Tricky question – what fundamental thing does everyone need in order to achieve their ambitions? Rich parents? That can certainly help. But the real answer, as simple as it may seem, is progress.
No matter who you are or what you’re striving for, progress is the one thing capable of keeping every human’s mind focused on the pursuit of a goal. It makes sense – our minds see everything through a logical lens of action-reward. Do something good? Get something good. As far as we understand it, anything worth doing should pay off. Repeated effort with no better result is as Einstein defined, insanity.
This understanding gives us the unprecedented ability to hack our own minds in favor of success. If we’re motivated by signs of progress – that our efforts are worthwhile – we’re inevitably more likely to keep going. Therefore, taking smaller and easy-to-achieve steps is key.
For example, let’s say you want to write a book. The overachiever in you might think ‘I can get this done in a matter of days’ and make that the plan. It wouldn’t make you superhuman though, and it’s likely that book wouldn’t get finished within such a short timeframe. Sure, you knocked out a whole 11 chapters, but by highly-set standards, that’s still a failure. Going about things all at once is an easy way to let discouragement and burnout sabotage everything. Instead, it’s best to take things step-by-step, by setting manageable goals and rewarding yourself for the progress you make. In this instance, it might mean breaking that book down into multiple phases of development (e.g., writing, editing), setting a timeline for each phase, and recognizing your efforts every time one is completed. 110% effort, sure – but also one thing at a time.
For James, taking things one by one started with getting out of bed in the morning to attend physical therapy. Little acts like practicing drills for a few minutes eventually led to literal steps forward as he reestablished his ability to walk in a straight line. While it might not have seemed like it at the time, every small effort and success throughout that journey had a fundamental role in helping him progress.
“If you’re making progress, you have every reason in the world to keep doing what you’re doing,” he says.
“I was just looking for ways to get one percent better each day. I was looking for ways to have some small margin of improvement that I could use as a foothold and some stability, and then take that little step and use that to advance to the next level the day after that.”
Making Things Clear
James recorded what he learned throughout his personal journey of rehabilitation and eventually published those insights in his best-selling book, ‘Atomic Habits‘. But coming to fully understand the one percent concept wasn’t easy. He didn’t have a framework or language he could use to describe it and essentially developed the theory in real time. The key to making it make sense, he tells me, was explicitness.
Back to the topic of the human brain – it likes explanations. Recognizing things for what they are and sharing that perception with others is what gives us the ability to problem-solve so effectively. By at the very least talking about his incremental approach to progress and trying to put it into words, James would tighten his grasp on it and be able to share it with others.
This became very important as he continued to write ‘Atomic Habits’ and built an audience of followers. Taking shots at explaining things and bouncing ideas around became a key part of his creative process.
Passion as a Catalyst for Progress
Given that this podcast is produced by creators for creators, I had to ask James how passion equates into all of this. Anyone that’s chosen to pursue a career in the field knows that it can be hard – why and how do our interests keep us going?
Stimulus and result.
Remember that transactional action-reward logic I mentioned earlier? The same concept applies when it comes to starting a new endeavor.
We see hundreds of cues in our day-to-day lives that cause us to subconsciously do different things. For instance, when an ambulance siren wails down the road, everyone’s first instinct is to get out of the way. We know what that sound means and so we take action. Finding money on the ground is another great example – we could all use a little more of it, and having more of it makes us feel good. So we pick it up.
The same key elements are at play for professional opportunity.
When a person is passionate about something, it creates an internal stimulus that causes them to act. A free photography class? They’ll be the first one in line because they know that it will help them progress on their path to success. A friend’s suggestion of a great networking event? They’re already planning what to wear!
This internal stimulus spurs action, which then has the potential for an external reward (the photography class that leads to a job, the networking event that turns into a high-paying client).
This is why it’s so important to start with something small. If you’re passionate about something, find an actionable way to pursue it. Look for a class, volunteer at an event, follow someone in the field on Twitter. Taking small steps creates momentum that can lead to big rewards down the line!