The sum of small things

eventually, it all adds up

Four weeks ago I started running again.

I didn’t tell anyone about it, not even my partner who I am currently living with, and when he eventually found out by seeing it written in my planner I was adamant about not wanting to discuss it. “I just can’t talk about it,” I said. “Not yet.”

It’s been five and a half years since I last considered myself a runner, and the number of times I have tried (and failed) to get back into running in those years has made it so that I almost don’t believe that running is something I was ever able to do. Each time I try again I get injured—despite taking it slow, doing PT, doing all the “right” things. Or if it’s not an injury it’s a chronic illness flare-up that makes consistent running too uncomfortable for my body. Injury, illness, there always seems to be… something. And when that “something” happens, I quit, feeling defeated and sad, telling myself that running is just not for me anymore.

And maybe it’s not, maybe I really do need to let go of it. How many tries is too many tries, you know? When does resilience become insanity? Not yet, apparently, because here I am again, trying (again!), running (again!), clutching desperately to the hope that somehow this time will be different.

And it is different I suppose; I am taking it more slowly than I ever have before. In the first week I jogged for just 30 seconds, followed by 2 minutes of walking, repeated a few times. “Does this even count as running?” I wondered. “Is this ever going to lead anywhere?”

The next week I jogged for 60 seconds, followed again by 2 minutes of walking, repeated a few times. I came home and did all of my PT exercises, all of my stretches, and in week three I added two more jog/walk intervals. This past week I bumped up to 90 seconds of running at a time, and harder than the running itself was negotiating with the voice in my head that simultaneously warned that I’d probably get injured soon and yet also that I wasn’t doing enough actual running for it to “count.”

(What does that even mean? Who do I think is counting? No one is counting! No one cares!! Why am I like this!!! What the fuck, right?)

But the truth is that even with taking it slow, even with doing all the “right” things, I might get injured again. My chronic illness flare might get worse. This whole running thing (*gestures vaguely*) might honestly just not work out for me, which is why trying something—for the first time or the 10th time or the 38th time—is such an act of faith. You look out at an uncertain future, a murky path with no roadmaps or guarantees, and you decide, “You know what? I’m gonna do this anyway.” That is faith. Faith that your past does not get to dictate your future, faith that you can always try again, and faith that regardless of where you are starting from you can eventually end up where you want to be.

Four weeks ago I was jogging for 30 seconds at a time, which became 60 seconds and now 90 seconds, and while 90 seconds might only be 90 seconds, it’s still a 200% increase from where I started.

In other words: small steps add up.

***

I recently contributed $15 to buy a group gift for a wonderful woman who is going through a tough time.

The gift is beautiful, one that likely wouldn’t have been financially accessible for any of us to give on our own, but once we came together, once each person’s $5, $10, $15 contributions became $100+, we could make it happen.

$15 might not feel like much, but if you put $15 on top of $15 again and again, it adds up.

My entire business is built this way, on a sliding-scale funding model where hundreds of people pay $5+ per month to fund the Real Talk Radio podcast, this newsletter, my live end-of-month journaling workshops, and more. $5 alone would not be enough to fund any of those things. $10, $25, $50—it wouldn’t be nearly enough. But as of today there at 435+ people in my Patreon community, and once their contributions are pooled all together it creates a sum of money that’s great enough for me to pay my sound engineer, every single one of my podcast guests, and myself.

Like I said, small things add up.

***

In early September I decided to do something I had wanted to do for a long time: prioritize my writing.

There’s a myth in the personal development world that says that if we want something badly enough, we’ll make it happen. And if we aren’t making it happen we obviously don’t care about it enough to prioritize it. But that has never been my experience.

So often the things I truly want are the very things I procrastinate on most stubbornly, because my desire for those things is inextricable from my fear that I can’t have them, that I’m not good enough, capable enough, or whatever enough to move my dreams forward. Procrastinating keeps me safe. Not doing the things I want most ensures that I can’t be disappointed when they don’t happen. But this approach only works until it doesn’t. Eventually the pain of not doing what you know you want to do starts to outweigh the fear of trying it, and that is the point at which change becomes possible.

I reached that point with my writing about two months ago, which is when I decided to create this newsletter. Not just create it, but commit to it. Show up for it. Have fun with it! And be willing to keep showing up even on days when it’s maybe not so fun, because those days are guaranteed to happen even with our most beloved projects.

“So, okay,” I asked myself, “what needs to be true in order for me to show up to my writing on a regular basis?”

This question—what needs to be true in order for X to be possible?—is one of my most-used journaling prompts because it gently but effectively forces a specific answer. It is not a “yes” or “no” question. It is a way to ask myself what I really, actually need to make something work, even if those needs are inconvenient. (That’s another question I love: What if I were willing to meet even my most inconvenient needs?)

When it comes to writing, my inconvenient need right now is accountability. Not just loose accountability in the form of telling someone whether or not I’ve written during any given day or week, but actual, live, we-both-showed-up-here-together-for-an-hour writing dates. I used to have these at a coffee shop every week with my friend Sarah, where we’d talk for 10-15 minutes and write quietly for the rest of the hour, but then… covid. “Do you want to move our writing dates to Zoom?” I asked her. (This is something I often forget, that getting the support we want can be as simple as asking one person one question, without turning it into a Whole Big Thing.)

Sarah said yes, so now we write for an hour on Monday mornings via Zoom. My friend Emily said yes, too, and she and I write together on Thursday mornings. And because of those two hours with those two women each week, this newsletter has gone from an idea to a reality.

Some days, even with our recurring dates on the calendar, I am not in the mood to write. I fret about whether or not I will have anything to write about, anything worth saying. Occasionally that turns out to be the case—I free-write for our allotted time and wind up scrapping it all at the end. But that is part of the process. Why would I ever think that I am the one magical fairy unicorn writer who is able to make things perfect on the first draft, every single word usable and beautiful? That’s some real narcissism right there. Of course I often write things that I don’t wind up publishing! Of course there are some days where the words come much easier than others! Of course I still sometimes feel resistant to the very structure I created to help me overcome my own resistance (lol, *cries*).

But the outcome isn’t the goal, showing up is the goal. For every paragraph I delete there are at least a few sentences that I keep. An idea that doesn’t get used morphs into an even better and truer idea. And none of that would be possible if I didn’t show up in the first place, if I hadn’t given myself something to show up to.

I think a lot about what it takes to close the gap between what we say we want and what we actually do. I’m obsessed with that question, it’s a core focus of much of my work, and while I’ve come to understand that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer there are three things that do seem to help more often than not.

The first is this: Give yourself permission to create the container you actually need in order to do what you want to do. If you need a writing date or an anything-else-date, ask for it.

Second: Put your body in that space. Keep showing up. Show up tired, show up scared, show up sad or excited or unmotivated, show up however you are. Just show up.

And third: Remember that even the smallest efforts eventually add up.

Writing 100 words might not feel like much, but 100 words becomes 1,000 words becomes 10,000 words becomes a book. Having one deep conversation with someone doesn’t create an entire friendship, but one conversation becomes ten conversations becomes “how did I ever live without this person?!”

Our entire lives—our work, our money, our relationships, our art, our hobbies, our skills—are simply the sum of many small actions, done again and again. 10 minutes a day, an hour a week, $50 a month, it all adds up.

And so the question for us, then, is which small thing we are going to commit to today. There are 60 days left in what has been an unimaginably hard year for so many people, and there is still so much that we do not know and cannot control in terms of what happens next in our lives and in our world. But even amidst all of that uncertainty I am convinced that we can indeed still do some things. We can commit to regularly doing one small thing (one teeny tiny thing!) that will help us to close that gap between what we say we want and what we actually do.

Jogging for 30 seconds might feel useless. Doing 6 minutes of PT exercises might seem pointless. Writing for 15 minutes, why bother?

But you know why. And I know why. It’s because these things add up, because almost everything we cherish right now is the sum of many small acts of love, faith, and courage that we performed again and again and again and again.

Everything we love, everything we’re proud of, it all started somewhere. And what if that “somewhere” could be… right here?

Right now.

Today.