I believe the people who are the most satisfied in life are those who feel the most alive.
We generally feel most alive when we propel ourselves out of our comfort zone and seize new possibilities for meaning, excitement, and passion. But unfortunately, we’re wired to do what feels easy and safe, and it rarely feels easy or safe to be a beginner.
No one wants to feel like Bambi taking her first wobbly first steps—weak, inept, like they could fall over at any time.
And no one wants to feel as vulnerably exposed as Napoleon Dynamite during his awkward “Vote for Pedro” dance, an audience of underwhelmed peers staring blankly back at him, possibly judging in their heads.
We want to feel competent, confident, and proud. Like we know what we’re doing and we’re doing it well. But that’s not usually how it works when we’re just starting out.
Recently I’ve been helping produce a new podcast called Next Creator Up, a show that helps people get out of their own way and create what they want to create. In the first episode, Ehren Prudhel, my partner in many things, interviewed singer/songwriter Kelley McRae.
After spending years touring, Kelley wanted to focus more on connection, community, and giving back, and ultimately started Song Rise Arts—a non-profit through which she helps underprivileged youth share their stories through song.
Though her interview was full of a ha moments for me, one thing that really stuck out for me was a discussion about getting a win quickly.
She shared how she helps her kids complete something on day one so that they feel proud of themselves and motivated to continue.
It’s such a simple idea, and yet incredibly powerful.
Think about it: How many times have you tried something new and hard, felt overwhelmed, and then decided it wasn’t for you?
I remember when I was really into step aerobics in my twenties. I liked to stand in the front row in class so I could see my form in the mirror.
Since I’d been taking classes for months, I never felt insecure being front and center. In fact, I felt confident and proud of myself for hopping around up there with such precision of movement—so much so that it blinded me to the potential consequences of stationing my newby friend right beside me in the spotlight.
Looking back, I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me that she likely wouldn’t appreciate being quite so visible while learning something new.
Sure enough, she struggled throughout the entire class, every misstep reflected back to the whole group in the mirror; she felt discouraged and embarrassed; and she never again came back.
I’ve had many similar experiences like this myself.
Like the time I decided to learn to cook. One would think, after my aerobics experience, I would have recognized the importance of starting small and safe. But no.
I didn’t try an easy recipe for one simple dish. I tried a four-course gourmet meal, burned most of it, then decided to go back to sandwiches and frozen food. Because I just wasn’t meant to cook.
Then there was the time when I first tried painting. It would have made sense to find a class for beginners or a YouTube tutorial for something basic. But instead I overspent on art supplies, including a massive canvas, and quickly felt discouraged when I realized my piece looked like something I’d painted blindfolded. And drunk.
In both situations, I expected instant perfection and set myself up for failure—not just in the moment but also in the long-term. I went from someone who could learn to cook and paint, in time, to someone who was afraid to try. Because I sucked at both… or so I thought.
I now understand the importance of creating an early win, and continuing to create small wins over time, which I’ve learned requires me to do the following:
- Adopt a growth mindset
- Start small
- Hold reasonable expectations
- Avoid comparisons
- Give myself credit
If you want to feel more alive, and have identified a way to stretch into new territory, this is the path to seeing it through.
Adopt a growth mindset.
This is a crucial first step because you have to believe in your capacity to grow and improve, or you likely won’t allow yourself to keep going after your first imperfect attempt.
Psychology professor Carol Dweck coined the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” over thirty years ago after studying thousands of kids and recognizing two opposing belief systems that influenced their efforts and their outcomes.
People with a “fixed mindset” believe that success is based on innate ability—meaning you either have it or you don’t, and if you fail, it’s confirmation of the latter. It means you’re not talented enough, smart enough, or good enough, so there’s no point in trying any further because you’ll just make yourself look bad.
People with a “growth mindset” believe that failures are part of learning, and if they keep trying, they can get better over time. Because they believe this, they keep showing up and eventually confirm their own belief. They may feel embarrassed when starting out, but they understand this is just part of the process.
It turns out growth truly is possible for anyone. Research in brain plasticity has shown that through repeated practice—at anything—we can build new pathways in our brain, enabling continued progress.
I remember when I was in Amsterdam, where more people ride bikes than drive cars. I had never ridden a bike in a street before, or ridden a bike at all since childhood, and I struggled to start up again whenever a red light turned green.
On my first day, I was holding up bike traffic at an intersection as I tried to get myself going, so I turned my head and told the biker behind me, “Sorry, I’m not really good at this!” With a huge grin, he responded, “Not yet!”
And he was right. By the end of my month there, I was stopping and starting like a pro, something that couldn’t have happened if I kicked my bike to the curb in resignation on day one.
So before you go into this new thing, whatever it is, no matter how hard, recognize that ineptitude is just a starting point, and if you put in the time, even just a little every day, you will eventually see results.
When we feel a sense of accomplishment, it activates the reward center of our brain, releasing the neurochemical dopamine. Because we feel good, we’re then driven to do more.
And the thing is, we don’t actually need to achieve massive success to feel a sense of accomplishment. Even a small win—like writing one section of a blog post or signing up for a class—can motivate us to keep moving forward.
This isn’t relevant only when pursuing passions and professional goals; the same principle applies with everything you might want to improve in your life.
If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, applying one lesson or tool from therapy or personal research can help you feel encouraged and inspire more healthy choices.
If you’d like to improve your financial situation, unsubscribing from one store newsletter or bringing lunch instead of buying it can empower you to make more smart money decisions.
Or, if you’re trying to improve your health, walking ten minutes on a treadmill or smoking one fewer cigarette today could help you find the motivation to keep taking tiny steps forward.
This was actually the most helpful approach I used when recovering from bulimia. The treatment centers preached abstinence, and for good reason, I know—setbacks can have fatal consequences when you’re putting such strain on your heart.
But I was too far in to simply stop, and every slipup created massive shame, which then led to more slipups. So instead of expecting perfection, I told myself to do one fewer disordered behavior today, and to do at least the same tomorrow, or one fewer than that if I could.
Sure enough, I eventually started to feel proud of myself, my pride built momentum, and through that momentum (along with continued therapy to address trauma from my past), I slowly healed.
Hold reasonable expectations.
In order to start small, you have to be willing to let go of any unrealistic expectations about what you should be able to accomplish.
This isn’t always easy to do. We live in a culture that promotes extraordinary natural talent as an indicator of worth, and celebrates “overnight success” as the ultimate sign of accomplishment.
But the truth is, even people with natural talent need to work hard to excel at their craft, and “overnight success” usually happens after months and years of work that no one knew to recognize, because it wasn’t public.
So let go of the idea that you should be anywhere other than where you are. Release yourself from the burden of believing your current skill level says anything about who you are as a person, or what’s possible for you.
If you’re going to expect anything as you start doing something new, expect that:
- You may not be very good at it
- You may feel embarrassed if other people are watching
- You may follow every small win with (what feels like) a small failure
- You may feel frustrated and wish you could do more than you can do
- You may not be able to live up to your own taste level (another insight from Kelley’s interview)
- You may want to give up because it feels too hard
- You may make slower progress than you’d like
- But if you accept all of the above and keep showing up anyways, you will eventually make progress
There’s a quote I love that reads, “Don’t compare your chapter one to someone else’s chapter twenty.” I’d extend this further to include, “Or someone else’s chapter one.”
It’s tempting to judge ourselves based on someone else’s capabilities or accomplishments, especially since they’re in our face all day, every day, on social media. But all this does is feed into our insecurities and doubts and leave us feeling inadequate and discouraged.
We’re all starting from different places, with different backgrounds, strengths, and skill levels. And we all have different wants, priorities, and values. Maybe you value balance, so you’re moving more slowly than someone else who works around the clock and deprioritizes family time and sleep.
You could compare yourself to that person, but would it really be a fair comparison?
And even if you are making a fair comparison, does it actually serve you in any way?
I’m not going to lie; knowing this doesn’t always make it easy for me to stop comparing myself to other people.
I sometimes see people who seem to be doing better, question if maybe they’re just fundamentally better—not just at whatever they’re doing, but also as people—and then get stuck in a cycle of shame and self-judgment. And sometimes this all happens so quickly I don’t even realize I’m doing it.
If you find it hard to avoid comparisons, then maybe a better goal, for now, is to avoid comparison triggers.
If you know you get down on yourself when you look at a specific person’s Facebook updates, unfollow them. If you can’t read about the greats in your niche without feeling like a failure, don’t read about them.
Keep your eyes on your own path so you’re less apt to convince yourself your small wins are insignificant.
Give yourself credit.
A small win only has value if you acknowledge it, so stop and create some self-satisfaction by asking yourself the following questions:
- What did I do right or well?
- Why was this impressive or noteworthy for me specifically, based on my unique personality, past, and challenges?
- What fears did I have to push through to do this?
- In what way did this push me out of my comfort zone?
Why is this small win actually a big win?
- What would I say to a friend or my child if they had a small win like this?
Proactively choose to build yourself up for doing whatever you did, no matter how small, and you’ll be more likely to do the same, or even more, tomorrow. Then you’ll give yourself more credit, feel even more motivated, and slowly, over time, become the person you want to be and do the things you want to do.
If you’re interested in hearing the podcast episode I mentioned at the start of this post, you can find it here, along with detailed show notes.
I’m incredibly proud of Ehren, the show’s host, who’s pushed himself outside of his comfort zone with this new venture, and has been collecting small wins over the last several months leading up to this launch.
And I’m beyond inspired by Kelley McRae, a talented musician and brilliant teacher who’s making a tremendous difference for low-income kids by enabling them to tell their stories through song.