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Advice to My Younger Self: Progress not Perfection

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“Progress, Not Perfection” and Other Advice I’d Give My Younger Self

In the last six years, I’ve set all kinds of goals for myself: big goals, small goals, and everything in between. Some goals have never even come close to materializing, and MANY have started, stopped, and faded away. 

Thankfully, there’s a handful of them that I’ve been able to reach, and looking back, I feel pleasantly surprised by some of the ones that made it out of my head and into real life. Coming from someone who used to avoid making New Year’s resolutions for fear of not being able to keep them, I’ve started to think about how much personal growth I’ve experienced in the interim. Little did I know that I would learn as much as from the goals I accomplished as the ones that I’ve failed at repeatedly. 

If I could sit down with my younger self and give her some heart-to-heart advice on what I’ve learned, here is the wisdom I’d try to impart:

Progress, Not Perfection

You shouldn’t avoid setting goals or trying to create change in your life because you’re afraid you won’t “do them the right way” or whatever notion you have about how something “should” look. There is no such thing as a perfect outcome, and no one is grading you on how you got there. If anything, the one thing you should aim to do more than anything is acknowledging your efforts—no matter how small or silly—toward what you’re trying to do. 

Put another way, stop thinking it’s all or nothing. Give yourself as much credit for trying and falling short as you do for accomplishing the thing you set out to do. Learn to celebrate your small wins.

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Start Before You’re Ready

You love to read. You love making lists. You love planning—most of the time. But as much as you want to feel like you have a thoroughly researched and documented plan for that goal you have, there’s no substitute for simply starting. If you try to wait until you feel ready to take action, you may never begin! 

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be prepared, but you shouldn’t let this get in the way of doing something, whether it’s sending an email, making a phone call, or even writing down that dream of yours. James Clear has a great story about Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, selling chartered plane tickets to other passengers in the airport when their original flight to the Virgin Islands was unexpectedly cancelled. Branson said he didn’t have the money to do this, nor was it any part of what he’d planned to do at the time, but since he defaults toward doing things instead of just thinking about them, he’s able to use that momentum and make big things happen.

Put another way, by Derric Yuh Ndim:

“Always take massive imperfect action towards your goals because the time might never be “just right.”

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Don’t Try to Change Too Many Things at Once

Taking action is good, but remember that you have limited time and energy, so attempting to  tackle all your goals at the same time gets overwhelming and exhausting. Athletics will become a fruitful ground for metaphors for you, starting with this one: it’s a marathon, not a race. Pace yourself in the beginning so that you can build off of your small wins and not get discouraged when you don’t see change right away. These things take time. 

When you’re not sure where to start, it’s helpful to think of cascading dominoes: which smaller goal will help you reach bigger goals in the end? Perhaps starting a journaling habit now, even if it’s a few bullet points a day in the beginning, can help you toward your future goals of becoming a writer or finishing a PhD program. 

But I can’t say it enough: just try to do ONE HABIT at a time. You think you’re good at multitasking. You’re wrong. 

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Run Your Own Race

Another apt metaphor from the world of running is to run your own race. It’s easy to get caught up watching the flow of people quickly passing you by, or feel like you’re gaining something by getting ahead of people who are slower than you, but you’ve got to recognize that you’re only responsible for yourself and your own goals. There are always going to be people around you who are better and worse. You don’t gain anything from comparing yourself to them, or even by trying to influence their races. 

The other day, I came across the story of track athlete and world-record holder Jesse Owens. He was a young man when he competed the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, taking the stage at a time when Hitler wanted nothing more than to show the world that black and Jewish athletes were inferior (talk about pressure, right?).  Owens almost boycotted the Olympics, but decided to take a stand. He ended up becoming the first American to win four gold medals at the Games, making history on a global scale.

Despite (or perhaps in spite of) his accomplishments, he famously said:

“I wasn’t in Berlin to compete against any one athlete. The purpose of the Olympics, anyway, was to do your best...the only victory that counts is the one over yourself.” 

Moreover, he also said:

The battles that count aren’t the ones for gold medals. The struggles within yourself, the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us, that’s where it’s at.”

You are your most worthy opponent. Stick to you.

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Surround Yourself With the Right People

It’s important to know that you’re the primary one responsible for change in your life, because you are. But don’t underestimate how important it is to have the right kind of people around you to help you get where you want to be.

Here’s an example from my own life: in 2013, I wanted to prioritize my fitness so I set a goal of trying to run 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) under 25 minutes. Even though I had a clear goal, a training plan through the Couch to 5k audioguide and I wasn’t particularly busy, I didn’t hit my goal that year. I ran, but it never really stuck, and my plan got lost in other plans.

However, in 2014, I ended up finding a free fitness group called November Project, and suddenly had people around me who were running all the time. Now, with a designated time and place to go, people who I’d see regularly, and people who did this activity for fun (who knew?), I was able to form a regular running habit.

One day, after about 2 months of attending regularly, I was invited to do a marathon trail relay on a team of four. I balked. That would be 6.4 miles and I had never ran more than 3. All of a sudden I had to level up. 

Guess what? I did it. Those people were confident in my ability to do something I’d never tried before and they helped me believe in myself too. And when the opportunity came up to try out a 12 mile race, they told me, “Yeah, if you can run 6.4 miles, you can run 10. And if you can run 10, you can run 12.” 

Having the right people around you can help you reach your goals. I have no idea when I actually reached my initial goal but I do know that I eventually surpassed it and that’s pretty cool.

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Don’t Believe Everything You Think

If there’s a common thread running through all of the above pieces of advice, maybe it’s this: "The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master." You’ve got a wonderful, complex, and powerful piece of machinery inside of you, but it’s not always going to be right. It picks up all kinds of messages, uses shortcuts, and is generally imperfect, so take some of those thoughts of yours with a grain of salt.

This will take practice in the form of awareness and yes, meditation. Meditation won’t solve your problems, but it will help you see your reactions a little more clearly. It will be hard, and it will be worth it.

I could probably keep going on and on with advice for my younger self, but I’ll stop here for now. Even if she had read this, would she truly be able to learn it without those experiences, successes, and failures? I’m not entirely sure, but I hope some of the things I’ve laid out here will encourage you, the readers, to get started on making a change in your life! Wherever it lands you, I guarantee it’ll be better than waiting until the conditions are perfect. Onward!

We’d love to hear from you in the commentsHow do you feel about goal-setting? What advice do you have for your younger self? What failures have led to the most growth for you?

Photos by Andrei Lazarev, Joseph Morris, Khara Woods, Antonio Francisco

About the Author

Brittany DeNovellis

Brittany DeNovellis

Brittany is a traveler, a reader, an entrepreneur, a food-lover, a runner, an artist, and a program coordinator currently living in Baltimore, Maryland. As a multi-passionate individual, she aspires to deepen her own self understanding so she can find ways to help others live meaningful lives. She's excited to share her forays into creativity, finding balance, and overcoming her worrier gene with the Innovative Lifestyles audience.

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