A friend of mine recently moved to Tampa from Poland. He has been stressing out about returning to the US, especially a place as unfamiliar to him, a mountain boy, as raucously suburban Florida. He has lamented how he has gained weight, how he is uncertain in his new job, and how he has been frustrated dodging hurricanes and trying to find the right apartment to live in. We have been friends like brothers for more than a decade now, and shared darkest moments and greatest triumphs across the internet while traveling around the globe a dozen times between us, at least by air miles. But one thing that he seems to struggle with is just getting started on things.
In the office, from his accounts, he is gung-ho about getting the job done and making success for himself where there does not even seem to be any clear path to it. But outside of the office, he feels trapped a lot – held back from going to the gym, held back from travelling alone, held back from pursuing any kinds of goals or happiness that does not line up quite right with what he hopes for.
In that regard, I have fallen into that frustrating place myself quite a bit. But as I have gained life experience, what I have found is that a lot of pursuing success outside of your job hinges on taking some terrifying and intimidating first steps. That, and a lot of self-deception. A perfect example, and the eponymous one of this entry’s title, is the way that I get myself to go to the gym or go for a run. I may have a grand plan to work out, but my procrastinating instinct is far stronger than any dream of getting “swoll” or knocking out miles out on the trail. What I have to do, I find, is to change clothes into running shorts and a T-shirt, and just crossing that much smaller threshold is sufficient to kick off the rest of the event of exercising. I lie to my “bigger thought process” that I am merely changing clothes, not having to face the prospect of thinking about how much it is going to hurt pushing iron or pounding pavement.
Clearly the simple act of changing clothes is not going to work as a panacea for everybody’s inaction towards exercise or even going for a walk outside. I do, however, think that there is a deeper principle in action there. It is not a perfect metaphor, but the chemical process of catalysis involves a similar “cheat code.” Many chemical reactions require a large amount of initiating energy to kick off, but a proper catalyst can lower the amount of initial energy required for the magic to happen. In my experience, this is the same way that self-deception works – you use a trick like changing clothes, or stepping through a doorway, or going to the car, etc to bring you closer to initiating a larger task. The task itself will use the same amount of energy, time, emotional commitment, concentration, or whatever asset you have to bring to bear. But with that catalyst, you overcome the daunting prospect of leaving your current, known, comfortable state.
This is not a new phenomenon in any way. Maxims from “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” to “from a tiny acorn grows the mighty oak” helpfully remind us that it takes a small movement or starting point to reach a great goal or grow and thrive in our lives. What I suggest in this blog entry is to take those wonderful sayings and make them concrete. Do not get hung up on “visualizing success” or planning everything in detail in advance – if that has never led you to succeed before, then dashing your hopes against the rocks of certain failure is not about to erode them away on any useful time scale. If you, like me, get caught up in overthinking tasks and even things as notionally simple as going out and dealing with a busy, crowded place full of people you do not know, you can practice at first steps.
This idea is somewhat lampooned, and yet somewhat promoted as a serious concept in the Bill Murray comedy What About Bob?, with the scenes about “baby steps.” I think the principle is very useful, and one that people tend to forget when they read blogs, articles, and so on that purport to offer a strategy for the chronically frustrated, heavily-analytical sort of person who might read it. They advocate detailed planning, repeated completion, and other sorts of suggestions that offer little advantage to get past inertia or action paralysis. What works for those already gifted with motivation and high self-confidence, people whose “reaction profiles” require low energy for initiation (to return to catalysis) is not going to offer a solution to someone who can visualize the worst case scenarios as readily and in as much detail as any success conditions.
What I have found for both myself and my chronically frustrated friend is that once he or I finds that catalyst, that little cheat code or ritual shorn from the larger, harder concept, we both end up reaching our goals far more often than when we try other means of getting to grander ends. Hopefully this is helpful for some of you who might read this blog down the line!