Find Joy In the Journey

Friday, April 28, 2023


Each March, elite ultra-marathoners gather at Frozen Head State park for one of the world’s toughest races. This race requires runners to complete five, twenty-mile laps around the park within 60 hours. Runners must navigate through the woods, ascend hilly terrain, run through the night, and cross several streams. Since the commencement of this event in 1988, only 15 runners have completed the race. The finishers receive no prize money and little press coverage. Moreover, it takes the body an immense amount of time to recover from a race like this. Which begs the question, “Why would anyone ever subject themselves to that kind of pain?” The answer: they have learned that there is great joy in completing a difficult task.

I myself have experienced this feeling of great joy. I coach cross country. Like many sports, practice starts well before the first race. Though the first race is usually in late August, we begin training in May and run all summer through hot, humid days. From May to November, I work on moving the team forward. It is stressful, tiring, and some days I don’t feel like running practice, but I do. Why? When your team runs well and you win a big meet, the joy is hard to explain. It is beyond rewarding for your hard work and dedication to manifest itself in the improvement and victory of your runners. 

My father recently died at 88 years old. He was full of joy and energy his entire life. At 88 years old, he was still running an insurance agency and loved every second of it. In fact, he was working on starting a podcast to help his business grow. His life was not always easy. The love of his life died young, his business ebbed and flowed, and technology kept changing. Nevertheless, he kept the agency growing for over fifty years because he loved the challenge. It forced him to learn new skills and problem solve, and it brought fulfillment and purpose to his life.

The movie Stand and Deliver portrays the life of Jaime Escalante. Mr. Escalante was a math teacher at James A. Garfield high school in Los Angeles. He saw untapped potential in his students and set a goal of teaching the first AP Calculus class at the school. Accomplishing this goal required implementing Saturday classes, convincing the feeder schools to change the math track for students, and countless hours teaching math. Only two students passed the AP exam his first year, but he persevered and every year he taught, this number grew. I’m sure when his students received passing AP exam scores, it brought him great joy.

Anyone can find a rewarding, challenging task to complete. I feel an easy place to start is physical challenges. Depending on your fitness level, set a challenging goal and then go for it. It could be things like: today, do 10 pushups. After school, walk a mile. Walk 10,000 steps a day. Complete 25 pull ups a day, or, for those more ambitious, become the next American Ninja. 

Start looking around you. Is there a problem you can help fix? Maybe it’s a simple problem, like someone left their trash on the sidewalk. Challenge yourself to clean up the area a little. Or, maybe it’s a more complicated issue, like global warming. Though global warming can’t be solved overnight or by one individual, there are small things each of us can do to care for our planet. Look for the little triangle on your cereal boxes, milk cartons, Cliff bar containers, etc. Those triangles signify that your container is recyclable. Challenge yourself to clean those containers and place them in the recycling bin. 

Lastly, identifying an area in your life where you would like to improve is a good way to find a challenge. For example, maybe you want to improve your social and conversational skills. Like many others, you may have grown up shy and feel nervous talking to people. Challenge yourself to start a conversation with at least one new person today. It could be your bus driver, one of the ladies in the cafeteria, the person who delivers your mail, a classmate, or the person you like. Go for it kid, be bold. It does not have to be the deepest conversation, just get to know the other person a little more. 

You can work towards accomplishing a big, difficult task by breaking it up into smaller, easier tasks. So, as one more example, perhaps you want to improve your grades. You can start working towards this goal by setting small goals for yourself like studying for a few extra minutes a night when you know a test is coming up, getting enough sleep (at least 8 hours) the night before a test, and turning all your homework in on time. 

The scary part of a difficult task is that there is no guarantee that it will be accomplished. 

There is a chance of failure. However, both failing at and achieving a difficult task can produce good outcomes. In both situations, you learn. It took Thomas Edison numerous attempts to build a working light bulb. After this experience, he quipped this famous quote: “I have not failed, I have just discovered 99 ways not to make a light bulb.” The important takeaway from this story is that you may not succeed the first time you try, but please, try and try again. Accomplishing a difficult task is not necessarily about succeeding the first time. Rather, it is about learning new skills, persevering in the face of adversity, and building confidence as you improve. 

When you accomplish your difficult task, relish in the joy and sense of achievement you are likely to feel. Also, do not forget to reflect over your experience and the learning process. Think about how your experience will benefit you in the long-term.    



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