I recently attended a ballet performance by the Dance Theatre of Harlem. These dancers were magnificent. They moved their bodies in ways that seemed impossible to me. And, of course, like most professionals, they made it look easy.
I was spellbound.
While I’m happy to be able to touch my toes, reach for cereal on a high shelf, carry heavy bags of groceries from my car into the house and walk around Green Lake, I loved seeing these dancers leap into the air. It reminded me of something that many of us don’t fully realize.
We can do pretty much anything we set our mind to — within the realm of what is in our control.
My wife is 72 years old and still takes two ballet classes every week. Sure, she started when she was 5 years old, but despite the inevitable changes of time, she shows up at the school and practices pirouettes with teenager girls. No, she isn’t going to get a spot in the Pacific Northwest Ballet Co. But she’s overjoyed just to be in the game.
I’m learning a new psychological approach called “neurofeedback” that is highly technical and involves acquiring entirely new set of skills at the tender age of 67. Is it hard? You bet. I have to read new information several times to be able to understand it. While it might take me longer to learn this new material than it did when I was 25, I’m going to stick with it until I get it. Call me stubborn.
When we look back over the course of our lives, we will all recognize times when we stuck with something that was challenging, frustrating and hard. Why? We were motivated to do it — either because we thought we had to, we wanted to, we loved what we were doing, we had a goal we wanted to reach, or we just wanted to prove to ourselves that we could do it.
It didn’t matter whether we were good at it either. We just decided to persevere and not give up. It’s easy to forget about those past tribulations when we face today’s trials.
We really can do what we set our mind to do. We will have setbacks, both big and small. But if we keep taking small steps toward our goal, we are likely to get closer to where we want to be.
Read Joe Simpson’s book “Touching the Void” (or watch the movie of the same name on Netflix), which chronicles the story of two climbers who summited a 21,000-foot mountain in the Peruvian Andes that had never been climbed before.
They made it to the top, but on the way down, bad weather hit and Joe fell into a crevasse with no way out. His leg was broken. He managed to survive, however, by crawling the several miles back to base camp. It’s an inspiring story of finding a way to do something that by all accounts seemed impossible.
Fortunately, most of us will never find ourselves on a mountain in bad weather. But our lives are filled with challenges that can seem insurmountable.
And when they are, remember…
Establish a plan. Set your mind to do what is important to you, but be prepared for setbacks and plan for them. Achieving difficult goals is a marathon, not a sprint. Take some time to develop a playbook.
Set achievable and reasonable goals. I know I’m not going to be a star in the NBA, but I can get myself into shape so I can play hoops in an over 60 league.
Get help. The assistance and support of others is useful. None of us are islands.
Cultivate patience. Don’t look too far ahead. Take one step, one day at a time. For example, weight-loss goals should extend over a year, not two months.
You will have setbacks. When you fall off that horse, lay there for a bit, feel a little sorry for yourself, dust yourself off, take a deep breath and get back on the horse.
It’s all about persistence. Be the tortoise, not the hare.
Paul Schoenfeld is a psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.