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The great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
But how will we ever complete our journey of a thousand miles without taking that first, wobbly step?
Whether we aim to make the perfect batch of bread, meditate, write a book, or run in that marathon that cuts through our town every year, all our heart’s wishes and desires starts with a decision to begin. Sounds simple, but it’s not always easy.
Many things hold us back from our aspirations. We may be struggling with insecurity, self-doubt, and feelings of unworthiness. Or maybe, we lack the support from our friends and family, or we just can’t find the time. But these are not real problems—they are mere obstacles to our goals and hobbies, in turning our dreams into reality.
Personally, I struggled with perfectionism. My perfectionism centered around a single, debilitating thought: “If I can’t do it perfectly, then I don’t want to do it at all.” In my writing, for example, I was unwilling to write sh*tty, first drafts. While I was able to take the first step of my journey, I was hit a roadblock soon thereafter. I could not get more than a sentence on the screen without deleting, writing, and rewriting each word. Each sentence had to be clear, concise, and cut to the deepest truth—all on my first draft.
My sentences also had to be grammatically correct (despite my impatience to actually sit down and learn proper grammar). My writing also had to yield a desirable outcome—I wanted people to read my words and like them. I held an ideal in my head that, as a novice, I had no chance in meeting. My thinking was totally unreasonable, but there I sat paralyzed, my fingers moving at a glacial pace. After some reflecting, I realized that I was struggling with insecurity. This manifested into perfectionism, which was rooted in fear. I feared people’s appraisal of me. Not only was I insecure about the actual mechanics of writing and my ability to tell a story, but I was worried about the level of my spiritual and emotional development. Were my insights worth sharing? (I was writing a book about my experiences with Buddhism at the time).
I had my homework cut out for me. There were many obstacles in my path that needed clearing. I journaled, reflected, and journaled some more. What helped most was bringing mindfulness around my insecurities. When feelings of self-doubt arose, for example, I took a deep breath and played the role of observer, as we are taught in meditation. Rather than allow myself to get entangled with thoughts of deficiency, I reminded myself that I was doing the best I could with the skills and knowledge I had.
After some time, I began to trust these thoughts until they became stronger and more rooted into my psyche. Then, I began to believe them. I trusted that what I wrote was good enough. It was okay that I hadn’t yet developed a command of the English language to tell my story; I didn’t have years of writing experience under my belt. It was also okay that there were deeper layers of truth and understanding to be uncovered. It helped that I was able to place a disclaimer about my limitations in the beginning of my book. What mattered was that I had embarked on the journey of a thousand miles. I felt alive. I was doing what I loved.
Today, I am in an entirely different place with my writing. While I still nitpick my way through my writing, I have eased up some. There is more grace. I don’t need to get everything right on my first attempt. I have also released the need for my work to yield a desirable outcome; I am working toward gentle improvements instead. In this sense, I have become a real artist—I allow myself to play and make mistakes. I accept where I am, just as I am. If one person reads these words, then great. A few thousand? Even better, but that’s not the reason we create. Allowing ourselves to truly connect with our work is the true reward.
I have also learned that striving for excellence is a wonderful thing, but this is not the same as aiming for perfectionism. Striving for excellence means that we are internally motivated. We care about our work, and we are trying our best while giving ourselves space to grow. There is an expansive quality to it, one that ironically, exceeds perfectionism. Perfectionism is externally motivated and rooted in fear. It is limiting and stifling to the true expression of our soul.
So, how about those goals, dreams, and hobbies of yours? Why not buy that starter kit for your bread? Set that daily timer for your meditation. Write those first clumsy words of your novel. Enroll in next year’s marathon.
We all have things holding us back, but if we want to live a passionate life, one that is full of mystery and wonder, we must step beyond our perceived limitations.
As we enter into the New Year, why not take that first, wobbly step?
Develop the habit of beginning and see where the road takes you. Move from a world of thought to a world manifest of all your heart’s desires. Little by little, bit by bit, you will come one step closer to a thousand miles.