? How you answer that question decides the fate of your larger goal.
An inability to humbly look at the small steps in front of you can have profoundly negative implications regarding your ability to move forward. When you leave the humility zone — as Ann did with her Spanish lessons — you lose the opportunity to let incremental change raise your aspirations and fuel your motivation.
You can either experience baby steps as insulting frustrations or as small, precious achievements. You can’t move forward if you can’t find the humility to experience them in the latter way, and you’ll also stay the same if you experience them as shameful reminders of your failure. It’s a paradox that requires you to take a chance on feeling hopeful, which is what you’ll need for the long journey ahead.