Get Started: Why Getting Started is More Important Than Succeeding

In 1991, Lindsay Davenport played in her first professional tennis match. She was 15 years old.

Over the next 20 years, Davenport would go on to have one of the greatest tennis careers in recent history. She won three different Grand Slam titles. She won the 1996 Olympic Gold Medal. She was ranked the Number 1 female tennis player in the world eight different times. In total, Davenport earned over $22 million in prize money throughout her career.

I had the chance to meet Davenport at the 2012 US Open. Later that night, she fielded some questions from our group and I asked her this…

“Lindsay, sports can teach people a lot of lessons. What lessons did you learn during your time as a professional tennis player that you didn’t learn as an amateur?”

Full disclosure: I had a personal motive with this question. I played baseball in college, but not professionally. So I wanted to know, “What did I miss?”

Davenport’s first response was to talk about how she had to grow up fast. She mentioned the power of the media and learning to live her life in front of a crowd.

But then she shifted gears and talked about improving at her craft and the lessons of competition, hard work, and perseverance. Those things, she said, were learned long before she became a professional.

In other words, to learn about what it’s like to live as a professional athlete, you need to be a professional athlete. But to learn the lessons of playing sports, you just need to play your sport.

Excellence Isn’t Required for Growth

Our world is becoming more and more obsessed with comparison and validation. The style of thinking that is becoming dangerously common is “If you can’t be number one or number two, then you might as well not play at all.”

(This belief was actually celebrated in my MBA program, which may or may not surprise you.)

But according to Davenport, you don’t need to be a professional to learn the most important lessons in sports. You just need to bust your butt as an athlete, regardless of the level you’re playing at. I’d say it’s that way in the rest of life as well. Mastering your craft isn’t nearly as important as pushing yourself.

To put it another way, you’ll learn more from the process of pursuing excellence than from the products of achieving it.

It’s More Important to Start, Than to Succeed

I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.
—Aaron Swartz

What if the choice to be curious was all that was required to become smarter, stronger, and more skilled? What if the willingness to try something new, even if it felt uncomfortable, was all that it took to start the slow march towards greatness?

  • Are you curious enough to get in the gym and try it, even if you’ll look stupid?
  • Are you willing to be vulnerable and put your skin in the game to start your own business?
  • Are you eager enough to improve your work that you’ll battle through the frustration of producing something mediocre?

It all boils down to this: Whether you’ll end up being the best or the worst, are you willing to start?

The more I look at things this way, the more I believe that the willingness to start is the littlest thing in life that makes the biggest difference.

Step onto the field. Stand up in the meeting. Raise your hand in class.

Get under the bar. Walk up to the podium. Ask the first question.

Take a risk, get started, and contribute something. To your team, to your family, to your job, to your community. Whether or not you end up being number one in the world is irrelevant. Most of the time, the value you provide isn’t nearly as important as pushing yourself to provide it. This is especially true at first.

Having the courage to start is more important than succeeding because the people who consistently get started are the only ones who can end up finishing anything.

Get Started: Life Isn’t a Dress Rehearsal

I often write about what it means to live a healthy life.

I can’t think of any skill more critical to the active pursuit of a healthy life than the willingness to start. Everything that signifies a happy, healthy and fulfilled existence — strong relationships, vibrant creativity, valuable work, a physical lifestyle, etc. — it all requires a willingness to get started over and over again.

Take note: being the best isn’t required to be happy or fulfilled, but being in the game is necessary.

Life isn’t a dress rehearsal. Only one person lives in the spotlight, but everyone benefits from stepping on stage.

Which stage will you step onto? What game will you play? How will you get started?

42 Comments

  1. Great article (coming from a man who sometimes dissagrees with you) … definitely not this time.

    Keep up the goodness.

    • Thanks Musaed. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      It’s great to have you as part of the community here (and it’s helpful to have people bringing different viewpoints). Feel free to share your thoughts, positive or negative, any time.

  2. The willingness to start, sounds like a great way to start off every day. The courage to put yourself out there and give things a chance is a skill attainable by any one. Great message that can connect with everybody. I remember when you “just started” down this path and have enjoyed seeing the path take shape over the past few years. I really think you hit it home at the end saying that it is a willingness to start time and time again. Life is full of a myriad of new beginnings and you are not defined by one moment, but by many.

    Anything you are looking forward to starting soon that is on the horizon?

  3. I am completely on board, James. Until five years ago, my husband and I were just going through the motions – buy cars, house, clothes. Once we decided to go for it – start our own business, take care of our fitness and diet, and start putting fun into our daily lives, everything changed. It wasn’t one big event. It was a series of small starts – walking three miles then four and evenutally five. Eat healthy more of the time, then most of the time, then all of the time. We started living intentionally, and we love reading posts like this. It’s the Woohoo, fist in the air type of inspiration we all need and love. Thank you.

    • Tammy — thanks so much for reading. It’s great to hear about people like yourself who are living things out.

      Keep rocking! (And I’ll keep writing.)

  4. Very true. You go no where unless you take the first step. The headache, as you implied in the article, is that it takes time and hard work to be successful. It does not happen overnight. Gladwell in his book Outliers did a decent job explaining that it is always going to take 10,000 hours perfecting a skill.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the article, Russ.

      The ability to get started every day — even when it takes 10,000 hours — is the key.

  5. I’m a fitness instructor and personal trainer, so I’ve heard A LOT of excuses why not to get started. But the majority of them come down to fear of failure, and his, fear of looking silly while trying. I loved that you said “excellence isn’t required for growth” — You nailed it! Trying and doing it somewhat imperfectly while pursuing excellence is what creates growth and eventually excellence. Sharing this with my students and clients! Thanks!

    • Laura — thanks for sharing. Fitness and health are ripe with excuses, for sure.

      Feel free to share with your clients. I’m happy to help however I can. And, as always, thanks for reading!

  6. Needing to hear this one today. I started a new job recently, and it’s been rough going the last few days. Just have to remind myself that starting new things is more important than being an expert!

    • Joel — congrats on the new job. There’s always a learning curve associated with any new position. You’ve done the hard part (starting), just keep grinding and improving.

      Thanks for reading!

  7. Thank you, James. Your articles have really helped me. I started working out about 3 month ago, and really, getting started was the hardest part. But I’m glad I didn’t just give up. Although sometimes I feel tired and discouraged, I still keep doing it. It has made my life better.

    • Lucy — Congrats on the success so far.

      Now that you have started consistently for 3 months, you’re starting to form a new identity. You’re becoming the type of person who works out consistently. Keep at it and pretty soon it won’t be a chore, it will just be who you are.

      p.s. Thanks for reading. It’s great to have you here.

  8. Got to admit, I was a bit skeptical after reading the title,

    But you did it again James – great article! :)

    For me, starting something new, learning a new skill is like unwrapping a Christmas present – we have no idea what we will find inside. Or, in other words, how this skill will change us as persons (this is particular fascinating several months – several years in, when new mindset and skill set start to stick).

    One thing I did notice though, when “quick starting” it’s very easy to fall under the mindset of “Oh, I’ll just try and see how it goes”, which often leads to half-ass’ed effort (a defense mechanism for fear of failure).

    Just wondering if anyone else noticed that and how are you dealing with it? A question especially for those serial “starters”, who like to try it all. :)

    Cheers

    • Darius — glad you enjoyed the article, buddy. And you raise some good questions about the difference between starting a habit with purpose and starting things just to start them.

      For me, the key distinction is pushing yourself or “pursuing excellence.”

      As you say, if you just start things to start them and then never walk further along that path, then it’s hard to get anywhere.

  9. Oh my gosh, James. These are gold:
    “…you’ll learn more from the process of pursuing excellence than from the products of achieving it.”
    “Are you eager enough to improve your work that you’ll battle through the frustration of producing something mediocre?”
    “…the willingness to start is the littlest thing in life that makes the biggest difference.”
    “…it all requires a willingness to get started over and over again.”

    Thanks man, for the push this morning!

  10. Thanks James. Great reminder to focus on the here and now.

    In almost everything we do (or want to do more of) exercise, eat healthy, be more creative, it’s easy to get caught up with the long-term goal rather than focusing on enjoying all the process. Yet, when I focus on just starting where I’m at, just picking up the paintbrushes, I find the process so enjoyable and the “goal” — the painting — just happens.

    Thanks for all the great articles and motivation! Really helps!

    • Thanks for sharing, Eleanor! I’m in the same boat. When I get out there, magic seems to happen on it’s own. If I try to plan it, however, it’s always a struggle.

      As always, thanks for reading. It’s wonderful to have you as part of our community here.

  11. Great article James, and let me just say that you never know what you are capable of until you try. I sometimes think to myself that the fear of failure is actually the fear of success – what will you do with yourself if you do succeed (because you already know the outcome of failure: nothing)? Will you be able to handle the pressure or expectations placed on you if you do succeed?

    I think getting started for many people is a challenge because they don’t know where to start or the prospect of doing so looks intimidating to them. Personally, I enjoy beginnings – they’re always the best part: something exciting and new that I get to learn about and explore. Mistakes will be made along the way, but that’s ok – it’s all part of the process. Mistakes are life’s way of teaching you how to do things to the best of your ability.

    And, as far as validation and being #1 or #2 is concerned – I think that’s a completely unfounded idea. I mean, if there could only be one #1 and #2 in this world, there’d be a lot of really disappointed people because there’s only so much of each to go around. I know that I might not be #1 to everybody, but I’m #1 to somebody and whether it’s business, sports or life in general being #1 to just one person is a noble goal to aim for.

    • Hermine — first, thanks for reading. It’s great to have you be part of this community. Thoughtful comments like yours are what make this a great place for everyone.

      It sounds like we share some similar philosophies. I also love beginnings and the exploration that comes with them. And with regards to your “fear of success” idea — it’s a very real thing.

      Thanks for sharing! Feel free to drop a line here any time. I’m looking forward to hearing more from you in the future.

  12. Great outlook. Reminds me of the Teddy Roosevelt:

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

    In my opinion, too many people stick with their comfort zone and don’t jump into the “arena” to really test themselves and add their voice/unique perspective to others through new contributions. That’s what we’re trying to do at our site Flash Purchase.

    • Mike — good to hear from you.

      And thanks for sharing such a great quote. That quote was one of the stimuli that prompted me to add “We live in the arena instead of judging from the crowd” to the 10 Pillars of our community. (Full list here: http://jamesclear.com/pillars)

      p.s. Glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for taking the time to read.

  13. This is my first day going through this blog and I loved it! I was running out of motivational material to read early in the morning and with this blog I am going to stocked up for long while. Great work James! Thank you.

  14. Hey James! My name is Lauren and I’m 19 going to college in Eugene! I’m subscribed to your newsletters and really enjoy reading you’re articles. you’ve hit home for me many times but this one really hit the spot. I began to get worried recently because I’m putting my feet in the water in so many different things and sometimes figure out it maybe isn’t what I want to be doing. But you’re right, as long as I take that first step thats all I need! I’ve committed to weightlifting daily in the early mornings, (except rest day- sundays), I’m starting to commit to cycling 3-4 days a week which I love, also doing intense yoga, hiking, swimming, long boarding, really anything I can do to stay active consistently. While I’m also starting an internship with OSPIRG and state wide, student organized, volunteer organization in Oregon! I feel more confident, positive, happy, healthy, secure, and compassionate than I have since I was a young child. That all is wonderful for me, but sometimes it feels as if it’s not going to be enough or that I won’t get to where I want to go in life, which is very far. Those are all just small self doubts that I work at pushing past on a daily basis. thanks for being apart of my journey while I realize my potential and keep pushing and pushing, only competing with who I was yesterday.

    • Lauren — first, thanks for saying hello and sharing. It’s great to have you in our little community.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts so far. I’ll do my best to keep the good stuff coming your way.

      It sounds like you’re ambitious and jumping into a lot of things. That’s great. Keep up the good work.

      The one thing that I will say is that if you find something you love or something you’re more passionate about than the other things you are trying, then don’t be afraid to cut out some things and put more time into what you energizes and excites you.

      Good luck!
      James

  15. Thank you for this, James! It’s true that a lot of times, starting is the hardest part of any endeavor so getting started is absolutely important. I think that the beginning is the purest point, too, when the possibilities are endless and there’s that idealistic, “first time” kind of mentality, which I love … at least, that’s the case for me – I can’t speak for anyone else.

    For that reason, my personal philosophy is that everything is always just the beginning. Every day, every minute, every second is just the beginning; it keeps everything new (for me).

  16. I loved your article, I really wanted to get started but when I sit down and saw what do I want to do, I have no clue. Pike the women wanted to play tennis, but I don’t even have an idea for what I want to do. Do you have any advice?

  17. @Cormac: This is a reply especially for you. I’ve been right where you are. And I now realise that’s a wonderful place to be because while you’re not sure what to do, ANYthing is possible. But I would suggest getting away by yourself to a place with NO distractions (a room in a shack with only running water would do) and just stay there for a few months. No TV, no phone calls, no computer, no books… just you. I guarantee that within 2 months you will start naturally desiring to do the thing that is fondest in your heart. It could be anything from cooking to wanting badly to study engineering concepts. The trick is to not limit or censor yourself in any way. This is paramount for the process. Whatever you want to do, regardless of resources, age or people’s opinions, let it come upon you naturally. And then OBEY it. Follow this desire fearlessly. Only when you live with passion can you be counted as a true citizen of happiness. People are either getting out of bed in response to their heart or their stomach. It’s much easier if it’s the former. Good luck! :-)

  18. Really good article. I only really came to that realization a couple of years back, but to read someone else articulating it really reinforces it. I guess the only thing I’d add is to not give up on something of importance you’ve started, even if the going does get rough occasionally (which it will).

    Keep up the great work.

  19. Hey James,

    I really enjoyed your article. I was just introduced to you through a link I came across on Facebook. This is one of the few times that I was glad I perused my FB feed!

    I have tried to live by this quote that I read a long time ago which aligns perfectly with your article…

    “You don’t have to be GREAT to get started, but you have to START in order to be great.”

    Thanks for providing me with another way of fueling my motivation. Glad I came across your website.

    Best Regards

  20. I just wrote on another post of yours that I liked. I don´t agree with this one, though. I sailed boats professionally for 5 years, I studied a lot, practice a lot, and focus a lot (more than anything else in my life) and I never made the top 10 in my local village. There is something more than starting to be good (not even great) that I missed at least for boat sailing.

  21. James, thank you for this article – I just discovered your writing via LinkedIn and am looking forward to following along. Anyway, this article reminded me of an Ira Glass quote that I love and wanted to share here:

    “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

  22. Great article about getting started. I just have so much that I have let go for so long, I just don’t know where to start. I guess that’s where the Eisenhower box comes in. Any other pointers ?

  23. Sir,

    You are helping me really, a lot. Your ideas are easy to use and very profound yet.

    Please accept my gratitude.

    Thanks a lot…

  24. Hi there, I liked your 2 minute rule to avoid procrastination. It was an article that I discovered using the Buffer app. I liked the article. So, I followed the hyper link to this article. I am newer to twitter, am in the process of transforming my health, and my husband is starting to do his photography business! We just got back from Hawaii, and like to travel. I look forward to your free newsletter. I can see it will give me ongoing great content.

  25. I love that article. I guess it is the same as trusting the unknown, and things come when you are in that situation… starting and not knowing, and maybe not be perfect at it. But to start is the sticking point I’ve observed, I might use a few sentences of your article to tell my clients that for their life to change they need to start stepping into a new direction.

    Love the excellence is not required for growth and it is more important to start than to succeed! :-)