Beginnings: Challenging but rewarding experiences


Progress ConceptIf you are starting a new project, you know the process is hard. You feel you give in lots of energy, and yet get out so little of it. You hesitate and ask whether this is all worthwhile. You lose patience and wonder why it is so difficult for you. You look at the specialists and admire how they seem to do everything with such an ease.

Beginnings are difficult…

They are difficult, but who said beginnings are easy? We all had multiple experiences of arduous starting points.

When you first started to walk, you stumbled and fell very often. When I decided to learn to walk, I needed a mentor: my mom. She would encourage me and let me hold one of her fingers when I was walking and feeling uncertain.

When you started to talk, how many months did it take you to learn the words “mom” and “dad”? It certainly took me a while. At first, I could only say grandma (in Chinese) before I could pronounce the word “mom”. Yet after some persistence and practice, I finally managed to say “mom”. What a great pleasure for me and my mom!

When you started reading, didn’t you pause and read  word   by  word   and sometimes not even understand? (At least if you are reading English, Spanish or a similar language.) In Chinese you would probably have to look up in the dictionary if you do not know a character anyway.

When you started to use the computer, maybe you just started hitting the keyboard and didn’t know how the machine really worked. By now, you probably don’t even remember whether you really had such a strenuous beginning phase. 

…for everyone

If you feel that the onset is gruelling, you are not alone. Though I am not a veterinary nor an animal psychologist, I believe this universal fact does not only apply to us as human beings, but also to animals.

dog using computerLook at this dog. Using the computer is probably still difficult for him, because of course it is just the beginning. He probably won’t have the persistence to figure out how to use it, nor does he care about listening to his mentor or reading an user guide. We shall in this case forgive him for not putting in more time and effort and continue our reflection on our own beginnings.

High failure rates

Because beginnings are hard for us all, failure rates are at their peak. This fact is prevalent even before our birth. As foetus, we had the highest dying possibility. If there were any infections or anything going wrong, it would have affected us the most at that stage. 

While I cannot remember my foetus phase, I do remember the experience from my CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) exams. The exams are divided into 3 levels, with the first level having the lowest pass rate, i.e. the highest failure rate. Level 2 and 3, on the other hand, have slightly better passing rates. I recall discussing with my friends at that time that Level 1 would have done a preselection, eliminating those who did not put any effort into the preparations, such that the candidates for Level 2 and 3 were already quality candidates.

Beginnings often have a higher failure rate because we do not have the relevant experience. In the case of CFA exams for instance, one could increase one’s passing probability by acquiring the necessary exam experience, namely retaking the exam several times. In fact, many people pass the exams not in the first time, but rather in the second or third attempts. They learn through repetitions of the experience the exam format and the subjects they need to review.

Leaving on halfway

Besides the inherent high failure rates, most people decide to abandon their own journey. 

I am myself victim of this fact. After having written my post on training mind flexibility over a year ago, I stopped blogging. It was own will and not an external factor that caused the falling through. However, a month ago, I decided to revive my blog.

There are abundant examples in the world of how we sometimes self-abandon and desert our own projects. The most extreme situation is suicide. People cease their lives because they think that life is too hard for them and that escaping is easier than confronting.

Sometimes stopping the process might seem easier for us. However, if we are ever going to decide to continue, it will be more difficult because we would be starting over again or at least it would not be as easy as if we had continued. We actually should not stop until reaching our objective.

Aren’t beginnings painful?

As human beings, we usually prefer to avoid pain. Beginnings seem painful. Progress seems to come so slow.

Perceived ProgressThe curve shown on the right reflects our perception of progress. In the beginning, we can hardly perceive any progress. However, after a while, the accumulated effort begins to take effect and progress starts to take off.

This graph probably reminds you of the well-known compounding effect in finance. Just like the result of compounding will be most noticeable in the long run, the effects of our efforts are most obvious in the long term perspective. After a while of putting in time and effort, the progress we will have made will be immense. This phenomenon also allows us to gain an advantage over our competition if we start early.

Case study: Learning languages

Learning a new language follows the same path depicted in the graph above. In the beginning, a new language is hard and our progress is hardly noticeable. After your first couple of lessons, you can still not speak with a native of the language you are learning. 

After some time, however, when you have learnt basic words and basic structures, you will feel the satisfaction of suddenly being able to communicate your ideas in a new way. With some more practice and time, you will realize that the way of your reasoning depends upon the language you are using to think and the content of your fantasies relies upon the language used to dream.

I have learnt 7 languages in total and even now when I try to learn a first word in a new language, it feels difficult and not immediately useful. I might remember the word for a day and then forget it after a month. In order to see the progress, we need to pass the beginning or the “basics” in this case. To achieve this purpose, I have used the Chinese language learning methodology of learning 3000-5000 words and mastering basic grammar. Just as with speed reading, it is not essential to pause at each word and make sure you remember everything. It is rather more important to grasp the big picture and come back to each word and each detail later. With the same amount of time, it is better to repeat multiple times than to stop at each phrase for a long time. Once repetition has helped us learn the “basics”, we can instantaneously notice our own progress. After this initial phase, learning becomes easier and more automatic. You start to see the patterns in a language and you can make lots of connections between the things you learned and the things you already knew. The secret in learning languages, just like in any other project, is passing the initial stage.

Overcoming the beginning

Beginnings are just like doors to new places. They are closed and make it hard for us to get in. They give us the illusion that the destination is only for experts and specialists. However, once you overcome the beginning, your world suddenly changes. You have new opportunities and you can achieve new things.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. – Lao-Tzu

To move forward, we need to conquer the beginning and we need to be determined to do so despite its rough terrains.

There are lots of personal reasons why we would like to excel at a new beginning. 3 of the possible reasons might be:

  1. Time: If you quit, time will still go by. If you ever decide to begin again, you would have lost the time in between. What once could have been the harvesting period, would then be just a mere beginning.
  2. Momentum: You have already started doing something and gained some experience. Whether strong or weak, there is a force of momentum that can help you move up the progress curve. 
  3. Challenge: Some people like challenges, because they know that behind each challenge there is a reward; either in the form of personal growth or some other material/immaterial form.

If you want to see your own progress in the future and if you decide to keep on, you might want to check out my post: what you need to go on.

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  • “once you overcome the beginning, your world suddenly changes” so true Ying! That’s because the lens through which we see and interpret the world was covered with excuses and limitations. Once we begin, we see how wrong we were in underestimating ourselves and see the world in a new light.

    Even I have written about beginnings, but specific to social interactions.

    Starting Interactions from Zero

    Hope you’ll enjoy it.

    • Well said Hitesh, sometimes we scare ourselves from trying out. We often stop ourselves even before we begin.

  • Great post, Ying. I especially love your analogy contrasting the slow nature of beginnings to how compounding interest works. Big changes aren’t noticed early on, rather they are seen over time after a period of committed action. You’re a wise woman for being so young!

    • Thank you Ree. We both know the truth about beginnings and big changes. However, some people like shortcuts for all kind of things: Becoming rich in a night, attaining fame in a blink of an eye. That’s precisely where fraud often comes in, playing with the illusion that such a thing can be real.