You Have To Start To Be Great

(ESL learners – click on the bolded words to see explanations and notes. Try the exercise at the bottom after!  🙂 )

A few days ago, I was in a car, driving back from Milan to Genova after spending 6 days in New York. I was terribly jet-lagged (my brain thought it was 6 in the morning), staring out the window at the countryside whizzing by, and a podcast by Jay Shetty was playing. I was a little too out of it to pay proper attention, but one particular phrase muddled its way through the fog in my head and into my consciousness.

“You don’t have to be great to start. You have to start to be great.”

At first glance, this may seem like a single drop in an ocean of rhyming aphorisms.

On further consideration, though, I think this is the single most useful sentence I’ve heard all year, with a very practical application.

We are surrounded by constant change, yet when we look at something, there is usually a subconscious assumption that what we see is the way things have always been. Someone is filthy rich and famous? We probably don’t imagine that person as having been poor or invisible a few years ago. Yet that may have been the case. A river is a polluted? Unless we grew up in the place and saw it going from a crystal blue to a murky green, we likely on some level assume that it has always looked like that. (Incidentally, I think this is one of the reasons why so many people don’t realize just how significant environmental problems are.) Likewise, when we talk to a 40-year-old person, we don’t tend to picture them as a 5-year-old child.

In a way, this makes sense — in most cases, it would be more important for our brains to focus on how a situation is at present (and therefore how it will influence our lives right now) rather than how it was in the past, which is no longer relevant to us.

But these kinds of assumptions can also be a major obstacle to our own personal growth. When we look at successful people, it can be very difficult to imagine the hours of grueling hard work it took for them to get where they are. It may feel like they’ve always been there, or took some magic elevator to the top. From there, it’s easy to compare ourselves to these people, and think that we’re not that lucky, we were born different, our circumstances are different, where we are right now is so far from those people, and we will never reach them.

Here is something you need to remember: success is never static. Nobody is just automatically successful – that would be equally absurd as being born as an already full-grown adult. Success is a long, long journey, and nobody finishes this journey if they don’t start it. And even after you reach the top, you still have to work to stay up there. (Mind you, this may be much easier than the climb, but you still need to nurture your success or it will slowly wither away).

In short, success is what you reach when you get to the top, not what brings you up there. The bad news is that there is a long, long path to get there. There’s no teleportation machine, magic wand, or silver platter. The good news, however, is that there is a long, long path to get there. Which means that you can start walking on it right now and be on your way.

The only thing I’d add to the incredible statement that’s the focus of this post, is that you have to start, but then you also have to continue. There are enough abandoned blogs, books, films, fitness challenges — you name it — out there to make it clear that just a start won’t get you very far. Success is never guaranteed. You have to prioritize your time, you have to make some sacrifices, and you have to work at it every single day. But ultimately, it all begins with a beginning.

ESL Notes ( words / expressions)

Stare: to look at something for a long time, usually when you’re surprised, scared, angry, or thinking. Examples: “Chuck sat quietly for hours staring into the distance, thinking of what might have been.” I looked at her face for some response, but she just stared at me blankly.” Common prepositions that go with something are to stare at something (just like with to look at something) and to stare out the window. As you can see in my text, you can use them both together. (Back to the text)

Whizz by: to “whizz” is to move very fast. The addition of “by” means that you move very fast past or beside something. You can of course use other prepositions, just like with any other verbs of motion such as “go” or “walk”. Here are some examples: “A police car whizzed by, on its way to the accident.” “We whizzed through the rehearsal, so that we’d be finished by lunchtime.” “Time just whizzes past when you’re enjoying yourself.” (Back to the text)

Out of it: if you are out of it, it means your mind isn’t very clear, usually because you’re drunk or extremely tired, or deeply emotionally affected by something. Note that you use this with the verb to be or similar verbs such as “seem”, “look” or “sound”. Some examples: “I think John had a little too much to drink. I just saw him coming out of the bathroom and he looked really out of it.” “‘Hey, I just asked you a question, why are you not responding?’ ‘Oh, sorry. I didn’t get any sleep at all last night, so I’m a bit out of it today. What did you say?'” (Back to the text)

Muddle through: to manage to do something, even though it’s very difficult, or you don’t have the right equipment, or you don’t know how to do it. In my text I apply it metaphorically, as if the sentence has to “walk” or somehow make its way into my brain, and this is difficult to do because my mind was full of thoughts and not very clear. Some other examples: “I muddled through that job interview because I was sick with a cold at the time.” “One of the team members is absent today. We’ll just have to muddle through without her.” “I don’t know how to play this game – I’ll just have to muddle through.” You’ll see that you can use an object with this and say what you muddled through (as in the first example), but it’s not necessary (as in examples 2 and 3). (Back to the text)

At first glance: the first time you look. A similar expression was also used in my last post, where you can find many more uses and examples. (Back to the text)

Filthy rich: this is an emphatic way to say extremely rich. This is a common collocation, meaning they are two words that are frequently used together and that sound very natural and good together. (Back to the text)

Be the case: be true. Examples: “You’ll probably notice her coughing a lot. If this is the case, give her plenty of liquids.” “Consumers had hoped the higher prices would mean more goods in stores. But that was not the case.” (Back to the text)

Polluted: dirty because of chemicals. Nowadays, many rivers, lakes, and oceans are polluted because of all the plastic, trash, and products that humans throw in them. Examples: “The pesticides used on many farms are polluting the water supply.” “We won’t invest in any company that pollutes the environment.” (Back to the text)

Go from … to: transform or change from something to something else. For example, at sunset, the sky goes from a light blue to black. (Back to the text)

Murky: dark and dirty or difficult to see through. Imagine a very dirty sea or other body of water. (Back to the text)

Tend to: to have the habit to do something, to do something often. The past of this is “used to”, which means that you did something often in the past, but now you don’t anymore. It’s important to not confuse these two. (If you are a Spanish speaker, “tend to” = “suelo” and “used to” = “solía”). Take a look at the examples below:

I tend to wake up very early. (Nowadays, I usually wake up very early).

I used to wake up very early. (In the past, I often woke up very early. But nowadays, I wake up later. I no longer wake up early.)

I tend to eat a very large breakfast. (Nowadays, I usually eat a lot of food for breakfast).

I used to eat a very large breakfast. (In the past, I usually ate a very large breakfast, but now I don’t anymore).

Note that both “tend to” and “used to” are followed by an infinitive verb. (Back to the text)

Picture: I’m sure you know the verb “picture” as a noun, meaning a photo or painting or drawing. Picture is also a verb, which means to imagine. Examples: “Try to picture yourself lying on a beach in the hot sun.” I also used this word at the very beginning of my last blog post, if you’d like to see another context. (Back to the text)

Grueling: extremely tiring and difficult. Something that is grueling takes a lot of time and effort. For example, a marathon (running 40 kms) is grueling. (Back to the text)

Mind you: This is a very useful phrase that is used when you want to add something that should be taken into consideration. Often, this expression is used to make something you just said sound less strong. Here are some examples: “He’s very well dressed, but mind you, he’s got plenty of money to buy clothes.” “His advice wasn’t very helpful. I’m not criticizing him, mind you.” “He’s very untidy about the house; mind you, I’m not much better.” “Lisa is unfriendly to me, but mind you, she’s never very nice to anyone.” (Back to the text)

Wither away: to slowly die, disappear, become weather, or become less important. This is often used in regards to plants when they don’t have enough water to survive. Some examples: “It had not rained for 4 months, and all the trees were slowly withering away”. “Many of our roses withered away in the hot sun.” You can also see this verb used without “away”, with the same meaning, but using “away” has a sense of a lot of time going by, and it gives the verb a greater sense of completion (as in, the plant or thing is getting very near to death or being very weak). Compare:

The plant withered in the sun (the sun made it become dryer or weaker)

The plant withered away in the sun (this makes it sound like a long time went by, and the plant became significantly weaker and dryer compared to how it was before) (Back to the text)

In short: Used before describing something in as few words as possible. This is useful for making conclusions, or when you want to summarize a longer explanation. Here are some examples: “He’s disorganized, inefficient, never there when you want him – in short, the man’s a disaster.” “Inflation is down, spending is up. In short, the economy is in good shape.” (Back to the text)

Silver platter: This comes from the expression “to give/hand something to someone on a silver platter”. The expression means that someone gets something extremely easily, without having to work hard for it. For example, “If you sell your share in the company now, you’re handing the ownership to him on a silver platter.” or “He’s the kind of rich kid who’s had everything given to him on a silver platter.” In my text, I make a reference to this expression, as in, there are no silver platters, meaning that nothing will be given to you without any hard work. (Back to the text)

You name it: Used to say that there are many things in a list. Some examples: “Gin, vodka, whisky, beer – you name it, I’ve got it.” “I’ve tried every diet going – you name it, I’ve tried it.” I also used this expression in my blog post about things you can learn from free online webinars, if you’d like to see more context. (Back to the text)

Work at it: If you work at something, you try really hard and put in a lot of effort to achieve something. For example, “Most couples would agree that for a marriage to succeed, both parties have to work at it.” (Back to the text)


Want to start using these words and make sure you don’t forget them? Try this exercise! Think about these questions (discuss them with someone) or write down your answers, using the word or expression in your discussion or answer.

  • How would you react if you were on the bus and you noticed a man or woman staring at you? Can you remember a time when this happened? Describe the situation.
  • What is a situation in which you feel time whizzes by? (at work, while studying, while playing video games, while watching TV, while browsing Facebook, etc…) Would you agree that time always whizzes by when you have fun? Does time whizz by when you’re on vacation?
  • Describe a time when you were so tired that you felt out of it.
  • What is a project in school or at work that was difficult, and you muddled through it?
  • Describe something that you know well, and talk about the details. Start by using “at first glance“. For example, “at first glance, my bicycle might seem completely ordinary, but if you look closer, you’ll see that it’s actually electrical and solar powered.”
  • Who is a person who you know (or have heard of) who is filthy rich?
  • Talk about an expectation you had that was wrong. Use “it/that wasn’t the case“. For example, “I expected the hotel to be super clean and modern, but that wasn’t the case.”
  • Is there any river, lake, or sea near your city which is polluted? Would you describe it as looking murky?
  • Describe a change that happened in your life or in the life of someone you know, using “go from“. For example, “I was terrible at school before, but I decided to work really hard and change that. In the period of 1 year, I went from getting D’s to getting A+’s.”
  • What is a habit you have? Describe it using “tend to“. For example, do you tend to wake up early, eat a big breakfast or dinner, do exercise or meditation, watch a lot of TV, cook your own food, write lists for tasks to do, procrastinate, answer emails immediately, think a lot about the future or the past, etc…?
  • If someone tells you to imagine an imaginary, extremely relaxing place, what do you picture?
  • Do you consider working out to be grueling? What about studying? What about your job? Do you think raising young children is grueling? What is something you consider to be grueling?
  • Make some strong statements about people you know, and then soften them using “mind you“. For example, “Stanford is a terrible coworker. Mind you, he’s a lovely person to chat with, but he’s not very reliable and that makes him hard to work with.”
  • If you have any plants, do you take good care of them, or do they slowly wither away?
  • Start describing the city where you live, and then summarize using “in short“. For example, “Genova has a ton of beaches, mountains very nearby, wonderful climate, interesting people — in short, it has everything you might want.”
  • Do you know anyone (or have you heard of anyone) who you feel has been given success on a silver platter? Who is it?
  • Talk about a store you like to shop at that has a very wide range of products, and describe them. List a few items, and then say “you name it“. For example, “Suarez makes jewelry with every possible kind of precious stone — topaz, emerald, amethyst, ruby… you name it!”
  • What is something that you think takes a lot of hard work? (for example, getting good grades, being able to communicate well, having a great relationship or marriage, being healthy or fit, learning a new language…). Use “work at (it)” in your answer.

Feel free to try writing some more sentences, or a text, of your own to practice some more.

Thank you for reading! These ESL notes, links and exercises each take several hours to make, so if you found this useful, the kindest thing you can do is to like the post, leave a comment, or share with anyone who needs it. Have questions about any other words? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to reply! 🙂

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