Optimism Practice: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Jonah Paquette, Psy.D.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to go on a trek in the Peruvian Andes on the way up to visit Machu Picchu. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience, filled with indescribable beauty and incredible culture. But I must admit I was not quite up to the challenge physically at times. Our group trekked great distances at high altitudes each day, and I was stricken by altitude sickness midway through the trip. At several points I even thought of quitting, feeling that my body couldn’t last the entire journey.

It was at this point that I noticed how our guide traversed the land with grace and ease, effortlessly chugging along on the way up the mountain. I asked him what his secret was, half-jokingly and not expecting much of a response. “Just one foot in front of the other,” he said back to me. “I don’t look at the top of the mountain, and how far away it seems. I just think about the next step I have to take.”

When our guide said that to me, I was reminded of a piece of ancient wisdom from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who reminds us that the “journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Armed with this reminder, I stopped thinking about how on earth I would be able to finish the entire trek and reach the summit. Instead, I began thinking about how I would make it through the next step, the next quarter mile, the next mile, and so forth. I became more immersed in the present moment, and was even more able to experience and appreciate the beauty that surrounded me. Before I knew it, I was standing at the top of the pass, out of breath and exhausted, but happy.

Pessimism often stems from feeling that we cannot possibly reach the finish line from where we are standing. We look off in the distance and the ground in between where we are and where we wish to go feels insurmountable. But just as we cannot scale an entire ladder in one single step, we must remember that the path to reaching our goals is a longer journey. In this optimism-building exercise, we’ll be thinking about goals that you have for the future, and breaking them up into more manageable sub-goals. Whereas large-scale goals can sometimes feel overwhelming and unachievable, the steps in between are eminently doable. By focusing on these instead, we can shift from pessimism to optimism.

Instructions: Take a moment and reflect on some of the goals and dreams you have for the future. Consider different domains of your life, including your career, relationship, friendships, and family. Although reflecting on these hopes can feel inspiring and exciting at times, it can also feel overwhelming when we think of tackling it all at once. Pessimism can often set in, making us feel less able to achieve out goals. To overcome this obstacle, it can be helpful to break down our larger goals and dreams into shorter-term sub-goals that can be completed a step at a time. You can use any format that works for you, but if it helps, feel free to use the following prompts to get you started:

Long-Term Goal:

When I hope to achieve this by:

What is the first step I need to take in order to achieve this?

Who can I turn to for help in reaching my goal?

What do I need to accomplish within 1 month?

What do I need to accomplish within 3-6 months?

New Book: Real Happiness

Topic: Mindfulness

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