I vividly remember that moment 15 years ago like it happened yesterday. There I was lying flat on my back gasping for air in complete and utter exhaustion but yet with a huge grin on my face. I did it. I had finally made it to the top of Mt Shasta. Mind you, this was no Mt Everest, but having never climbed a mountain in my life, this was still a pretty daunting challenge for me. Picture walking continuously for 12 hours. Now picture walking those 12 hours up a steep incline the entire way. But instead of wearing comfortable walking shoes, you’ve got heavy boots and crampons. Add to that the fact that you’re freezing with the wind chill factor dropping temps well below zero. You have massive headaches most of the way up due to the effects of altitude. And you’re seriously dehydrated. Your body is starving itself but you can’t eat a thing (another effect of altitude). And you’re dizzy. Everything is spinning around you. It’s hard to breathe too. Every breath is a conscious effort. It was certainly the hardest thing I had ever done up to that point in my life. It made running a marathon feel like a stroll in the park.
As I was enjoying a beer (or two or three) back at home with some friends following the climb, one of them asked me how I did it given my lack of experience. “Did you stare at the summit the entire time?” “Did you say mantras to yourself like ‘I know I can do it’ the entire way up?” “Did you concentrate so heavily on the end goal that you were able to tune out everything else going on in your life?” No, no and no. The answer was actually much simpler than that and can be traced back to the sage advice my climbing partner gave me 12 hours earlier as we started our ascent. Now understand that this partner was very experienced and had summited many of the tallest peaks around the world while the only peak I had ever bagged up until that moment was Stone Mountain. So I was a bit intimidated…nervous…anxious… dare I say afraid. Sensing my anxiety, he gently placed his hand on my shoulder, stared straight into my eyes in a very calming manner and uttered these words: “Glenn, just put one foot in front of the other. And repeat. It may feel like you’re not making any progress but eventually you’ll get there.”
We live in a society overly obsessed with finding your peak happiness. Finding your ideal career. Your utopian lifestyle. But not over the course of your lifetime or even a decade but right now. Right at this moment. “You can have it all right now!” “If you just put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” “Life’s short. Why wait another moment holding back from your perfect life.” But roughly 24 hours after reading that motivating self-help book or that inspiring TED talk, we’re left with this empty feeling in the pit of our stomachs. “It’s just too much.” “It’s too daunting.” “I’m so overwhelmed.” “I’ll never get there.” “Where do I even begin?” “It feels impossible to achieve.” And once you’re done popping the wind right out of that balloon, you go right back to where you started. The same old job. The same routine. The same mundanity. The same sense of frustration. Of anger. Of desperation. Until you find a new book or speech or blog or podcast to latch onto. If only for a very brief respite from all your struggles.
So how do you ever get out of this endless loop? Simple. Just put one foot in front of the other. As paradoxical as it may sound, and as antithetical to common wisdom as it may be, I think it can actually be counterproductive to always fixate on the end goal. Why? Because it can feel too daunting. It can feel too overwhelming. It can just be way too much to digest all at once. And we become paralyzed. Afraid. And we do nothing.
Just one foot in front of the other. If there’s a desire to switch industries, perhaps that first step is to simply do some research on that industry. Read an industry research report. Read the industry blogs. Real the influencer postings on Linkedin. Read the company websites. Read the public filings. Talk to friends or friends of friends in the industry. Attend an industry trade show. Become as knowledgeable as you can about that industry without actually being in it. Let that be your first step. So what then? How do you go from industry knowledge to your dream job? Don’t worry. Don’t even think about that step right now. You’ll cross that bridge when you get to it. And believe me, it will become a lot more obvious once you’re there. For now, just move in the direction you want to go. Try to just focus on your next step and nothing else.
It doesn’t really matter what your goal is. Just think about your next move. Interested in switching from engineering to marketing? Find out a few of the marketing case studies and textbooks used at the top business schools and get to work. Is your life’s ambition to start your own company? Start reading Entrepreneur and Inc and get a good book on writing a business plan. Or spend time trying to identify a hole in the marketplace. Looking for that next promotion? Instead of just dreaming and praying, how about taking on an extra assignment or two beyond your current job description. Just do something. Anything. It doesn’t really matter how big a step it is so long as it’s moving you forward. Don’t underestimate momentum. It’s a very powerful force. But so is inertia. Which is why it’s so critical that you do whatever you can to overcome it.
For those of you wishing this blog post had presented the magic bullet as to how you can have it all right now at the push of a button, sorry to disappoint. I only wish I had such powers. Don’t worry – if that’s what you need to hear, I’m sure Tony Robbins’ latest panacea is just a few clicks away. But if you’re open to advice that might actually get you moving in the right direction, here it is: Just put one foot in front of the other. And repeat. It may feel like you’re not making any progress but eventually you’ll get there.