Little Cosmic

How to Begin

Ivan Sutherland in his excellent paper Technology and Courage (found via jstewartmobile) writes:

I used to hate washing dishes. I would delay as long as possible. Eyeing the daunting pile of dishes, I would say to myself, “I’ll be here forever at this dumb task.” The enormity of the task deterred me from starting. I still dislike washing dishes, but I now get the dishes done promptly because I learned a simple proce- dure for doing the job from my wife’s uncle. The procedure starts out “Wash first dish…” I have a similar procedure for starting travel vouchers, it goes “Record first expense…”

Each of my little procedures embodies two different aids to getting started. By invoking a familiar procedure I reduce my need for courage. By breaking the task into smaller tasks through emphasizing that only the first dish need be washed or the first expense need be recorded, I reduce my estimate of risk. Both mechanisms work. These sources of courage are sometimes called “discipline,” especially when being taught to the young. Discipline relies on a practiced use of routine subgoals to avoid defeat by fear. Its highest form comes when the Lieutenant, charging up a heavily defended hill, says, “Follow me men!”—and they do.

If you are having trouble beginning, and if it seems impossible for you to start, then maybe you are right. You should just quit it.

If you want to write a novel, then forget it.

Are you trying to meet the love of your life? You’ve no chance. Do you want to be the CEO of a tech giant, or the greatest martial artist in the world? Do you want to feel at peace in this world? Forget it. Forget it. Forget it.

You are a child and a dreamer. There is a whole world of things which you cannot do, you can only have done.

If you want to begin, then this is the scope of action:

Even these things might be pushing it some days. Don’t even think about starting a revolution or even changing someone’s mind. These are not something you can do, only have done.

Maybe one day we will look back and have written a novel, but today, right now, we can only press a key on the keyboard.

Maybe one day, we will meet the love of our life, but today, right now, we can only say “hello” within earshot of a stranger.

Maybe one day, we can lead a big organization, but today, right now, we can only drive to the office.

Maybe one day, we will be a great martial arts, but today, right now, we can only kick as high as we can.

Maybe one day, we will feel at peace, but today right now, we can only take a deep breath.

Anything more is not possible. We couldn’t begin, because it was out of the question. These things that fill our dreams and longings can be compass points, but to do them is not possible: they are endings. Beginnings cannot not leave the tiny sphere of the body and mind. And surely we will have to begin countless times on our way. We will have to begin again and again and again.

So, how to begin? By doing only what is possible for us. The journey of 1000 miles can only be looked back on. The reality is the single step.