You Can Always Go Another 20 Minutes

We need people to get us up and down the mountain, literally and figuratively. 

In November 2019, I went to Arizona with my son’s baseball team. We were new members. The coach said that before the game, we’d do some sightseeing. We were going on a little hike to Camelback Mountain. This is an important lesson in semantics. I pictured strolling leisurely through a cactus field and so I packed a heavy backpack with my water bottle, my journal, a book and other non essentials. Turns out a hike can be different things to different people. At the foot of the trail, an enormous mountain loomed ahead. Behind that mountain appeared to be several peaks. I noticed we were about to embark on the most difficult trail. I felt trepidatious but I figured I could do this, especially since Coach Mike said his mother did it at age forty and had no problems. Since I was just meeting the team, I wanted to put my best foot forward, to appear fearless and to make light conversation along the way. That didn’t happen. What did happen was I kept asking like a kid on a long road trip, “How much longer to the top?” Coach Mike said, “twenty minutes tops.” Two hours later as I struggled on, it was still twenty minutes tops. Later, he said that most people can, if they dig deep, always go another twenty minutes.” 

Putting my best foot forward went straight out the window as it often does when we find ourselves in situations that are highly demanding or stressful. I was determined to keep going physically, no matter what, although I did wonder if this is where I’d take my final breath. My thudding heart felt like it was going to explode in my chest. That was not my greatest concern. I was terrified of falling and breaking a limb. My mouth became dry with fear and exhaustion. Worse than the physical battle was the mental battle. My mind kept throwing scenarios at me. What if I slipped off the edge into the abyss and returned to Canada in a body bag?

One of the dads took my backpack to ease my load. I moved like a newborn deer, tentatively, as if the earth beneath my feet would suddenly shift. I clutched the mountain like a blanket. I sighed and complained and over-analyzed every step I took.  Every time I got over a chunk of mountain, another mountain appeared in front. I watched a man in his seventies, lean and sinewy, jog past me. Many times, I thought it was time to retreat, to give in and make my way back down. From what I remember, coach Mike would say things like: “We’re almost at the top. The hardest part is behind you. You got this. My mother wasn’t in the greatest shape and she made it up the mountain. It’s ok. You’re going to make it. You’re not going to believe the view from the top. It’s worth it.” 

At the top of Camelback Mountain, Phoenix, Arizona

And so I made it to the top. We took a group picture and I was elated. The view was magnificent but then, the panic set in. I still had to get back down. Coach Mike and the rest of the men took off and were down the mountain in no time. He said his job was to get us to the top. We had no choice but to come back down. Going down was almost as frightening. Thankfully, one of the other mothers got me down. She stayed with me the entire time while I talked endlessly about how scared I was. It was halfway down the mountain when I turned to her and said, “Oh my. I complain a lot instead of just doing what I need to do.” She was patient while I dithered on what path I should take instead of just moving along. Sometimes I wanted to stay close and hug the mountain but that path was actually more perilous than venturing on the path closer to the ledge. I watched people run past me and who made the climb look easy and I watched people lag further behind, struggling as I was. 

Once I made it down, my son looked at me in embarrassment. “What happened to you, Mom?” he whispered. “You took so long.”

“Nothing, except you’re thirteen and I’m fifty,” I said. 

But on introspection, my son had a point. Something happened, something I was determined to fix. I felt mentally weak. My negative thoughts were as high as the mountain. My own self-doubt and fear almost kept me from getting to the top and it sure hindered my progress and enjoyment of the climb. 

I called Coach Mike the other day. We’ve nicknamed him ‘Tony Robbins’. “How did you get us up there?” I asked. 

“Sometimes  you have to lead from behind. It’s not all about leading from the front. For those who wanted to climb, I was going to get them to the top and I knew I could only go as fast as the slowest person. The mountain is just the mountain. It doesn’t care about you. If you keep looking up at what’s ahead, at the unknown, the mountain will win. It’s relentless. For some, it’s physically tough. For others, it’s psychologically tough, or even both. It’s a mental game. But God is able to pull stuff out of us that we can’t do on our own,” he said. 

As for me, I’m grateful for the people who got me up and down the mountain, the coach who carried my backpack, the Mom who stayed with me and Coach Mike. I couldn’t have done it without them. We need each other. 

The mountain just is and no amount of overthinking and complaining will make it go away. Climb one step at a time, even in the face of fear. Some will make it look easy and some won’t make it up at all. Keep going even though at times, the climb feels relentless. And if you’re one of the “make it look easy” ones, encourage those that are struggling.

Failure Makes You Better

I hate failing. I really do. All the self help gurus say you must love failure to learn and grow. I’ll never love it and I’ll go even further and say I’m afraid of failure. Somewhere along the way, most likely as a child, I received the message that it is not okay to fail. I’m not alone. So many of us are so afraid to fail that we miss out on life’s greatest opportunities. We stay in our comfort zone instead of trying new experiences and becoming the best version of ourselves.

Once, I failed big. It was humiliating. I was asked to speak at a school after recently publishing my children’s books. My audience was an entire gym of kindergarten and first graders, and not a classroom where I was most comfortable. If you’ve ever presented at a school, the younger and larger the audience, the more difficult it is. I decided I’d wing the whole presentation since it was only kindergarteners. I had young children, I knew my books, how hard could this really be? I walked in without any preparation and of course, it went badly. Since I hadn’t prepared, I had problems with the technology and no back up plan. I under-anticipated how hard it was to present to young kids who couldn’t sit still. I cringe when I remember that moment and the look of disappointment on the face of the principal who hired me.

After I’d packed up my books and walked back to my car, I sat in the parking lot thinking, “This will never happen to me again. No matter what it takes, I never want to feel like this again.” It was pointless to cry or even complain because I realized that I was one hundred percent responsible for my failure. (Ok, I did complain a little to my supervisor and friend. We’ll call her N.) N said, “Why don’t you join Toastmasters?” And so I did.

I learned how to speak in public. But I did more than that. I googled how to present to children. I googled and read about public speaking. I watched other public speakers. I learned something that I should have known, and probably did know but didn’t want to put in the time to do, which was to practice. It may seem obvious that my lack of preparation caused my failure, but I thought maybe I could be like my father; he says he never practices before a speech and he’s pretty good at it. The truth is that it is the rare person who doesn’t have to practice to master a skill.

Today, no matter where I’m presenting (virtually or physically), on what (a talk, my books or a poem) and to whom, I practice extensively. I usually don’t want to practice at first. There are days of procrastination and agonizing over this extra thing to do. It gets tedious to repeat the same speech over and over again. It’s time consuming. But I do it and not at the last minute either. I practice because I never again want the feeling of standing in front of an audience lost and discombobulated. I need to know I’ve done my best.

Sometimes my kids will see me facing the mirror and ask, “Who are you talking to, mom?”

“No-one. I’m practicing my speech/poem/presentation.”

“Oh.”

The first time I practiced my speech in front of the mirror or in front of my hubby or kids, I felt a bit self-conscious but I’m so over that. It’s more important for me that my kids see that practice is necessary. They see that I’m choosing not to be self conscious and that I’m investing in myself.

Without that epic failure (Ok. Maybe it wasn’t epic. I didn’t lose my life savings), I wouldn’t be able to deliver the talks that I do today. I would still be paralyzed by fear and insecurity. The failure was my feedback. I had to do something differently. In this case, it was practice and preparation.

I don’t think most of us love to fail, but our failures make us better, stronger and a lot wiser. Failures give us our stories and point us in the right direction. Failures make us cry, laugh and once we come through on the other side, we look back in amazement at the people we once were and, more importantly, whom we have become.

Bonus: Sometimes other people learn from our failures.

I walked past my son’s room the other day. I heard him talking to himself in French. “What are you doing?” I asked.

“Practicing my presentation,” he said.

“Oh,” I nodded and quietly closed the door.