Starting is the most difficult part. The first step of the journey is a step into the unknown. The first steps gives birth to all the subsequent steps.
As the proverb from Laozi goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
The first step is not a giant leap, nor a plunge into the unknown, but rather represents a move from the complacent, the act of beginning, of intentionally setting out on a long and potentially difficult road ahead. The first step is a promise to continue on the journey, a pledge to continue moving towards the final destination, a recommitment to continue on the way. The first step is the most difficult part as there is no mode or model for the first step. Standing at the start of the path staring at the journey ahead is the struggle of the writer facing the blank page, the skydiver preparing for the jump, or the student preparing for the first day of school.
Unlike subsequent steps, the first step cannot be visualized through the lens of experience. After the first step, one is able to picture in their mind the action of taking the next step, and the step after that. One is able to appreciate the movement forward and grow in confidence that, given the results of the first step, subsequent steps are less foreboding. There is a high activation energy for the first step, an input of energy required to overcome the barrier and move off of the couch and start running, or the energy required to break the invisible strings binding one to the confines of the bed in the morning. Life is a game of momentum wherein there is a buy-in of energy simply to play the game.
In the book, Zero to One, Peter Thiel, notes that the greatest gains and yet the hardest thing to do are accomplished in the space between zero and one. This is an oft-repeated phrase by the wealthy as they recount the difficulty of earning the first $100,000 or the first $1 million as being significantly more difficult than the vast sums they amassed subsequently. As Thiel emphasizes, it is the step from nothing to something that is the most profound; subsequent iterations are found to be far easier but do not change the shape of the world in the same way that the step from zero to one is capable of changing the world and inspiring the imaginations both of the inventor as well as those around them.
Once the first step is taken, the momentum favors a continuation of progression, the taking of a second step, and then a third. The act of efficient running is not indifferent from the mechanics of a slow, perpetual fall forward. In Atomic Habits, by James Clear, he notes that once good habits are established there will inadvertently be days that interrupt these habits, times when for whatever reason the momentum is lost. Perhaps an illness occurs, a family event or an important work function interrupts the ability to continue the habit of a daily workout. Perhaps the need to travel or a change in the timing of shifts makes maintaining a specific diet or sleep cycle impossible one day. As Clear writes, it is not the goal to never miss a day or stray from a habit, but that if one day is missed here or there, two days in a row are not missed, and certainly not more. As the missed days begin to stack up, a new momentum in the opposite direction builds up as a new habit, the wrong habit, is formed.
Taking and retaking the first step is not an isolated event but is itself a habit. After missing a day of working out, missing an opportunity to get a full night’s rest, or missing a goal to write 500 words per day, retaking that first step is itself a habit. In this, the unpredictability of life is predictable. Whatever else happens, there will be distractions, habits will be disrupted, and one must get used to retaking the first step.
Practicing this first step whether it means consistently returning to a diet, picking up books and completing them, restarting a workout regimen, or reinvesting and reengaging in a relationship is essential to forward progress and dealing with the twists, turns, and occasionally disasters that life hands out. Walking while running a race is not inherently bad, but there must be a time at which one returns to running, when one decides to push on, to start the exertion once again. The first step from walking to running is the most difficult but it must be done over, and over, and over again. This is especially true in the longest and most impressive races such as ultramarathons where a single pace cannot be picked and held for hours or days, but rather one must flex and adapt to the course, to the elements, and to their own body. Learning and re-learning how to get up, how to start again is the only way that one can continue to move forward through both the good and the bad times, to build a life of resilience and hopefulness for the future.
As the Japanese proverb intones, “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” Note that this proverb assumes one started on the ground; the first required act was standing up. The starting position was not standing or in a position of strength. Starting and restarting ensures that defeat is never final, that progress can always be made. Starting and restarting establishes a precedent of continuing on, picking up where one left off, and retaking the first step.