March 7, 2023

You can’t unring the perseverance bell


If you ever read interviews with marathon runners, one comment that comes up a lot is, they don’t really know how they did it.

They can definitely believe that they did it. But looking back on their dozens of months and hundreds of mile of training, the fact that they’re wobbling at the finish line, soaking wet and ready to collapse into a heap of tears and sweat, is truly beyond their own comprehension.

They were just in a daze. Compelled to keep going. Didn’t want to back out.

And sure enough, they did it.

Experiences like these have a transformative effect on our psyche. Even for those of us who wouldn’t run a marathon if our life depending on it, something about hard things that changes everything. Performing difficult but positive acts makes us think we can do anything.

What was the last thing you did that you don’t really know how you did it?

Surely there must be something. The capacity to surprise ourselves is one of the joys of being human. And not because you need to reverse engineer your achievement, figure out the steps you took to win, and replicate that process over and over.

Rather, because that thing is brick in the base layer of your confidence. If you’ve done it before, then you can do something like it again.

I’ll never forget spring break during my senior year. Most of my friends were partying on a beach, enjoying their last hurrah before adulthood officially kicked in. Not me. At that point in my last semester, I had officially decided to move across the country to a city I’d never been to, where I didn’t know a soul.

My plan was to spend a week there scouting various neighborhoods, getting the lay of the land, making contacts and doing job interviews. Each morning I woke up early, put on my suit and tie, parted my hair, carried around a briefcase, drove around in my rental car and made the rounds.

Got lost every single day. Almost got in a few fender benders. Made cold calls on my very first cell phone while sitting in parking lots. Passed out my resumes and business cards like they were going out of style.

The whole week was exhausting, exhilarating, and in a few cases, humiliating.

One radio station manager said I looked like copy machine salesperson.

By the time I got back to campus, I still didn’t have a job or a place to live. But there was one thing I did have that wasn’t there before.

Momentum. That trip fortified me. The adventure in a new city all by myself was like a vision quest. The the crucial brick in the base layer of my confidence, which I could build upon over the next few months until graduation.

And sure enough, about a month after getting my diploma, I officially relocated.

Portland had no idea what it was in for. Goodbye midwest, hello rainy city.

By the time all my boxes were unpacked, part of me laughed and thought, well, I don’t really know how I did it, but here I am. Let’s go.

That transitional experience made me a different person. A smarter person. A more mature person with greater agency, resourcefulness and resilience. It was the first time as an adult that I really challenged myself to do more than I thought I could.

And certainly not the last.

What thing you do recently that you don’t really know how you did it?

My recommendation is, try to have as many of those experiences as you possibly can. Don’t put yourself in too much physical danger, but do surprise yourself with your ability to surpass your limits.

Because you can’t unring the perseverance bell. Forcing yourself to do hard things makes you better. It broadens your sense of personal power.

Any deliberate act of significant emotional labor expands your ability to do similar things on a bigger scale.

Down the road when you’re confronted with something else hard, you can think to yourself, wait a minute, I’ve suffered way worse stuff than this, bring it on.

What difficult but positive act would make you think you can do anything?