Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #113 How to Begin
About this episode

This week, Martha talks about the “genius, power and magic” of beginning (thanks, Goethe!). She proposes we look at beginning something new as an end in itself so that we can gently coax ourselves into it. Tune in for more!


Martha Beck:

Welcome to The Gathering Pod, the audio version of my weekly Gathering Room broadcast. I’m Martha Beck. So we’re beginning another Gathering Room, or Gathering Pod, if you’re listening to this later. And beginning, that’s a thing. It’s a difficult thing, but it’s also a very important thing.

Now, there is a quote that is attributed to [inaudible 00:00:30] Goethe. Is that his first name? Goethe. Anyway, he said, “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” Ooh, that just makes you want to begin something, right? It means the beginning itself is like a box that has genius, power, and magic in it. And if you just unlock it, all these riches will pour out. And I believe that that is true. However, there’s a lot of resistance to beginning. I have found this to be true in my own life, and I’ve also found it to be true that no matter how many times you begin, you always have to begin again.

What happens if you write a book and it goes out there, and even if it does well, you have to begin another book. What happens if you finish a project? Yay, celebration. You’ll probably begin another project. What happens if you begin a relationship? Yay, wonderful, but you’re going to have more relationships of all kinds throughout your life. So there’s always going to be a beginning going on somewhere, and beginnings are fraught with confusion and hesitation and mistakes.

I think that’s why Goethe had to say to people, go, go do it, because we’d rather do things that are familiar. We really, really resist going from what we’re familiar with to something we’re not familiar with. It requires that we kind of let go of who we have been, what we’ve been doing, and then go into something unknown. Ooh, the amygdala does not like that. Every time you see something that’s even unfamiliar, it doesn’t have to be threatening, but you get this little kick of fear. Your brain is actually designed to fear anything unusual or new, the unfamiliar. So every day we’re facing beginnings and every single time it’s something new, even if it’s something that we’ve done before, we haven’t done this one before.

So every morning when I get up it’s like, oh, I have to begin a day again. I have to begin this day again. Every time, like I clean up after dinner, that’s one of my household jobs. After we all have dinner, everybody else goes and takes care of other people, and I clean up. And it’s like every night I’m like, oh, I have to begin this again. Every time I start a new task of any kind, like with life coaching, I have to begin again. Get a new client, begin again. Whatever it is, we’re always, always beginning.

So it may have genius, power, and magic in it, but it also has a lot of aversion attached to it. There are things that are distinctly un-fun, and every time, if you’re trained as one of my life coaches, you know that every time you start something new, you go through this death and rebirth phase that is very disorienting, and it’s not something in our particular culture that we’re trained to cope with. We’re supposed to just keep things going well, right? The idea of beginning again and again and again and again is kind of anathema to the way we think. We’d rather just hunker in and do what we know, but beginning always comes, always comes, always comes.

So how do you begin? I’m kind of sitting at the beginning of a lot of things right now, so I’ve been facing it. Ro and I are both beginning new novels, and yesterday Ro called me and said, “I’ve had a huge breakthrough about my writing and why I haven’t begun.” And I was all excited and she told me about it, and sure enough, she had found a way to begin by knowing the way that she herself prefers to slide into a new activity. So she had taken beginning not as something I have to do to make something else happen, but as an end in itself. So just isn’t that, I love the delicious paradox of that, to begin, to make beginning easier, you see beginning as an end in itself. The very phenomenon of beginning can become your friend.

If you start to see beginning as a thing that is your friend, you will have a friend that never deserts you because there will always be new things beginning. But how do you make a friend at a beginning when it’s so truculent and so difficult? So here we turn to, I knew you saw this coming, the transtheoretical model of change. Yeah, that just means they took a whole bunch of schools of psychology, mushed them together, and said, how do you begin? And they came up with six steps. Six.
The first one is pre-contemplation. You don’t even know the change is coming. So you’ve got that. You’re done with that step. You’ve already taken one of the steps of your next beginning. You don’t think about it. Step one, pre-contemplation.

Then there’s contemplation, then there’s preparation, and only then is there action. Now, once you’ve got to action, you’re into the change. You maintain that for a while, and then you get to the end of that particular task, and then it comes up again. You haven’t even been contemplating the next thing, but here it comes and now you’re contemplating. So I want to focus on contemplation and preparation because those are the places where we don’t give ourselves enough time and space and credit and tools. It’s like, just get started, like a robot. Just start.

Instead, you have to give adequate time to your contemplation and preparation, and think of contemplation as plowing a field, breaking up the soil of your old way of thinking, your old way of being. You have to put things, you have to jumble things a bit before you can actually plant new seeds. You don’t just go drop them on the ground that’s been trampled down. You actually have to break up the things that you’ve been thinking of doing, and you break them up first in your mind.
So just if I were to say, say I decided that I’m going to do what I did with my last non-fiction book, with the current book that I’m writing that is non-fiction. I’m writing two books at the same time. I would work from 10 to noon every day, and that was sacred writing time. I haven’t been doing that with this next book. But if I sit and imagine, okay, tomorrow I’m going to get up, I’m going to go down, I’m going to have my coffee, I’m going to connect with my loved ones, and then I’m going to go upstairs and I’m going to do my sacred writing time, 10 to noon. If I picture that, I’m already breaking up the field of the time that’s coming up. The field is what I’m used to doing, and I’m breaking it up by imagining something new.

So you picture it and then think of it in little chunks. Never think, okay, I have to begin to write that book. No, never, ever think in terms of a chunk that’s going to take you more than like five minutes. When I go to clean up after dinner, I don’t do it as a unitary thing. I have a very particular order, and this is my preparation. I’ve contemplated it. First I deal with all the food that’s leftover, put it in the fridge, whatever. Then I deal with all the silverware. Then I deal with all the cups and glasses. Then I deal with all the plates, then the pots and pans. Then I wipe everything down. I have the same order every time, and I never plan to do it all. I only plan ever to put one dish of leftover food away. And then I begin the next task.

So I’ve actually created tons of beginnings, but they’re all little tiny things, and it’s much, much, much, the transtheoretical model has shown, it is much, much, much more likely that you’ll begin something if it’s a little something, just be a little something, and every big thing is made up of little things. So chunk it, chunk it, chunk it. Do you know that’s why we have dashes in our phone numbers, because the mind cannot handle a 10 digit code, but if you break it into three and four and three, my mind can handle anything. What is it? We have the area code is three, then our prefix is three, then four. So that is 10 altogether. You can’t handle 10 numbers at once, but you can handle three, three, and four. The magic number is five. The brain can take chunks of five.
Okay, so that’s the first thing. Chunk it, chunk it, chunk it. Prepare the field. Then you will come, as you approach the actual preparation to the junction of curiosity and fear, I told you the amygdala goes, ah, when you start to do anything new, but it also goes, oh, and one of the best ways you can get yourself moving is to give yourself FOMO, fear of missing out, by watching someone else doing the activity. So literally, like I have to declutter my closets. I will go on TV, I will go on the internet, and find shows about people decluttering. They look like they’re having such a good time, and I can see the steps they’re taking, and that will make me much more likely to go do it myself.

But first, I do it in my mind. I watch other people. I think about it myself. I chunk it, chunk it. Then I watch other people, talk to other people, get ideas. By the way, am I the only one who felt a deep, deep surge of gratitude and satisfaction when Marie Kondo, the author of Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she said that since the birth of her third child, she had basically given up on tidying. Oh, that made me love her so much.

Anyway, so then trick yourself into starting by first setting up your physical environment so you’re more likely to do the thing, whatever it is. So you have the task. I printed out, I’m not talking well, I printed out the manuscript of the book that I’m working on, and I took it and I put it in the place where I usually write, and that was like all I could do for the day, but it’s right there. That’s one step closer to me actually picking it up, reading it.

It’s also important to fool yourself into thinking of the step as not very big by imagining what will come after it. And the way this works, this is how you give a dog a pill. You get a piece of food, you mush the pill in it, then you get a bigger piece of food, a more delicious piece of food, you hold them both out. The dog will just [inaudible 00:11:25] the first one because it’s trying to get to the second one, and it just swallows it whole. It doesn’t have to chew it. If it chews it, it will find the pill and drop it on the floor, if you are my dog.

My point here is that I don’t think I’m going to sit down and write my book. I think I’m going to sit down, write my book, and then I’m going to take a bath. I always hold out the reward right away before I even get started, and then I move into action with what I call icebreakers. Icebreakers are the little ships, these little powerful ships that used to sail the North Atlantic, and they would have these really hard, knife like steel prows, and they would cut into the ice. They were little ships, but they could bash up ice and then the big ships could come in after one.

So there’s something writers call the magic 250, where you sit down and write 250 words and see where it takes you. If I want to start a watercolor, I will tape down a piece of paper. That takes me about five minutes. That’s an icebreaker for me. Today, I have texted myself all these notes for my non-fiction book. I took them out of my text field and I put them in a Google document where I can access them. That’s an icebreaker.

So through all of these steps, I will run through them, contemplate by imagining something, but in small chunks, turn toward curiosity instead of fear, get curious by watching other people do something. Your curious little inner animal will be like, what? Then trick yourself into starting by thinking of the next thing, and move into action with little icebreakers. Now, this is all very pragmatic life coachy stuff, right? But then you get to a really profound spiritual dimension, which is that if you do these things, you begin to achieve what I said a minute ago. You are starting to make friends with beginning as an end in itself, and you are claiming and reveling in the acceptance of yourself as always beginning, beginning, beginning. Because beginning has genius, power, and magic in it.

So instead of being afraid of it and moving away, you go out and actually start looking for new things to begin so that you can be with your friend, beginning, which always breaks open and reveals all this magic inside it, even though you have so much resistance to it. And every time you begin, and all that happens as I age is that I begin more times, I never finish. I love T.S. Eliot’s line that, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” It’s like you go into beginning again, and when you start to realize it’s a friend, every time it shows up, you’re like, you, I remember you.
And you go into it with more skill, with more wisdom, with more actual maybe even pleasure sometimes, and also with this anticipation of something magical happening, because if you think of things as always slipping away, permanence, everything dies, everything’s slipping away, you can also look at beginning as we live in a world where everything is always arising, arising, arising, arising, and what’s new, what’s coming next? If you’re always a beginner, you’re continually surprised by your friend, beginning, by the different kinds of genius, power, and magic that come out of it, and then you’re much more at home in the world because we live in a world of impermanence and beginning is always going to be right next to you, so you might as well make it a friend.
So let’s go to, that’s what I have to say about that. Now I’m going to go to my question boxes. Aha, here they are. And they are tiny. I will make them bigger. I can’t. Okay, so Constellations in her Bones says, “With your spidey senses, is growth necessarily fraught with discomfort, or is that the historical way? How is creating art a way to expand and evolve? Are beginnings invitations to celebrate it all?” That’s a great set of questions, Constellations in her Bones. Let me think. I’m going to unpack that.

Is growth necessarily fraught with discomfort? It depends on how you define discomfort. There are two kinds of pain, psychological pain, one in ACT, ACT therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, Steven Hayes calls these clean pain and dirty pain. Clean pain comes from events, like getting punched in the face. Dirty pain comes from our thoughts about those events. So is growth always uncomfortable? I would say in a sense it is. It actually has to be. It has to break the old system.
However, that is clean pain, and if you experience it without dirty pain, without thinking negative thoughts about it, even the discomfort of it becomes more appetizing. I have told you before about my amazing physical therapist, and she always literally every single week for months and months, I go in there and she gives me completely different exercises. I don’t know how she comes up with these things. The one thing I know is that she’s going to find a shred of muscle I’ve never used and she’s going to make me use it until I want to vomit.

And it’s frightening. I have a friend who referred me to her and we’re both always frightened when we go, but we’re also really looking forward to the delicious sense of getting activity into a part of the body that hasn’t been used enough, of beginning something. It’s very aversive and very appealing at the same time because it’s uncomfortable but not mentally disturbing. So I accept the discomfort with the attitude of making beginning a friend, and it’s a different kind of discomfort, but you have to accept it’s going to be there.

City Lotus says, “Amazing. I’m in a decluttering club where we declutter together on Zoom.” Oh my god, that’s amazing. Ro’s been doing this with writing, going on Zoom and just writing with people. The power of the pack activity, like not packing, but in a pack, is so powerful for us social primates, even me, and I’m like very, very, not inverted, introverted. I’m very inverted. I’m upside down right now. It’s just all positioned that way. If you can find a club for whatever you’re beginning, join that club or just Zoom into it, or watch it on TV, as I said, because it will always get that little amygdala going, ooh, what? That little monkey mind. The monkey mind will make you crazy and it will also make you creative. So foster it.

Okay, I’m the Valerie says, “How to get around the fear and time pressure when beginning a new project and having been given a clear deadline already.” Wow, what a great question. Because all the things that make it mechanical and forced, you have to do it, here’s the deadline. It’s interesting that so many people think that goal setting like that, like smart goals, what is it? Specific, measurable, time bounded, actionable, all these different descriptors of how to make a change work, they’re really, really good, but you can’t force yourself to do things just because you’ve made a deadline and it’s looming. In fact, the fear, as I’m the Valerie says, the fear and time pressure start to crush in on you.

So somehow, it’s the same paradox that we see when we watch performers at the Olympics and stuff, who are going out there doing incredibly difficult things under enormous pressure. And what they’re always saying in the stands is, “She just needs to relax.” And people will say to you as you go to do something hard, “Just be yourself.” That is so super duper hard to do. So making friends with beginning as an end in itself is to me a refuge because the deadline is not my friend, it’s my enemy. I fear it, and it shuts me down. So I don’t look at the end. I look at the beginning instead, and I say, how do I think you through in tiny chunks, and then make it appetizing and curious to slide in and create action priming so that I just start to begin things?

Once you have begun, the genius, power, and magic will take over and you may start to roll. And I actually learn to do that by writing a column for Oprah magazine every month, every month for 17 years. And I never missed a month, and I rarely missed deadlines. My first editor is probably out there laughing at me right now. I did miss some, but I got them in on time, in time for publication, and it was really hard. It was really scary, and I had to fall in love with beginning over and over and over and over again. And even though the magazine isn’t being published anymore, I can generalize that to other tasks. So when I hear deadline, I take my eyes off the end and put it right on the beginning by trying to make it joyful, and then the time, you know, you can get rolling and you make your deadline.

All right, Rose says, “Why do you think beginnings are so scary? Is it simply a fear of the unknown?” Yeah, I think it is. I mean, if you read about how the brain reacts to unfamiliarity, it’s just like, no, we did not evolve for the level of change we live in. I’ve probably mentioned to you before Katherine May’s wonderful book, the Electricity of Every Living Thing. It’s a memoir she wrote about walking these vast distances in England, but also about self-diagnosing as autistic. And she talks about how I would never have had to cope with the amount, the pace and acceleration of change and the time pressures that we put on ourselves now if I’d been born a few hundred years earlier.

So we’re living in a time of pressure and deadlines that is made, I will say it again, for robots and machines, and we are not robots and machines. We are creatures and souls, and those creatures and souls need to be cajoled, cuddled, tempted into beginning because you can’t just point a machine at it and say, do the thing. There’s no genius, power, and magic in putting a robot on a task, unless you have to begin to put robots on tasks, in which case my hat is off to you, robot designers, you are amazing. That must have been hard to begin. So yeah, it’s fear of the unknown, and we have to deal with it much more than we ever had to do. So use every little thing you can to be friends with beginning.

Donna says, “What if you’re successful at the beginning, but the continuing and following through gets you stuck? I love new things and beginnings, but I find I drop them after a while. How do I stop dropping things?” You do it by beginning every day. You don’t keep writing a book, you begin writing it again. You don’t say, “Oh, I have to write page 30.” You begin page 30. You don’t write 10 chapters, you write the chapter in front of you, and then when that’s done, you begin again. Yes, it’s hard to keep up momentum, but if you fall in love with beginning, beginner’s mind, which is such a very, very fundamental part of a lot of Asian philosophy, then you can treat every moment as a new beginning and every moment shows itself as your friend. So you can sustain momentum if you think of it in tiny bits and not long bits.

Anne says, “I find the preparation stage to be so much fun. However, I wonder if this is a false sense of starting. Plus the ending of this good feeling seems to intensify the fear and the dread of the action stage. I can really get stuck here. Any ideas to make this less jolting?” I think what some of the other folks have been saying about getting other people there with you, making a commitment to show up with other people, that can be really helpful. All the chunking, all the turtle stepping, taking little tiny steps, but also know that your particular brain likes the preparation.

Some people don’t. Some people like to finish things, they like to come into a project that’s almost done and polish it up. If you are a preparer, then indulge in that a lot, but know that you’re going to have to do a lot of action priming to move into the action step, and do it in tiny, tiny, tiny little ice breaking steps. Bring out all the ice breaking tools you can. That just means tinier chunks, more company, more incentive. Look at the next thing after the thing you’re going to do. Everything I’ve mentioned here, it’s all just, it’s really like animal training. You really are training a wild animal to do something that makes it nervous, and you’ll get used to it.
Jessica says, “This syncs up with me so well today. I just started learning to embroider because I had mastered some other artistic pursuits. I love the beginning feeling, but sometimes I get excited about too many things at once. How do you decide what to begin, Martha?” Well, I have a lot of ADD. I have serious ADD. So I begin about 20 things at once and then I rush spasmodically from one to the other, going … Ask my family. They will tell you I do not exaggerate.

So what I do is there’s a part I’ve talked about in other Gathering Rooms, in internal family systems theory, where they look at the different parts of the self, they talk about one major Self, with a capital S, which is the wise one who knows the whole scope of your life and everything. Now, the things that I’ve been telling you are sort of more like the soldiers that go out to the front and do the work. The general sitting in the back is the Self, capital S. So you can sit there and say, all right, in the overall framework of my life, what do I need to begin next? And then you can see how the parts of you that get it done, how they feel about it.

So for example, for me right now, starting an art project is more appealing than starting a writing project. But my Self knows that I’ve got a contract and I’ve got a certain number of months to do the work, and so it sits gently with my artistic part and says, honey, we’re going to have to put down the paint brush for a few hours every day and we’re going to do some tiny little icebreakers on your writing. Don’t worry, we’re going to do 250 words. I did that yesterday, and as I got into about a hundred word territory, I felt a different Self coming in, a different part, and it was quite entranced with writing. And I hadn’t wanted to stop painting, but I was entranced with writing.

And then it was my turn to be with Lila, and I got entranced by her. You get entranced once you start things. It’s the Goethe quote again, it has genius, power, and magic. Start the new thing and let your Self, capital S, decide what to do next and have a nice little negotiation with it about what comes next. And then take those first few steps into action and see if the genius, power, and magic arise. If not, the Self may have to give you bigger treats, smaller chunks. Go back to what I said earlier in this broadcast and just up the ante a little bit.

Okay, Deborah says, “Why does my brain get more inspired to begin when it sees or thinks about worst case scenarios? For example, watching Hoarders can make me want to start decluttering right away, but perfect homes make me want to give up.” How interesting. I don’t have that experience. When I watch Hoarders, I want to give up. But when I see perfect homes, I also want to give up. I want to see people going between the two. I want to see people getting from the hoarder state into the perfect or more perfect state. It’s that action. I don’t like steady state things. I don’t think steady state things are real. No house is perfect unless you leave it there and seal it up, and even then it’s going to decay. And I think our souls know that everything’s meant to move.
So if you need to get beginning, look at action, not status quo, whether it’s hoarders or perfection, unless you get super motivated by watching Hoarders, go for it. I mean, use whatever works for you, but for me, looking at the flow of something is what makes me want to begin.
Finally, Mary says, “Great to hear about Ro’s breakthrough. Do you think Ro’s work, what works because that’s part of her conative style? Would it make sense for each of us to feel into our conative style to see how we begin, to see if there are ways each of us could benefit from specific styles of beginning?”

Those of you who’ve never heard the term conative, it’s a very obscure English word, but it means the way we preferentially take action. And there are four different kinds. Some people go directly into movement. That’s what I do. That’s probably what I just said about seeing things move, makes me want to start them. So I’m what’s called a quick start. Then there is a fact finder, who wants to do research and figure it all out. Ro is more fact finder than I am. So part of hers is doing a lot of research and setting everything up.

Then there’s follow throughs. Those these are people who work with systems and need to make a system or find a system, like getting on a Zoom with other people, and plug into the system. And then finally, there are people who are implementers, who need to actually physically move the body in order to get started on something. I am an implementer too, so even though the stuff I’m doing is very quiet, like writing, I only really come up with good ideas when I’m in motion.
So if I get stuck, I immediately go to the gym or go for a walk or just watch something out the window, as long as it’s moving. So yeah, long answer to the very last question, but conative style is a really, really powerful thing and it comes from the work of Kathy Kolbe, K-O-L-B-E. And if you’ve never heard of it, you should definitely go look up Kathy Kolbe conative styles, go to her website, take a little test, see what you like doing, and then begin in that way.

So I’m sure my way of beginning is just one, but I’ve worked with many, many, many people by this point in my life, and I know that some combination of those things will always get someone moving, if anything will. Maybe they won’t ever start moving, but if they’re going to, they will start with contemplation, preparation, then action. And this works better and better and better the more you realize that this process is, and in itself beginning is a beautiful place. It’s a beautiful friend. And if you learn to love it, then over and over and over we shall not cease from exploration. And the end of our exploring every time, a million times, will be to arrive where we started at the beginning and know the place for the first time.

So I hope you begin something wonderful today, and I hope you notice that something wonderful is always beginning out there, even with other things happening and ebbing away. Begin. Begin. Begin. In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few. So go begin and find your genius, power, and magic, and I’ll see you again on the Gathering Room. Bye.

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