When my turn arrived, I admitted, with some hesitation, “Someday, I’d like to make a living as a writer.” Someday, I said, wistfully. Little did I realize that in less than a year and a half, that dream would actually come true.
How on earth did I get from petroleum geologist to professional writer in such a brief span of time, with no formal training whatsoever? Small steps.
And not just any small steps, but—as poet David Whyte says (“Start Close In,” Sometimes, 2011)—steps that I could call my own. “Start with / the ground / you know . . .” he writes. “Start right now / take a small step / you can call your own / don’t follow / someone else’s / heroics . . .”
After I was laid off, I took a series of small steps in a new direction, toward a vague and frighteningly distant horizon, blocked by seemingly insurmountable barriers. None of those steps were very large, all by themselves. But they added up. Quickly. Something very big—a whole new career—emerged from all those little actions.
Sages, gurus, philosophers, poets, and psychologists extol the virtues of taking small steps toward the callings, dreams and goals that matter to our souls.
Lao Tzu’s famous journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step—or, more literally, right where you stand. “The pale ground / beneath your feet,” as Whyte calls it. The Tao Te Ching, that ancient Chinese book of wisdom attributed to Lao Tzu, asserts that big things arise from small beginnings. “A tree that fills a man’s embrace grows from a seedling. A tower nine stories high starts with one brick.”
What happens when you start where you are, gaze into the distance with intent, take a deep breath, and slowly shift your center of gravity to take that first small step? You get unstuck. Amazing things can follow.
Psychologist and consultant, Robert Maurer, calls this approach “kaizen,” a Japanese term for change through evolution rather than revolution. He explains why the small step is often, if not always, wiser than the giant leap, the rocket-powered launch across the Grand Canyon. It’s quite simple, really. Big steps tend to be scary. And when those heroic actions we’re contemplating start to frighten us, our brains tend to fight back, flee or freeze.
Maurer’s advice? Take a step so small, so ridiculously infinitesimal, so disarmingly easy to take that it cannot possibly scare you. Or your brain. So there’s no reason to stop in your tracks, freak out, or run the other way. Just how small are we talking?
If you want to start meditating, try one minute. If you want to start exercising, don’t run ten miles. Don’t run one mile. Don’t run at all. Try standing motionless on a treadmill one minute a day, until, one day, your feet just want to move. Then, take a small step you can call your own.
Think about the next step on your particular journey of transition or transformation. Does it terrify you? If so, don’t “power” through it. Don’t grit your teeth. Shrink it. Make it so tiny, there’s no fear left. No excuses. No resistance. You’ll feel stupid, of course, like it’s nothing. And you’ll be convinced it couldn’t possibly get you anywhere, ever.
But since you’ve read this far, you’ll just have to wonder, won’t you? Could it really be that simple? And if you take that first little step, how easy might it be to take the second? And how fast might you begin to move once you’ve overcome inertia?
“Start close in,” says Whyte. “Don’t take the second step / or the third, / start with the first / thing / close in, / the step / you don’t want to take.”
—Jay E. Valusek