“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
– George Bernard Shaw
I’m not a big fan of change, but I’ve made many over the past year and a half.
Being blessed with a well-paying job, comfortable home and loving husband wasn’t enough. I was grateful for what I had, but an inner part of me needed more.
I needed a sense of progress.
The misery needed to escalate before I reluctantly ceded to change, clutching and fighting along the way. There was no other choice, aside from resigning to a life of yearning and regret, which I refused to do any longer. Because like Mr. Shaw said, progress is impossible without change. It became clear that my mindset towards change needed to shift if I wanted to remove what I didn’t want in my life.
This led me to question what I wanted. At first, I fell into the vacation trap. I wanted my life to be free from weary work, suffocating stress and restrictive responsibility. I wanted to have flexibility and freedom to travel and do whatever I wanted. I received all of that and more during a sabbatical after quitting an unfulfilling job. Surely, this was progress.
And it was, kind of. I loved the unhurried pace and the flexibility over my schedule. I knew that I wanted aspects of freedom and flexibility in my daily routine. But it didn’t take me long to realize a forever vacation wasn’t the answer.
The answer I uncovered was meaningful progress.
But what does that even mean? How do we begin to think about meaningful progress and what that means in life?
This is where it gets messy, simply because there isn’t one answer for everyone. What’s meaningful to one person will not matter to another and what’s meaningful will shift even for the same person over the course of his or her life. Still, there are some commonalities and patterns I’ll share based on what I’ve learned on my journey.
So what’s meaningful progress in life?
Meaningful progress is when personally important areas of your life are advancing in ways that create a sense of accomplishment, well-being and satisfaction. It’s when you’re deliberately working towards goals that feel fulfilling to you, such as when you’re doing something you love, working towards a desired stage or outcome, taking steps in becoming a truer version of yourself or improving something for the greater good. It’s the feeling you get when you’re feeling in flow with the direction of your life.
It’s simple when it comes to how it makes us feel. When you’re making meaningful progress, you feel like you’re going somewhere, things are moving along, and there’s more to look forward to. When you don’t think you are, you may feel like you’re gradually sinking, legs stuck in some sticky matter, with nowhere to go and nothing exciting on the horizon.
In make-up, meaningful progress is complex and intricate, composed of many different elements. You can think of meaningful progress like a mechanical clock with many individual gears and parts working together to move the hands. A few gears barely move at all, but some turn at a frenetic pace. Each part has its own role in moving the hands of the clock, which represent meaningful progress in your life. With no battery, this clock requires regular winding of the crank to keep it powered, a concentration of energy revving the necessary pieces to move the hands forward.
It’s different for everyone.
Meaningful progress will vary for each person. What’s meaningful to one person will not matter to another at all or until five or ten years later. Each of the components within my clock represents a personally important area—health, relationships, travel, financial security, career or personal growth. What’s in my meaning clock will be different from yours.
As the forward momentum of meaningful areas work together, the hands move.
Change is usually involved.
As the hands inch forward, personally important parts of your life are changing. There’s often an element of unknown, growth and expansion involved. There are ups and downs, trials and successes.
What’s more, the makeup of meaningful progress will change throughout your life. Different areas will take priority depending on what life phase you’re in, just like how outdated parts will need to be replaced with a new version. The inside of the clock will be ever-changing to keep up with the ever-evolving you.
But it doesn’t always mean something’s changing.
This doesn’t mean there’s always change involved or that the status quo’s always bad. Years can go by and you’ll still feel a certain area is fitting—and that’s a wonderful thing. Some components of the clock aren’t meant to move, serving as a constant against the moving parts. Maybe one day you feel differently, that’s okay too. Even stationary parts need to be replaced every now and then.
Effort is required.
Meaningful progress requires hard work and elbow grease at regular intervals throughout your life. Without the continued effort of winding up, there is no momentum to turn the cogs. This could happen when you consistently drift to the easier and safer route, or when you stop learning or trying new things. Without effort, the hands of meaningful progress will eventually slow and suspend in stagnancy.
It needs to be maintained.
Meaningful progress isn’t something you set and forget. Old gears may rust and break. There’s maintenance involved—like when a tough conversation needs to be had or when an issue needs to be resolved. When this happens, they need to be replaced with a new part. Perhaps something that was meaningful is no longer, such as when another career is desired or when you’re ready for a new relationship.
Stagnancy will occur if you avoid what’s important.
If we avoid a difficulty, pain or uncertainty in a certain area, we may still make meaningful progress by focusing on other areas in our lives. But after months or years, the neglect will become more problematic.
Eventually the defective part will affect the others, slow down and halt the hands of progress. This is how many of us go through years with a dwindling sense of momentum in their lives. We avoid a certain issue or area and gradually become lulled into a stage of dormancy that worsens with time.
Meaningful progress requires continuous effort and change in areas only you can determine for yourself.
When things are going seemingly effortlessly, it’s easy to take for granted. When everything’s moving along, we don’t even think about it. When we encounter a rough time or wild card, meaningful progress can become much more difficult to move along. It’s often then when we start questioning, reassessing and wondering what could be.
What meaningful progress means for different people is intricate, complicated and fascinating. It’s what I want to study across many backgrounds and people with the mission of helping more of us live fuller lives.
Why? Because the alternative is my greatest fear.
The sense of regret of a life unlived, the wondering of what could’ve been, the resignation of it’s now too late—these are things what I want to help others avoid as much as I’m able.
That’s what meaningful progress means to me: to take steps toward building a life that I’ve dared to dream, and to help others do the same.
What does meaningful progress mean to you? If you have any thoughts, please share with me in the comments or in a personal email. In next week’s article, I’ll be sharing more patterns I’ve observed from materials, conversations with others and personal experience on pursuing meaningful progress in life!