The first step’s a doozy

Every day most of us make little compromises, and do things that we don’t think are right. We would prefer to do the right thing, but we are too tired, too stressed, can’t be bothered, can’t afford it today. Or it’s too scary, too intimidating, or simply too hard to make the right choice. We compromise on big things like career choices, and on little things like whether we walk or drive to the beach.

Each of these little compromises tarnishes the soul, and leaves us feeling a little bit worse for wear. We wind up with a little less self-esteem and a little less joy each time we fall short of the behaviour we think of as ideal.

This week I discovered something interesting – there is a snow ball effect that works both ways. Every time you compromise your principles, the rust spreads a little, and you are more likely to compromise the next time. The upside is that each time you draw the line at a compromise, and choose your ideal action, it gets easier. Every time you do the right thing, you make the habit of doing the right thing a little stronger, a little more ingrained.

Recently I made a difficult career decision: to move deliberately into a new area that I feel very strongly about. It’s a scary step, a leap into the unknown, but it is already paying off. I seem to have started an avalanche. Even the incredibly scary choices, the ones that feel like running into the lion’s den and shouting “snack time!”, are becoming easier.

With those big decisions, it can feel like jumping off a cliff.  The first step’s a doozy, but once you get over the edge, abseiling down that cliff can be the ride of your life. The trick is choosing to take that first step.

The last year has been a really interesting one in my life. I have been making more and more choices in line with my beliefs – practicing what I preach and putting my money where my mouth is. It has happened gradually, but each time I do it, it feels really good, and so I’m more likely to do it next time. All those little times when I didn’t compromise myself have added up to a huge dose of self esteem. Now when the first step’s a doozy, I am more likely to take it by default, instead of wimping out.

Human beings are very simple creatures, and easily programmable. When you do something that gives you positive feedback, you want to do it again. Hence the addictive power of drugs, like alcohol, that make you feel good. That initial feedback is the most powerful – the longer it takes to get the feedback, the weaker the reinforcement, so the delayed downsides of drugs don’t have the same force as that initial pleasure hit.

Each time I make a tiny compromise on my beliefs, I tell myself that it’s only a small thing. It doesn’t matter just this once. But it turns out that it does. That snowball effect creates an avalanche really fast. Newton said that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. But it seems that every action makes the snowball bigger, too. So go ahead. Take that first step. It could be the ride of your life.

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