It’s no accident that Dante began The Inferno, his allegorical journey through Hell, “Midway upon the journey of life / I found myself within a forest dark”.
In books and movies, the middle is the most exciting part – it’s where all the action and intrigue, all the surprises, twists and drama happen.
But, when you’re the protagonist – the person actually fighting the battles, dealing with the surprises, mysteries and missteps – it’s not as much fun. You don’t know the ending. You don’t even know if your efforts will get you to where you hope to go.
You don’t know if any of this is going to work.
Whether it’s the middle of a marathon, the halfway point on a project, or simply that place where you’ve invested so much but you’re not quite sure where you are or where you’re going, it’s easy to feel “stuck in the middle”.
Stuck. It’s exactly how I’ve felt over the last few months. The thrill of writing dreams and goals, of beginning that journey, is gone and the end feels so far away, if not impossible. I find myself wondering, Have I wasted time and energy in the wrong things? Is it too late to start again? Do I need to start again and leave where I’m at, or am I closer than I think to the end goal?
In his book, “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing”, Daniel Pink says, “Midpoints have powerful, though peculiar effects on what we do and how we do it. Sometimes hitting the midpoint – of a project, a semester, a life – numbs our interest and stalls our progress. Other times, middles stir and stimulate.”
The problem with middles is they’re muddy. We often think “the middle” is a clearly delineated place, marked by a precise dot, exactly half way between beginning and end. But, middles are actually a long stretch between start to finish, between point A and point B, a kind of gray area that, in reality, makes up about 80% of the actually journey. That means 80% of the time spent en route to our goal is spent in the struggling, muddling and figuring out – all the messy parts. Beyond that, sometimes our middle has a middle. It’s no wonder we feel “stuck”.
Middles are messy and no matter how you cut it, no matter what the goal or dream is, they’re an inevitable part of the process. But, the same midpoint that can stall our progress can also propel us forward. The difference between that which stalls us and that which propels us is all a matter of perception.
Our perception of progress depends on how we measure it.
When I ran track, it became evident early on that I was best suited for events that required maximum effort for short distance: 100m hurdles, long jump, triple jump and the 4x100m relay. Looking back, what’s fascinating about the 4x100m relay was that my split time varied greatly depending on what leg of the race I ran. In my mind, the straight away’s seemed so much longer even though I knew that each leg of the race was 100m. Looking down a straight path made everything seem longer and thus harder. It’s no surprise then that those legs of the relay produced my slowest times. The 2nd leg of the relay was by far my slowest and the 4th leg wasn’t that much better. Even though I was closer to the finish line, it still seemed so far away, especially if by the time I was handed the baton the other runners were much further ahead. On the other hand, the 1st and 3rd legs, those along the curve, proved to be my best times, with the 3rd leg marking my quickest splits. Leaning into the curve made me feel like I could run faster and so I did. I’ll never forget one of our invitational meets my freshman year where my coach videoed our relay. Our team was trailing towards the back, but as soon as I was handed the baton I flew like a bat out of hell, closing the gap and allowing our team to finish in 1st place.
The perception of the next steps toward a goal is different depending on how close we are (or think we are) to the goal itself. When we’re in the early stages of a project or goal, there’s excitement and with excitement comes intrinsic motivation. When we yield good progress (i.e. we lose a few lbs. toward our weight loss goal or we run a faster split time on the 3rd leg), we feel more motivated and we’re far more likely to reflect on our progress (“Look how far I’ve come!”). But, as we approach the middle, when we feel like our efforts yield little progress (“I’ve been at this-whatever forever and I don’t look/feel/see anything different”), our motivation wanes and our frame of reference shifts. We begin to focus on how much longer we have to go (if it’s something measurable like a race or project) – or, we worry that we’ve come this far and we’ll never get out of the middle to where we want to be. Our perception of progress depends on how we measure it.
From Stuck to Spark
Middles are a fact of life and a force of nature. Getting unstuck is recognizing no matter what goal or project you have, there’s always a midway point where the work gets tougher and your enthusiasm wanes. When we find ourselves in this stuck place, there’s three things we can do to turn what’s keeping us stuck into the spark that reignites our motivation.
Early on, it’s vital that we look back and celebrate what we have already achieved. These small wins along the way are what build motivation and momentum when energy and enthusiasm is high. Celebrate early. Celebrate often. Celebrate the big and small wins.
When we find ourselves at the midpoint – when we feel stuck or lost – it’s then that we need to shift our focus forward. The middle is all about perception. It’s about imagining you’re behind, but only by a little, and you’re on the curve, you’ve got the wind at your back and all you need to do is run like a bat out of hell toward the finish line.
Do you look at how far you have to go with anticipation or agitation?
Making the shift from looking back with appreciation to looking forward with anticipation and excitement is what turns a slump into a spark – it’s the thing that keeps us from being stuck in the middle and what allows us to navigate the middle.
Take Imperfect Action
When we’re knee-deep in the shitstorm that is the middle, it’s easy to be paralyzed with inaction, the kind where we want to move from where we are but we’re afraid if we take the wrong step, we’ll royally F things up. And so, we brood. And we complain. And we stay stuck. As a recovering perfectionist, my inaction is always born from fear that it won’t be the perfect action or I’m not taking it at the most ideal time.
Our need to know exactly what to do and when to do it, is the very thing that keeps us stuck. Being afraid we’ll be rejected prevents us from sharing our true feelings with someone else. Being afraid we won’t get what we really want prevents us from writing out the dream in all it’s magical glory (Yes, Hildie, I know. I need to write out the dream). Being afraid of taking the wrong action keeps us from taking imperfect action.
Imperfect action is the only action because it’s the messy steps, the pivots in life, that afford us freedom and movement. There are no wrong steps, only steps not taken – because who’s to say what leap will take us where anyway?
Take the imperfect steps
Write the shitty draft of your dream. Stumble over your words. Cry on the phone with your coach about it. Stomp your feet and take your tantrum and put the pen to paper anyways. Don’t wait until you have the right words. Your life should always be one in revision. And remember, it took Hemmingway 39 revisions before he was satisfied with the ending to “A Call to Arms”. You don’t have to have “THE Dream” today, you just need to write A Dream.
Do the thing. You know which one. Yes, that one, the one you’ve been avoiding. Send the email. Make the call. Work on the project. Put one foot in front of the other and pivot when necessary. Remember nothing in life is ever linear and calculated moves rarely land you where you want.
Or don’t. Recognize the times where inaction is the best action. Honor the times you need to pause, not from fear, but to reflect and reinvigorate.
This week, as we approach the midpoint of 2018, take a moment to look backward at your accomplishments, to look forward at where you want to go, and more than anything, remember the middle is inevitable. In the end (pun intended), it is your perception of progress that determines if your middle is a slump or a spark.
May you shine bright where you are and know that you are exactly where you need to be.