Progress itself can be the greatest challenge you’ll face when trying to master a skill, learning something new, or making lasting change in your life.
It sounds paradoxical, but when I say progress I mean starting to have small success. In other words, when you start to get good, when you see some improvement and the change starts to happen.
That’s a critical point in your journey. It is the point where you have to push just a little longer to be on your way to great success. Unfortunately, this point is where most people stop or considerably slow down everything they were doing right.
We are great at building momentum…and then walking away from it.
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The process goes more or less like this:
1. Falling in love. You start to learn something new, and even though you are terrible at it, you feel really excited. At this stage you are very motivated, there’s a powerful vision in your mind of how great everything will be once you get good. This vision helps you endure the mental (or physical) pain of learning something new and of going through countless mistakes and failures.
During this time, you are mostly naive about what you got yourself into. You don’t know yet how difficult and how long the road to your vision really is. This can be a good thing, however, because otherwise you wouldn’t even start.
2. Having second thoughts. At this stage you’ve been practicing the new skill a few times and you are starting to realize how much work is involved. Your great vision still looks good, but you are not sure if it’s worth the amount of time and energy it will take to realize it.
During this time you get a basic overview of what lies ahead. You start to understand what is it that you are up against. Here’s where most people quit. They give up because they now know how much work is involved to fulfill their vision and they don’t want to do it. “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” — Joe Louis
3. Giving a second chance. (Given that you didn’t quit.) At this stage you chose to give the practice another chance and see what happens. A great deal of your motivation is gone but you keep going for a little longer before you decide if you really want to stick to it.
NOTE: Sometimes, If you are very motivated about what you are learning, you may not go through the emotional ups and downs of stages 2 and 3. You could be a bit shocked when you realize the magnitude of the challenge ahead but you kept at it, regardless of everything that is thrown at you. No second thoughts, you are “IN” no matter what.
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4. Starting to enjoy. At this stage the practice starts to settle into your routine and you feel like it’s not so dreadful anymore. You are actually starting to enjoy the practice again, just like you did in the beginning. Here is where you start to see some results. All your work is starting to pay off, and you start to feel good about yourself.
Right at the end of this stage is where the other largest percentage of people quit; not immediately, and they might not even realize they quit, but it’s game over.
What happened? Where did you fail if you were actually making progress? You started demanding less of yourself. You felt like you deserved a break for how well you’ve been doing. You felt you could relax, slow down, or lower the intensity.
Your thinking goes somewhere along the lines of this example: “I’ve been working out for a while now and my body is starting to look good, I guess I can take off one training day a week and add the deep-fried bacon-double-cheeseburger covered in spicy mayo to my diet again!”
The problem is not that you take a break once, but that your newly found sense of entitlement starts ruining your habits and routines. You forget what got you where you are and begin cutting down on the practices and discipline that were helping you move forward. You built momentum and then walked away!
I’m not saying that it’s not O.K. to take a break once in a while. What I am saying is that you need to be aware that it can turn into a trap. This behavior and pattern of thinking is your brain’s last line of defense against imminent change. It’s so subtle, so innocent, that you don’t see it coming.
Before you know it, you are not practicing as much or as focused as before. You then keep slowing down until you stop doing it altogether or just do it half-heartedly once in a while and get stuck in and endless plateau. You may even keep practicing sporadically for many years but it will be just an annoying reflex or a desperate cry to feel you are still at it.
The reality is that you already lost your way. That may sound harsh, and it’s probably because I’m writing this mostly to myself. I feel particularly strong about this subject because it’s usually is my biggest challenge.
If you manage to avoid this trap, you get to move on to stage five.
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5. Becoming one. At this stage, you manage to keep pushing forward, and you reach a critical mass. The skill you are learning becomes part of your life. It no longer is something external, something you do, but rather it becomes part of your identity, something you are.
Once you reach this point, it gets harder not to practice than to do it. We’ll know we are here because we don’t feel the need to slow down, there’s so much joy in the activity that we may even want to do it more often or increase the intensity.
Making a skill part of who you are is one of the most satisfying things in life and a great determinant of our levels of happiness. To get to this stage is simple, though not always easy: Don’t slow down when you start seeing some progress. Ride your hard earned momentum instead of walking away from it and you’ll be able to achieve real success.