On Having the Courage to Walk the Path
Path-maker, your footsteps are the path, and nothing more; path-maker, there is no path, the path is made by walking. By walking one makes the path, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again. Path-maker, there is no path, only trails upon the sea. Antonio Machado Campos de Castilla (translated by David Whyte)
In her talk The Humble Journey to Greatness, writer Cheryl Strayed describes the realisation that her dreams of becoming a writer were in conflict with how she spent the minutes of her days – watching cable TV. She suggests that we will all face the moment when we must “ask yourself, not who you aspire to be, but to reckon with who you turn out to be, who you actually are”. In this moment of reckoning she had a conversation with herself, one that determined the trajectory of her life.
Strayed questioned the dream big / aim high / strive for greatness self-help mantras that had thus far propelled her, but now no longer served her. Asking what purpose dreams serve, she offers an alternative title for her talk: “Don’t Let Your Dreams Ruin Your Life” because our dreams of greatness can prevent us from becoming who we must become. “Surrendering to our own mediocrity” is therefore the first step of the path to greatness.
“Surrendering to our own mediocrity” involves recognising that if we seek to walk the path to greatness, paradoxically, humility is the way. If our goals are too lofty, they will be too high to reach and won’t serve us, so we must make them where we can grab them. It’s about humbly acknowledging that the only me we can be, is the me we are, so how do we bring that me to world?
Strayed’s story demonstrates her grittiness. Grit, defined as passion + perseverance towards attaining a long term goal, is what Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth believes separates those who achieve amazing things and those who don’t. Duckworth argues that, when it comes to success grit is more important than every other factor including innate talent, IQ, attractiveness and socio-economic background.
In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Duckworth explores the source of the “mature passions” of gritty people. Interest in the work itself is one source of passion, purpose – the intention to contribute to the well-being of others – is another. In her research Duckworth discovered that when gritty people told her that what they were pursuing had purpose, they meant something much more than mere intention. They were not speaking of goals, but of something special, that they often struggled to put into words. However, every individual expressed their purpose as work they were doing that mattered to people other than themselves.
But how do we translate our passions, interests and talent into our purpose? Duckworth suggests three approaches to cultivating purpose:
- Reflecting on how the work you’re already doing can make a positive contribution to society
- Thinking about how in small, but meaningful ways, you can change your current work to enhance its connection to your core values
- Finding inspiration in a purposeful role model.
Writer Cheryl Strayed simply walked. In 1995, at the age of twenty-six, Cheryl Strayed’s life was off track. She was stuck working a series of low-paying, dead-end jobs; her marriage had just ended in divorce; her mother’s early and relatively sudden death from cancer a few years prior haunted her and she found herself using heroin. To gain closure, purpose, and some perspective, Strayed (who had no prior hiking experience) decided to walk the Pacific Crest Trail. She recounts her 1,100-mile trek from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border in her 2012 book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Reese Witherspoon was later nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Strayed in the movie of the same name.
Hiking the Pacific Trail forced Strayed to be with herself. Alone. Disconnected from the world. How many opportunities do we have to do this? How often do we actively seek deep interaction with ourselves? In the last paragraph of Wild Strayed writes:
It was all unknown to me then as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That is was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was……… That it was everything. It was my life – like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.
How wild it was, to let it be.
Maybe we can become gritty, by gritting our teeth and just walking. In doing so, we might just find our selves and our purpose. Path-maker there is no path, we make our selves by walking.
Also published on Medium.