Too often people overestimate the significance of one big defining moment and underestimate the value of making good decisions and tiny steps of progress on a daily basis.
You’re probably familiar with what’s known as the Serenity Prayer. It goes like this:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
There’s an important lesson here—one that’s very often glossed over…
When a chaotic reality is swirling around us, we often try to relieve our anxiety by exerting our will over external things we cannot control.
It helps us stave off one of the most dreaded feelings: complete powerlessness.
With that in mind, I have good news and bad news.
The bad news is that generally speaking, almost everything is outside your control. What other people do, whether it will rain tomorrow, whether or not your efforts will be appreciated—all of these outcomes depend on factors that aren’t YOU.
But that’s also the good news.
The friction and frustration created by trying to change things you cannot change is the crucible where a ton of unhappiness is born. Accepting that most things are outside your influence gives you explicit permission to let them unfold as they may.
Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it this way:
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions.”
Overcoming the “three big un’s” that so many of us struggle with daily—unhappiness, unconvinced things will ever change, unsure what to do next—begins with understanding what you can control and what you cannot.
The mental shift here is not easy. Most of us have spent a lifetime worrying about things that we can’t control. Society practically encourages this. For most, it’s a bona fide habit—one that should be replaced with a healthy understanding of how much we can actually change. Again though, it’s hard to get your mind wrapped around all this when you’re constantly hearing…
“Why don’t you just get over it?” or “Just let it go.”
We’ve all heard some flavor of this advice before. And it passes the sniff test, to a certain extent.
I mean, “time heals all wounds,” right? Well, yes… sort of. But wounds heal differently depending on how they’re treated.
Left alone, a gash in your skin will leave a large scar and be vulnerable to injury again in the future. This is why we get stitches—it helps the wound heal in a way that limits the chance of re-injury down the road.
Emotional wounds work the same way. Given enough time, most emotional pain will diminish—that’s true. But…
Just “Getting Over It” Leaves Scars
In the emotional sense, scars equal baggage—baggage we carry with us into every aspect of our lives. These scars grow and accumulate until one day you wake up suffering from one or more of the “three un’s” (unhappiness, unconvinced things will ever change, unsure what to do next).
So, don’t get over it. Go through it, one step at a time.
Honestly, I understand the desire to “get over” difficult experiences or situations rather than facing them. Revisiting painful memories or facing our present demons is really, really hard. And we as human beings are hard-wired to not cause ourselves pain.
However, as our parents taught us, ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away.
And in addition to the scars, to ignore or downplay a wound puts you at risk for infection, emotionally as well as physically.
Unresolved issues in your life take up residence in your mind and influence your decisions, your relationships, and your attitudes. They rob you of your happiness and potential.
Of course, doing the hard yet necessary things to resolve your issues and heal your wounds can feel impossible. This is how Angel and I felt a decade ago when we were knocked down and stuck in a rut after simultaneously losing two loved ones—including Angel’s dear brother—to suicide and illness. It was nearly impossible to move anywhere significant when we didn’t feel we had the strength to push forward.
So, if you’re feeling this way now—like it’s impossible to make significant progress today—you aren’t wrong for feeling what you feel. In many cases, you’re right: significant progress comes gradually with time and consistency. It’s all about taking one tiny positive step at a time, and staying the course…
The Power of Tiny Changes
Think about the fact that it only takes a one degree change in temperature to convert water to vapor, or ice to water. It’s such a tiny change—just one step in a different direction—and yet the results are dramatic. A tiny change can make all the difference in the world.
Now, consider another example where a tiny change is compounded by time and distance. Perhaps you’re trying to travel somewhere specific, but you’re off course by just one tiny degree in the wrong direction…
- After one mile, you would be off course by over 92 feet.
- If you were trying to travel from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., you would land near Baltimore, Maryland, over 42 miles away from your desired destination.
- Traveling around the world from Washington, D.C. back to Washington D.C., you’d miss by 435 miles and end up landing near Boston instead.
- In a spaceship traveling to the moon, a one-degree error would have you missing the moon by over 4,100 miles.
You get the idea—over time and distance, a mere one-degree change in course makes a significant difference…
This same philosophy holds true in various aspects of our lives. The tiniest things we do each day—positive and negative alike—can make all the difference. They either bring us closer or farther away from where we ultimately want to be. And yet, we mostly ignore this reality. We default to behaving as if our daily actions won’t ever be significant enough. Or, again, we try to exert control over the bigger things we have no control over.
Think about it…
- How many people uphold unhealthy and unproductive habits?
- How many people procrastinate on the next positive step?
- How many people live every day of their lives moving one degree away from where they ultimately want to be?
Don’t be one of them anymore!
Truth be told, everyone travels 24 hours a day, whether they’re moving in the right direction or not.
How much richer would your life be if you committed yourself to making just one degree of effort to improve something about your situation each day?
And even though it will surely be harder than doing nothing, it doesn’t even have to be anything that hard. You just need to muster up the courage to break free from the status quo and take one tiny step forward today, and then do it again tomorrow.
Pick something tiny and productive to improve upon, and then make it a daily habit.
Doing so will make all the difference in the world, just a few short weeks down the road.
(Note: Angel and I build tiny, life-changing daily habits like this with our students in the “Goals and Growth” module of the Getting Back to Happy Course.)
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