Siula Grande’s East Face (source: summitpost.org)

Don’t give up. Break it down, and stay focused on your next step.

Have you ever been faced with what seems like an insurmountable challenge? You see where you are, where you need to be, and the vast distance in between. You see the mountains you will need to climb, and the likely sacrifices you will need to make. In those situations, you may feel overwhelmed, depressed, and be tempted to throw up your hands in despair.

Don’t give up. Instead, remember an important passage and a story I’m about to share with you.

I recently read a passage from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the ancient Roman emperor and philosopher:

“Don’t let your reflection on the whole sweep of life crush you. Don’t fill your mind with all the bad things that might still happen. Stay focused on the present situation and ask yourself why it’s so unbearable and can’t be survived.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8:36

As Ryan Holiday, author of the Daily Stoic wrote in his interpretation of this passage:

“A character in Chuck Palahnuik’s novel Lullaby says, ‘The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close up.’ Sometimes grasping the big picture is important… A lot of times, though, it’s counterproductive and overwhelming to be thinking of everything that lies ahead. So by focusing exclusively on the present, we’re able to avoid or remove those intimidating or negative thoughts from our frame of view.
“A main walking on a tightrope tries not to think about how high up he is. An undefeated team tries not to think about their perfect winning streak. Like us, they’re better off putting one foot in front of the other and considering everything else to be extraneous.” — Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic

This reminds me of the story of Touching the Void, a documentary film that chronicled the miraculous story of survival of two young friends who attempted to climb Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes.

One of the climbers, Joe Simpson, broke his leg while descending the mountain, and later fell into a deep crevasse. His friend, Simon Yates, left him for dead, and Joe was faced with the prospect of getting out of a crevasse and making his way down the mountain by himself.

After deciding to lower himself deeper into the crevasse, Joe discovered a sloping path which he followed out of the crevasse. Following his initial relief and jubilation from getting out of the crevasse, Joe quickly realized the enormity of his situation. In Joe’s own words:

“I was coming at this from having done the most serious climb of my life. If you come down safe from a climb like that, you would be just exhausted for days. You would just eat and drink and sleep… I’d just come out of that, I’d broken a leg, I was highly dehydrated, I had no food. There was no way you were physically going to do that.”

He had to go more than 5 miles down a mountain, navigating a maze of crevasses, climbing down over rocks and boulders, in minus 60 degree wind chill, dehydrated and with no food — and with a broken leg. The only way for him to get down would be to crawl and hop on his good leg. On top of it all, he had limited time. He needed to get down to base camp before Simon and a third climber left and returned to civilization.

Instead of being paralyzed by the sheer impossibility of the task in front of him, Joe focused on breaking it down into smaller, achievable tasks. Again, in Joe’s own words:

“And then it occurred to me, that I should set definite targets. I started to look at things and say, ‘Right, if I can get to that crevasse over there in 20 minutes, that’s what I’m going to do’… If I got there in 18 minutes, I was hysterically happy, and if I got there in 22 minutes, I was upset to the point of tears. It became almost obsessive.
“I’d look at a rock, and go, ‘Right, I’ll get there in 20 minutes.’ Once I decided to go that distance in 20 minutes, I bloody well was going to do it. And it would help me, because I’d get halfway through the distance and I’d be in such pain, I couldn’t bear the thought of getting up and falling on it again. But I’d look at the time and think, ‘I’ve got to get there.’ I’d want to just lay there, and I’d think, ‘No, you’ve got to keep going, you’ve only got 10 minutes left.’”

During that terrifying ordeal, Joe Simpson never gave up. Although faced with what seemed like an impossible situation, he never let the “whole sweep of life” crush him, and didn’t fill his mind “with all the bad things that might still happen.” Instead, he focused exclusively on the present. He broke things down into small targets, set deadlines for himself, put one foot in front of the other, and considered everything else to be extraneous. And that’s what enabled him to survive.

So the next time you are faced with an incredibly challenging situation, don’t let yourself be daunted by the enormity of the task. Remember the passage from Marcus Aurelius, and the story of Joe Simpson from Touching the Void. Break things down, and stay focused on your next step.