I couldn’t believe my eyes. One day, the gravel inside our fish tank was pressed flat as if leveled by a steamroller. The following morning, there was a mountain sloping along the left side of the tank, almost reaching the top.
I wondered what happened, but assumed my husband had reconfigured the tank for some reason. Who else could have done it? “Richard,” I said, “did you rearrange the fish-tank gravel for a particular reason?” I waited for a reasonable response. “No, Cine,” he said. “I didn’t do it. Ben did it.”
“Ben?” I laughed. “Yeah, right. Don’t be silly, Richard, Ben’s a fish.” He was an extraordinarily beautiful black-and-white, horizontally striped Engineer Goby. For years, he was half of the dynamic duo of Ben and Jerry and the oldest fish in our tank. When I arrived in Marin County eight years ago, he was here. He’s still around.
“Stop making up a story,” I said. The fish didn’t create that big mountain, especially not overnight.
“Francine,” he said, “I really didn’t do it. The other day, I saw Ben pick up a mouthful of gravel, swim a few inches, then spit it out.”
I said, “But look at how big that mountain is. How could he have done that all by himself? He’s a fish.”
A few days later, I caught Ben in the act. I watched in amazement as this thin eel-like fish, with a tiny opening for a mouth, created a foothill for a mountain larger than himself. What a remarkable demonstration of an Esteemable Act. Through small, conscious, consistent actions, he accomplished his goal.
This reminds me of the story of the tortoise and the hare. The hare is slick and quick but never makes it to the finish line. The tortoise is the perceived loser. No one thinks he’ll even make it to the finish line, let alone win the race. Yet he does. Why? Because he never gets cocky, doesn’t give up, and takes small, conscious, baby steps toward the finish line. I am the tortoise. And I continue to baby step my way to success.
How easy it is to think accomplishing our goals depends on taking huge leaps in record speed. In truth, most of us get to the finish line by taking small, conscious steps—one step at a time. For the Goby, one small pebble at a time grew into a mountain. For the tortoise, one small step at a time got him to the finish line.
It works! Consciously doing something over and over again works. But regardless of how well it works and how great the re- wards, baby steps are a concept that’s hard to grasp. Why? We live in a society that judges people by the big steps they take. We give credit for reaching the destination, not for the journey along the way. Not only do we not encourage the taking of small steps, we penalize people for taking too long to get to a destination.
Furthermore, taking baby steps is tedious work and is often perceived as hard. And most of us simply don’t want to work that hard. We want the results, but we don’t want to do what it takes to get there. We start a project, stop, start again, and then we want to rest. It’s hard to stay focused on the task at hand—even if it’s something we say we want.
Another thing that gets in our way is the need to do everything yesterday. Almost without exception, my clients come to me in need of motivation. They’ve spent months and, in some cases, years doing nothing. Then, all of a sudden, they are inspired to take action. The problem is they then want to do everything yesterday. They don’t want to wait or do a little at a time. Instead, they want to do it all at once; they want to make up for the lost time. The idea of baby steps is repulsive to them and gets tossed out of the window. Yet, as in Alcoholics Anonymous or any Twelve Step program, doing something a day at a time leads to success.
The greatest benefit of baby steps is getting the job done. Because we have been consistently doing something, it is completed in a shorter amount of time than we could imagine. Furthermore, we feel good about ourselves because we stayed the course. We kept our agreement with ourselves.
How do we get beyond our aversion to taking one small step at a time? We take action. We become willing to consistently do what we often perceive as the work. Here are a few actions that helped me shift my thinking from destination-focused to baby-step focused:
- Create an intention to honor your healing journey, every step of the way. Progress is rarely made by leaps and bounds, but by consistent, small action steps.
- Start being your own biggest fan. If you don’t appreciate your small steps, how can you expect others to?
- Break tasks into small pieces. See each action item as a mini-goal. It makes your tasks mentally and emotionally manageable.
- Remind yourself that every action counts. Repeat to yourself, “Every action I take moves me closer to my overall goal.”
- Pray for support, and then use it.
Self-esteem comes from taking action— one baby step at a time.