Progress Is Not Linear

by Lance Ekum on · 59 comments

Visual Complexity
Creative Commons License photo credit: misterbisson

“We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” ~ C.S. Lewis

Note:  Please help me welcome Eduard Ezeanu, from People Skills Decoded, here today, as our guest writer.

We all want to progress, although some more than others. I believe that the attitudes and perceptions we have about progress determine to a large degree how effective we are in making progress and how much we enjoy it.

Here is one perception which a lot of us have engrained and it sabotages our lives: the perception that progress is linear. This means that consciously or not, we see progress like a straight road, which goes directly and smoothly to our destination.

So we expect to constantly make progress, and to make progress in the same degree in equal periods of time. In a way, applying this perception, we see a 10 year old person as twice what a 5 year old is and a 20 year old as twice what a 10 year old is.

I think this is a very stiff and unrealistic view of progress. Not even a tree grows like that, in a linear way. Why should we expect a human being to do so? If we want to truly embrace progress and have fun with it, we need to realize that progress is not linear. Progress is organic.

This mean that we may go through long periods with little progress, followed by periods of lighting fast progress, or periods when we regress, in order to create a context which allows even bigger progress than the previous one.

Here is one example I meet often in my coaching practice: people who advance in a certain professional field, until they reach a point when they no longer feel fulfilled in that field. Often, what they need to do is find a field which would be even more fulfilling for them, get in that field and grow in it.

The thing is, moving from a professional field in which you are at a very high level to a field which is new for you represents initially a form of regression. But it is this regression which allows you to make afterwards progress in this new field and reach heights you couldn’t have reached in the previous one.

In other words, you need to regress before you can progress again and maximize the use of your potential. It still amazes me how few people understand this at a deep level and are willing to do it.

Our linear views of progress often keep us stuck in a fear of regress, fear of change which in the end sabotages our progress instead of helping us. We try to grow constantly and smoothly, but we end up getting stuck and feeling sorry for ourselves. Unfortunately, this is the story of many people in this world.

I believe it’s fundamental for us to have a more plastic and realistic view of progress. To understand that it’s a tangled road rather than a straight one; that we sometimes need to distance ourselves from our destination before we can get even closer to it.

It is only with this kind of a view that we can learn to walk the tangled road of life, get to where we want and enjoy the journey as well.


Eduard Ezeanu is a communication coach with an attitude-based approach. He helps others to improve people skills they find relevant and get top notch results. He also writes on his blog, People Skills Decoded, and you can follow him on Twitter at @EduardSays.

Lance writes stories from his heart, aiming to inspire and motivate, as you align more fully with YOUR true peak. When he's not here, you can find him hanging out with his family, riding a bike, or just generally acting goofy.   Sign up for the Thoughts from the Treehouse newsletter and get additional inspiration in your email inbox!
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{ 59 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave September 14, 2010 at 7:35 am

Eduard, I’ve been frustrated by this before, expecting linear progress seems to make sense at some level but as you say, it doesn’t work like that!! 😀
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 15, 2010 at 4:40 am

I think we’ve all been at one point or another Dave.

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Katie September 14, 2010 at 8:14 am

Lance, this is quite brilliant. I love this idea. It’s very freeing because it makes what some might perceive as failure or giving up, as simply turning towards your dreams instead. I’ve found the hardest part is knowing which path to take – we want to go straight ahead when we choose one so we often don’t dare step off or even notice when a side road appears that might be more interesting. The knowing comes from passion and I think once you step onto a path that is right, you just know it. Of course, always watchful for new passionate pathways. I must show my daughter this post so that she doesn’t feel as though her life is set in one direction just because she’s chosen a path at 17. Much gratitude for a thoughtful post.
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 15, 2010 at 4:42 am

The fact it’s very freeing is what I appreciate the most. Thinking of progress in an organic way helps us have more options and this is something I value a lot.
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Evita September 14, 2010 at 8:18 am

Hi Eduard,

Completely! I feel this in my life regularly. I will go through periods where so much is happening at once, or subsequently to move me to a new space and state of being, and then there will be moments of stillness where it feels little or no progress is happening.

I love your example of the 5 and 10 year old, and would go so far as to say, that may we all always remember, that age truly is no indicator of how much progress a person has made in their life. There are many kids who are much wiser, or have accomplished more progress in a positive direction in their lives, than some adults.

May we stay open, flexible and inviting to progress in our lives always!
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 15, 2010 at 6:52 am

Hi Evita,

I feel this all the time and it’s part of what prompted my to write this article. I think learning, growing humans generally live their lives like roller-coaster rides. Up, down, up, down 🙂
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Katie September 14, 2010 at 8:26 am

My apologies Eduard for thanking Lance and not you. Wonderful post.
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 15, 2010 at 6:52 am

Thanks 🙂
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Tess The Bold Life September 14, 2010 at 8:47 am

Eduard,

This is where that quote comes in about dying with dreams inside of one. Because they won’t get off the straight and narrow road and face their fears the live like the walking dead. It’s time to wake up pepole. I agree with Evita…she’s one of those kids wise beyond their years!

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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 15, 2010 at 6:54 am

Niceeee! Fear is one of those constant sabotaging factors. One either learns to get over it or they live a narrow life.
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The Exception September 14, 2010 at 8:49 am

Wonderful guest post!
I see this perspective illustrated clearly in the way my daughter (or any child) grows. They don’t progress in a linier fashion at all. In fact, we refer to kids as a sponge – soaking up information quickly and in many directions. They stop – in that we don’t see them soaking information anymore as they are progressing internally over externally. They are processing all that they have learned such that in a month or two or whatever, we see the information absorbed become a part of who they are and more soaking begin.

Is it regression to start something different or start a new job with more advancement or room for progress? Are we labeling it as a step back or suggesting that it is a change – a new direction – a means of rounding out or allowing for new growth?

A man I know wanted a new job but he didn’t know what he wanted. He just knew he hated his current job. After complaining about it for over a year, he was offered something new with a different title. He thought the work would be somewhat boring but what stuck in his craw was the title… He didn’t consider the change in quality life or the future possibilities… it was the regression in title. He stayed in his other job for lots of reasons; but, I wonder if we looked at things differently we would be more apt to broaden our growth potential?
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 15, 2010 at 6:56 am

I think this point about internal growth and external one is a sage one. Sometimes, we don’t appear to grow because it’s not external growth. It’s internal one. However, the external growth wouldn’t be possible without the internal growth. This makes the internal growth just as valuable.
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ClinicallyClueless September 14, 2010 at 9:57 am

Welcome Eduard Ezeanu!!! This is a great post. This is a truth that I tell others, but is difficult for me to accept for myself. But, I wholeheartedly have talked about how true this is… We are taught to think linear, but not to think more fluidly or organically. Life is outside the box.
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 15, 2010 at 6:58 am

Some things are like that: easy to say, harder to accept yourself. When this happens to me, I take it as a sign that I need to do more work on myself and less talking. 😉
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Karl Staib - Work Happy Now September 14, 2010 at 10:19 am

I catch myself wanting to be reaching goals in a quick fashion. I expect to get to point b without many speed bumps. The thing is when I don’t reach point b I get frustrated. It’s only after I create some emotional space that I realize that I was learning the whole time. I wan’t meant to get to point b, I was meant to learn a certain lesson so I could branch off and get to point F. It’s this linear thinking that frustrates me. I do need to be more flexible with how I improve my happiness.
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 15, 2010 at 7:04 am

Hi Karl,

This is exactly why I say that progress is not linear. We can save ourselves a lot of frustration by making this idea a part of us.
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Lynn September 14, 2010 at 10:21 am

I’ve gone through that somewhat myself. I left my corporate job and have taken a couple of interesting jobs that are anything but corporate. I’m not quite there yet, but it has been an adventure!
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 15, 2010 at 7:05 am

Hi Lynn,

Many of my (former corporate) clients have been in this phase at one point or another. It is a normal phase towards progress. You’re readjusting 😉
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Tim September 14, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Hi Eduard and Lance:

I enjoyed the post and it makes a lot of sense to me. As someone in job search mode and figuring out the next steps career-wise, progress can be difficult to measure. Your post is a great reminder that we sometimes need to be gentle with ourselves and that progress is difficult to measure. Thanks, Lance, for introducing us to Eduard.

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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 15, 2010 at 7:16 am

I wish more HR people would realize this fact you mention here Tim: progress is difficult to measure. Because it is not linear, we need to wait a long time in order to measure it more accurately.
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Megan "JoyGirl!" Bord September 14, 2010 at 3:14 pm

This is such a great message and one I’ve found to be true in my life. Actually, that phrase about progress not being linear reminds me of Katie West (Levity Project) and something similar she said with regard to success with laughter yoga. We can quantum leap the “steps” our linear minds think are needed and suddenly find ourselves hugely successful, almost overnight.

You made such great points, too, about regression and the role it might play in our moving forward toward our ultimate goals.

Another thing I’ve noticed for myself is that over time, my goals have changed. I used to want a big house on the Atlantic Ocean, for instance: that was my end-all dream. Now? I picture myself in a smaller, more sustainable house near fresh water, but it doesn’t have to be the ocean. As I’ve grown, my desires have evolved and therefore all the progress I’ve made up to this point has perfectly supported that. Non-linear, indeed!

Thanks, Eduard, and thank you Lance!
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 15, 2010 at 7:19 am

Hi Megan,

I’m glad you’ve mentioned regression because I believe it is a part of progress we don’t talk about often enough. Now that I think about it, we often don’t even acknowledge its importance.
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Debbie September 14, 2010 at 5:34 pm

You bring out several good points which basically beg for us to redefine what we view as progress. It is not always and usually not a linear path in any direction or a stair step climb. I know in my own life, sometimes progress is just movement. It may not even be in the ultimate direction I need to go, but it is movement and can then lead to where I need to go and is oftentimes better than just staying blocked and stuck.

I am not saying any movement at all is good and to just push on regardless. Like you point out, sometimes you have to “regress” or go sideways to progress. Progress, to me, is growth. That does not always mean moving straight ahead or up.

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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 15, 2010 at 7:20 am

Definitely, exploratory movement can be a basic prerequisite of movement focused in a certain direction, which is progress.
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Emergefit September 14, 2010 at 5:48 pm

A very nice perspective Eduard. I believe, especially in the USA, that the linear path of progress you speak of is tied supremely to our expectations. I love my country but sometimes think the USA is a petri dish for high expectations. Anyway, thank you very much Lance for sharing this,and Eduard for writing it!

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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 15, 2010 at 7:22 am

Don’t worry, it’s not only in the USA. From my experience, more and more countries educate their citizens to expect fast, continuous positive results.
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Lauren September 14, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Dear Eduard,

A great post! After experiencing many cycles around the sun, and many bursts of transformative experiences, I came to realize that progress indeed is organic – and far from linear. We do, indeed, regress on occasion, yet looking back it is fulfilling to realize how far we’ve come along the past of greater awareness.

I love the quote by C.S. Lewis.

Thank you for your thoughts on this important topic. Knowing this can help us relax into and embrace the next ebb and flow of whatever we’re experiencing.

Warm regards,
Lauren
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Jonathan Browne September 15, 2010 at 4:45 am

This blog post was a good concept.

I think a lot of people spend large portions of their lives following paths that are not where they ultimately would like to be. However part of not being linear is that it’s not like you have to trackback as the C.S. Lewis quote would imply. You learn many significant things and a move to another field may be more of a lateral move.

You should be able integrate what you learned from the field you were in before. After all, all fields have some core fundamentals that are roughly the same skill set. Productivity, Focus, Communication etc.

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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 15, 2010 at 7:25 am

Yessss sirrrr 😉
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 15, 2010 at 7:24 am

Thanks Lauren! The quote from C.S. Lewis is Lance’s merit, to be fair 😉
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~ bern ~ September 14, 2010 at 11:58 pm

One can consider that progress is an illusion. The rational egotistic mind allows change to occur at a minuscule rate so that it does not completely lose its identity. It fears death so it only lets go of the status quo when it is forced to let go of a position. Therefore, one feels they are progressing because the scenery has changed. We can talk about going in the wrong direction, but this could be viewed as a trap within the illusion. One is still stuck in a maze of mirrors.

Beyond a world of polarization there exists a reality or a higher dimension where we are true to this moment only. Nothing is held in comparison. Everything has face value. Everything is honored and cherished. There is no progress in such a setting, because the dream is perfect as Is. What ever changes in the dream or the matrix then is sacred. There is no better moment, therefore, there is no progress. Something unique is only then experienced,while still on another level, nothing has changed. There is still Love. Or Love is in Stillness…….meaning there are no judgments (which progress is a judgement) based on past or future conditioning. There are no conditions in such a reality. The world then only unfolds as a collective. Our senses come alive and we fit into the scene fluently. There is no separation. There is no progression in a non-linear reality. The only way to this New World is to lose such concepts embedded in the Old World View. It is Revolutionary in that we jump out of the hoop all together.
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 20, 2010 at 8:41 am

That’s an interesting concept. i don’t know if progress is an illusion, but it’s definitely subjective, which can make it have an air of illusion.
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Donna Willingham September 15, 2010 at 1:34 am

Hi Eduard, what a brilliant post – I couldn’t agree more, the key is to not dwell on it when we take a step back, but instead feel the joy when we take two steps forward. I feel I should share with you an amazing course I did that has really helped to pick me up. I’d been lacking in confidence and dealing with negativity around areas of my life, but the strategies that Sarah Merron of Fire Dragon Coaching teaches really helped me focus on getting the best out of myself and others around me. She runs courses in Cairo and the Maldives, so it’s a fantastic way to see the world at the same time. Here’s the link if you should ever head that way, I found it had a very powerful effect on my life: http://www.nlp.firedragoncoaching.com/destination-egypt.html

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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 20, 2010 at 8:43 am

Hi Donna,

This is something I believe we would definitely benefit from learning: to detach from regress and at the same time to enjoy progress.
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Jody - Fit at 52 September 15, 2010 at 7:39 am

Ya know, I never even thought this: we see progress like a straight road, which goes directly and smoothly to our destination.

For me, it has always been this: a tangled road rather than a straight one

Now, to get there.. I am still trying!
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 20, 2010 at 8:44 am

Ha, great! That’s starting with your best foot forward 😉
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Hilary September 15, 2010 at 8:45 am

Hi Lance and Eduard .. I know I’m a late developer – so I quite understand what you’re saying .. in other ways I was wise beyond my years .. but if we don’t recognise this and nor do others .. it’s tricky – til we get to my tender years and begin to understand!

So right we really shouldn’t judge others .. we need to understand where they’re coming from, and/or get to know them .. before we offer opinions or advice.

As Jody says it has been tangled .. now most of the time I’m more cautious with others! Progress definitely isn’t linear .. thanks Hilary
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 20, 2010 at 8:45 am

Hi Hilary,

I find that people eventually learn to see progress as a tangled road, if they simply open their eyes wide enough. This is the only real point where others can help them.
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Joy September 15, 2010 at 9:15 am

Hi Eduard,
Progress is organic as in a tree’s growth..I love that visual!
I spend much time in nature..and much like in nature I allow for, instead of resist, the natural cycles in my life..and in yours..
Sometimes I learn the ‘hard way”..for instance, I live on a boat..when I first bought her I was out on her all of the time, even though she was a project boat and many of her projects hadn’t been completed..neither of us were quite ready for these expeditions..After a while, I took the time for her to stay in the slip while I worked on projects..and while I worked on her projects I ‘worked on’ myself..now we are both very ready for any expedition..I can’t rush progress…and sometimes progress isn’t measured by external standards..When I took the year off for us both, many thought I’d ‘retired’ from sailing..externally we sat, but oh man internally we began to shine..
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 20, 2010 at 8:47 am

Hi Joy,

I was hoping that visual image and the word organic would help get that idea across. Glad to see it’s working.
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Erin S. September 15, 2010 at 9:16 am

Wonderful wisdom for our week. It would be easier if progress was linear, so that is what we look for. Perhaps it is the reason that middle aged folk often reach a productive time in their lives where they achieve big things. Maybe it is because they let go of linear. Interesting. Thanks

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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 20, 2010 at 8:49 am

It would be easier. I think it would also be kind of predictable and would eventually become boring. Uncertainty is a natural part of life.
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Keith September 15, 2010 at 9:51 am

Hello Eduard,

This is certainly a topic that isn’t written about enough. We find many resources discussing success or progress but not often do we find material discussing “how” we make progress. You nailed it with this post. Like many of the others who commented, there was a time when I viewed my progress as linear and I must say, it was depressing! When you said “..we may go through long periods with little progress, followed by periods of lighting fast progress, ..” Iknew EXACTLY what you meant!

A word about your remarks on regression..AWESOME! You just seldom see progress explained in this way. Like the quote you used from C.S Lewis said, there are times we get off course and have to backtrack as soon as possible. This may seem like we’re losing ground but is in fact the quickest way to GAIN ground.

Great post Eduard!

Thnaks Lnace for introducing us to Eduard!
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 20, 2010 at 8:51 am

Hi Keith,

Happy that you like this post so much. The point of it is to reframe the usual view of progress and get a fresh perspective. Seem to be working 😉
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Audra Krell September 15, 2010 at 3:54 pm

Lance, the C.S. Lewis quote is brilliant and so is the actual post Eduard.
“Not even a tree grows like that..” Powerful reminder. I believe there is regression where you lose knowledge and wisdom for a time and then there is progressing on a different route. It will be good to look at our own situations honestly to see if we’ve truly regressed, or if we are just reaching our goals a different way than we thought we would.
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 20, 2010 at 8:54 am

Thanks Audra,

I appreciate it when someone underlines a specific sentence I write and finds real value in it.
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Henway September 16, 2010 at 10:21 am

This reminds me of what Eckart Tolle says in his book “Power of Now”. We go through periods of growth, then periods where we appear to stagnate, and both are natural.

I think it can be psychologically harmful to expect linear progress. When we end up at a roadblock, we feel we’re a failure because we didn’t reach that goal… The best thing to do is embrace everything that happens, accept them, and not label it as good or bad. Everything is growth in one form or another. Setbacks and disappointments are great teachers, and w/o them, we could never progress and learn new things.
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Eduard @ People Skills Decoded September 20, 2010 at 8:55 am

I love Power of Now! 🙂
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Naomi Estment September 16, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Thank you, Lance and Eduard for this insightful, thought-provoking article. Also love that quote 🙂 So frustrating sometimes, how we can lose sight of this. I appreciate the reminder, very much!
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HappinessandWisdom September 16, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Thanks for this post. One thing I find interesting, is the perception that because one’s title or pay is less in a new field, that this is automatically viewed as a regression. People will hang on to a job they hate to avoid a perceived career regression, while allowing their entire life to regress instead. Wish they could see it this way, so that they could ask themselves if it’s worth it.
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Jannie Funster September 17, 2010 at 6:16 am

Very good things to think about here.

I can relate to switching fields, and feeling regressed. But actually heading in a better direction.

Nothing is linear that grows well.

Awesome to meet Eduard here today.

Grow well, all!

xo
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Andrea DeBell - britetalk September 17, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Hi Eduard! I love your view of organic progress. I measure my progress or growth in terms of how I feel about my life instead of what I have achieved in life. As I grow older and hopefully wiser, I feel that my life gets fuller with time. Fuller in terms of happiness, love, relationships, and passion. This is all organically built one moment at a time. 🙂

Thanks for such an interesting perspective on progress. I love that you made me think about my own progress. Loving blessings!
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Colleen September 19, 2010 at 12:23 am

“In other words, you need to regress before you can progress again and maximize the use of your potential. It still amazes me how few people understand this at a deep level and are willing to do it. “

Very good Eduard! I agree. It is through trials we mature, and if we are unwilling to go through the tough times, we will never truly see the good, er great, times. 🙂
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Suzie Cheel September 19, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Thanks for writing this article : I relate closely to this You need to regress before you can progress again….. so important to remember that this is almost essential to allow you to take the next step towards your greatness/purpose
I relate to what Evita is saying and to Tess. So important we don’t die with the music still inside of us. Asking the question “Does this make your heart sing? ” helps too

Thanks for the thought provoking post
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John Sherry September 20, 2010 at 2:23 am

Nice work Eduard. Life isn’t linear – if we do X then Y won’t always happen in a set time. Things come about that were unplanned. Sure we have to make efforts but not every result is the one we’ve prepared in our minds. But that’s good because when tough times are calling it doesn’t follow that our worries will come about or percieved bad results come to pass. So long as we’re open and flexible life brings all manner of opportunity – it doesn’t just appear as we naturally expect it to or in our chosen form. Good stuff Eduard.
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J.D. Meier September 20, 2010 at 2:26 am

Progress is so non-linear it’s not funny. It’s more like Chutes and Ladders … and mentors are the short-cuts.
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Evelyn Lim September 20, 2010 at 5:36 am

Thumbs up to this post! I have certainly found that my progress has not been linear. It would be nice if growth goes up like a trajectory…*I wish!!*….but in reality, it does not happen that way! Sometimes, two steps backwards appear to be necessary before a big leap forward.
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Salinya June 11, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Hi Eduard!
This line stays with me from now on: ” you need to regress before you can progress again and maximize the use of your potential”

I love how you have explained that progress is not only moving forward at a constant pace, rather progress also involves taking a step back before growing to new heights. It is acknowledging that you are at a certain point of your life and even if you think you are on top, you still have a lot to learn from. Even the best teachers learn something new from students once in a while.

Thank you for this post!
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Jual Rompers Bayi March 18, 2015 at 11:58 pm

Yes! Finally something about anak.
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