The Art of Celebrating Small Victories (Or: How Not to Fail in Advance)
A couple of weeks ago, I posted a video on Instagram about the importance of celebrating small victories. You can view it here if you want but, if not, here’s the gist: I am a fan of celebrating all the small steps — the little improvements in skills or the bits of insight and understanding — on the way to larger goals. I think that sometimes, when we have a clear idea of where we ultimately want to go, it can be easy to be dismissive of small steps and to only let ourselves experience a sense of satisfaction when we reach a big milestone like learning a difficult piece or winning a job. But big goals have a funny way of receding into the distance as we approach them and using those goals as benchmarks against which to measure our progress on a day-to-day basis can, paradoxically, erode our motivation over time. On the other hand, when we make a habit of noticing and celebrating all the little accomplishments along the way, our learning generates its own momentum.
The art of celebrating small victories lies, to paraphrase the great Kenny Rogers, in knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Sometimes we intend to celebrate small victories but get gluttonous about improving. Something goes well and we think, “Maybe, if I keep going, I can improve even more.”
It can be good to push on, sure. But pushing on can, for some of us, lead to a feeling of never really achieving anything. Consider this: Have you ever had an experience where you achieved something that felt meaningful or significant to you and told someone — perhaps a friend or a parent or a teacher — and they said "Congratulations!” but then immediately pointed out the thing that you haven’t achieved yet? Instead of feeling great about the thing you just accomplished, you end up feeling like you failed in advance at the next thing.
Many of us inadvertently practice failing in advance in the practice room all the time. We don’t pause to appreciate how far we have come and instead fixate on how far we have yet to go. To be fair, I think this works for some people. Some people find that keeping their sights firmly set on their long-term goals is the best way to stay motivated. But not all of us. If you’re someone who finds more motivational fuel in the gradual accrual of skills, I encourage you to try intentionally celebrating small victories.
My personal rule of thumb is this: Notice when you have made a small improvement in skill or understanding, celebrate it, and move on to something else. You can always come back later! The coming back later is key — maybe tomorrow, maybe later today, maybe even later that same practice session. But giving our small achievements a bit of breathing room before moving on to the next challenge can be a great way to stay motivated…and to stay within the window of tolerance.
These posts, from the archives, explore similar ideas:
I linked this episode of the Ezra Klein show last week, but it is so good I’m sharing it again. In it, Klein and guest Chris Bailey hypothesize that it is actually the space between activities — and not the racing from one thing to the next — that gives our lives our richness and meaning.