It’s easy to look at people we regard as successful and imagine a neatly packaged story about their lives. Even after reading about their grueling hardships, we might imagine that once initial obstacles disappear, they surf effortlessly on an endless wave of joy and goal fulfillment. Cinderella stories have been told and retold for centuries, all the while with a fairy godmother dispelling adversity with a simple flick of her wand, and always ending with a “happily ever after.” If charted on a graph, we’d see the smooth “happily ever after” line move up toward the sky without the slightest dip. That kind of consistent linear progress has yet to be mathematically discovered in anything, let alone in personal attainment of a goal. Once we’ve determined what success means for ourselves, how can we craft and find beauty within the ups and downs of the journey?
When we look at ourselves, it’s often easy to find fault with our immediate circumstance. In terms of goal fulfillment, the novel you set out to write might have stopped flowing three months ago just short of page 20. The workout routine you planned to do each morning is now harder to wake up for in the cold winter months. The ingredients for the juice bar you finally committed to opening cost much more than anticipated. The line graph of your life might look like a series of dips, plateaus, and spikes—far different from that of the even-keeled, smiling, surfing Cinderella. The small and large challenges present in our own trajectories can lead us to believe, sometimes subconsciously, that something is “wrong.” Worse yet, this kind of thinking may keep us from continued effort toward a goal. Embracing struggle as part of the path instead of an unintended obstruction to the path is key.
Believing that some people have the ideal skills or circumstances for success and that other people don’t is referred to as “fixed mindset”—a term coined by Carolyn Dweck, Ph.D., a researcher and professor of psychology at Stanford University. Evidence of a fixed mindset is found in phrases we all can relate to: “I’m just not good at writing,” or “I’ve never had much of a business sense.” In the last decade, Dweck has shed light on the lack of scientific basis for fixed, pre-determined learning ability. A growing movement in the education sphere is teaching young children to embrace a research-based “growth mindset” from an early age—that in everything we begin, there is a learning curve and productive struggle for all, regardless of starting point. Our intelligence is malleable, and with repeated commitment to a task or dream, the shape of our brains actually shifts in terms of structure and in function to help boost efficiency and effectiveness—what is known as neural plasticity or neuroplasticity.
We see examples of neuroplasticity in yoga. The first time you move into a Warrior II posture you may find you’re more reliant on teacher cues and notice that your body and mind are reticent to comply. But with even just a few instances of practice, your back toes may find themselves pointing inward and your shoulders blades drawing down your back in the posture on their own. That beginning unfamiliarity and learned crispness of any skill, concept, or behavior in and of itself exemplifies the plastic, ever-changing nature of the brain.
These anecdotal experiences are common, but how does neuroplasticity actually work and why does it matter? With repeated exposure or practice of a concept of a skill, your brain molds itself in either or both physical structure and function. Studied with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), structural changes are natural modifications to your brain anatomy. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a popular method of analyzing brain networks by measuring oxygenated blood flow patterns in the brain as a subject engages in a particular activity. A study published in 2000 by Eleanor Maguire, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University College London, shows that licensed London taxi drivers had proportionately larger posterior hippocampi, the brain region heavily involved in spatial representation or environmental mapping, as compared with a control group who did not have exceptional experience maneuvering through roads. What’s implied is that the brain structurally adapts itself based on practice that we consciously (and even unconsciously) choose to commit to. It’s a message that empowers us to remember that even without a fairy godmother, we have more control over our learning and goal attainment than we may think.
Once we decide what personal success looks like, how do we work to effectively meet a goal? Here are few steps:
1. Offer yourself reflective space to identify your purpose. “Success” is relative to the individual. Giving yourself pockets of time to reflect helps you build a relationship with yourself and ensure your goal is truly yours and no one else’s. Read more about how to harness the power of reflection to reach your full potential.
2. Expect and embrace the bumps. Once you’ve crafted your goal, take comfort in knowing that as hard as they might be, ups and downs are normal throughout the process and can even provide us with helpful insight. In 1979, Suzanne Kobasa, Ph.D., pioneered the concept of “hardiness” as a way to prevent detrimental effects of stress, one of the major components being perception of challenges as expected learning opportunities rather than inhibitions. If perfectionism is holding you back from trying, consider legendary basketball player Michael Jordan’s reflection on why “happily ever after” is a myth: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
3. Make positivity a practice. We know that the brain takes shape based on our habits, for better or for worse. So as much as we should prepare for the dips, we should also get into the habit of positively acknowledging our small but significant triumphs along the way: You reopened your writing file and started to reread your novel intro. You shifted your cold morning workouts to the evening after you’re already outside. You called alternate produce providers to help manage costs in your juice bar business. While these actions might seem like tiny droplets, without each of these iterative movements, the oceanic vision would never come to be. Remember to give yourself props for your efforts and for being where you are right here and now.