The power of incremental change

beach van Caroline Gutman
Photo Credit: Caroline Gutman

If I look back on the last twenty years of my life, the person I am today is NOTHING like the person I was in my early twenties.

Sure, we all grow and mature, but we don’t often change who we are over time. Sometimes, the results of our habits, choices and behaviors can get entrenched in our identity and that can be a difficult story to change.

When I was in my early twenties, my story about my personal health and self-esteem was VERY different then it is now. I was seemingly invincible then. I used to smoke a pack of cigarettes every single day, hit the McDonalds drive through regularly and I’d go out on drinking binges with friends that would last to the wee hours of the morning, then accept rides home from strangers. It amazes me that I made it through that period of time unscathed.

As a result of those behaviors, habits and choices, I was overweight, unhealthy and pretty unhappy with myself. I was also a full time bartender at the time without a high school diploma. Yup. That was me.

It wasn’t until my boyfriend at the time and myself put all of our belongings in his 1998 Buick Le Sabre, gathered up our $2,300 in savings and hit the road to Vancouver (a mere 2700 miles away) that my life started to change. Very, very slowly.

Moving out west, away from family, friends and everything we knew was an eye-opener for me. There was no support, no familiarity and very little opportunity for someone with as few credentials as I had. We lasted about year before we packed up the car and drove home with $30 in cash and the two cats we had adopted along the way.

That time out west had planted seeds of change in me that started to transpire when we returned to what knew. So instead of reverting back to bartending and binge drinking, I decided I wanted more from life.

So I went back and got my high school diploma. One of my teachers encouraged me to apply to college. She said she believed in me, even though I had no faith in my own academic abilities. But I did it. I went to college, then transferred to a four-year university and graduated 2.5 years later.

When we got back from Vancouver, I also started changing my health habits. It started with a show called The 20 Minute Workout that aired at 4pm every weekday on City TV. Then it gradually increased to fitness classes at a local gym until eventually I was teaching step aerobics to Hasidic Jewish women at a local health club.

I was changing. It was taking a long time, but slowly my story about myself went from uneducated, not very accomplished and certainly not fit, to someone with an education, an active lifestyle and a bright future.

The story of my life is far too long and detailed to go through here, but I hope the highlights show a trajectory of growth that started from a simple decision that the life I had when I came back from our trip out west back in 1998 was no longer good enough for me. I knew I was capable of more, and the funny thing is, today I’m so much more than I had ever thought possible at that time. At most I had wished for a good paying steady job and maybe one day, a house and a husband.

I never expected to be in the best shape of my life in my mid 40s. Never in my wildest dreams had I envisioned a graduate level education, a business and a life in California. But so it was to be.

The point to this is that sometimes the place we want to be seems a million miles away from where we are at this moment. But so what? Time passes regardless of whether or not you decide to make better choices or become aware of your destructive habits. Your identity is dependent on your choice to become a better version of yourself, or to stay the same. Or even to spiral out of control.

No matter how big or ominous your journey may seem, the key to success starts with being honest with yourself about whether or not the status quo is uncomfortable enough that you’re ready to make change. That’s probably the hardest part. The rest is just taking small incremental steps in the right direction. It’s okay if you don’t know exactly where you’re going, because you’re probably going to end up somewhere unexpected and wonderful anyway. As long as you just keep pushing forward and making better choices.

The choices you make today will determine the quality of your life tomorrow, and all the days there after.

What will you choose to do?

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