Progress Works Backwards

To resolve a problem obviously means that a desired outcome has been reached, while progress means that some type of incremental improvement has been made. Seems simple, right? If something "bad" gets "better", most people would consider that to be progress. But have you ever considered the implication that progress works backwards? Let me explain what I mean.

Consider a two-pack-a-day smoker who attempts to quit cigarettes through effort, encouragement and maybe even nicotine patches or medication. If that person resumes the habit after a week, the fact remains that he or she achieved 7 days free of nicotine, which is a remarkable achievement. After all, a habit builds up gradually, so developing healthier habits often occur the same way.

The same can be said about any attempt at personal improvement. Whether the problem being addressed is excess weight, panic attacks, marital disagreements or any other barrier to health and happiness, "progress" is a journey in the right direction. As I've written before, the three measures of progress are changes in frequency, severity and duration. A problem can be said to be better either if it occurs less often, isn't as intense when it does occur, or doesn't last as long as it used to. So complete resolution isn't always a requirement in order to demonstrate that progress is being made.

This concept eliminates much of the demoralization that can ensue if the absence of perfect resolution is considered to be a"failure". As Thomas Edison is reported to have said after repeatedly trying to invent a workable light bulb, rather than failing he had learned many examples of what not to try. With this perspective there is no failure, only feedback. What often seems like failure often turns out to be the progress that precedes ultimate success. A toddler learning to walk does not fail by falling, for that is an expected developmental stage for everyone, even a future gold medal runner. As the theologian Henri Nouwen eloquently stated:

When suddenly you begin to lose all you thought you had gained, do not despair. Your healing is not a straight line. You must expect setbacks and regressions. Don’t say to yourself, “All is lost. I have to start all over again.” This is not true. What you have gained, you have gained........When you return to the road, you return to the place where you left it, not to where you started........It is important not to dwell on the small moments when you feel pulled away from your progress. Try to return home, to the solid place within you, immediately.

This does not mean that the concept of incremental progress works for all problems. A person who robs fewer banks than last year isn't going to earn the applause of the police. Sometimes, in the words of Yoda to Luke Skywalker, "Do....or do not. There is no try." But in reality the rest of us are imperfect humans who don't have to be like Jedi Knights in all things.

This concept that progress often happens in reverse is beautifully captured in the famous poem by Portia Nelson entitled "Autobiography In Five Short Chapters":

Chapter 1

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost ... I am helpless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in the same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in ... it's a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter 4

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5

I walk down another street.

So strive to keep learning something valuable each time you stumble and scrape yourself in the journey toward your goal and you will continue progressing "backward" to your eventual success.


Bill Herring, LCSW, CSAT is a highly experienced Atlanta-based counselor and psychotherapist.  He helps adults with a wide variety of life issues  and is a nationally recognized specialist on compulsive sexual behavior and chronic infidelity.  

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