I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, EdTech, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of the Crush School Series of Books, which help students understand how their brains process information and learn. I also wrote The Power of Three: How to Simplify Your Life to Amplify Your Personal and Professional Success, but be warned that it's meant for adults who want to thrive and are comfortable with four letter words.

The Smallest First Step

The Smallest First Step
Each step you take reveals a new horizon
— Dan Poynter

One day while on a recent trip to Poland we drove to Ojców National Park to spend a day exploring the valley of the river Prądnik, the Renaissance castle at Pieskowa Skała, and the natural limestone wonders that include cliffs, ravines, caves, and columns such as the solitary Bludgeon of Hercules.

My wife and I thought we knew what awaited us - we've visited the park 5 years ago. Instead, an unexpected discovery left us torn and longing.

The place was an old homestead that contains a historic grain mill and a sawmill. My wife, son, and I took the tour, learned the history, and witnessed both mills operate using the power of the small river that runs through the property. But while we enjoyed the history lesson and watched the big wheels and pulleys mill grain and slice wood with awe we fell in love with the grass meadow on the other side of the river, the simple wooden house the current owners live in, the surrounding white limestone cliffs and green trees, and the tiniest of bakeries you will ever see.

The hut must have been 15 feet long and 8 feet across. Behind the counter, a young woman rolling dough only temporarily stopping to pull freshly made sugar cookies out of the oven standing to her side. Behind her, not a traditional but cliff wall - the back somehow removed exposing the natural limestone intermixed with green vegetation. Round, freshly-made cheesecake on the counter. Bottles of mint-infused homemade lemonade in the background. A hot mid-August afternoon. Its air filled with the scents of nature, melted sugar, and vanilla. And the quiet everywhere...

Kasia (my wife) loves baking. She could bake bread, cakes, and cookies. We could even set up a little office so she could use to do psychotherapy if she chose to continue seeing clients. Adam (my son) loves cookies and we've been playing soccer almost every day since he got his first cleats. We could do that in the meadow and take cookie and lemonade breaks whenever we wanted to. I love writing and the outdoors. Maybe I'd pick a different spot to write in each day. I could just breathe in the air and drift away.

After Adam samples 5 or 6 cookies we decide it's time to get a bag to go. We order a piece of cheesecake to split but after one bite my wife pulls the plate closer to herself and advises me to get a slice of my own. The lemonade could be colder but we don't care to mind. 

Surrounded by this beauty and peace Kasia tells me this is the place of her dreams. I'm thinking the same exact thing at the same exact moment but don't say it. I can't. It seems so unreachable. So abstract. Mission impossible.

I think about that homestead, the river, the meadow, and the bakery repeatedly. My mind will not let go. The weird thing is we have not dreamt up or dreamed about a place like this before. It appeared suddenly and took a hold of us. What does one do when this happens to him or her? Do I just chalk it up as a naive delusion? Or, do I grab a hold of it and don't let go and don't let up until I reach it?

It scares me. A journey such as this calls for full commitment. It's arduous and uncertain. But the goal is always worth it because the destination is one's destiny. The lizard brain won't let me leave the safety of my current cave. I must act in spite of it.

Every journey begins with the first step. It needs not to be a huge leap. The smallest step in the right direction gets you closer. Just find the direction and go. You can draw the full map later. It'll be easier once you step onto the path and start making it familiar.

But what is the smallest step one can take?

Beginnings offer the most options because we know little at this stage. For our journey, I need to sit down and talk with Kasia about the smallest first step we can take. We could create a list of maybe 5 to 10 easy things we can do to begin pursuing our dream. Then, we can make the first small step by choosing one of them. And then another.

If your journey involves others you need to include them right at the start. But no matter what your journey is the first step will involve learning. Ask: What do I need to learn? Where or who can I learn about this from? How did someone else do something similar? 

Find a few answers and begin your education. Keep it simple. It's the enormity of the endeavor that often overwhelms the mind and overpowers the will. Our brains resist action to protect us and as we retreat to our caves our dreams go unfulfilled.

This is why many say: If I could then I would... They look at the end result and figure they have no time or resources to get there.

They are right. They have no time or resources to do it all at once. Few do. But what they often miss is that they can take a small step forward - start exploring and experimenting - get one percent of one percent closer to their result. And yes, they'll still have 99.9999 percent of the journey still ahead of them but they did what most never do - they overcame inertia and gained motion and you know what Ike said back in 1686... Even the smallest step requires some small force.

Just remember to go forward.

The process of learning is a journey in itself. Everyone knows how to learn. To an extent... This means everyone can get better at learning.

I lay out the journey to becoming a faster and more effective learner in a series of small steps in my new book Crush School Student Guide: Learn Faster, Study Smarter, Remember More, and Make School Easier.

I recently received a couple of text messages from students reading Crush School in a classroom somewhere in Oklahoma:


Neither student replied. I think they were curious if the number I gave in the book was indeed legit :). I am happy they like my writing though.

The book is now on sale for $19.95 (33% OFF) until Monday, September 3rd. You can grab it here. It goes back to its regular price of $29.95 in 3 days.

You have the power to change lives. Use it often so they can change the world.

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