What to Do When You’re Falling Behind
When I was a kid, it took me longer than I would have liked to learn how to ride a bike. I kept using a bike with training wheels and I didn’t practice much, so of course I didn’t learn how to balance.
One day I observed that my sister (younger by 2.5 years) was getting close to figuring out how to ride a bike. She wasn’t quite there yet, but she was clearly much closer to balancing than I was. I couldn’t let her beat me to it!
So I grabbed my bike, pushed it out to the street, and decided that I was going to learn how to ride it then and there. I hopped on — sans training wheels — and swerved all over the place like an out-of-control maniac. I tried to stay near the grass when I could muster some degree of control, so when I fell, I’d hopefully crash onto the lawn instead of the street or sidewalk.
After many short-lived attempts, I finally learned how to balance. Then I was off and riding. I rode my bike a lot that summer and have had the skill ever since.
Up until that point, I’d been making a big deal out of the whole process. It seemed scary and daunting. I was afraid of falling. But once I confronted the fear and mustered the courage to risk getting hurt, I quickly emerged on the other side with a whole new skill. From the moment of decision to the time I emerged with the basic skill was probably less than an hour.
What finally motivated me to face the fear and take action? It was the feeling that I was falling behind. My peers were leaving me in the dust. They could ride and I couldn’t. If my younger sister got there first, I’d no doubt be unfavorably compared to her, and I really didn’t want to deal with that.
That build-up of pressure worked to my advantage. I was capable of facing the fear and developing the skill, but I’d been delaying. I was letting fear get the better of me. That pressure gave me a much needed kick in my complacency.
Many years later, I found myself in a similar situation. When I started college, I didn’t take school seriously and goofed off a lot. I basically triple-majored in shoplifting, alcohol, and poker… and was eventually expelled. By the time I had a second go at it, my old high school friends were all starting their senior year, while I was starting over as a freshman. I was three years behind my peers, and I really felt the weight of that.
Once again, the feeling of falling behind became a powerful motivating force for me. Instead of taking four years to graduate, I made a huge commitment to master time management and tried to earn my degree a lot faster. I took about 3x the normal course load, and I earned not one but two Bachelor of Science degrees (in mathematics and computer science) — in only three semesters. Additionally, I received a special award for the top computer science student (as selected by the faculty) when I graduated.
I had no idea I was capable of that, just as I had no idea I could learn to ride a bike so quickly. The feeling of falling behind served as a powerful motivator. Instead of trying to squelch those disappointing feelings, like I’d been doing up to that point, I allowed myself to feel the weight of that pressure. I used those seemingly negative feelings to motivate action and overcome resistance.
The Positive Side of Social Pressure
There are many ways to deal with social pressure, especially when you feel you aren’t measuring up to some external standard. You can question or reject the standard, which is often the best option for standards you disagree with. Or you can agree with the standard and use the pressure to elevate your performance.
I’ve seen other people leverage this same kind of pressure to their good advantage. People who’ve been languishing in their careers unleash dormant ambition. Shy or socially awkward people push themselves to master social skills. People who’ve been mired in scarcity unlock financial abundance.
Very often, these people succeed, sometimes remarkably so. They turn the feeling of falling behind into a powerful source of motivation. They redefine their old relationship to their peer group. Instead of being the late bloomer, the laggard, or the underachiever, they become the fast learner, the leader, the performer.
Accelerating Your Growth
Using social pressure to beat yourself down is pointless. Using it to motivate fresh progress is powerful.
When you perceive that you’re falling behind, how can you leverage this feeling to speed up your growth?
First, let yourself feel the heaviness of the pressure. Stop trying to repress it, minimize it, or distract yourself from it. Feel the pain. Feel the disappointment. If this makes you feel like a complete loser, let those feelings flow freely for a while. Own those feelings. They’re temporary.
Once you’ve had a chance to let those feelings circulate and you no longer feel like you’re repressing those emotions, then pause and forgive yourself. So you fell behind. It happens. It’s okay. Acknowledge your humanness. Say, “I forgive myself fully and completely.”
I recommend dwelling on the forgiveness step until you really feel that you’ve forgiven yourself. Try journaling about your decision to forgive yourself. Write or type, “I forgive myself fully and completely,” over and over again. Keep your attention on forgiveness and self-compassion until you feel some emotional release, especially some tears. If you truly forgive yourself, you’re likely to feel some relief and lightness afterwards.
Forgive yourself, but don’t let yourself off the hook completely. It’s okay that you slacked off in the past. It’s not okay to keep slacking off. Resolve to be done with that dissatisfying past behavior. No more falling behind.
Realize that you can get caught up. You can go faster. You can redeem yourself.
Accept that it won’t be easy. It doesn’t need to be easy. The challenge will be good for you. It will help you grow. It will wake you up. It will help you raise your standards.
Now turn your attention to creating a positive vision of fresh action going forward. Redefine your short-term vision of success as a vision based on action, not on immediate results. One reason we fall behind is that we make a big deal out of failure. However, many results (such as learning to ride a bike) practically require you to fail — sometimes a lot — before you can succeed. So don’t put so much pressure on yourself to achieve a specific result just yet. Instead, feel the pressure to take simple actions. Turn this pressure into movement.
When I committed to learning to ride a bike, instead of focusing so much on the end goal, I pushed that desire to the back of my mind. I focused on facing the fearful action I was dreading. For me it was trying to ride and falling and getting hurt. So I made the commitment to go ahead and try my best, to fall as much as I might have to fall, to endure the scrapes and bruises, and to quickly get back on the bike and try again. I accepted that there might be some pain and blood, and if so, I’d hurt and bleed and keep going. By accepting the possible outcome I feared, I reduced my resistance to action. I decided I’d rather be a bruised and bloodied boy who could ride a bike instead of a pristine boy who couldn’t.
What’s the equivalent bloodied version of yourself that you’re avoiding and thereby causing yourself to fall further and further behind? Is it a vision of yourself having to work or study for long hours? Is it a vision of yourself being repeatedly rejected? Is it a vision of yourself making mistakes and losing money? You can endure all of those things. And you can keep right on going after they occur. They’re all petty fears to begin with. You’re strong enough to handle them.
In college my commitment was to sign up for as many classes as I could schedule on my calendar. I decided I’d do my best to attend those classes, do the assignments, take the exams, and learn the material efficiently.
Doing Your Best
Define success as doing your best. Face the fear. Make the valiant effort. Don’t worry so much about the end result.
One reason you may feel like you’re falling behind is that you haven’t been doing your best. It isn’t the perception that other people seem to be passing you that’s such a bother. What really gets under your skin is believing that you could have prevented it. The consequences of not doing your best can be very unsettling when they finally catch up to you.
Ask yourself the question, “What would my best look like?”
This is a powerful question to ask, but so often we don’t ask it because our answers will shed light on those situations where we clearly aren’t doing our best. And that’s where the feeling of falling behind starts creeping in.
Let it creep in. Immerse yourself in those feelings. Feel the unpleasant heaviness and disappointment of falling behind.
Then define your best in the form of simple and direct action. What is the best effort you can make? What can you do? What’s the action to take?
You can try and fail. You can try and get rejected. You can try and learn.
If you keep making your best effort again and again, you’ll power through old fears and sniveling worries faster than you thought possible. And soon the results you desire will become visible… and then fully realized.
Where do you feel like you’re falling behind? In which areas of your life are you underperforming? Let yourself feel the weight of those disappointments. Forgive yourself. Identify what your best effort could look like. Then go take action. Make the attempt. Fall. Get bruised. Get up and try again. Persist until you create your desired results.
It’s just like riding a bike.