The Power of Gradual

This post originally appeared in my newsletter.

If you’re like most people, you want change and progress to be big, obvious, and fast.

Yet real, lasting change and progress is seldom big, or obvious – and it’s almost never fast.

It’s gradual.  Incremental.

Waves take years to shape jagged, broken bits into the beautiful, rounded forms of beach glass.  And it might be cliche to say that oak trees take decades to grow from acorns – but it’s true, nonetheless.

At this season, you may be looking back at the year that’s past, evaluating how you feel about it, comparing your expectations and goals from the beginning of the year to what actually happened.

Let go of those comparisons.  Let go of the judgments that inevitably come up when you make those comparisons. 

And instead, take a deeper look at what actually happened this year.  Take a look at the surprises, the unexpected experiences, and the ways those surprises and experiences helped create gradual change and incremental progress for you.  Change and progress that you may have been unaware of, simply because it was so gradual.

Here are a few ways to do this.

Notice subtlety

As I’ve said, progress happens gradually.  When you’re in the middle of it, it can be hard to notice.

I see it in my clients all the time.  When I ask them to look back, to notice where they were six months or a year prior, and compare it to where they are now, they’re often startled – and moved – by how far they’ve come.

What subtle changes have happened for you over the year? What progress has occurred that you haven’t noticed – and that you might not have taken full advantage of, or given yourself full credit for?

Acknowledge yourself

Challenges arose during the year that you could never have anticipated.  And you met those challenges.

Acknowledge your courage.  Notice the many things you managed, handled, accepted, coped with, and excelled at during the year. 

If those challenges seemed to be off-track – unrelated to what you thought you wanted to do and accomplish – you might have overlooked how you were strong, the ways in which you grew, the skills and talents you developed, and the love and appreciation you experienced.

Often what you might think are distractions from the path you expected to be following turn out to be key aspects of life.  So in looking back, consider what life might be asking you to pay attention to going forwards.

Go with the flow

When you notice how life is moving, the direction it seems to be flowing in, opportunities naturally open up for you. 

When you pay attention to what’s really happening, instead of what you think should be happening, or even what you believe you want to happen, the power and natural intelligence of life becomes available to you.

The whitewater rafter doesn’t use brute force or willpower to get the raft down the river safely.

He uses his observation of how the water is actually flowing to help him understand what direction to paddle in.

He knows that fighting the flow, insisting that it be different than it really is, will only get him wet (and possibly drowned).

Just because you can’t see the flow of life in the same way as the rafter sees the flow of water doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Let go of your assumptions and expectations.

Pay attention.

I can tell you from personal experience as well as from the experiences of my clients … it’s a lot more fun, a lot more satisfying, and a lot more productive.

“I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know.”  Joanna Field – pseudonym of Marion Milner, 1900-1998, British author and psychoanalyst and pioneer of introspective journaling.