One of my favorite quotes for many years now is
Start by doing what’s necessary;
then do what’s possible;
and suddenly you are doing the impossible.
– Francis of Assisi
I could (almost) end the article here, because this quote summarizes what I believe and what I learned about doing the (seemingly) impossible.
I remember the first books on personal development I ever read, which was Power Play by James Brennan (you can buy it at amazon.de for as little as € 3,01), which emphasized that all limits just exist in our minds (With some exceptions of course, but we should be very careful about labeling them. A lot of these widely accepted exceptions turned out to be possible later on). Accordingly the impossible just seems to be impossible and is actually possible. Thus we need to change our perception in order to make the impossible possible.
There are various ways to achieve this transformation. Some focus on the internal part, working with the mind and others are focusing on the doing-part, as in the quote. Ultimately both sides are always involved and any sincere internal work influences what we do and what we do influences how our mind works. So there is really no right or wrong here.
A lot of times things seem to be impossible because they’re just too far out from what we currently believe or focus on. The long jump world record is currently 8,95 meters. So we might say 9 meters or even 10 meters might be possible. But 20 meters seems impossible (and might be just that?!).
Those who focus on the many tried and failed attempts to build an airplane (at that time) might more easily be discouraged and think it’s an impossible task than those who focused on birds already showing us that flying is possible – somehow. That’s common sense, but it’s an important realization for our own dreams that we think are “impossible” for us. Change your focus and you change your possibilities.
Another important part of what we deem impossible is the perspective we take on the matter. Things that seem impossible from one perspective are actually easy if we look at them from another perspective. The little anecdote on how to eat an elephant illustrates this point.
How to eat an elephant?
There’s a saying that answers this question very intelligently: One bite at a time.
How do you run a marathon? I already ran two, so I have some authority to talk about that. As opposed to eating elephants, so I will stick with this theme. You run a marathon one step at a time. The first step is said to be the hardest. I didn’t find that to be true. Once you’re at the starting line the first few steps are actually quite easy. And you can run quite fast in the beginning. But later on running fast while having cramps from kilometer 25 km onward are impossible (I speak from experience… the cramps will prevent you from running fast). But still, it’s possible to crawl on!! (Or walk at a moderate pace.)
The hard part of a marathon is km 30 to 42 out of the 42,195 km! So don’t get faked out by its easy beginning and overestimate your strength. Or do so, learn a real lesson and struggle until you cross the finish line nevertheless 😉
Some people say they could never finish a marathon. They believe themselves to not be sporting enough. They deem it to be impossible for them. Will they ever finish a marathon? Not as long as they keep this believe. They won’t even try it. They will never sign up for the race and never start it. Acquiring the right attitude might be the first step for these people and might also be the hardest one.
For me on the other hand this first step was seldom a restricting factor considering outdoor adventures, because I tend to just try if I can do it. I try to take only calculated risk but if you want to push your boundaries, you always have some risk involved that you can’t really calculate; risk that is new and unknown. If you would know it, it wouldn’t be outside of the own boundaries. Makes sense, huh? 🙂
I guess this quote contains some truth:
Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
– T.S. Eliot
But when you risk going too far, you’re on a knife-edge. And do it often enough and you will find out what going too far means.
Going too far might mean being thirsty for hours in the blazing sun (in the Alps on a rocky plateau), freezing like hell (bivouacking in Corsica), being scared shitless (solo climbing and slipping off while one shoe is stuck behind a rock; dogs and horses attacking me; lightnings while sleeping outdoors in the Alps …), hopping into a hovering helicopter (from a snowy ridge in the Alps), thinking you will die (crossing a dangerous current while trekking in Swedish Lapland), and much more.
It might also mean that any of the above happens for your travel companion.
Are these pleasant experiences? No.
Am I proud of these experiences? No.
Did I go too far and risk too much? Probably.
Were these experiences necessary? Yes and No.
Do I want to miss these experiences? No.
(Do these experiences make good stories? Yes.)
While experiences of going too far are not pleasant or something to be proud of, they are inevitable and the result of learning how far you can go. They are the failures of the learning process. And failures are an essential part of learning.
So they might be the the price that we have to pay to make the impossible possible. Some people are willing to pay it and others don’t (the smarter ones?! Probably depends on what you value most in your life.)?
One of my “impossible” goals is to climb to the top of Mount Everest. Most of the going-too-far-experiences listed above are part of making this goal possible for me.
Climbing Mount Everest
About ten years ago I read the book Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (buy at amazon.com or amazon.de). This international bestseller tells the story of the 1996 tragedy at Mt. Everest where a number of people had died. Somehow I decided it would be worthwhile to summit Mt. Everest after reading it. Not being a mountaineer myself (but an outdoor guy) at that time I didn’t believe it would ever be possible for me to climb that mountain. Others would probably have agreed (“This is only a mountain for experienced alpinists, it’s dangerous and it’s too crowded and expensive anyway.”), which is why I never talked to anybody about it. But the dream and appeal didn’t become less powerful as time went by. So I took baby-steps toward it. Some easy mountaineering were followed by a training class on the glacier, to learn how to handle the crampons and iceaxe I gained more and more confidence and experience.
As of today I climbed a lot of mountains in the Alps with a much higher technical difficulty than Mt. Everest. Along the way I was fortunate enough to summit Mt. Blanc, Matterhorn and many more beautiful, challenging and less known mountains. I learned more than expected from these endeavors.
In December I venture to summit Aconcagua, the highest mountain of the Andes and the American continents. Its altitude is almost 7.000 m. That’s still almost 2.000 m lower than Mt. Everest. But now earth’s highest mountain is already in the realm of possibility. Just two or three more baby-steps 🙂