The way that most people think about progress is as if progress is like walking down a street to a store. You start at one place and then you start moving forward, occasionally being forced to stop at a light when crossing a street but never being forced to take a detour. People think about progress that way because that’s how progress looks. But that isn’t really how progress works, it isn’t like walking down the street, it’s like cleaning grime out of an iPhone charging port.
That needs some explanation.
The other day, my phone didn’t charge. I plugged it in just like always and went to sleep. But when I woke up, no charge. I was, justifiably, incensed by this injustice done to me by the universe. As my anxiety built up over the tweets and Instagram’s that I was missing, I maniacally tried every combination of cord, charging plug thingy, and outlet in my parents’ house. My eyes were wild with the rabid desperation of a mongoose that had been caught in a trap. I decided that this was not going to be my reality. This cannot stand, I thought to myself. I dove head first into a whirlwind of googling and YouTubing and all the while trying the charger at every angle physically possible.
My parents were of the opinion that my phone was toast because it’s a 3-year-old phone and I use it for approximately 97.2% of my waking day. It was worn out, tired, had finally gone to sleep and just simply wasn’t waking up. I was just gonna need to purchase a new one, they thought out loud.
But, I decided that it was more likely that my charging port was just clogged with dirt and shit (not literal shit, I hope. God, I hope there was no poo poo in my charging port). I decided that this was the case because it would probably take less time to fix than going to the mall and getting a new phone, and I needed some hope in that moment. I decided that the port was dirty because I was missing top notch social media time and I was gonna go to great lengths to stare mindlessly at my tiny rectangular security blanket as soon as possible.
I went to work. I started wildly shoving a toothpick into the port and wiggling it around like a lemur who had been given cocaine and also been taught to use chopsticks, albeit poorly. My mom sat at the kitchen table occasionally speaking up about how much per month a new phone would cost, and about all the new phones Apple had just come out with (going Android was simply out of the question because I am not a nerd. Sorry if you have an Android and your feelings were just hurt, nerd).
I ignored her and shoved a toothpick into the charging port and wiggled it around. Every time I pulled it out, the toothpick would be covered in grime, so I would think that the charging port was clean enough to work and I would jam my charger into the port again (Grime is the technical term for the unidentifiable conglomerate of gross stuff that congeals inside of a charging port). But alas, it wasn’t, the magic charging lightning bolt wouldn’t pop onto my screen and I would get sad. Satisfaction would evade me, but I just kept jamming toothpicks into the port until they broke. I pulled a lot of grime out of that little port, like seriously, a truly disgusting amount of grime.
I kept trying the charger, each time losing a little bit of hope. It didn’t feel like my phone would ever work again, until it did. It was a lost cause until it wasn’t. I put the charger in there and that beautiful lightning bolt popped up on my screen. I did it, I collapsed to the floor in exhaustion and happiness. And shortly after that I restarted my phone and stared at it for a good long while.
That’s how progress works.
Ok, that still probably needs more explanation.
The only time that progress is like walking down the street, is when you’re a beginner. When you pick up a new activity, you improve quickly and steadily because when you start something you’re usually super bad at it. The only way you can go is forward. But then you get good, or at least mediocre, at something and progress becomes more like a battle with an iPhone charging port because there isn’t such a clear road map to improvement. You’ve mastered the entry level stuff, so you have to start experimenting with and exploring your craft of choice and trying shit you hadn’t done before. It’s such a god damn frustrating process, because your expectations of where your skills should be do not match the reality of where your skills are. And it’s frustrating because you start to develop tastes and ideas about what you think is good, and sometimes that doesn’t match where your skills are either. And all the while you just have to keep telling yourself that it’s going really well, that you’re pulling dirt and grime out the port and that it’s all going to work out. The evidence for your inner monologue about things going well is usually minimal and sometimes not there at all. The people watching from the outside usually know that it’s not going well and some of them are telling you to just put the toothpick down, and just go to the mall to buy a new phone. It seems so improbable that you’ll ever improve or accomplish your goal, and it seems like sometimes you’re the only one who believes that it’ll happen. Everyone else thinks that maybe you’re delusional and, in a way, they’re right, you are delusional. You’re delusional until that inner monologue you’ve been feeding yourself comes true and you make a breakthrough. You’re delusional, until you’re the one who is right. You definitely need a new phone, until you pull that last little piece of grime out of the charging port and your phone works again.
So, that’s how progress works, or at least that’s how I’ve found that it works with running. When you start out, you PR every time you race because your PRs start out really bad and any training will help you to improve. But then you get better and you stop PRing every week, or every month, or every year, or even every other year. And the only thing you can do is just keep working and keep hoping and believing that the next time will be the breakthrough. And sometimes you end up being wrong so many times in a row that you think you’ll never PR again. But then, one time, you’re right, you run faster.
I don’t know this for sure, but I bet that it’s the same with every craft. Whether you’re a painter or a guitar player or a woodworker. You start woodworking and you improve until you go from beginner to novice. And as a novice, sometimes you’re just good enough to be compared to people who are really good. So, it seems like you’re a shitty woodworker who is stuck on coasters while other woodworkers are making cool tables and sweet little statues of bears that you could probably never make in a million years. Other woodworkers might even tell you that you’re shitty because every time you try to make something more complex than a coaster it sucks real hard. But you keep telling yourself that it’s going well and that you’re a good woodworker. That’s how it goes, you’re the crazy one, until you carve a dope ass chair and sell that shit for $5000 dollars, and that’s when you’re right. That’s how progress works.
But that’s not how progress looks.
Progress looks like a simple walk to the store, because when you care about a craft, you usually don’t have time to look around and see that everyone is struggling and scraping grime out of their charging port, because you’re busy scraping the grime out of your charging port. No matter how good you are at something, you spend most of your time and energy hunched over a metaphorical iPhone with a toothpick in your hand, only looking up when someone else finally gets their phone to charge again.
So, that’s my first point. Progress does not work in the same way as how it looks like progress works. And that is a long-winded way of getting to my second point, that the metaphorical scraping is the important and interesting part of this whole process. All those shitty chairs that never saw the light, all the hours spent logging miles that don’t feel very good, all the things that you experiment with and think might work, that’s where the progress happens. It happens when you’re crazily telling yourself that it’s going well. That’s the cool and important part because that stuff is universal. It’s the stuff everyone who does any craft or hobby at almost any level experiences for 99% of the time that they do their craft or hobby. It’s all just scraping grime out a charging port, until your phone charges again. At which point, the grime starts to build back up again.
So, enjoy the process, enjoy the scraping, because the metaphorical scraping is a worthwhile endeavor even if your phone never charges again (Not in real life though. In real life, the cool part was 1 kagillion percent my phone working again). The work is where progress and growth really occur. Not just in terms of your craft, but also in terms of you as a person. You learn things about yourself when you buckle in and work and scrape and try new things and experiment and make mistakes and tell yourself that it’s going well. The breakthrough isn’t the progress, it looks like the progress, but the PR or that dope table is the aftershock of the progress. The progress came silently when you were doing the work and trying new stuff and making mistakes.
So, keep scraping, keep your delusions alive, you’re making progress just by scraping.