life is three steps forward and two steps back

Three steps forward, two steps back" - we've all heard that old saying before, right? It's one of those classic phrases our parents, teachers, or friends have used to describe various situations. Maybe your dad said it when your family was trying to renovate the kitchen and kept running into issues. Or your math teacher used it as a metaphor for struggling with a tricky concept before it finally clicked.

No matter where you first encountered it, the basic meaning is pretty clear: Progress doesn't happen in a straight line. You move ahead, but then you get knocked back a bit before pushing forward again. Overall advancement happens in fits and starts rather than a smooth, linear path.

It's become one of those little nuggets of wisdom people toss around about the nature of goals, growth, and perseverance. But have you really stopped to think more deeply about what those seven little words are getting at? There's more philosophical depth and nuance to "three steps forward, two steps back" than meets the eye.

The patterns it describes aren't just about renovating kitchens or learning algebra. They're fundamentally woven into the core dynamics of life itself - from the cycles of the natural world all the way up to the human experience of how we learn, evolve, and strive for better circumstances.

When you start unpacking the inherent logic behind that saying, you are forced to grapple with the grandiose scope of the cycles and laws governing our existence. But it also offers a reassuring framework for understanding the stumbles, victories, and course corrections we all face on a personal level.

The Ups and Downs of Life

In the 1930s, a guy named Ralph N. Elliott developed the Elliott Wave Theory to describe and predict patterns in the stock market. His theory says that trends in the markets (and in just about anything) don't happen in a straight line. Instead, they move in a series of steps - specifically, three steps forward and two back.

Elliott's theory draws on the famous Fibonacci sequence of numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13...). This numerical pattern appears all over nature—in how rabbits multiply, the spiral pattern of sunflower seeds, the shape of snail shells, and even the formation of galaxies. Wild, right?

The Principles Apply to Life, Too

But Elliott's ideas weren't just about the stock market. They can help us understand the ups and downs we all experience in daily life.

Really think about it for a second—when was the last time anything went 100% smoothly for you, without a single bump or setback along the way? If we're being totally honest with ourselves, I'm guessing the answer is never.

That's just how it goes—life is full of highs and lows, progress and setbacks. We move forward, but then we get knocked back a couple of steps. We go overboard with something negative or get way too hyped about our successes, and then we pay the price.

You could have finally landed that big promotion you've been gunning for at work. You were on cloud nine for a while, acting like a hotshot. But then, a few months later, reality caught up, and you got knocked down a peg or two.

Or, say you went through an awful breakup that totally shattered you for a while. You couldn't get over it and move on with your life. But one day, you woke up and realized you were finally ready to push forward again.

Don't Resist the Cycles

The point is that these cycles of positive and negative, progress and setbacks, are inevitable. We can't avoid them altogether. But what we can do is learn to roll with them a bit more smoothly. That's really what all the wisdom teachings—from Christianity and Buddhism to modern self-help—are getting at. They all emphasize staying balanced, taking the middle path, and not going too extreme.

When we get wild with our emotions and behaviors, we tend to plant the seeds for an inevitable course correction. We overdo it, and then life has to rein us back in. But if we can stay a little more centered and mindful, we can make those upward trends a bit more steady and those downward stumbles a little less jarring.

Embrace the Challenges

Now, I'm not saying this is easy. Life can really put us through the wringer sometimes. Maybe you grew up with parents who were addicted or abusive, and you're still dealing with the fallout from that as an adult. Or perhaps you finally landed your dream job but got laid off through no fault of your own during a recession. I get how brutally unfair and demoralizing those kinds of setbacks can feel.

But here's the thing—those challenges, as tough as they are, are still part of the journey. They're the "two steps back" that allow us to reassess, recalibrate, and then push forward again with new wisdom and resilience. Sure, it would be nice if we could just skip the hard parts. But realistically, a life without any struggle or adversity is probably a life without much growth or depth, either.

Keep Pushing Forward

So when the tough times come (and they will), don't resist them too hard. Feel your feelings, pick yourself up, and prepare for that next stretch of forward momentum. It's coming, even if you can't see it yet. Like the markets and all of nature, your personal progress happens in those signature waves—three steps forward, two steps back.

It's all part of the more giant upward spiral that Ralph Elliott identified. And when you can embrace that pattern instead of fighting against it, you'll appreciate the brilliant complexity of this universal dance we're all taking part in, one high and one low at a time.

About the Author

jenningsRobert Jennings is co-publisher of with his wife Marie T Russell. He attended the University of Florida, Southern Technical Institute, and the University of Central Florida with studies in real estate, urban development, finance, architectural engineering, and elementary education. He was a member of the US Marine Corps and The US Army having commanded a field artillery battery in Germany. He worked in real estate finance, construction and development for 25 years before starting in 1996.

InnerSelf is dedicated to sharing information that allows people to make educated and insightful choices in their personal life, for the good of the commons, and for the well-being of the planet. InnerSelf Magazine is in its 30+year of publication in either print (1984-1995) or online as Please support our work.

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