I’ve taught dozens of people to play the guitar, and I’ve learned to predict who will learn to play well: Those who enjoy the atrocious music they produce as a beginner.
If someone tells me in the first session how they picture themselves being applauded for their great skill or how they want to be famous and play in a rock band, I know there is heavy sledding ahead. They are a long way from any such outcome, and grasping at it will make learning the basics that much harder, because immediate consequences dominate over delayed consequences.
Whatever goal we try to achieve, our first steps will most likely be less than perfect. There will be a lot of stumbling, falling, and dragging ourselves along. This is normal and natural. And yet our minds often judge us for falling short of what we think our progress should be. We convince ourselves that success is an end state, rather than an ongoing process of learning, and we catch ourselves buying into thoughts like:
- “I will feel confident when I marry an attractive spouse.”
- “I will no longer struggle with the pain of my childhood when I’m famous.”
- “I will stop worrying about the future when I have a lot of money.”
- “My anxiety and self-doubts will go away when I get a promotion.”
We deflect our attention away from the intrinsic value of our current efforts (including the learning we can gain from our stumbles) and focus on the need of achievement and what it will mean to us—all in order to satisfy our yearning for competence.
We all yearn to be able to act effectively in the world; to live, love, play, and create skillfully. That starts at birth and babies will work for many, many hours learning to do the simplest thing. It’s good we arrive that way—we have so much to learn.
But then symbolic reasoning and problem-solving show up and by kindergarten, the mind is already trying to satisfy this yearning, by focusing on the end result of competence, rather than on the individual small steps along the way.
Ironically, this often leaves us feeling overwhelmed and scared, and undermines our pursuit of competence by leading to procrastination or even workaholism.
I bet you can remember—even now—times when you failed in kindergarten and still cringe! You do not remember the hundreds of times you failed even to take a step and keep your balance, falling instead on your diapered butt. You were too young—you were still happily gaining competence the trial-and-error way. But just a couple of years later, the symbolic mind got going and you were in trouble.
I remember being asked at age five by a teacher in kindergarten, “What else can we do to clean our teeth, other than brushing?” I stared at her awkwardly while my mind was as intellectually brilliant as a bowl of oatmeal. Then, an answer came to me! I had it! And before I could say anything a little girl next to me said: “Chew sugarless gum.”
That was my answer! Aaaagh! I blew it.
If we truly want to achieve our goals, we need to pivot the yearning for competence toward building habits of values-based actions that are truly meaningful to us, while allowing for trial and error, instead of waiting to spring forth from the head of Zeus.
And it’s easier than you might think.
How to Achieve Your Biggest Goals
Behavior tends to reinforce itself. We do what we do because it’s what we’ve always done. This can become problematic when we fall into rigid habits, but it can also liberate us when we know how to take advantage of it. Small behavioral changes can build to create huge changes over time. The trick is to calibrate your efforts.
Initially, it’s best to make small and quick changes. If you want to read more and watch less television, start with no television after work until you’ve read for 30 minutes. Even if the commitment you’ve decided on is already small, it can help to make it smaller still. Make it 15 minutes of reading, or cut out a single show you think is mindless (do you really need to see more back episodes of “Cupcake Wars”?).
It does not matter how small the change is, as long as you are making progress. This can also help with procrastination, because even a few minutes of work on the avoided task will help you get into full gear again later that day or the next day, rather than falling down the rabbit hole of putting things off for extended periods.
If you slip, be kind, and the next time make it even smaller.
There are exceptions to every rule. You cannot leap across a canyon in two steps. For example, if you’ve tried the well-established harm reduction approach to dealing with an addiction and it did not work, it may be time to make a full-stop commitment to sobriety. That’s a case of tailoring the methods you practice to suit your challenge.
The good news is that psychological flexibility skills help with such challenging leaps. You can learn to embrace the feeling of failure when mistakes are made much as you embraced the feeling of your diapered butt hitting the floor—and then promptly got back up again. Learn how to develop competence the old fashioned way: one step at a time, done repeatedly, and learning as you go. (You can find many such techniques and skills to build better habits and achieve your biggest goals in my book, A Liberated Mind.)
We are always building habits through what we do each and every day. And while habit building is a moment-by-moment process, we often fall into the trap of overly focusing on perfect outcomes. When we try to change our habits in one fell swoop, our efforts tend to lead to procrastination, impulsivity, or workaholism. Instead, we can learn to focus on the process of continuously building habits in small steps linked to the construction of larger habits of loving, caring, creating, or any other chosen value. One less-than-perfect guitar song at a time.
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