I used to be a quitter. From the lofty perch of midlife, I can clearly detect a pattern. By the time I was 15, I had quit gymnastics, violin, piano, Latin and Hebrew, bowling, writing to my penpal and, for all intents and purposes, doing homework.
I always looked for — and found — the easy way out. I almost didn’t graduate high school because I’d stopped going to gym halfway through my senior year and had to do a marathon month-long make-up session.
If there were both a challenging way to do something and a shortcut, I always opted for the latter. I didn’t like working hard at things that didn’t completely captivate me. I was never diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (who was back in those days?), but when I reflect on how quickly I lost interest in things, my hunch is that I had some degree of ADHD. Fortunately, this was in those carefree days before “No pain, no gain.”
(MORE: 7 Things Not Worth Stressing Over)
The Path of Pretty Much Zero Resistance
It’s hard to figure out how much of that lack of caring was something unique to me versus a product of my upbringing, a reflection of the Zeitgeist or, perhaps, a characteristic of youth. Obviously plenty of young people push themselves — many are downright driven — but it might be a safe assumption that early on, we can be a bit shortsighted. We’re interested in immediate gratification — and its opposite, the immediate relief of pressure.
When I was 21, my quitting reached a new peak: I dropped out of college. Classes were hard, there was too much homework and quitting was the path of least resistance. I got a job in my university town, assuming “someday” I’d figure out what I wanted to do and how to go about doing it. But in the meantime, I was having fun, life had very little pressure and no one was on my case to try harder.
Eventually I went back to college, graduated and spent a year teaching in Europe before getting my first job in magazine publishing. From the outside, it probably looked like I was motivated and pouring my heart and soul into everything I did. And while I was passionate about what I was doing, a lot of what motivated me came from outside me: a desire to prove myself to others. What was missing was an inner drive.
(MORE: 9 Best Things About Being Over 50)
Finding the Personal Value
Then, in my 40s, something shifted. I don’t know if it was personal or a function of getting older and (maybe, a little) wiser, but suddenly working a little harder and pushing myself to reach new levels of competence felt like a reward in and of itself.
For one thing, I started saying no to things that truly had no value for me. And when I did pursue endeavors I cared about, I stopped thinking about what would come after the activity. I started giving things my all and in the process realized that the effort itself was valuable.
Exercise, for example, was no longer a dreaded chore; it made me feel not only strong and healthy, but happy. I liked going faster and farther in my cardio workouts and gradually increased the amount of weight I could lift. I no longer “let myself off the hook” every time I was halfway to the goal, citing boredom or exhaustion.
Anything from work projects to home renovations to complicated travel plans became a personal challenge. Last spring I decided to go to Peru — seeing Machu Picchu had been a lifelong goal. When I did my research and learned that only 400 people a day are allowed to climb Huaynu Picchu, the 9,000-foot mountain behind the ruins, I immediately booked a slot and set a goal of getting in shape for that. I knew I couldn’t train for altitude in New York City, but I gave myself three weeks to work on my endurance and ability to make a steep vertical ascent.
I hadn’t been on a Stairmaster since the last time I wore shoulder pads, but I made it my new friend. I also worked out on that killer moving-stairs machine. Almost every day for three weeks, I pushed myself. I didn’t balk or resist. Focusing on my goal kept me going. The day before I left, I did a 10-mile walk through the hilliest parts of Brooklyn I could find.
My Peak Experience
Never mind that within five minutes of actually climbing Huayna Picchu, that old, lazy part of my brain was whining and ready to quit. (The altitude was much tougher on me than anticipated.) But I had a little chat with myself and reminded me of how much this meant now and how much it would mean for the rest of my life.
So I climbed.
When I got to what I thought was the top, my guide told me there was “just a little more” (a by-then familiar refrain) and I pulled myself up to the tippy top. Sitting there, justifiably feeling like I was on top of the world, I overheard a woman, who looked to be about my age, saying she’d left her husband and 17-year-old daughter in their hotel room, both too big of a wuss to accompany her.
She looked up at me and asked how I’d gotten up there. I told her she had to get on her hands and knees and scramble up. She shook her head and said she was satisfied with her pseudo-summit. “Are you kidding me?” I chastised. “You’ve come this far, what’s another six feet?” She looked conflicted. “C’mon,” I said. “Bragging rights for life.” I held out my arm, she grabbed it and pulled herself up.
We sat there a while, two fiftysomethings, and talked about our trips, our reasons for coming, our fears and the overwhelming sense of pride we felt at that moment.
On the descent, I kept looking back up at the top. My sense of accomplishment was about as powerful as I’d ever felt in my whole life. Slowly, carefully climbing down, I actually had this thought: If only my high school gym teacher could see me now.