Last Saturday, I found myself on a really difficult hike: Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Difficult might be an understatement. If you’ve never heard of Half Dome (I hadn’t before last week), some call it the hardest hike in the park.
17 miles. 12 hours. 4,000 feet of elevation. More steps than I could count. And a final ascent that’s so steep, it can only be completed with cables.
At first, the hike seemed doable. But it just happened that last weekend was an abnormally hot weekend for the area. 90+ degree temperatures made the stairs, switchbacks, and slick granite surface even more challenging. And the final steps through the cable passageway pushed me to the very end of my courage.
Throughout the hike, I found myself developing a cadence as I pushed through the challenging parts:
One. Step. At. A. Time.
I took a step at every beat…making sure my feet and body were positioned well and I could see where I might go next. When the trail calmed down, I could look up and appreciate the incredible views. And when it would get tricky again, I’d return to the cadence.
Towards the end of the day, I began to think of the times I marvel at how people do hard things well. Starting a healthy business, raising a loving family, writing a thoughtful book, facing a life-changing illness, dealing with loss, rebuilding after a natural disaster, fighting for justice…the list goes on.
There’s no real magic to it. There’s no formula. Hard things are best handled one step at a time. One good, thoughtful decision after another.
There’s another term for this: “proximal goals.” In this classic study, researchers worked to help 7- to 10-year-olds with “gross deficits and disinterest in mathematical tasks.”
They divided the children into two groups: The first was told to set proximal goals (six pages of math problems in each of seven sessions) and the second group set long-term goals (42 pages of problems over seven sessions).
The children who used proximal goals completed the problems faster and were more motivated. And they solved 80 percent of problems correctly. The second group (long-term) only solved 40 percent of the problems correctly.
More importantly, the first group was more confident in their mathematical abilities. Proximal goals did more than help them solve the problems. They had fundamentally changed the way the participants looked at math.
Even if you don’t know where you’re going or how you’ll make it to the end, define and take the next step. That’s all that matters for today.
And, every so often, be sure to pause and look around. The view will remind you how far you’ve come.