Practice Makes Progress
Growing up is hard. It’s as simple and straightforward as that.
I can still remember how awkward and uncomfortable I felt in my body. Between puberty and periods, and covering up unruly acne and unwanted body odor, I never felt confident in my skin. I could never show the real me. During that time of my life all I wanted was to be “future me”.
Most nights I would dream about the day when I was 3-5 years older and thriving in high school. To a 12 year old being in high school was the pièce de résistance. Whenever I saw high schoolers I just knew that that’s when my life would begin. I would finally grow out of my acne, get a boyfriend, and feel much more secure about myself.
To me there was something special about seeing someone older. They had more knowledge, responsibilities, and freedom, so I thought they had all the answers. Yet when I finally reached high school I still felt lost. I studied and succeeded at school, but I hadn’t gained any confidence. So I kept looking up to those older than me and figured I’d find my answers -and myself- in college.
My college experience did give me the most confidence to be who I am, yet I left with more questions than when I started. And here I am, almost 6 years later, and I’m still filled with unanswered questions about myself and life.
Growing up I was always under the impression that older meant wiser. That those who’ve gone through the stages of life before me must have completed them successfully, thus we should listen and look up to them. It made sense to me. But once I graduated from college and entered the working world, I began to question this theory.
I was surrounded by co-workers of all ages and backgrounds. The more I got to know them, the more I saw that they still had struggles -some similar to mine! They didn’t have a handbook of their personal history they could turn to for answers. Instead they were learning how to cope with life in the moment, just as I was. Even though we were all in a different place of our lives, our struggles united us. And that’s when it hit me. There was no finish line or stopping point of success in adulthood.
Although we’re destined to get older, it doesn’t mean that we’ll get wiser. No one is guaranteed happiness. Yet all I had to get me through the troubling times of childhood was the expectation of an ideal adulthood. Now I understand that the magic I saw when I looked up to those older than me was based on a system of fabricated success.
I thought that following the rules and checking off the boxes of success would reward me with satisfaction and fulfillment when I reached adulthood. The realization that this wasn’t the case allowed me to escape from the societal mindset that work equals success, and the harder you work the happier you’ll be. Instead, I came to realize that my happiness comes from within me. This led me to create the mindset that personal progress is success.
As the old saying goes, “I am my own worst critic”, which perfectly describes how I’ve always seen myself. It’s an inescapable state of mind that never rests. Being self-aware from a young age meant that I was always thinking and worrying about who I was becoming -how I was progressing.
Whenever I failed a test, said something embarrassing to a friend, or disappointed my parents I took it to heart. I couldn’t just forgive myself and forget about it. These moments of failure felt like the end of the world at the time and would stick in my mind whenever I doubted myself. Before I tried something new there was a constant reminder of, “Remember when…” which destroyed any confidence I had in myself or a positive outcome.
I looked at obstacles in my life as setbacks instead. I wasn’t used to failure, so what should have been a time of learning felt like a time of weakness. But to me this feeling was normal. It became a way to judge myself and my “success” as an individual. Instead of embracing my imperfections I tried to hide them so I would be accepted by society. Yet on the inside I was still lost and confused -always unsure of my future and what it would hold.
As I was a quiet, sensitive child I spent a lot of time in my thoughts. Whether I was in school, with friends and family, or by myself there was always a part of me that was living in the past or in the future. I would ruminate over the awkward moments of my day -or the top 10 of my life- along with creating what would’ve been the perfect comment or comeback. Or I would envision future scenarios of interactions I was dreading and tried to prepare what I’d say or how I would respond.
Although these worries about my past and future gave me stress, I couldn’t stop thinking. I thought that reliving or planning my life meant I could control it and bring about the success and happiness I was searching for. So I continued to critique myself because I knew I’d finally be fulfilled once I was “older and wiser”. As this mindset followed me into college, I realized that this was the time in my life I’d been waiting for. This was the goal of my childhood dreams, but I still felt like a scared kid.
I finally understood that up until this point I was only living my life for the future me -not who I was. So throughout my time at college I learned how to practice self-love and accept that who I am now is perfect. That I’m all I can ever be in each moment. I gained a whole new appreciation for myself and what I bring to the table that’s unique to me. Instead of hiding my faults and fears, maybe they’re meant to show me how much stronger I could be. So I began to look at my future in a way that benefited the current me, not who I was going to be.
Once I stopped looking at my life as a race I needed to win, I began to actually enjoy where I was now. Everyone else is too busy looking at their own lane anyway, so it didn’t bother me as much when I fell down or messed up in mine. I knew no one would remember or care in a day but myself. But if I kept turning my memories into weapons and holding onto negative thoughts, the only person it would hurt is me.
So I started to change the way I thought. It took time to train the voice inside my head to find the silver linings and let the rest leave my mind. But little by little, over the course of a few years, I saw and felt a change towards authentic acceptance. I did my best to stay in the present moment and focus on what was actually happening, instead of the made-up scenarios in my head.
Before I was acting on impulse and trying to move past the challenging moments so that I could get to the good ones. Yet true character is built from the ground up. When we bypass the times we’re knocked down, we never learn how to use our inner strength to pick ourselves back up again.
I’d been avoiding my downfalls because I saw them as a weakness -a sign that I couldn’t succeed. Now I realize that I never gave myself the opportunity to see how strong I could be. True personal power comes from practice and patience -two things I wasn’t accustomed to. I didn’t understand the power I had locked inside my mind. And I’d been letting it indulge in negativity instead of positivity.
It took many years and moments of relapse to make me who I am today. But it was worth the wait. Because now if I find myself assuming the worst intentions or fast forwarding through worst-case scenarios, I can acknowledge these thoughts and steer my mind away from them. I’m not avoiding or dismissing, but surrendering. It’s a daily practice that takes more energy than succumbing to my old ways, yet it’s slowly becoming second nature.
The more I realized that I was the one responsible for creating a change in myself and my perspective on life, the more I refused to return to my old ways. Life will always have its ups and downs, but now I can use them to make me stronger.
I’ve put a lot of time and energy into cultivating the “new” me. Thus I’m learning to stay away from bad habits and influences that might cause me to revert back to who I was. Because some days just maintaining my composure is progress. Not giving into someone else’s expectation of me is progress. And to me any progress is positive.
That’s all that life is -a work in progress. Each day is just another opportunity for us to build towards our own personal success. There’s no point in giving up or giving in. Time will keep passing but it won’t be under your control. Instead, focus on each day for what it is. What can I do today to practice progress? How can I take a step towards success?
For me, the exact location of success is always changing, yet how I reach it stays the same. Whether it’s controlling my anger or creating a successful website, there are personal and professional goals I have for myself. Thus if I spend 5 minutes deep breathing or 5 hours writing, to me it’s all a step towards success. It doesn’t matter what I do as long as it’s for the benefit of the bigger picture.
Once you stop measuring progress solely by societal standards, it’s easier to have patience and appreciate all levels of achievement. There is no “perfect”. You can practice all you want, but you’ll never have a time in your life that’s better than right now. Because now is the only time you’ll ever have.
Instead of working towards perfection, work towards personal progress. Becoming your best self. Then anything you do, positive or negative, is a step forward. You’re just practicing how to progress! So build your own race course and set yourself up to succeed by placing as many finish lines as you need. Then when you overcome your obstacles you’ll find success every step of the way.
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