While I am a woman of Science, I am also a highly superstitious person.
On Friday, my family was driving up to the Colorado mountains from our home. It’s about a two-hour drive, and something we do many winter weekends. It’s a good time for my husband and I to catch up after a busy week. We were talking through a few things. And reluctantly, I mentioned a good thing that had happened. Something that wasn’t big enough to mention when I got the news. But it was a small, incremental win that could lead to a few other small, incremental wins in the future.
I was hesitant to even mention it. As if the words coming out of my mouth would have the power to change the course of things. And as soon as I did speak the words, I started knocking on wood and puh-puh-puh-ing. Like my Jewish grandmothers used to do to ward off the Evil Eye.
We are often reluctant to mention the small wins. Sometimes we don’t even stop and notice them at all. The small wins in our lives can show up more like the absence of a loss. It’s not a win, it’s a relief that nothing bad happened. The work presentation wasn’t a disaster after all. My latest article didn’t disappear into the abyss of the internet. I went for a run after a few days off and didn’t have to walk after mile 2.
But why don’t we celebrate these little wins? Stop thinking about them as the absence of a negative. Reframe them as a positive. The work presentation went well! People read my article. I completed another run.
Many people live their lives in fear of being disappointed. That they might get their hopes up. That they might dare to believe that one small positive thing could mean more small positive things down the road. And then it doesn’t, and that sting would be more painful than if we assumed the worst from the beginning.
But research shows that acknowledging and celebrating those small wins actually helps us continue to make progress. Teresa Amabile from Harvard Business School wrote a book called The Progress Principle. Her studies were focused on work. But she studied over 12,000 diaries of employees of 7 different organizations. And the results showed her the biggest impact on people’s ability and willingness to keep moving forward towards their bigger goals. As she states in the book:
Of all the positive events that influence work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work.
Also, she found that recording and reflecting on the small wins helps us recognize and appreciate that progress. Acknowledging these small wins, these small bits of progress, reinforces our confidence in ourselves and our goals. As Micaela Marini Higgs describes in her New York Times article on Amabile’s book:
Keeping a daily list of your accomplishments can be one of the most powerful ways to improve your intrinsic motivation, productivity, creativity and mood.
Celebrating the big wins is easy. The job promotion, the book deal, the marriage. Those practically come with their own party. People respond to those wins with accolades and without a second thought. But how often do the big wins happen in anyone’s life? A few times a year? And that’s being optimistic.
It’s the acknowledgment of the little wins that drive us forward and make a great life. That feeling that we are making progress. In something that matters to us. So it’s the acknowledgment of micro-progress that brings satisfaction, confidence, and the willingness to keep trying.
If you stop, take a minute, and breathe, you will find little wins all around you. The little lego bricks that build a life full of tiny happy moments. Don’t hold your breath and wait to only celebrate those few big wins in your life. Waiting for them will only hold you back and take longer for you to get there.
I plan to be more intentional about acknowledging progress. Allowing the moment to be what it is — a step in the right direction. It doesn’t mean there won’t be steps backward in the future — there always are. But I need to reframe my thinking about saving my ‘celebration’ for the very end. Because that’s now how life works. Every ending is in some way another beginning. If I sit and wait until ‘the end’ to be proud of myself, I’ll waste a lot of time and knock on a lot of wood.
So look around you right now. I bet there are at least two things that happened in the past week that are incrementally positive. Things that didn’t go badly. Things that could be considered positive progress in an area that is meaningful to you. Look at them. Focus on them. Smile to yourself when you think about them.
Because, to quote the famous philosopher, Ferris Bueller:
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
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