Forget the big leap. Small and powerful is how to make change stick.

Fulfillment comes incrementally, so stay the course.

lisa Schmidt
5 min readJan 22, 2024
Photo by Lisanto 李奕良 on Unsplash

Many of us have a book or two that, at a young age, altered the trajectory of our lives. As a teenager, mine were Your Erroneous Zones by Wayne Dyer (1976), and not long after, Barbara Sher’s Wishcraft: How to get what you really want (1979). The former helped me see my life was going to be shaped by decisions I made about who I was, and the latter about what I might choose to do.

Like many books of its kind, Sher’s offered me a combination of validation (life is a tough slog), strategy (here’s how to help yourself), pep talk (it’s just a fear; keep going) and do-this exercises (list five careers you’d like to try).

I loved this book, and still do — in fact I am reading it again: it once gave my newly-adult self just enough courage to try things like making ‘trick’ clothing for magicians, and writing/performing in a one-woman show wearing a matador hat. Now it reminds me that when I am stuck, the clues to getting back on track with my aspirations are not out there somewhere, but closer to home in how I think and what I feel.

I also love the other dozen or so similar books gathered on my shelf that speak to the parts of me that are still unsure, confused and waffling decades later. In unhappy moments, when a younger me longed to ditch work that paid rent but eroded my spirit, books such at these two and many others gave me something to hold to — a glimmer of possibility that I might one day find a passion or purpose, or even inspiring, meaningful work in exchange for a pay cheque.

This whole genre of so-called self-help books, of which many make promises they could not reasonably keep (banish your fears… forever!), can kindle our faith in changing one’s circumstances even when icicles of uncertainty and self-doubt threaten to freeze us out of our longed-for lives.

It’s hard to change

Much has been written about how hard it is for the brain to break out of patterns, routines and beliefs that no longer serve us but seem to cling to us (or us to them) like a plastic bag caught on the top branch of a tree. It takes courage, and a pinch of daring, to face the trepidation that comes with casting off to unknown seas and trusting we will find our way to shore again.

We align with —and often crave — the familiar, even when it holds us back. Why? Because our brains want certainty and predictability, in spite of the despair we might feel in jobs or situations that leave little room for the small sparks of serendipity that light the path to greater fulfillment.

But please: don’t be lulled into thinking it’s either the big leap or nothing. There are endless activities to launch small but powerful changes in your life, of which the following three are a sample:

1. Make a ‘To Don’t’ list

Whether in your head, on your phone or tacked to the fridge, you likely have the yin to this yang: your never-ending to-do list. The buying, fixing, maintaining, cleaning, replacing, getting-back-to list that never gets shorter. At best, these lists serve as reminders of all you have yet to start, continue or finish. At worst, these undone tasks torment us, calling out our procrastination and peppering joyous activities with guilt.

Set your to-do’s aside and draw up a list of all the things you will no longer do. A tip for starting this is to ask yourself what you tolerate in your life? Or put another way, what are you spending your time on that is draining, exhausting or frustrating?

My list:
— Don’t jump in and solve other people’s problems. Let them be.
— Don’t spend time with disrespectful, unkind people.
— Don’t say yes to anything until assessing against current priorities.

2. Write yourself a letter from the future

Here’s how this one works: imagine yourself one, five or any number of years from now. See that future you in your mind’s eye: how is that future you spending their time?

From that older and wiser place, describe what it’s like to be in a happier situation: what made a difference, or how good it feels to have put a particular situation in perspective or to have forgiven. Detail how the fear of making the change was way bigger than the reality of making it, how the pain you are in now is the worst you will ever feel… you get the idea. That inner sage has insights you don’t simply because they got to the other side of whatever you are dealing with now. Put pen to paper and write it out.

My recent letter included:
“Have faith. There is plenty of love, fulfillment and fun in your future: I know because of all the warmhearted people around me now.” (Interestingly, I had no idea I was going to write this: it just came out as I invited in that older, more serene me. It took suspending my skepticism to make room for that voice.)

3. One minute of courage/action

We all have that one (or two+) things we are putting off: a difficult conversation, a task we don’t know where to start, a pile of things we need to organize or find new homes for. The only trick I know for handling these is to just do them.

If I catch myself writing down something for the second time that I need to get on top of, or thinking about it in the middle of the night, I tell myself I only need one minute of courage or action to get started, and from there see where I end up. Most of the time, it’s done more quickly that all the worrying I did beforehand.

As in all things, there is no magic wand or high-speed train to a more satisfying life; we are complex and ever-evolving, and need different supports at different times. Yet finding fulfillment comes from actively stepping up and stepping in, reflecting on experience, and cultivating the agency to act, be it to get something small done, or something big done in small acts of courage.

That one small act, that one degree of change will put your life on a whole new trajectory — one that arcs towards fulfillment.