The Little Events That Shape Our Lives

“It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.” ~Proverb

This morning, I sat through my third fall semester orientation in my graduate school career. While most of the time I sat begrudgingly listening to my professors, there were a few things that stood out to me. When I left the orientation, one thing was loud and clear:

I had not done nearly as much as my peers had done.

As I listened to my professors and peers talk about their research, their positions within the department, things they had accomplished, and how far they had come, I was left wondering: What exactly had I done?

I had barely written any of my dissertation, I had done zero research over the prior few months, and I had no awards or accolades attached to my name.

Where it felt like my classmates had gone above and beyond the duty of a graduate student, I was left alone to wonder if I hadn’t done as much as them.

What made things worse is that I started to compare myself to others, except under the guise of superiority. I started to think about people who had done less research than me.

I began to say, “I may not have done as much as (insert person here) but I surely have done more than (insert person here).” My inner critic was beginning to not only beat me down, but others, some of whom I love very dearly, who have helped make my experience as a graduate student far easier.

In order to keep my inner critic in check, move from judgment, and be real with myself, I had to answer the questions: What exactly had I done with myself? More specifically, what had I spent the summer doing?

The answer? I rested.

I rested because I knew going at my research and dissertation full force during the summer would take much more maintenance and care.

I rested because I also work more off campus over the summer, so I needed more down time in between my obligations.

I rested because I met someone who has a growing importance in my life and I wanted to spend as much time as possible being with him before our academic careers became more demanding in the fall.

Not only did I rest, after I sat down to reflect, I found that I had done far more than I anticipated.

I did my dissertation outline this summer, which will pave the way for writing my dissertation and will make my workload easier and stress level lower. I have done research, which has been presented at conferences and has found a way to be recognized by others. I have made sure to put in the necessary work to keep myself in graduate school and move forward in my future professional career.

What I realized is that none of these activities was some grand gesture of excellence; they are all tiny steps, inch pebbles rather than milestones, that will pave the way to my becoming the professional and person I desire to be. 

In light of the accomplishments of my peers, it’s easy to assume that I need to do something big in order to get the change I desire. Yet, I am constantly reminded and humbled that big gestures do not guarantee big results.

Yes, they can provide a profound momentum for things to come, but they very often do not yield results of the same magnitude. However, these small steps, these inch pebbles, are the tiny pieces of mortar that help build something magnificent in our lives.

A building can be made of bricks, which in turn are made of smaller pieces of matter brought together, and so are our lives and accomplishments.

This lesson on small steps was further brought home when I remembered I spent the better part of this last year recovering from a break-up. There were days when I was not sure what I would look or feel like the next year. I wasn’t sure how I would recover fully from that trauma.

Yet, I learned that I had to take things one day at a time. When I felt I was at my limit, I at least knew that if I made it to the next day, things would be better.

We like to believe that when big things happen, especially when we are the agents of such events, that things will instantly change. However, reality could not be further from the truth.

Things like forgiveness, love, and healing have to be taken on a day-to-day basis, and we often have to put energy and commitment behind them for things to get better in our lives. 

So, if you have been feeling discouraged, if you have been comparing yourself to others and thinking that your accomplishments pale in comparison to theirs, if you are recovering from a trauma, whether it be a break-up or the loss of a family member, pet, or friend: Rest easy. Take things step by step and day by day.

Our lives are made of the confluence of little events that build to create who and where we are now. As they say: Rome was not built in a day, nor will my dissertation, research, or relationship be built by one major action. They will all be created through smaller elements that propel each of them forward.

And remember: Rest is one of those little pieces, too, so treat yourself well.

Photo by h.koppdelaney

About Allen Thomas

Allen Thomas is a student from Arkansas currently studying Counseling Psychology. He has a passion for writing, art, comics, video games, and food, and looks forward to using his future career to better the lives of those who seek mental health.

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  • Lisa

    I LOVED this article. I am a grad student too, and I can relate. 🙂

  • Thank you for the article needed this today as I am still grieving the loss of my mother over 14 months ago and I am having a hard time feeling normal again.

  • Barbara Jhere

    Peace please be still…

  • Allen

    You’re on my mind and in my heart today. Even if it last for a moment, I wish you healing.

  • Allen

    Being in grad school is a unique struggle. Glad to see I’m not alone!

  • Alice

    Thank you for writing this article! This is the exact
    message I needed to hear. I recently graduated from college with high honors
    and many academic accomplishments but did not receive acceptance letters from
    the graduate programs I applied to. In addition, most of my friends were
    accepted into Ivy League graduate schools. Therefore, after being on the path
    of success for four years, I have been facing “failure” (my biggest fear) head-on
    recently and have been feeling discouraged. However, after reading your article,
    your words of encouragement were words I needed to hear in order to embrace
    this new transition in my life and to learn how to embrace the small steps in
    life. Thank you!

  • Arushi

    Thanks a lot for such a wonderful piece of article. Taking small steps at a time, is what I need to do.. focusing on day-to-day affairs rather than big picture always.. Thanks again !!!!

  • Allen

    I am well acquainted with that feeling of ‘failure’: I didn’t get into the undergrad OR grad school of my choice. Yet, I still ended up where I needed to be and in a good place. Eventually, that feeling of ‘failure’ turned into gratitude for me, because there really is no place I’d rather be. Good luck on your journey 🙂

  • Allen

    You’re welcome! Lemme tell ya: in writing my dissertation, I’m amazed at how much more I get done when I do it section by section, rather than trying to tackle it all at once. Those small steps are important!

  • DannySCR

    Thank you for this great article. I’ve recently been trying to take things a day at a time and that has made me all the more confident, effective, and happy. Hope all is well with you’re graduate school. Im a sophomore in college so I have a long way ahead of me but Im positive it’ll all work out! Best of luck to you!

  • Astha Kaushik

    i am in d same situation..but with every small step i feel more and more strong 🙂

  • 1L

    Thanks for sharing! I relate to those self imposed high expectation moments. Yes, yes. ALOT of rest!!

  • Allen

    Reading this three years later is more than affirming. In the midst of significant stress, including defending said dissertation from the article, I am reminded to slow down and look at the small things that have lead to this point.