A journey of a thousand miles is finished with over 2 million single steps

You may have heard the proverb ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’, it’s from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. The English word ‘mile’ from the Roman ‘mille passus’, a thousand paces measured by every other step, in other words 2,000 steps per mile. 2,000 times ‘a thousand’ is 2 million, hence the title of this post.

But the length of the journey needs some more specific defining. Stephen Mitchell translates it ‘the journey of a thousand miles’, Ursula Le Guin translates it ‘the ten-thousand-mile journey’, and the Chinese uses the distance term ‘li’ which is more like a third of a mile, but 643,000 steps didn’t make such a good post title. I just looked back at my PhD, though, and it has about the number of characters in it as there are steps in a thousand li. Not words, just characters: letters, numbers, punctuation, spaces. So for this post, a ‘step’ is a character, a mark on the paper, a tiny mark of progress.

There is a bit of a debate as to whether the second half of the proverb is ‘begins with a single step’ or ‘starts from beneath your foot’, with the slight difference of suggesting that you start with a small action, or that you start where you are, but that is less important than the fact that this is a work of Taoist philosophy which means that the ‘way’ to the ‘end’ is best achieved by non-doing and non-grasping. Striving or rushing after earthly success is the opposite of wisdom, said Lao Tzu in this chapter. This complicates the way that the proverb is usually used in English. Don’t procrastinate, do break the big goal down into smaller chunks, and just start moving are all great advice, but they are not best illustrated by a proverb in a chapter that suggests ‘what he learns is to unlearn’ (Mitchell) or that you should ‘learn not to be learnèd’ (Le Guin). This is not good advice for a research degree blog! Do not unlearn everything you have learned! The point of a research degree is precisely to become learnèd! Lao Tzu and I disagree on the purpose of life!

Oh, and anyway, getting started feels hard, but finishing a research thesis is so much harder.

When we start a project, and look towards the end goal, the hundreds of thousands of steps we need to take over the next 1460 days (assuming you take about 4 years, which most people do) can seem absolutely overwhelming.

So let’s start with a single step, the step that is right beneath our feet. But more importantly, let’s keep taking steps until we get there.

This kind of progress often feels slow, incremental, boring. It does not offer us breakthroughs, it does not magically transport us through space and time (tesseracting in the Le Guin sense rather than the geometric sense). You just plod along, one foot in front of the other, step step step step step for another 643,000 times.

You can sustain this kind of pace for years. You don’t have to be a giant or own a pair of seven league boots, you can just be a human being. Your mileage may vary, and that doesn’t really matter, because every step is so small.

More importantly, while it doesn’t feel like much progress is happening in the moment, you can look back after weeks or months and see how much progress got made. I am always amazed to check in with myself after weeks of feeling like I was working hard but not making much progress. Because if I was working hard, then I have made progress.

You won’t get the wind-in-your-hair feeling of cycling down hill, but the thousands of steps add up.

Sometimes this is the right pace to go. Sometimes thinking of those tiny incremental plodding steps helps us to keep going. But a doctoral journey is a complicated one. Sometimes you absolutely will have magical breakthroughs, sometimes the words will fly out of you. Sometimes you can, and should, take the bus. Sometimes you will feel like you are rollerskating down hill. Sometimes there is a mis-match between your progress and your perception. And sometimes the tiny progress of letter after number after punctuation mark is the progress that gets you to the end of your journey of a thousand miles.

However you get there, keep going. You can do it. Count progress in whatever unit makes most sense to you, because it all adds up.

The giant pine tree
grows from a tiny sprout.
The journey of a thousand miles
starts from beneath your feet

64, Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell


How many steps in a mile And different people will have slightly different stride lengths. By my calculations you’d need about 270,000 rotations of a wheelchair wheel to travel 1000 li, if that helps anyone plan.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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