10/03/2012 06:35 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2012

Self-Improvement: Progress Is Perfection

Before finding a mature love in Social Work, I was madly infatuated with Mathematics. Not being a "math person" though, I had to work extra hard at it. On a particularly tough day -- exhausted, frustrated, and teary -- I looked up at my favorite instructor and pleaded, "Progress not perfection... right, Boris?" (PS: my favorite instructor and his assistant were -- no joke -- named Boris & Natasha. Hilarious, right? Anyway...) He smiled the kind of sweet smile which relays so much more calm and reassurance than words ever can, and said, "Allison, progress is perfection."

Many moons before my math life began -- trying to juggle full-time school, full-time work and a full life of crazy -- I excelled in classes like English and humanities, but failed many times at high school-level algebra. The math sequence needed (which for me, meant about five classes' worth) was the main obstacle in the way of obtaining an AA degree. But this was a very turbulent time: I was still morbidly obese, hooked on psychotropic medications with many emotional issues yet to be uncovered. My stepmother had just committed suicide and my family was reeling, figuring out our new collective identity. It proved to be too much and I quit college and entered the workforce.

Enough time passed, and I was confident I could run circles around one too many aggravating, inefficient bosses if only I had "that darn piece of paper" (a degree). So I gave school another shot. I took the first math class at night (in addition to a full-time day job and a part-time job on weekends). Wouldn't you know it; I struggled a lot, but pushed through, passed the course, and moved on to the next course, and then the next, until I had transitioned from a full-time employee at a soul-sucking 9-5 to a full-time student, working only part-time as a math tutor. I actually ended up continuing in the math sequence all the way up to Calculus before switching majors.

Well, as you may have gathered, I didn't end up a mathematician, so why am I telling you this? I want to reinforce a core belief of mine that we are extraordinary creatures, most of us capable of far more than we'll ever decide to know. I'm not sure why so many people have trouble facilitating change in their lives. I suppose what drives people can be as unique as the individuals themselves. But no matter who you are, or your experiences, I believe there's no excuse not to dream of (and achieve) something better, whatever that means for you.

So here's the heart of this particular message: I want to encourage people to work on shifting their perspectives. When thinking about our lives, realize we're not just victims of circumstance (sometimes we are victims of "bad things" or even atrocities), but we are also the product of our choices and powerful, splendid beings, full of light and opportunity if we so choose to embrace it. If you don't like your life, I say change it. Wish you were able to cook? Why not learn how? Sound like fantasy talk? Well, of course it's usually not that simple, but I never said it would be easy.

Some things are easy. If you want to learn how to make a PB & J sandwich, you could probably accomplish this in a matter of minutes, whereas other goals take infinitely more patience, time, cultivation, and in many cases, help. If you knew how many hours I spent with math tutors before I became one, it might make your head spin! Depending on our abilities and life situation, some things will be easy, some difficult, and some might just not be possible (or perhaps just not at the time) and each of these scenarios is okay! But how will you know until you try? Giving yourself the freedom and space to explore these matters, and the kindness to honor whatever it is you find, is beautiful and important.

Does this sound like a stretch for you? Do I seem out of touch? Don't for one second think I'm unaware that some people are dealt "better hands" than others. For the past few years one of my favorite places to volunteer here in Central Florida has been working with the immigrant and working poor community. I've had the pleasure of teaching English and citizenship classes to people who came in after working in a field for 16 hours. Currently, I provide mental health therapy in a rough part of Orlando, to people who have depression and anxiety, low incomes and no health insurance. I know very well what the face of hardship and oppression looks like.

I have a very healthy respect for the difficulties all of us face, wherever we've landed on the traditional spectrum of "success." However, this is where the part comes in about being honest as to your life situation and abilities and picking realistic goals. This is what I help my clients work up to, this is how I've been able to achieve the things I've set out to do in my own life, and this is what I'm telling you now.

I implore you to give yourself the grace to dream things could be different, the kindness to ask what that would mean for you, the fortitude to find out how you could realistically get there, and then have the patience and diligence to follow it though -- seeking out help when you need it. As always, I'm a big believer in starting small: you might recall from earlier that I started going back to school a few years back with just one class at night, and I'm now finishing a Master's degree as my full-time job. Wherever you are in the change process -- if you're thinking about where to begin, reaching or almost reaching your goals, or haven't yet found the courage to start -- I believe absolutely that progress (whatever it looks like) is perfection!

I leave you with the words of Paulo Coelho, who reminds us: "Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second's encounter with God and with eternity."