How Activation Energy, Fear and Failing are Pivotal to Success

Part Three of the Green-Eyed Perspective on Goals

In Part One, we discussed the risks and rewards of aiming for the moon. Sometimes setting a grandiose goal can be inspiring but other times it can be daunting and demotivating.

In Part Two, we discussed what to do if you aren’t sure what your goals are, what you truly want to do or who you’re supposed to be. Thus far we’ve identified the undesirable situation we’d like to change. That was Step One. Step Two begins when we are ready to ask the question, “What am I going to DO about this situation?”

Step Two: Activation Energy

The Hump

The curve is the amount of energy required as the reaction moves from start to finish.
The curve is the amount of energy required as the reaction moves from start to finish.

In chemistry, activation energy is the amount of energy required for a reaction to proceed. It’s the hump, the hurdle, the giant daunting step we have to take to make a change. Picture it as the energy you’d hit a volleyball with to get it over the net. Now picture it as the energy you must find within yourself to overcome the hurdles keeping you from your goal.

Let’s take a few example goals: Find new job; Ask Professor Smartie for Letter of Recommendation; Drop 20 pounds. The energy required to achieve these goals seems so massive that it’s far easier to just stay where you are. The status quo might make you unhappy and unfulfilled, but it’s not as bad or as scary as trying to make a change. If you find yourself in this situation, what you need is a catalyst.

The Catalyst

The green curve represents the alternate path provided by using a catalyst.
The green curve represents the alternate path provided by using a catalyst.

In chemistry, a catalyst helps a reaction proceed. A catalyst speeds up a reaction by providing an alternate path, one with a slightly smaller, more manageable Activation Energy.

Let’s take the example goals above and break them down into pieces to find the catalyst.

Find New Job: Well that is a huge task but it would be much easier if you had a resume. Boom – make a resume and go from there, tiny step by tiny step. Once you’ve got a resume, you’ve got something to post on job sites, something to talk about when you call about a job offer, and so on. Making a resume isn’t easy, but it’s less overwhelming than putting “Find New Job” on the To-Do List, right?

Get Letter of Recommendation from Professor Smartie: It’s intimidating to talk to certain people, whether it’s your boss, a celebrity, your angry teenager or the attractive girl across the hall. This task is scary because your pride, your reputation and your future are all at stake. The catalyst here is ten words. Ten words is an ice-breaker, an introduction, a greeting. If you can find the ten words you’re comfortable saying first, you’ve opened the door to the rest of the conversation. Maybe those ten words are your concluding statement, the bottom line to your message. If you can clarify in your head the ten words you absolutely need to say, the rest of the conversation gets easier to deliver.

Drop 20 Pounds: I’m not sure if there are still people out there who believe that this sort of goal can be achieved overnight. It can’t, not safely at least, and for some, dropping 20 pounds can take a whole year. If 20 pounds seems impossible, imagine how you’d feel if your goal was 5 times that! For some, this goal is no joke, and it might even be a matter of life or death. But how in the world to tackle a task this difficult, one that requires such a commitment? In this case, the catalyst could be as small as walking away from free cookies at work or showing up for your workout. Picking one tiny habit to change can be difficult, but it’s a start.

For any goal, the catalyst is that first step that generates momentum and helps you over that hump. So what if you need a catalyst for the catalyst? What if the teeny step you’ve identified is still too scary or overwhelming?

The First is the Worst

In gymnastics, we used to remind each other, “First is the worst.” If you’ve ever stood on a cliff looking down at the ocean you’re supposed to jump into, you’ve got some inkling of what it’s like to stand on a balance beam and prepare to execute a skill that terrifies you. Ironically, that fear of falling paralyzes you as much as the fall you imagine in your head. So you stand there…

"I'm not ready, I'm not ready..."
“I’m not ready, I’m not ready…”

If/when you finally decide to go for it, it’s not unusual to laugh as you think, “That was it?” The first one is the scariest because it’s the Great Unknown! Once you get the first pass over, you know what to expect the second time around, so it’s not as difficult. With each additional rep, experience and confidence replace the fear. Conquering fear isn’t about becoming fearless, it’s a matter of managing the fear. Use that fear as motivation to get that first step over with.

Change your perspective on fear with Nerve, by Taylor Clark

Step Three: Failing and Feedback

The final piece of working toward a goal is to remember that progress is better than perfection. The first time Boston Red Sox outfielder Daniel Nava stepped up to the plate in his first Major League game, he hit a grand slam off the first pitch.

Nava Blasts a Grand-Slam in His First At-Bat – MLB.com

While this is an incredible success for Daniel Nava, it’s a major blow to the pitcher Joe Blanton. In his case, success is a matter of turning the page and finding a way make that pitch harder to hit.

Remember what Thomas Edison said about the light bulb. Each failure is a learning experience and a chance to adapt your strategy. Don’t just forget the past – learn from it. Make not trying the new definition of failing.

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