Heading into the backcountry excites me. The draw of serene days and stunning scenery coupled with the physical demands and danger set up an ache that won’t let go until I set my boots on the trail. My last post, Pilgrimage, recounted important trips I took into the Rockies and Tetons in order to lay claim to who I was and who I wanted to be. The outdoors are where I am most alive, and in my pursuit of natural highs, I find many metaphors for living a good life.
Speaking of which, have you noticed how time, or rather the lack of it, drives how we spend the hours of each day? Don’t the pressures of getting things done cut deeply into our life and rapidly bleed it to death? Yeah, me too. But I have taken some time and bothered to ask, does it have to be that way? And my experience as a traveler has provided me with some metaphorical insight.
One of the first things I do to prepare for a backpacking trip is to determine what to bring. There are certain items: tent, sleeping bag, cook stove, etc., that aren’t really much of a choice. You need these things. I know where to put them in my backpack; they’ve been allotted a place already. In my metaphor, these are eating, sleeping, and making a living. I have to do them in order to live. (Although many people dangerously play with sleep.)
It’s when you start trying to determine the other items where some thought comes into play. Factors like, how long the trip is, what’s the terrain like, and what weather can you expect come into the decision process. If it’s a short trip, I’m not going to pack as much food and may even decide to splurge a little and bring something special, like a pouch of tuna or a tiny bottle of wine. If the terrain is rugged and steep, everything is pared down. No book, music, or fancy food.
Are you seeing some parallels to life yet? When we sit down to “load” our week with events, projects, and work, shouldn’t we enter into a similar process? Are you discerning and careful about what you choose to fill your days with, or are you apt to quickly say, “yes,” to demands on your time out of politeness or some need to meet an imposed standard? Of course you have to be at every game your four children are in! What kind of parent wouldn’t?
If I packed my backpack to meet some machismo ideal, I might try and carry heavier weight just so I could prove my manliness. However, I’d probably ruin my enjoyment, since at the end of every day’s hike I’d be totally exhausted and weak. I wouldn’t be able to take that quick side trip to the hot spring, or climb up to the valley precipice to look out over the incredible panorama of snow-covered mountains. All I’d be able to do is stagger from camp to camp, growing more tired with every step and that feeling would build each day and every passing mile.
That describe your current life?
Maybe not that bad, but you see the point. So many people today insist on doing everything, stuffing their lives with too many events and projects. I can do it all! is a modern mantra. The problem is, it’s also a myth.
In Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism, he reminds us that we can’t do everything, and therefore we shouldn’t try. I can’t fill my backpack with everything; I would literally breakdown and fail to enjoy the trip. Nor can I fill my days with everything–for the exact same reasons. Cramming life with obligations and standards to meet means living a life that is imposed on you and you’ll be miserable while you’re at it. To avoid this scenario, set personal priorities for living; if you don’t, someone will set them for you.
To move in the direction of an essentialist in the backcountry is to actually follow core guidelines for the outdoors, but to follow that direction in mainstream society will be counter to the current flow. There will be push-back and taking charge of your time will require courage and discipline, which everyone has when the stakes are high–and what’s higher than the quality of your life?
In order to wholly enjoy a backpacking trip, I need to pay attention to every step. Between every two end-points are an infinite number of others that await my enjoyment. The same is true for every life, and all of us can politely take control of our own priorities, pare down to those essentials that mean the most to us, and start enjoying life even more. Have a blessed journey.
Every summer when I was single, I embarked on a three to four week/over-sixty-mile backpacking or rock climbing trip. And it wasn’t just something to do either. I needed it. The military life I had adopted did not mesh with the soul I cultured by growing up in sedate, rural South Texas. Where, on summer nights, I listened to coyotes and called back to owls hooting in the mesquite trees surrounding my family’s five-acre place.
Working in rotating, 12-hour shifts and living with the speed, aircraft noise, and pressure of life on an Air Force facility set me on edge. I always knew when it was time to go. I would grow steadily more depressed and my right eye would begin to twitch. That was my body’s signal to provide my supervisor with a leave projection and set about planning my annual pilgrimage into the backcountry.
There was lots to do: pick a destination, obtain the necessary maps, plan my meals, etc. But this really wasn’t the beginning. Every pilgrimage really begins within the soul. And I don’t necessarily mean a pilgrimage must be religious. You don’t have to walk the El Camino de Santiago or embark on The Hajj into Mecca to step off into self-discovery and restoration. Those paths, while not magical in themselves, draw power from the traveler’s faith and the history they represent.
A traditional religious pilgrimage possesses a meaning before you have taken a single step. You can tap into the power of those who have traveled before you. Meaning rises from every traveler’s story and the belief that drew them there. Those stories and beliefs, like crumbs marking the way, show you where to walk, which can embolden any traveler. There is an inherent optimism set in the success of those pioneers who trod the path before. However, sometimes the deepest discoveries are made by setting aside maps and their legends to rely on the compass of who you are and what unique understanding you are seeking.
My pilgrimages were always of the second sort. I found that going mapless allowed the deepest personal discoveries. Rather than a religious trek, I let my soul’s needs guide my inner direction. On the trail, every step is a prayer, and the miles, like rosary beads, passed under my feet in a litany of meditations on what it meant to be a modern American man, to be a Christian, to be single, to be searching for purpose, accomplishment, or meaning.
Even though I may have shunned a spiritual map, I was smart enough to carry maps of the land, and I did carry Rainer Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. The mountains, like a library, are deep with quiet surroundings, which lend themselves to thinking–deep or shallow, and Rilke was my favorite muse. As a bonus, it was under a hundred pages and didn’t weigh much. Rilke always provided me with insight about maturing, being creative, or what love is and is not. He had his personal flaws and failings, but the wisdom he chose to write down for public consumption, rarely failed me. To me, such a book is as important as any map I can carry into the wilderness.
Rilke urges us to live our questions now, so my backpack would be stuffed with animal necessities, while my heart brimmed with the unsolved questions I struggled to fall in love with. Questions that arose out the day to day experiences of life as a young man in a world burgeoning forward technologically but seemed to be tumbling backwards socially. Rilke advised not to seek answers, but I grew up in the nascent era of instant gratification, so I was prone to being impatient. Sue me. However, as I walked the rocky trails of America’s and Europe’s wild places, my pilgrimages began to open up what it meant to “live the questions” and to gradually live into answers. Not The answers, but answers that belonged to me.
For example, in July 1998, two months before my marriage, I hiked into Rocky Mountain National Park. As I crossed the Continental Divide on foot, I felt I was crossing another divide, one that parted my life in two. I was 38 and had always been single, never even had more than three or four romantic relationships before. Now, I was about to join with a woman for life, and I was unsure about what the future held. Some of that uncertainty arose from my past.
My childhood family life haunted my ideas of marriage. To say I came from a “broken home” doesn’t capture it, shattered is more like it. I have three half-siblings, all four of us are from different fathers as my mom married six times. I have two step-brothers and a step-sister, but all were distanced by my father’s abuses. My wife, Brenda, says I don’t have a family tree. I have a shrub; it’s been cut back so many times. A successful marriage was light-years outside my personal experience.
But two days deep into Tonahutu Valley, I began to break free of questions or choices that belonged to my family past, but not to me. I slipped into the scenery and the silence and became more able to look objectively at possibility. Still, even as peace flowered within me, more questions buzzed in my head like hungry bees: What was marriage’s promise? Could life alone be as good? Should I look for certainty, or was the bend past this current hour allure enough?
Did my pilgrimage provide answers to those? Well, frankly, no. But it did allow me the opportunity to look at my life from an uncluttered perspective. And now, I have my wife of eighteen years, two teenage children, a personal training business of my own, etc. Many questions have been lived and that living has provided, if not outright answers, at least assurances. And I am well.
Now, more than a half-century into my life, I feel more like every day is a journey into unknown possibilities like loss, failure, and uncertainty. And since I am less of a cynic, there’s also the potential for success, joy, and hope. As I live more in the present the gifts of the future are more of a surprise, which I like, but I also still like going on long pilgrimages into the wilderness. Perhaps I’ll see you out there, or we’ll pass on the street, caught up in the pilgrimage of living.
When I was younger, Grit was something people around me talked about more than they do now. There were men and women in my small South-Texas town who were known to have “grit.” My grandfather and my Dad, really all my male relatives, would exhort me to “quit yer whinin’ and grow some grit.” We watched the John Wayne movie, “True Grit” and idolized his depiction of tough, Western sticktoitiveness.
Whatever the current word or term is today, Grit is a good thing to have. To get anything big or intimidating done, you gotta have some Grit.
As a personal trainer who is in the gym five days a week, over twelve hours a day, I run up against the lack of grit all the time. Outside of sports, mainstream and urban society has swung away from the ideas of sacrifice, especially when the alternative is the pleasure and ease of sitting on a couch streaming Netflix and eating Doritos.
I see people come in month after month, making little to no progress toward their fitness goals because they lack grit and will not stand up to the nagging in the back of their head for more Doritos, a quart of ice-cream, or a quick trip to Pizza Hut.
Exercise isn’t the best answer to their problem, but they do need to have the drive to intensify their workouts. They say, “I don’t want to work that hard,” and tool lazily along on an elliptical machine, thumbing through pages of People Magazine, which might burn through the calories in a Big Mac before it rusts away from under them, but it’s not likely.
Working hard is the clearest path to success–even more than talent. Michael Jordan says, “I’ve always believed, that if you put in the work, the results will come.” Even in a field outside the fitness realm, Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, says, ” A dream doesn’t become reality through magic, it takes sweat, determination, and hard work.” These are the components of grit.
What Powell says about dreams not coming about by magic, is an important statement. In there is the secret to improving your life in general and your Grit.
Talent and genius are seen as something one is “magically” born with. You either have it or you don’t. And to an extent–that’s true, but both talent and genius can be improved upon, no matter where you’re at on the scale now. You may not be the smartest person, but with work and practice, you can get smarter.
Grit scholar, Angela Duckworth is a MacArthur “genius” grant winner and author of the book, Grit. In her book she outlines how to build grit, and one of the most important elements is a growth mindset, which basically means a person believes she can build and strengthen traits like intelligence, talent, and grit that traditionally have been seen as static. Without that belief–no one tries to get better.
So, with a growth mindset, a woman can build her determination and perseverance to get gritty and as tough as a gymnasts’s hands–regardless of how much she possesses them now. By getting to work, she builds a better self.
So when you’re faced with troubles, a new, long-term project, a new career, twenty pounds to lose, or the birth of a child, remember that it is by the resilient power of grit that you wear down the obstacles in your way. Without it–the obstacles wear you down. The barriers you face can be physical or mental, but either way you need more grit than the opposition.
What stands between many people and their goals, dreams, or hopes is a lack of motivation, a seemingly insurmountable, blank wall that they must climb in order to reach the top. As a personal trainer, I see people clawing against their lack of motivation every day. They constantly search for a way to achieve their goals. They look on-line, read books, try all manner of diets and supplements. Time and time again they try but never seem to succeed.
Why can’t they find what they’re looking for? What are they missing? I believe their main error is in thinking that motivation exists outside themselves. Looking for motivation outside yourself is as misplaced a hope as looking for an external source of happiness. It doesn’t exist.
You see, another word for motivation is desire, and when it comes to reaching goals, there’s great truth in the simple phrase, “You gotta want it.” And if the outcome you’re seeking is difficult or requires life-long effort–you gotta want it bad. There is no program or supplement that can fuel that hungry inner fire of need. The food for that flame comes from your own heart.
So now what? What can I or anyone say to a client, friend, or family member who struggles with finding their deepest, elusive drive? First, one needs to carefully feel out their reasons for wanting to change in the first place. The one who wants to change needs to peel away the onion skins of “why” in order to discover her deepest reasons.
It goes like this:
Why do you want to lose 20 pounds? To look and feel better. Why do you want to look and feel better? So I can feel more attractive for my wife and can play more with my children. Why do you want to feel more attractive for your wife and play with your children? I want a better relationship with them. Ah. Now, there’s a solid reason.
The thing is, if you’re trying to be healthier and lose body fat, are you really motivated by, “I want to weigh one-hundred and eighty pounds and have fifteen percent body-fat?” Who cares! What you need is to know what that’s going to do for you. Are you lonely and want more friends? Do you feel that playing ultimate Frisbee with your office mates will help, but you can’t because you’re fifty pounds overweight and your knees constantly hurt? Then let that need for friendship be your drive to losing weight and making the necessary changes to your behavior.
And there are behavioral changes that will need to be made. Most people are in their current state due to behaviors, and the way out of that current state are new behaviors. Once you’ve found an inspiring reason to move toward your goal and have lit that internal fire, then you start the work of breaking down the steps that will continue to feed that flame.
The thing is that we can’t feel our way into behaving differently. We have to behaveour way into feeling differently. It’s a mistake to think of our emotional state as the cause of, rather than the effect of, our actions and environment. Emotional states can drive behaviors, but for control of your life–turn that around.
For me, evidence of the relationship between behavior and emotions appears whenever I’m about to do a workout and I’m feeling sluggish, unmotivated, and like maybe I should put it off until I feel better. Those feelings come from outside influences and are transient. Dozens of times I’ve felt like that and when I pushed past them and did the workout, about five or ten minutes into the session, I started to feel more energized, more awake, happier. And I always left the gym in a new state of mind. This pushing past emotional blocks is a necessary skill to reaching any goal in many domains of life.
Need to feel differently? First, you must act differently. It almost never works the other way around.
A little over a week ago people around the world waited with bated breath every evening to see if they had picked the billion dollar numbers of Powerball. Nationwide, the populace went a little crazy as greater and greater numbers of people climbed on the bandwagon of possibility. What was the possibility? Never more than one in 292 million. Not much.
Nevertheless, people played. The thrill of possibility must be pretty strong, either that or the escapism of spending hours dreaming about winning big is more entertaining than I ever imagined.
If people are willing to play the seemingly impossible odds of the lottery, what I’d like them to do is invest in some other long odds activities. For example, the chances of keeping a resolution for losing weight are somewhere around 8 to 1–against. But here’s an important side note, those who make resolutions, successful or not, are ten times more likely to change their lives significantly than those who don’t.
This is an crucial distinction. Those who play the lottery are the only ones who win. Even though the odds are supremely against them, some do win. What are the odds for those who don’t play? Well, their odds of winning the incredible prize are always the same: zero.
The point I’m making here is that sometimes, we have to be Hans Solo and demand that the reasonable C3PO’s in our heads and around us, “Never tell us the odds.” We sometimes need to take our chances and go for whatever drives us. Why? Because we just might win. And if we don’t–we are certain to lose–in more ways than one.
To never throw ourselves headlong into our dreams, despite abysmal chances, erodes our courage, makes us fearful and unconfident. We may tell ourselves the odds will never be in our favor, or employ reason and logic to prove how we will never win, but after a while our voice will start to sound like we have a mouthful of sour grapes. We need to dream big sometimes. Otherwise we’ll miss out on that one chance in a million that we winbig–really big.
And winning doesn’t have to involve dollars and cents. You may be dreaming of lifting or losing a heavy weight or spending more time learning how to code a new video game instead of sitting on the sidelines, playing someone else’s game. Think about it, every week someone posts something on Facebook that goes supernova viral and makes it to the front page of Huffington Post and appears on Good Morning America. Every year, some new, unknown author writes a New York Times best seller. All of these things, and so many more, feel like lottery payouts to me. The difference? The odds aren’t as long.
So, don’t be one of those people who loses all grand ambitions for significant change and greatness by heeding the advice of the “realists” and the fearful who tell us to set our sights low. The resulting wins are almost assuredly going to end up being small, uninspiring, and predictable. They will never take you into the wilderness where real vision and progress lives. Play the lottery. Take a chance. Win big–and “may the odds be ever in your favor.”