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Change is a journey, not an overnight success

It’s tempting to think that change is a pretty straight forward thing.

Before and after.

Bad and good.

Screw up. and never screw up again.

But it’s NOT that simple. We may see all of these incredible transformations and what seem to be overnight successes, but very rarely do we get to see all of the time and effort and energy and failure that went into achieving that success.

The most successful people are those that have failed the most and learned from their failures. Go dig into the history of every world class athlete, successful businessman, or even just the local perfect-looking personal trainers at your gym. I guarantee every one of them has a past that is riddled with challenges and failures. It’s that past which has made them who they are.

Reminds me of a story that I’ve heard about Pablo Picasso:

One day a woman spotted him in the market and pulled out a piece of paper.

“Mr. Picasso,” she said excitedly. “I’m a big fan. Please, could you do a little drawing for me?”

Picasso happily complied and quickly etched out a piece of art for her on the paper provided.

He then smiled as he handed it back to her. “That will be a million dollars.”

“But Mr. Picasso,” the woman replied, flustered. “It only took you thirty seconds to do this little masterpiece.”

“My good woman,” Picasso laughed, “It took me thirty years to do that masterpiece in thirty seconds.”

When people are really good at something, very little of it comes from raw innate talent and genetics. Perhaps the last 5%.

Instead, most of it comes from consistent and regular practice, trial and error, planning, preparation, education, and experience. It’s all of that effort and time and energy invested that lets them be so good at what they do.

Idealistic change:

When we envision ourselves changing or becoming more successful at something, we often think about an idealistic form of change that looks like this:

  • BEFORE: Screw up > feel bad about your screw up so you screw up more > feel even worse about yourself > keep screwing up > divine intervention or serious wake-up call >  get back on track days or weeks after initial slip-up.
  • AFTER: No screw up, ever.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Unfortunately, it’s not how things work in the real world. Very rarely can we simply turn bad habits on and off like a light switch. Sometimes we can, there are exceptions, but not most of the time.

A poem about change:

Note: If you don’t like poems, just scroll past to the more descriptive breakdown below it.

There is a poem by Portia Nelson called Autobiography in Five Short Chapters where she does a fantastic job at taking us on a journey that describes the process of change:

Chapter 1
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost. I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend that I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit. But my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter 4
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5
I walk down another street.

In this poem, the street represents some kind of choice or action and the deep hole represents the further development or consequence of that choice or action.

Things we might want to change:

  • Making bad food choices
  • Skipping workouts or not exercising at all
  • Going to bed unnecessarily late or hitting the snooze button too many times
  • Being extravagant with your money
  • Snapping at your significant other
  • Procrastinating at work
  • Biting your fingernails
  • Driving angrily and impatiently

If these are just once off actions that happen rarely, it’s usually no big deal.

But if they are a persistent habit, it can be a lot more damaging.

With all of this in mind, go re-read the poem again.

See if you can identify the progression of your bad habit or behaviour from being lost and helpless in Chapter 1 to being being empowered and in control in Chapter 5.

Realistic change:

So, earlier we looked at idealistic change where we go from screwing up to not screwing up ever.

Here is what a more realistic change process looks like, and you will find it very similar to the poem above:

(credits to Georgie Fear and her book Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss for the idealistic vs realistic change comparison)

Screw up
Feel bad about your screw up so you screw up more
Feel even worse about yourself
Keep screwing up
Hit rock bottom and get a serious wake up call
Get back on track weeks or even months after the initial screw up.

Screw up
Feel bad about your screw up so you screw up more
Feel even worse about yourself
Remember that you don’t have to keep doing this
Get back on track before hitting rock bottom (maybe the next day or the next week).

Screw up
Feel bad about your screw ups so you screw up more
See where this is going
Remember that you don’t have to keep doing this
Get back on track (possibly the very next day).

Screw up
Start to feel bad but realise that it was just a mistake
Realise that you can stop now without making your situation worse
Get back on track right away.

Start to screw up
Realise (perhaps halfway through the piece of cheese cake that you didn’t even want but are eating anyways) that you don’t have to keep doing this
Abort screw up and get back on track immediately.

Catch yourself before you screw up
Remember that it will be a screw up and that it never works
Decide to do something better instead.

As you can see, even in Stage 5 out of 6 the bad habit happens. The screw up.

Progress is more than just “before and after”

If you judge your progress or success simply by whether you screw up or not, you’re likely to think of yourself as a failure more often than not.

On the otherhand, if you can acknowledge the progress that you’ve made, even if it means you still screw up but just don’t let it snowball into something so much bigger, then you are on the right track!

Change is a process, and even people like us at Sleekgeek HQ screw up all the time. No one is perfect.

What is important is to keep working on it. Don’t give up. Celebrate your progress and small wins. Small wins add up to big wins over time.

The most successful people bounce back quickly. They don’t lose momentum.

If you fall, pick yourself back up as soon as possible. Don’t lie on the ground crying and repetitively slamming your head into the ground.

You may also enjoy my blog post on Only One Bad Meal.

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