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Some of the best advice I ever got came from the wonderful book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
She was discussing the business of writing novels and how daunting a task it is to anyone with a shred of humility.
Her recommendation, among many, was to approach any scene “bird by bird,” meaning, break down big things into small pieces and see them, and write about them, with clarity, calm, and focus.
As one of countless ordinary human beings who have attempted the almost impossible—to pen an actual story with characters, plot, dialogue, and all the rest of it—it was a big relief to have a concrete strategy for getting the job done. And it was that advice that, in part, finally got my book written in all its epic, narcissistic awfulness.
But how terrible it was was beside the point. The point was, I, little old me, had sustained my energy and effort long enough to create something that—while unimportant to anyone else—had a great deal of meaning to me. It taught me that I could do hard things, and it was a lesson I have carried forward for 25 years.
But over the years, “bird by bird” has come to have a broader connotation to me. As I finished my book and reflected on the process, I realized that I had written it one page at a time. This might seem obvious—how else are you going do it after all?! But the act of sitting down, day after day, forcing myself to write at least one page of this awful story, until I had done it enough times in a row that the number of pages equaled the length of a book, is pretty deep.
I slowly came to understand that this principle—page by page—can be applied to literally anything anyone wants to achieve. Small actions can lead to big results.
So how do we get started? Think about something you want to do in your life, something that seems so far out of reach, or that you’ve tried and “failed” at (quotation marks because failure is really just an opportunity for growth) so many times that you’ve lost faith that you could ever pull it off.
The first thing to do to get your feet on the path—again, or for the first time—is write down your goal and put it somewhere you can easily see it every day. Preferably on the brightest Post-it note you can find with a little spotlight shining directly on the words. That is your first “page”—and it’s all you need to do for that day except contemplate what would be a reasonable and logical second “page” to work on tomorrow.
This is where things can get tricky. We are so excited and eager to meet our goal, especially now that we are in a better frame of mind, that we universally do one of two things: give up right away because our feelings—though they are positive—are also overwhelming, or do way too much too fast.
In the first case, we end up feeling like we can’t trust ourselves to ever follow through (here I am again, we think, the same unreliable loser I was yesterday), and in the second, we pretty much guarantee that we’ll burn out faster than a sparkler on the 4th of July. There’s a reason the old adage “slow and steady wins the race” has such staying power. In other words, be the Turtle, don’t be the Hare.
The day after you put your Post-it note up in lights, and for all subsequent days until you reach your goal, you must write one relevant “page.” These “pages” can look like lots of different things: writing an email or making a phone call, reading and researching, talking to someone who has achieved your goal already—any action that supports the process that you have undertaken.
It might help to keep a list of the “pages” you are writing daily, a kind of “Yay, me!” sheet, so you can see the objective truth of your sustained efforts. Try not to let a single day go by without contributing to this list in some way.
“Try not to let a single day go by!” you might exclaim, “What are you, some kind of masochist?” Not at all! Sometimes your daily action will be tiny—maybe a five-minute meditation. Other days, your action will be bigger—maybe you do your meal prep for the whole week so you have time to work on your art. And then some days, oh some days, you will indeed let the entire day go by without contributing a single thing to your list, and those are scary days for sure. They’re filled with self-doubt, maybe even self-loathing, guilt, or the kind of numbness that can set in when we just want to escape.
But that’s okay. Anne Lamott has some sage advice here as well, couched in the inelegant chapter title of her aforementioned book, “Sh*tty First Drafts,” which speaks to the problem of perfectionism.
I don’t know about you, but I’m the type of person who gets nervous when a grape is out of place on a charcuterie board, so I’m familiar with the issue. In “Sh*tty First Drafts,” Lamott urges us to just write out whatever ugly, unrefined mess is in our heads and trust that we can polish it into something shiny later.
And that’s exactly what we need to do as we make our way toward our goal, which also means forgiving ourselves for not “writing the page” on the odd days we somehow just can’t manage it. Self-forgiveness is a real and magical tool for letting garbage go so we can get back to the good stuff. Even if our effort is subpar, it all goes into account. Nothing is ever wasted if it is done in service to our vision.
Is it hard to make these little changes that add up to big changes that change our lives? Yes and no.
The hardest part is maintaining the dogged belief you are going to do this thing, whatever it may, no matter how bad it may be, even on days when you want to give up. But you can do that. You are a stubborn person!
Life is short, and we don’t get many do-overs. If there is something you’ve been dreaming of, something that seems just out of reach, consider writing it down and then see where the next step leads you. And the next, and the next, and the next.
No matter what, you will learn and you will grow, and even if you just end up with a wall of Post-it notes, they will be a testament to your willingness to engage in your own life, to think about what you might want, what you might achieve, and what dreams are made of.