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Take Initiative

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“Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.” — William Hutchison Murray

It was the summer of 1777, and against all odds, the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat turned American major general, set sail to America. After a journey at sea that lasted fifty-four days, he arrived on the coast of South Carolina. Only a few days longer and the food supply would have run out. Had he been unlucky, waves could have capsized the ship. If they’d encountered privateers or pirates, they would not have arrived at all.

“The next morning was beautiful,” Lafayette recorded in his journal, “Everything around me … combined to produce a magical effect and fill me with indescribable sensations.” After months of preparation, overcoming resistance from home and obstacles from abroad, he had finally arrived as he sailed beyond the reach of his pursuers. “When I felt American soil under my feet for the first time that night,” he wrote, “my first words were an oath to conquer or die for America’s cause.”

Despite being a foreigner to America, his passion for liberty was strong and his heart belonged to the New World. For him, America was destined to become a safe and venerable asylum of virtue, tolerance, and liberty. He joyfully swapped his life of luxury at home for the life of a volunteer, filled with sweat and toil.

Like Lafayette, you must find what stirs your soul. We all have had these moments of excitement about an adventure that was just about to start. The trick is to find something that makes us lose sense of time, something that nurtures our curiosity. If there is no burning desire, we will falter as soon as problems appear.

Before joining the American cause, Lafayette needed to push through resistance at home. Upon hearing Lafayette’s plan to embark on a journey to America, his family forbade him to set sail, reminding him of his duty to his then-pregnant wife. King Louis also forbade Frenchmen to serve in any colony. The British and French royal families did everything they could to prevent his voyage. He was undeterred.

Abroad, his commission into the Continental Army involved more than just taking a large ship and loading it with men and supplies. At the request of General George Washington, Congress had stopped giving military commissions to foreigners. Unattached to the country and ignorant of the language, Washington argued that foreigners were ill-suited to give orders to soldiers. Only once his friends exaggerated the importance of his mission was he admitted.

We are all facing similar obstacles when we pursue our dreams. Think about your relationship with obstacles. Do you shrink when you are confronted with doubt? Instead of wondering whether we should give up our mission, what if we spent that time and energy working on following through?

Upon landing in America, Lafayette quickly proved himself worthy on the battlefield. And his devotion to the cause of liberty extended beyond his commission into the Continental Army. Upon returning to France, he lobbied alongside Benjamin Franklin to send additional troops to America. Even Washington, who was initially against giving military commissions to foreigners, praised Lafayette for having a large share of bravery and military ardor.

The lesson of this story is to take initiative, rather than procrastinating and waiting for the perfect moment. If you wait, it is often an indication that you’re unsure of what you want to do. Stop prolonging your dream because you don’t think you have yet what it takes to make it a reality.

Our pursuit of perfectionism goes all the way back to the times of the ancient Greeks. They were obsessed with the idea of what constituted beauty. In 450 B.C., Greek sculptor Polyclitus developed a technique that allowed sculptures to be modeled after athletes. From then on, artists displayed a sense of perfection in their sculptures.

It is normal to strive for perfection. We model our lives after certain ideals — which is not bad in and of itself. It’s when we get hung up on the setbacks when we fail to achieve them that it becomes a problem. The pursuit of perfection can blind us from seeing progress. Instead of aiming for perfection, we should aim to get it done.

If we aim for perfection, it will never be reached. Even excellence requires a continuous effort — it’s the result of executing thousands of small steps.

There are so many reasons why getting started is difficult. Sometimes the task at hand looks so daunting that we are overwhelmed and it’s unclear what to do. There are simple remedies for this, like dividing huge tasks into smaller steps, so that instead of trying to uproot a forest, you begin with a tree.

Often, however, we easily overthink instead of getting started. It is easy to overthink and delay action. I often ponder different options for every decision. We need to embrace the reality that when we close one door, many more will open. Most decisions are reversible, and waiting for the perfect circumstances to line up, delaying momentum, is self-sabotage.

On the eve of a decisive battle, one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s generals approached and cautioned him not to proceed, as circumstances were not right. Napoleon only laughed and told the general that if circumstances were not right, he would create the right circumstances. While you wait for perfect conditions, others are deciding for you.

Instead of obsessing over the ideal, focus on finding ways to improve yourself, however small. How can you improve your immediate environment? Open a window, or try different lighting. If you fail to start, you get left behind. Starting small and focusing on actionable steps that you can perform every day is key. As they say in Silicon Valley, shipping beats perfection.

The first two steps in realizing our dreams is having a vivid imagination in our head about what it is that we are dreaming about. But understanding your dream is only one aspect of it.

What’s more important than understanding where you want to go is understanding what needs to get done. We need to be willing to make sacrifices. Like Lafayette, we need to make a commitment. If we keep our options always open, we will never achieve excellence. Excellence requires constant pursuit in one direction. We need to be clear about the direction in which we are heading.

Obviously, there is room to experiment when we don’t exactly know yet what we want to do. The moment, however, that both your head and your heart are on the same page, it is time to make a commitment. Realizing one’s dreams is difficult enough, so we should align everything in a way that can help develop stamina to get there. The process of getting to where you want to be and finding your purpose is a marathon, not a sprint.

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