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How to Get Moving

The difference between a mistake and an adjustment is motion

Often when we are trying to make a change in our lives it is because we want to achieve something big. After all, if it was something small and easy to do, we would be doing it already.

Significant goals are intimidating for the same reasons they are motivating. They usually stem from core internal motivators around the type of person we want to be as compared to the type of person we think we actually are. We want to be better but suspect we may not be able to. That tension is extremely stressful.

But while something that is fundamentally important to us is hard to ignore, we also find it hard to actually start working towards it precisely because it is important to us: failing would feel like proof that we cannot be better. That our inner monologue telling us to be safe in our rabbit holes, to not try, to just accept our crappy situation is seemingly correct.

As a result the more meaningful a goal the harder it is for us to execute towards it.

The journey of a thousand miles starts with blah blah blah

Whatever the goal may be there are a series of steps that we need to take in order to achieve it.

No one would argue with pat little sayings like “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. But I would be willing to bet that you cannot roll your eyes hard enough to express how obvious yet ultimately useless that advice is.

We intellectually realize that climbing to the top of the mountain means putting one foot in front of the other, again and again. But yet, we don’t do it. Or rather we take small steps all the time, they are just pointless steps, not contributing to any of our larger goals.

How many TED talks have you watched? How many motivational quotes have you read? But yet if you plot your trajectory of success, it’s not nearly as inclined towards your ultimate goals as it needs to be.

Why is this?

Insignificant but must be perfect

Part of the reason is that the small but relevant step we can take today feels so insignificant against the larger goal. It’s hard to motivate ourselves because it doesn’t seem like these tiny steps are really going to result in much progress.

The trouble with that thinking is that it is perfectly accurate. The small steps we can take today do not result in much progress towards these bigger goals. If I want to become more physically healthy, eating some vegetables on any one particular day is almost meaningless by itself.

This is made worse because we have a certain myopia in our experienced lives. In the same way that something large but far away appears small and something small but close appears large, something that is a long way in the future feels less significant than something immediately in front of us.

A goal of a healthier you that is far in the future feels very theoretical but the immediate pleasure of a cupcake right in front of you seems huge. And on the flip side, the minor negative impact that single cupcake will have on that future healthier you is also very theoretical.

But weirdly since the goal is important to us and we don’t want to make a mistake, at the same time that the steps seem insignificant in terms of their contribution to progress we also want them to be perfect. We want to make no mistakes. We want to make every step a step forward.

So we vibrate in place, feeling crappy that we are not executing on our core goals and dreams but frozen because we feel doubly intimidated that the steps we should take are insignificant in terms of progress yet significant in terms of not making a mistake.

But why can we intellectually see the path we should take, the many little steps, and yet feel too stuck by fear to take any of them?

Feelings are real but not reality

The reason is that word, “feels”. Our future goals aren’t less significant but they feel less significant, our minor mistakes aren’t that big of a deal but they feel momentous.

This is because our intellect floats above an ancient animal core that is tuned towards our physical survival.

Our inner caveman values the immediate more than the future because the immediate danger of the tiger leaping out of the bush requires much more attention than the longer term danger of heart disease.

Our inner caveman doesn’t want to make a mistake because we cannot make the distinction between the physical response we feel as a result of embarrassment and the physical response we feel as a result of that tiger.

Fear is fear is fear.

What this means in our modern world is that we think we use our intelligence to analyze a situation and then come to a conclusion based on facts. But what we actually do is react to a situation by instinct and bring our intellect into play merely to find evidence to justify that reaction after the fact.

We are not like scientists taking an objective view of the world around us to discover the nature of reality, we are more like lawyers hired to make the case that our feeling driven initial decision is the correct one.

As a result, without the self-awareness to realize how that animal core is affecting our decision making, we can always come up with an intellectual justification that says we are right in valuing an immediate gain over an immediate loss that will result in a long term gain.

The immediate gain or loss is reality, any long term gain or loss is literally fantasy in the sense that is in our imagination alone.

It doesn’t matter that much so it’s okay to screw up

So how do we combat this?

The answer is already right there in front of us. We reintroduce actual reality rather than the reality colored by our feelings.

We already know the steps we need to take, we already know that the journey of a thousand miles starts with blah blah blah.The key is to lean into the insignificance of those steps.

The insignificance of the step means two things. One, that the actual risk is minimal. And two, that once we take the step, our fear has a limit. It moves from the realm of our imagination (unlimited fear) to the realm of reality (limited, likely insignificant fear).

And the more we keep moving on that path, the more we build a habit of motion and change our story from not doing to doing. We build momentum slowly but inevitably every time we take a step.

Even if the step turns out to be wrong, the fact that we took it adds more than the fact that it was wrong subtracts because the obstacle wasn’t our judgement, it was our fear.

We face our fear by accepting the fact that we are going to feel uncomfortable and do it anyway rather than taking that discomfort as a sign of something wrong.

Steer instead of aim

Once we start moving we can adjust our path as we go. We can steer instead of aim.

We start moving without worrying too much about whether that path or that decision is the right one or is even making progress. We constantly adjust, we move from the model of a tiger in the bush to the model of driving down the highway.

When we drive, we don’t collapse in panic if we start drifting slightly towards the edge of the lane, we just calmly steer back to the middle. We don’t beat ourselves up if we miss our turn, we get annoyed but figure out how to get back on track.

We focus on the goal. We keep moving. Obstacles and mistakes don’t matter in the long run because we just adjust our steering.

That’s exactly why it works, because when we are in the habit of motion, we don’t have the time to dwell on our mistakes. We just keep moving and the immediate problem is swiftly left behind,

The difference between a mistake and an adjustment is motion