June 15, 2020 | 12:10

The Imperceptible Nature Of Everyday Change

Think about yourself one year ago as of now. Are you different? How?

Are you more or less healthy?
Are you more or less wealthy?
Are you more or less proficient at what you do?
Is your relationship with your spouse/partner better or worse?

Now take a moment and think when did those changes happen? Is there a specific day during which all those changes have occurred? Several days? Can you identify a single moment in time when you became a different person?

Except for some extreme cases (e.g., an unfortunate accident that affected your health, or winning at the lottery, that influenced your wealth), the changes that happened to you during the previous year are not tied to a specific event, not even a particular day. They are continuous, seamless, small transformations that occurred during every moment of every day over the past 365 days that, cumulatively, summed up to what you are now.

Some events might seem like they are decisive (e.g., you broke up with your partner, got fired, got promoted, won a competition, etc.), but those are just culmination points of a journey started long before that. Think of it as pole vaulting.

Pole Vaulting

Pole vaulting is a track and field event in which a person uses a long flexible pole as an aid to jump over a bar.1

Pole Vault

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The current world record at pole vaulting is 6.18 m (20 ft 3 in) and was established by Armand Duplantis from Sweden on 15 Feb 2020.1

The most intensive, thrilling, and memorable part of pole vaulting is what happens at the altitude of the bar. It marks the success or failure of the attempt to clear a given height. Regardless of the outcome, you get to see a close-up slow-motion replay of the “fly-away” phase (the sequence when the athlete is flying over the bar).

But that very moment that the whole world will rewatch multiple times, when the professional is at its highest point in their jump, bending over the bar, is actually the easiest. At that point in time, all an athlete can do is only control their limbs and head, so they do not knock the bar off. The hard work that rocketed them and made the jump possible is done all the way before that culminating second that the whole world will see, and it started when the contestant made their first step on the runway.

Below is a brief overview of the generally accepted phases of a jump, according to Wikipedia.

A successful jump requires acquiring good speed during the approach. Top class vaulters use approaches with 18 to 22 strides, often referred to as a “step,” in which every other foot is counted as one step. The plant and take-off are initiated typically three steps out from the final step. During these steps, the vaulter is dropping the pole tip into the box, and on the final one, the vaulter jumps off the trail leg. Then there goes the swing up, where lots of things should happen (I’m skipping details since this already gets long) in preparation for the extension (the expansion of the hips upward with outstretched legs as the shoulders drive down, positioning the vaulter upside down). The turn is executed immediately after or even during the end of the rockback. The vaulter turns 180° toward the pole while extending the arms down past the head and shoulders. The fly-away phase mainly consists of the vaulter pushing off the pole and releasing it, so it falls away from the bar and mats. The vaulter’s primary concern is making sure that their arms, face, and any other appendages do not knock the bar off as they go over.

All these phases, when executed flawlessly and on time, result in a successful jump. But err at any of those, and you put the whole vault in jeopardy. Each step and each movement matters.

Back To The Real Life

And so it happens in life as well. The successes, especially the “overnight successes” other people see and read, are overrated. That achievement is a culmination point that is a result of a lot of steps and actions made right.

But the preceding run before the success is boring. Nobody (except maybe other professional sportspeople) rewatch how the athlete made their first steps when they started their vaulting attempt. Likewise, very few are interested in the whole journey that led you to success because that path itself is boring. But boring is necessary, and boring is an indispensable part of victory.

Be it relationships, health, career, or anything else—the big and bright events in your life are a result of the consistent and pretty much dull path that preceded them.

You build yourself every day. You learn and do something throughout the day, then go to sleep, and your brain does its magic to incorporate and process the information you have learned during that day into your long-term memory. Then you start a new day, and unbeknown to you (or maybe you realize that, but still you don’t see any visible changes), you are a different person than yesterday by a tiny bit. And that small difference adds up. Each day you start where you left off yesterday.

That’s what happened during the last year when you are looking in retrospective. But more importantly, that’s what will happen in the year ahead of you.

Consider the interactive visualization below. The X axis is a time scale, and it corresponds to one year. At the top of the view is your desired goal, and at the baseline level are you—today. Therefore the Y axis represents how far you are, conceptually, from your desired goal.

At the bottom of it is a slider that allows you to control the balance of your actions. Initially, all your activities are balanced, meaning that you do approximately the same amount of constructive and destructive actions. To demonstrate this better, let’s take Health as an example.

In health, some constructive actions are:

  • drinking an adequate volume of water daily;
  • having a balanced diet;
  • practicing sports;

Some destructive activities:

  • abundant alcohol drinking;
  • eating junk food;

Moreover, sometimes you might not do something, and that might be as destructive as doing something wrong. For instance, a substantial number of people have a sedentary lifestyle today. Research shows that approximately 25% to 35% of American adults are inactive2 (about every fourth to every third person!). Therefore, “doing nothing” or “being idle," is also detrimental to our health in this case, as a lack of physical activity increases the risk of developing numerous health conditions.

The Curve Of Everyday Change

Actions balance: 0%

Important note: The data in the visualization is generated randomly. It means that for 0%, you have the same amount of constructive vs. destructive actions on average. Also, because the data is random, it means you will get different curves each time you change it (even for the same ratio when you view it multiple times).

So, while your actions are balanced and you do the same amount of activities that pull you toward your goal and others that push you away from it, you will stay at about the same level. You might see some progress for some time, then some regress that will cancel that progress out.

But once you align your actions with your goal and start doing more “good” rather than “bad” decisions (move the slider to the right), you start approaching your target objective. And the more such appropriate actions you do, the faster you will achieve your goal.

Conversely, if you do more actions with a destructive character (move the slider to the left), you distance yourself from your goals.

Think About Your Goals

Take a moment to think about how the curve of everyday change might look like for your health, career, relationship in the past year? Are you happy with it?

I hope it went up. However, do not unsettle if it did not, because today you are at that baseline on the left of the visualization for the week, month, year, or decade that is ahead of you.

Today you can make the first step on the runway and get a new attempt at jumping over the bar. Keep in mind that the most substantial part of your journey requires thoroughness and perseverance. It often might be tedious, demand lots of effort, and you might not see any immediate changes. But if you stick to it and start doing things that will help you approach your goal, then sometime in the future you will look back at your journey and feel proud of yourself.

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  1. Wikipedia—Pole Vaulting ↩︎

  2. American Psychological Association—Physical Inactivity Poses Greatest Health Risk to Americans, Research Shows ↩︎

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