Recently, I read a book about the space race in the 1960’s. As one might expect, no account of those events are complete without referencing President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in 1962. You know the one I mean:
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”
Like so many, I found those words inspiring, but realized that while I had heard this sound byte dozens of times, I had never actually heard the full speech. So, through the magic of YouTube, I sat down and listened to the 17 minute speech that talked about why it was important to take on the challenge of landing a man on the moon, and returning him safely to the earth. I know, I know, to raise funding and get there before the damned dirty Soviets (just kidding Putin, you da man). Still, I felt that I was missing something. So I read and reread the transcript, and I found this:
“All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”
– William Bradford; Plymouth Bay Colony 1630
Thats interesting. Anything worth doing is hard, and greatness lies in the courage to endure the difficulty. We might be onto something here.
Much in the way Kennedy challenged the american people to develop the means to land a man on the moon, using materials and technology that had yet to be invented, (which I’m sure at the time seemed a daunting task) we must challenge ourselves to do great things. Things that are difficult, and sometimes scary, and things we are absolutely certain we can’t do… Until we do them. It took me a long time to figure this out. I have spent a great deal of my life avoiding challenges that seemed too hard, or in my opinion, certain to fail. Until recently, I had positively identified my comfort zone and set up shop.
The comfort zone… Yeah, you know, that place under the blanket, on the couch curled up with the dog and the remote control. I love that place. It’s warm and cozy, requires no effort to enjoy. The dog looks up at me, wags her tail, and gets an approving scratch behind the ears for her trouble. Everyone is happy. Sounds great, right? Totally. Here’s the problem: What good are we doing ourselves by letting life pass by on the couch surfing daytime tv? Are we alive? Of course. But, are we living? This is debatable. Staying in our everyday routines, on the proverbial couch with the pooch, is safe and we know we cant screw it up. Getting outside the comfort zone means being willing to risk failure. This is obviously undesirable. Which begs the question: why? Why are we so afraid to fail? Vanity? Insecurity? Low self esteem? All would seem good reasons to stay ensconced in the relative safety of an epic dog hug, Seinfeld reruns and video games. To some degree, I struggle with all of these issues, and it’s not always easy to put them aside.
Notably, no endeavor worth doing is without risk of failure. It can’t be. We have to accept that, and more importantly, learn to embrace it. Failure isnt something to be feared, its something to learn from. With that in mind, locate the nearest emergency exit out of your comfort zone, and exit that mofo like its on fire. It’s making that choice, the choice to look uncertainty in the eye and take on a challenge, that defines us.
It starts with a choice. That’s the hardest part, choosing to go. Once committed to the challenge, less energy can be spent on focusing on how hard the thing is, and more on the overall goal. Thats not to say that I’m always confident. It occurs to me that if I cant be the very image of brimming self confidence, I can at least try to prepare as much as possible… And then fake it. Often times this translates to researching gear, techniques for completing the task at hand, and the experience of others. Part of my own insecurity lies in the unknown. But, if I develop a general idea of what I’m about to get into, I can mentally prepare. So, I pour over maps, read endless gear reviews to choose the right equipment, read and watch testimonials of those who have gone before me. Every adventure is unique, and one can’t possibly prepare for every eventuality but by laying the groundwork ahead of time, we can remove some of the unknowns. However, if and when we are faced with something we’re not prepared for, a simple, “Screw it, lets go,” may just be the answer.
That mental toughness is not innate. It has to be learned through experience. The first step is doing the thing that you’re absolutely certain you can’t do. “The way it works is, you do the thing you’re scared shitless of and get the courage after you do it, not before you do it.” (This was actually a George Clooney quote from a mediocre movie, but the point is no less valid.)
I submit the following short narrative of my wife’s (to this point) previously undiscovered inner badass. I like to refer to it as Warrior-Beth. It’s quite possibly one of my favorite things.
In July of this year, my wife and I took at trip to Sedona to celebrate our fifth anniversary with some outdoor adventuring. She thought I would really enjoy renting atvs and trekking out in the desert to see some Native American ruins. She was right. It was a blast. This anecdote isn’t so much about me. We are both motorcycle riders and didn’t give much consideration to the fact that riding a street bike has absolutely nothing to do with off road atv-ing. We get the quads, and I can tell she’s nervous. “How bad can it be?” I tell her. I promptly received the look husbands get when they say such stupid things to their wives… Who usually know better.
Undeterred, we head off into the Arizona desert. The large dirt road we were both expecting quickly turns into a rutted trail full of rocks. This trail eventually winds its way to the first of two “obstacles.” The obstacle in question is a steep, slick, rocky hill who’s grade is matched only by the size and number of the rocks found in it. We are going to have negotiate this treacherous slope on atvs we have never ridden before. Awesome. I look over to my wife to find that she’s less nervous now, and more freaking out. I couldn’t blame her. I wasnt sure how it was going to work out either. “Screw it….” I head down first and it’s uncomfortable and rocky and I have no idea what I’m doing, but somehow, manage to arrive safely at the bottom of the hill. I look up and I see she’s gotten around the bend, part way down, but I can tell she’s not going to be able to get it down the super steep part of the trail. I head back up to help, hop on her atv and just as before, slowly and awkwardly negotiate it down the hill. I felt bad that she was scared, but we had long since been committed to the adventure, and had to find a way to press on. We had plenty of time, so we took few minutes at the bottom to rest up and have a snack and some water. When she was ready, we got rolling towards the ruins
The vista was amazing, red rocks and plains for as far as the eye could see. When our engines were shut down we heard…. Nothing. Total silence. We could see the ruins off in the distance as we finally arrived at the second obstacle which was similar to the first in its grade and rockiness. The difference here is that there’s a slightly less steep way down. We take a look at it, and I tell her that just like before, ill ride down first and then come back up to bring hers down. I get the thumbs up and head down the hill. Just as I reach the bottom, I turn around to see her working her way down the obstacle with a huge smile on her face. She looked her fear in the eye, gave it the finger, and did it on her own. I asked her how she did it, and she said,”I just got angry at it, got it done.” I could not have been more proud.
This is the moment we should strive for. The moment where we overcome the fear, say some insulting things to an inanimate object, and accomplish something awesome, if for no other reason than to say we did it. My wife did exactly that. She did the thing that scared the hell out of her, only to discover that she was capable of more than she gave herself credit for. We should all be so lucky.
“But why, some say…. Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?”
In part, the answer, as George Mallory so aptly put it is, “Because it’s there.” While I understand what Mr. Mallory is getting at, I think there’s more to it. The purpose of choosing the challenge, be it climbing a mountain, running a marathon or landing on the moon is to discover something in ourselves. To become better people as a result of our endeavors. The pictures of us triumphantly standing at the summit marker or crossing the finish line signify not just the physical accomplishment, but the mental strength and determination it took to get there. It’s about finding out what you really can do if you simply choose to do it.
We are all capable of great things. It’s up to us to step outside the box and make it happen.