Taking First Steps

A Zen koan says, Step by step in the dark, if my foot’s not wet, it found the stone.

We learn as we go. Still, it’s sometimes so hard to take the first step in a particular direction.

Today, I sat around for half the day thinking about what I should do. I fiddled with half-finished projects and put them back down. I watched some YouTube videos. I got on social media. I wondered about taking a hike. I considered meeting a friend for coffee. Maybe I should just take a nap or rake the leaves. Then I thought about starting a new project!

Instead, I spent four hours not doing squat. And perhaps I needed that. A mental health day of sorts.

But life can feel an awful lot like that at times, can’t it? Tending to on-going projects and wondering else what we could do. What do I want to do with my days?

I could start a workout routine.

I could start a business.

I could take my wife on a short vacation.

I could spend more time outside.

I could write a book.

I could change jobs.

I could quit smoking.

I could give my kids some new experience.

I could do so many things…

So many options. Yet we tend to stick with what we know. I know that I can make excuses for why I can’t do that new thing or how I don’t have the time or money. What’s keeping you from pulling the trigger on trying something new?

As they say, the first step is always the most difficult. It requires action to generate momentum.

Whatever it is you are waiting to do, here are three suggestions that can get you on the way.

Be Okay With Not Knowing

It is a common tendency to put off decisions until we have all the information in front of us that we think that we need. We want to know what our choices are. We are an options-oriented culture. And not just that: We also want to know all the facts so that we can make the best possible decision. And that’s great! Good decisions are the best, but have you ever encountered a situation where your quest for the right choice ends up being no choice at all because that single perfect choice cannot be discovered? Where you end up in an all-or-nothing game?

It sounds familiar to me. And I certainly hear it come up in coaching sessions and in conversation.

Edwin Friedman wrote a powerful book in 2007 called A Failure of Nerve and I devoured it. Even though it was a bit technical in parts, it was such an emotionally-compelling read because it helped me understand why I felt stuck and gave me confidence to take steps forward with less self-criticism. It taught me to act with courage and presence in the midst of anxiety. In many ways, the wisdom in this book is part of what dared me to move to Portland, Oregon and eventually start a winery even though I had no long-term experience in the wine industry. In the book, he suggests that we are addicted to data, to information. And he suggests that this addiction inevitably leads to more inaction than action. And that’s a problem.

The pursuit of data, in almost any field, has come to resemble a form of substance abuse, accompanied by all the usual problems of addiction: self-doubt, denial, temptation, relapse, and withdrawal. — Edwin H. Friedman

As you and I well know, the data we find this week may disprove the data from last week. The recommendation we were given by one friend is discounted by another. Encouragement from here; discouragement from there. Well shit, what should I do then? [sigh]

We can cut through the barrage of knowledge, take a deep breath and then take a step. We must be okay with not knowing. We must develop a sense of trust that we truly can learn as we go. We should gather enough data to make an intelligent decision. And then we have to say to ourselves, I have enough information right now to make up my own mind. We must take some small step into the great (or small) unknown.

You really don’t need to have all the answers to get on your way. Just show up, take a step, see what’s there, adjust and refine. We’re all in the dark, taking our own steps, so take heart.

We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down. — Kurt Vonnegut

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Set Arbitrary Deadlines

The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. — Amelia Earhart

I’ve mentioned before that it’s courageous and crucial to simply make decisions. That indecision is in fact a decision. Decision-making is one of the ways that we own our lives and exert our god-given will. I have found it useful to to create arbitrary check-in points to see how things are going. By arbitrary, I don’t mean entirely random. I just mean a reasonable timeframe that isn’t necessarily tied to some outcome.

When trying to add something new to our routine, we can feel like we either have to commit, put off or resist. We are told that every decision you make could change the rest of your life. And sure, sometimes that is true, especially for big decisions. But most improvements we seek to make are relatively small and non-destructive. So why not just try? Maybe it could really change the rest of your life.

When I signed up for a gym three months ago, I said I would give myself through the end of the year to see if it sticks. And if it didn’t, then I would cancel and not berate myself for it. I set for myself an arbitrary deadline. There was nothing that it corresponded to at the end of the year. But it was long enough for me to see if this could become part of my life.

In the same way, you may be considering starting a business. Well, why don’t you give yourself six weeks to come up with a business plan? Set a date on the calendar and see if that works. If you don’t complete the business plan by then, it’s a good time to check in and ask some questions:

Do I really want to do this?

What kept me from getting this business plan written?

Do I need to look for help from someone else?

And if you were able to accomplish the goal, then boom, you are on your way to the next step. These deadlines help ensure something will happen, either action or inaction. And from there, you can begin to assess values and priorities in your life. You may also learn that certain steps you thought would be difficult are easier than you imagined.

A goal is a dream with a deadline. — Napoleon Hill

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Trust Yourself

Okay, you have let go of that perceived need to have all the answers before you try. You have set an arbitrary deadline for your first step. Way to go! You’re more than half way there!

The next suggestion is something we must continually develop as we go. And that is to cultivate a deep sense of trust in yourself.

When I was in my thirties, I struggled with an inordinate amount of self-doubt. There’s no way I can do this. I am not smart enough to pull this off. I’m basically an imposter. Other people seem so much more competent than me. It was crushing. And these thoughts came to me every day, especially when I was dreaming about something big that I could do.

I had to train myself to trust myself.

There are all sorts of reasons that we don’t trust ourselves. Some originate in childhood, some come from failures along the way and others confront us in culture. On paper, America is an optimistic place, but in the fine print, we are perpetually reminded of our smallness and inadequacy. Personally, I’m done with that smallness! How was it even serving me? It was keeping me from taking steps toward the life I love.

So here are some ways to encourage trust in yourself:

1. Just Breathe

When you feel yourself being drawn into negative thoughts, take a deep breath and just let that thought pass on by. No need to judge it or force it out; just let it slide on out of view. Focussing on your breath can really help. And you can do this in just a few minutes.

Try Dr. Weil’s 4-7-8 technique:

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.

  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.

  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.

  • This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

This is a wonderfully quick disruption that gives the mind a soft reset. Try it out. I use it on the daily. And if you need a larger reset, take a short walk in silence, outside if you can. Allow your brain to return to its default mode so you can access more positive, pliable modes of thinking.

2. Practice Positive Self-talk

I immediately think of Stuart Smalley’s You’re good enough, you’re smart enough and doggone it, people like you. Ha! Positive self-talk can seem like a silly exercise, but you don’t have to do it like he did, sitting down in front of a mirror. And of course, you don’t have to say it out loud!

Positive self-talk is as simple as taking the negative thoughts that are in your mind at the time and flipping them. PROMPT: I can’t do this; I’m stupid. I’m so frustrated. RESPONSE: I can do this. I am a capable person and I have the time right now. I have solved problems like this before. I am going to get myself some coffee, take a few deep breaths and complete this because I am more than competent. I will feel great once this problem is solved because I will be able to get on to something else more pleasurable.

It may feel unnatural at first (there’s that inner critic!), but I find that with time, it becomes natural. Practice this all the time.

3. Visualize Success

When I have big events coming up or when I feel stuck in a big project, I will take five minutes to sit in a chair and imagine best possible future scenarios. The brain records this as real data, believe it or not! When we imagine ourselves accomplishing our goals and finishing our tasks, we set ourselves up for success because we are creating memories that get stored next to real memories. Sometimes, I simply imagine the outcome, how it will feel or look. Other times, I imagine a sort of step-by-step process, smiling as I do it. I got this!

You will find your own unique way to do this, so just try it out. And practicing visualization helps reinforce that positive self-talk in real-life situations.

4. Take Care of Yourself

It’s easy to get lost in a sea of self-doubt when we forget to take care of our own needs. Make sure you have enough relaxation and play in your life. Remember that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Stay hydrated, get enough sleep and try to eat healthy. Reward yourself. Look up more. Turn off your phone. Not as a discipline, but as a gift to yourself.

Consider keeping a gratitude journal that you write in each evening that records one or two experiences or realizations from that day that you are thankful for.

5. Stay Connected

Ensure that you are getting your needs met. Sometimes that will mean taking some time to yourself to get a coffee and wander in the forest. Sometimes, it will mean calling your friends up to grab a drink together or to invite them over for a backyard BBQ. Make those connections.

And ask for support!

Remember that none of us do this alone. We all need encouragement from friends and family. And sometimes, we actually need to ask for it.

The more you believed in yourself, the more you could trust yourself. The more you trust yourself, the less you compare yourself to others. — Roy T. Bennett

Step. By. Step. Becoming. Who. You. Are.

These suggestions are not in any particular order. They are just three ways to help you take your first steps. There is no complex algorithm for that. Each suggestion I laid out informs the other and the sum becomes greater than the parts.

I learned along the way that the path to success in life is often non-linear. It’s not a simple A + B = C formula. By making moves, fresh ideas emerge along the way that help inform my direction. Then I evaluate the new information / inspiration and see if it could be part of my path. Success is more often emergent, that is, it emerges from the process of thoughtful action and integration. And first steps initiate that emergent process.

We set ourselves in a direction, we take steps and we adjust and refine along the way. You don’t need to be an expert to take your first step. You just need to know enough to get started. Give the all-or-nothing loop a rest for a bit so that you can playfully explore what might be. Don’t feel like you have to over-commit to a goal; test it out with an arbitrary deadline. And always, always, always cultivate self-trust. I guarantee that you will see some beautiful things on the way.

Every single step, although I couldn't see it, was a step forward and built to where I am now. — Aldis Hodge