Her foot flew through the air, toward a small hand-held target, held three feet above her head. A loud “thwack” echoed throughout the Dojang. She landed lightly, a smile creeping across her lips. Her instructor, who was holding the target smiled back at her; an almost perfect jumping crescent kick.
It had taken her some time to build the skill to perform the kick. A few months ago, this beginner student had walked into the school, looking for a place to get stronger, more agile, more confident. She’d noticed someone performing the kick in her first class and had dedicated herself to achieving it since that day. It was slow at first, she’d finally made progress.
Human beings are impatient. I’m not sure if it’s a result of living lives filled with convenience, or whether it’s some kind of deep-set evolutionary need to do things as quickly as possible, but either way, when we want something, we usually want it yesterday. In most cases, it’s this need for instant gratification that stops people from reaching their goals – they don’t have the patience to get through the rough parts. In fact, most of the time, if someone ceases to notice their own constant improvement, they’re more likely to give up attempting to achieve their goals. While that is in no way a rule, it’s unfortunately the case for a lot of people.
But constant improvement is never possible. There will always be plateaus, frustrating periods where nothing seems to happen. It is in these moments that people get discouraged, and they perhaps decide to take a break, or they put less effort in while they’re working. It often doesn’t take too long before that person hasn’t actively tried in weeks. Those weeks turn to months, and that goal, or that idea turns from something you could imagine into something related to a past interest, a forgotten hobby.
The process of progress is never about constant improvement. It’s about realization of improvement at key points in time. It’s the moment where you can do a kick that you couldn’t before, when you can move into a yoga pose that was previously impossible, when you start winning a few more matches than you lose each session, when you get an email from someone important, or when you suddenly notice that you feel better than you ever have before.
It’s something that weight lifters will often face. After building large amounts of strength in a relatively short period of time when they begin, it’s never too long before they reach a plateau, and don’t improve for a while. But if they stick to their training regimes, they’re still building strength, their bodies are still growing and they are improving; it’s just not as noticeable anymore.
In the Martial Arts, I often go through cycles where I feel as though I’m really, just not very good. The reality is that I’ve gotten no worse than I was, but I haven’t noticed an improvement for a while. It means that the positive reinforcement is in the works; it’s coming but it’s not here just yet. In those moments, the best thing you can do is keep training, keep looking for ways to improve, for the next habit you can build or break that will help push you in the right direction.
The process of progress occurs largely without us seeing it. Unlike video games, there are no experience bars in life. You can’t tell exactly how much effort you have to put in, or exactly how long it’s going to take you to improve. All you know is that if you keep trying, you will, eventually, improve. It may take you three days, it may take you three years. The process is occurring, but you can’t see it.
One key to improving yourself, in any way you’d like, is to try and forget about positive reinforcement. Focus on the process, not the progress, and the progress will take care of itself. Sooner or later, you’ll have one of those moments, where you can connect the dots, where you notice the improvement; where it all makes sense.
Then you begin again.
“All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.”
~ Martin Luther King, Jr