Inspired by your greatness, loyalty assured
I nailed my colours to your standard, marched
towards the promise of much better times.
Long days and many miles went by
foot sore and weary, always hopeful
for the new dawn.
You strode ahead, eyes fixed on far horizons
I followed willingly
but while I watched my step
mended my boots
tightened my belt
held the line
a sea change was afoot.
Now I raise my head and look around
so far from home, no map or compass
this unfamiliar place, soot-dark and grim
not where I should be
and though my feet still move
I seek a different path.
Goodbye my friend. I failed the test
for this far I have come, but no further
your proud forces pause at the gates of hell
and you go on, as you must, without me.
The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Change is wonderful at first.
You decide to head in a new direction, full of enthusiasm and motivation. You can do this. But after some time you feel lost, stuck even.
Welcome to the messy middle.
You’re still far from the new self you want to be. It would be so easy to slip back into old habits. You’re caught between two forces: push away from the old or pull towards the new.
Push forces are strong at first. You reject what you don’t want, whether that’s a job title or a health status. But the further you get from the old, the weaker that push force is. The pull of the new isn’t strong enough to persuade you to put in the extra effort to become a butterfly.
A caterpillar enters the chrysalis and leaves its previous form behind. In fact it turns into a mass with no form at all. But it is programmed to keep changing towards its goal of being a butterfly, even though to achieve it means enduring a stage of being unrecognisable.
Think of the messy middle as your chrysalis stage.
First look back and remind yourself how far you’ve already come. Celebrate progress because by moving forward you’re already a winner.
Then focus on moving towards your goal at all times. Picture your new self in full colour. Write a statement describing what you’re working for, and look at it regularly. Fix the destination clearly in your mind and let it pull you forward. The closer you get, the stronger the pull will be.
Embrace the growth mindset, which says that you are always capable of developing and learning new things. It’s not that you are ‘just built that way’ or unlucky. Your efforts will get you where you want to be.
Marshal Your Forces
Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts. Arnold Bennett
Change requires a great deal of energy. If you try to make too many changes at once, you’ll be overwhelmed and end up making none.
For example, your goal is to lose fifteen pounds. From your current position on the couch, you plan to go to the gym three times a week, jog twice every weekend, give up smoking and alcohol, switch to a paleo diet, and chronicle your transformation on Instagram. And you’re going to do all this in eight weeks, when your vacation is booked.
You’ve just set yourself up to fail. The changes and goals are too far from your current position. Instead, set yourself up to succeed by choosing one small change and making it stick.
The Force of Habits
We live by habits, which are essentially short cuts through life. Habits free up brain space for other things. It takes on average about two months to form a new habit. Chain them together to outwit your natural reluctance to do things differently.
Take the example above. Choose one thing, in this case going to the gym. First, define the best time to go. If it’s after work, pack your bag the night before and put it by the door. You see it as you leave the house. Pick it up, place it in your car.
Choose one night a week and set an alarm on your phone. Tuesday night, pack gym bag. Wednesday night, go to gym after work.
When you’re accustomed to one night a week, add another. Schedule it and repeat until it becomes habit. Then add more sessions until you have the desired set of habits.
Similarly if you want to write, start really small. Block out a sliver of time to write a few words every day. As little as ten minutes and 150 words is enough. When that’s bedded in, add more time and more words.
Don’t overload yourself. Make each new step easy so you can’t fail. Only add bigger challenges when each habit is ingrained.
Build your habits one baby step at a time.
The Force of Time
Change often fails because it all takes longer than we wanted, longer than we bargained for. We are addicted to instant gratification and an easy fix.
Yes, there are people who gave up smoking overnight, or hit their goal weight in six weeks. These are not average results, but outliers. Far better to be realistic about timescales and manage your expectations accordingly.
The Force of Process
Even when you can’t rely on results, you can rely on your process.
It’s hard to get the ball rolling, but if we continue to apply force it will keep rolling. This is why momentum is so valuable. When you’ve done the hard work of overcoming inertia, maintaining forward motion is less effort than starting from scratch again.
When you can’t see your destination, focus on the journey. Put in the miles, put in the hours, keep training until you break through the plateau. In other words, do the work. Forget about results in favour of simply showing up, day after day.
Note any emotional reactions you have — and put them aside. Feelings will slow you down and stand in your way. They exist, but in this context they’re not useful. Do you wonder how you feel about brushing your teeth, or do you just do it? Apply that thinking. Write about feelings in your journal if you want, but the force of process is strictly mechanical.
If you can, do more. More words, cleaner diet, heavier weights. Nothing you do is wasted. The win you need is closer than you think, as long as you keep going.
Eating The Elephant of Life
There are three constants in life…change, choice, and principles.
Life is a succession of changes. Whether we choose the change or not, we have to find a way to live through it and come out better in some way, ready for the next one. There is only one way to approach such a huge task, and that is step by step.
Just as you’d eat an elephant bite by bite and not in one mouthful, you must look at shifts in life as part of a greater whole. There will be times when you’re in deep and can’t see an end to it. You’ll feel overwhelmed and tempted to run back to the safety of your old ways. Know that this feeling is normal, expected, and temporary.
To thrive in the unstable environment called life you must scan the horizon to spot coming challenges, stay flexible and open to learning, and keep faith in your ability.
Most important of all, never give up.
It doesn’t matter how long change takes. Time will pass anyway. What matters is that you’re developing and growing as a human, making the most of your one life.
Time creeps by on leaden feet. The clock ticks slow, only two thirty, hours before the end of work. The longest sixty seconds is the one minute one legged plank, the last minute of the push-ups. Muscles burn and waver and protest. That breathless moment before the rollercoaster drops, stretches in anticipation.
Then there are times that fly past, barely grasped. The kiss you longed for, the holiday you saved for, joys and pleasures that fizz on the tongue like a sublime taste of heaven. And then… gone.
It’s all relative, someone said. It’s all about perspective. It’s all subjective, no matter what the atomic clock tells us. We feel time is different, in different spaces, inside or outside our heads. We buy and spend, win and lose, waste and save time. Yet we also know, in our hearts, those spaces where we hide uncomfortable truths, that we do no such thing.
Time spends us.
We hurtle through life locked in a fourth dimension over which we have no control, save to alter our own perception of it.
I remember one of the longest weeks of my life. Time did not dance by and leave me smiling. Time ambushed me, held me down while events rolled over my head, an unwelcome tsunami of bad news stories. It did not let me escape.
Sometimes everything changes in a flash. Sometimes there comes a lightning bolt that does not fade, with the sure knowledge of thunderclaps and raging storms to follow, all at once and never ending, no mercy, time stretched on and pain sparking every nerve, and when will it all end?
In a minute. In a minute is a lifetime, and no time at all.
Deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.
Listen to this story:
She has a long way to go, she knows that. She must go alone, difficult and dangerous though the journey is, inadequate as her weapons may be. They are all she has, those and the fire she carries within. There will be dragons of one kind or another. Some might be slain with care, and luck, but others are best avoided. And she must tell them apart before it is too late.
She seems ordinary, mousy perhaps, meek. The meek do not inherit the earth; it is a lie to keep them from questioning, from overturning the old order. Know your place girl, under the yoke, under the lash, under the patriarchal boot. This girl goes about her business, eyes lowered. She plots rebellion silently in her heart.
She gathers things that might be useful. She is invisible, mouth zipped, both ears open. People spill scraps of information upon the ground and she carries them away for safekeeping. Things that she is not meant to know, yet she does know. A weakness, a shortcut, a place to hide or rest, all may be useful on her quest.
She lies awake, wondering if it would be better to stay. And she goes to sleep knowing that she cannot.
The day comes. She laces her boots and checks her equipment and looks around one last time. This quest is hers and no-one else decreed it. To win or lose is her responsibility and though no person waves a tearful goodbye or cheers her on, yet she will go. There is a new world out there, and someone must be first to blaze the trail with new footsteps.
They may not sing songs of her exploits nor raise a statue to her. But when she conquers the peak, then her light will burn in the world to give hope to the next adventurer. They will add their footsteps to the faint path she has left. See, they will say. Change is not impossible. One walked this way before. I see the distant beacon.
She shakes off expectation of what she should be. She faces her fear of what will happen if she does not comply. Here, she says. I will show you what I can be, whether any watch me or not.
She closes the door behind her, and she does not look back.
A huge storm blew through here yesterday. On my way back to work, I was stopped by an enormous oak tree that came down, taking part of an old stone wall with it and blocking the road entirely. Along with many others, I had to turn my car around and find another way.
Today, I see the tree surgeons have done their work. Vast trunks and branches lie sliced up on the side of the road, never again to see in the spring with green shoots. The weather now is cool, but bright and calm. If not for that pile of lumber, you’d never know the drama that unfolded here.
I think life is like this.
You spend years, decades even, building something strong and vital. It gives you comfort, protection, meaning. Then you watch as the storm grips that impressive canopy, rocks it and, finding it unyielding, overcomes the roots and the stem and all its strength. It shrieks, and cracks, and topples ungracefully.
You shout and rage and cry.
Someone, who hasn’t seen the storm, says it’s better this way. It was probably rotten at the roots. At least no-one was killed. You want to scream at them. They don’t understand.
You weep, for a while.
Then, you roll up your sleeves and clear away the fallen limbs. And something shifts. Once dark places are now light. In the ground, hidden life stirs. Daffodils push up through the soil, long forgotten seeds take root. There is space now, space to fill with new, exciting things.
And look, here is something you can use. Destruction begets creation; a table, a chair, a sculpture. Small branches make kindling for a fire. Fantastic fungi appear in autumn, and snow dusts the last crumbling branches with a veil of white.
Our creations, like our lives, are not meant to last forever.
Relationships, careers, structures are built, destroyed, mourned, and built anew. There is no escaping change. It is often resisted, and all the more painful for it. And it sweeps away the old, the rigid, the unexamined elements that are not as solid as they look. Once we dismantle our misconceptions and assumptions about what is permanent, the way ahead becomes clearer.
In the calm after the storm comes a chance to regroup, rethink, rebuild better and stronger.