There are times when the work you do gets results. You stop eating sugar and lose 5 pounds. You make a budget, stick to it, and find you have money in your account at the end of a month. You declutter a room and enjoy the tidy space. You implement a new habit and it sticks. I love progress! Psychology tells us that getting small wins early on is a proven way to accomplish your goals. That’s why author Jon Acuff tells his readers if you want to finish, cut your goals in half. Finishing small goals gains momentum to keep going, while failing at a big goal is a good reason to quit.
But what about all those times when you work hard, do all the right things, and … nothing. You’re stuck.
You’ve cut all your expenses, but lose your job. There’s no win.
You’ve cut out sugar, but the number on the scale isn’t moving.
You’ve been following doctor’s orders, but the depression isn’t lifting.
You’ve been hustling at work, but not getting ahead.
What if you can’t cut your goal in half? Nobody dreams of being half-married. What if there are no small wins? Job hunting doesn’t require small wins – one good offer. What if you can only do your part to move towards your goal, and the other party’s not on board? I’ve reached out, but there’s no response.
What if nothing is happening?
I’m in that place in several areas in my life right now. So much has changed for me in the past 12 months, that I’ve had a marvellous time celebrating many “wins.” But what about those places, where 12 months later, nothing has changed? It’s not like I haven’t tried. It’s not like I haven’t put the effort in. It worked for other people – why not me? Truth be told, I feel like giving up. (Truth be told, I have given up on some of them).
I’ve had the rah-rah speeches to keep me motivated, but they’re wearing thin after all this time, so I’m increasingly keeping my lack of progress to myself. I’m not sure I can hear another well-intentioned “just do what I did” (I did. It didn’t work). I’m not sure I even want another “you can do it” speech.
It’s time for a reality check. Time to ask myself: what is actually going on?
Have I just replaced one vice for another? Am I not making progress because of my own stubbornness or insecurities? Am I stuck because of pride, and a refusal to admit where I’ve gone wrong?
These are good and fair questions, and ones I understand why I’ve been avoiding asking them. I don’t really want to know. Only avoidance has never yet lead to breakthrough, and I don’t think it’s about to start now.
But sometimes, I’m not the problem. Sometimes there is growth happening, I just can’t see it. Sometimes it’s a matter of keeping on keeping on.
Sometimes I need to borrow someone else’s faith.
I can’t see the progress… but a friend might.
I don’t believe the work is worth it… but others who’ve gone ahead of me tell me it is.
I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel… but someone else does.
When I don’t have faith, I can lean on the faith of others.
I can hear the regrets of those on the same journey who let discouragement win.
I can lean on the encouragement of those who have walked this road and are there already.
I can trust those on the sidelines, with a different perspective, to see what I cannot.
I can believe truth, even if I can’t see it.
I can remember the parable of the bamboo tree.
Did you know it takes three to five years for a mature bamboo to set out new growth? Three years of no change. Three years without visible progress. Three years of looking at… nothing.
You plant and hope, and water and hope, and watch and hope, and wait and hope. And hope. And hope. And hope.
Three years. While everything else in the garden goes through their spring planting, summer growth and fall harvest, the bamboo lies dormant. Not just for one cycle, but for three. Three years: three harvests of carrots and beans and lettuce, but no bamboo.
Then one day…
A tiny little culm (cane) shows up in the soil. The magic begins. Bamboo is amazing! The first few years are all about root systems and growing deep and wide. But then, all at once, the bamboo will grow from nothing to up to 90 feet in a matter of 60 days! You can literally watch bamboo grow! Just google “bamboo time lapse” and find all the videos of people filming bamboo grow from nothing to full-grown tree height in the course of two months.
Inner growth is like that. It takes deep roots to grow deep character. It’s a lot of hidden, unseen work. There’s no checkpoints to make sure you’re on track; very few milestones to celebrate. Make no mistake: the work is happening, and once its ready, it will happen quickly.
Without the immense root system, bamboo would be unable to support its own growth. It takes three years to even be ready to grow.
We’re not so different. There’s a preparation stage before growth can happen. There’s a grounding, reordering of priorities, foundation building, root-growing season for all of us. Sometimes its blessedly short, but generally those are for small wins. For the big, meaningful changes that actually last, it takes time to even get ready for the breakthrough you want.
There’s a reason why most lottery winners end up in poverty. Quick gains without deep roots don’t last.
God, in his wisdom, places us in seasons where the only growth is below the surface. He does this not to discourage us, but to set us up for the win. When success, or growth, or whatever may come, we have the character, maturity and firm foundation to stay on track.
Those seasons seem long and unrewarding, but they are not forever. Just you wait: that bamboo is going to come up all of a sudden, and take you by surprise.