Conquistadors of the Useless, or Pursuers of Passion?

 

“Don’t try to change the world, find something that you love
And do it every day
Do that for the rest of your life
And eventually, the world will change.”

––Growing Up, by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

Millennials get a lot of flack.

We’re dubbed lazy, entitled, useless.

Our work ethic is questioned, our desire to live in vans reviled, and our love for the outdoors?

Useless.

But is it?

I’ve wrestled with this question late at night with wine in hand, mile 7 of a trail run, and over countless cups of coffee. It’s clear that our society, so centrically created around capitalism, values what we produce. In fact, so often, our value is determined solely on what we create.

In terms of money, it’s easy to define. As a society, we value wealth, and those of us who choose to claw our way up the corporate ladder will, usually, be rewarded for our time and dedication to the man. Whoever he is.

This idea is something I understand well. Working my way through secondary and higher education, I knew following a specific path would ensure my success. I knew how to do exactly what I was told to do.

I soon realized, though, like many of us do, that continuing to pursue that life would be empty. While the security of money is nice, and up to a certain threshold ($75,000 to be exact), can actually make you happier, sacrificing happiness to get to that point isn’t necessarily worth it.

So, when I chose to study creative writing in college, I knew I was setting myself up for societal failure.

 

When I decided I wanted to focus my efforts on writing in the outdoor industry, I laughed at my silly masochistic self.

Because if writing isn’t enough to sustain yourself, or prove your worth in society, playing outdoors is even worse.

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Desert trail and sandstone towers in Moab, UT

My feelings of uselessness increased the more time I spent outside. Days passed without a single thing to show. I hadn’t written anything. I hadn’t changed anyone’s life. I certainly hadn’t made any money.

But I felt so much happier.

What came next was an energy for preserving our wild and beautiful places. This energy evolved into passion, which included writing to government officials and advocating for public land.

It still made me wonder if spending all this time outside––climbing, skiing, running, and whatever else––was actually worthwhile.

As it appears, rock climbing is useless. And despite various attempts to justify the sport, many people continue to agree that nothing good comes from climbing rocks.

It might be true for some people. Maybe there is an entire branch of the climbing community that doesn’t see the value of public lands, refuses to attend crag clean-ups, and will go on their merry way never giving back to the community.

Beneath their inability and lack of desire to give back, however, lay the seeds of passion.

Although I don’t know many (if any) people in the climbing community who do not care about anything and anyone besides themselves, there is something within them that draws them to the sport. This passion, I believe, is exactly what the world needs.

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Anger, resentment, jealousy––these emotions often stem from an experience in our lives that told us we couldn’t. Whether it was society, our parents, our significant other, or a complete stranger. At some (or many) points, we decided to let someone see the fragile, brilliant dream inside of us, and they laughed, or doubted, or overran us with their sarcasm.

Along the way, so much of our passion died because of doubt.

What I love about the climbing community is that “no” isn’t a reasonable answer, and we continually rise to a challenge. We spend our summers waking before the sun, and our autumns climbing in headlamps, because we just want the thing to go. We spend days, weeks, months, sometimes years, climbing the same damn route because we’re too stubborn to admit defeat. We suffer flesh wounds, centipede bites, rock fall, numb toes, tendonitis, rolled ankles, broken ankles, whippers, and thirty-foot run-outs.

In climbing, we shape our character, we define what is and isn’t possible, and we refuse to back down.

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Red Rocks, NV

The same is true of any sport. It’s in the face of adversity that character and resiliency grow. So maybe, on the surface, climbing seems useless.

After all, we’re spending years of our lives hanging off the side of cliffs.

But when you look into the benefits the sport creates, and how the fissures splay throughout our society––the activists it creates, the stories of endurance and the human spirit it tells, the passion it inspires––it’s hard to say the sport is futile.

 

Reflections on a Marathon

There are plenty of things I thought I might never do. Running a marathon was one of them.

For at least ten years I’ve put “run a marathon” on my bucket list, or my one-year list, or any other goal-oriented list I made. I can recount my goals for 24, 25, and 26, and all include running a marathon.

I finally got around to it.

The thing about running a marathon is this: if you want to do it, you can. Not to put off the years of hard work and effort that elite runners put into it—I’m speaking to the first timers, the wannabe’s, and the slightly interested.

If you want to run a marathon, just do it.

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On my 26th birthday I registered for my first marathon. I was tired of putting it off until the next year, because eventually I would be 80 and wishing I had done this thing I had spent so many years wishing I had done. There’s a quote I rely on, etched into my journal, that reads, “How you spend your days is how you spend your life.” I realized, on the celebration of my 26th year on earth, that I’d spent a lot of days (9,490 to be exact) waiting to do something, to be somebody, to finally cross things off my bucket list.

26 would be the year I stopped wanting and started becoming.

As I sat in a coffee shop with a good friend of mine, I found a marathon, I registered, I downloaded a training plan, and I set my mind to it.

It really was as easy as that.

For ten weeks or so I ran four days a week. In that time, I traveled to Mexico, had a fluke knee accident, came down with a cold that left me in bed for four days, and never ran farther than 10 miles.

I don’t recommend it.

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If you’re going to run a marathon, train for it. Give yourself enough time to develop your athletic base, endurance, and most importantly, your mental fortitude. Fortunately for me, climbing strengthened my mental muscles and, it turns out, I’m mentally stronger than I ever gave myself credit for.

Leading up to the marathon, when I felt I hadn’t had enough training due to circumstance, I told my friends my mental game would get me through. After all, nearly everything is 90% mental, 10% physical, right? For a marathon, however, I’d cut it down to 60/40.

I leaned on examples of extraordinary individuals. Like the young women who runs half-marathons despite frequent seizures. Or the man with no limbs who climbs mountains. Or any other individual who disregards the resounding “you can’t,” and shows them they can.

We drove up to the start line around 6:30am. I finished off a cup of water, went to the bathroom, and did a few jumping jacks to warm up. My husband and brother-in-law were running together, and I was prepared, and excited to run the race solo.

I headed to the start with my running vest equipped with some extra GU’s, a bottle of water, my phone, and headphones.

When the gun went off, I was elated.

Part of me never expected to make it to the start line.

Even a week before the event I thought about calling in and switching my registration to the half-marathon. I’d only run 10 miles. I didn’t want to disappoint myself. I didn’t want to disappoint my husband. I didn’t want to fail, and have to tell people I hadn’t met my goal. Before I started that marathon, I still believed that having not tried might be better than failing.

I started out slowly, treating the first mile as a warm-up. I began near the back of the group, with maybe ten people behind me. But it felt comfortable. I didn’t need to go out with guns-ablazing. My number one goal was to run the entire race. My number two was finishing with an average 12 minute mile (5:24:00).

Running had never felt so good.

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Before I knew it I was coming up on mile 8.

Then mile 9.

When I passed mile 10, I was in unchartered territory. From then on, every mile was a new record, the official furthest I’d ever run.

Mentally, I was prepared. I knew I could get to mile 20, because I knew I could run 10 miles. Once I got to 20 I knew I could run 6 miles. That was my mental game plan.

It worked.

 

The miles kept passing, and I kept running. Until mile 22, I never felt the need to distract myself.

Those last four miles, though. Damn.

It took a lot to run the last four miles. My legs were aching, knees wanted to buckle, and my hips were so stiff. But I’d run so far, I couldn’t quit.

When I passed the mile 26 marker, I kicked it into high gear.

My last mile was my fastest.

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I crossed the finish line with tears in my eyes. The volunteer handing out finisher shirts and metals asked if I was alright. I replied, “I’m just so happy!”

I don’t know what else competes for that moment. Never had I felt so accomplished, so tired, and so elated at one time. It was euphoric.

Running a marathon redefined my limits, and what’s possible for me to achieve. I’m no longer sure of the validity of “I can’t,” because can’t is a misnomer. It confuses what’s possible for you now, for what’s possible for you in the future.

You can, it just might take some time.

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What They Don’t Tell You About Running

Around 5am every morning you can hear the low hum of complaint as angry runners rise from their comfy beds to get 30 minutes in before the day is underway. They grumble as they lace up their running shoes, grunt as they pull on their compression socks, and whimper as they step out into the cold, unforgiving world. They force their way through three unpleasant miles, and kiss the door as they return, so absolutely thankful that running is out of the way, and they don’t have to go through the process for another 24 hours.

Fun, right?

And then they go to work and complain to their coworkers about how much they hate running, but they have to do it. They do it for the carbs, or for the abs, but never because they want to. We love the camaraderie of misery.

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I used to be a spiteful runner. I ran in spite of what I wanted, and for that I was proud. I made myself run today, wasn’t I a rockstar? I didn’t give in to my primal desire to lay in bed all day, feasting on Cheetos and binging on Netflix. No, I went out and I ran.

It was awful.

All that time I spent angry about my feet hitting the pavement was a lot of wasted energy. If running is something you do for thirty minutes a day, four times a week, that’s over 100 angry hours every year. Four entire days of negativity. Sounds exhausting.

Especially because something wonderful happens when you embrace the choice to run. Your body finds it’s rhythm. You start to feel like a gazelle. You start to build confidence and mental endurance. You begin to believe you were made to run. And guess what, you were.

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Our ancestors were persistence hunters, chasing down their prey before the invention of bows, arrows, and rifles. We ran to protect ourselves from predators, and as early as 1829 B.C. we were running for sport in ancient Greece. Our body mechanics, from our glutes, to our sturdy trunk, are huge proponents in our choice to continue moving forward. Running is natural.

Let’s stop buying into the negative narrative about running. In our everything-is-easy-and-accessible world, we shy away from hard things at a rapid pace. While I have a newfound perspective on running, I don’t neglect the fact that running is hard. When I’m running uphill and my lungs are on fire and I feel like I’m going to collapse, I curse the hill, but I keep moving forward. When my arms start to tingle around mile 6, and the sun is beating down on my shoulders, and sweat is burning my eyes, I am thankful to be moving.

Let’s change the narrative and embrace the run.

Priorities vs. Excuses

I am no stranger to excuses. In high school I fell into a particular school of thought that encouraged the pursuit of easy things. Mostly this manifested in my schoolwork; I excelled in English because it came naturally, I struggled in Physics because it didn’t. Logically it’s sound. Besides long-term-reward type thinking, why choose the hard thing?

If all you’re working towards is getting through the day with relatively little effort, the easy thing makes the most sense. It keeps your stress levels to a minimum, boosts your confidence levels, and is sustainable. You might not see consistent promotion, those rock hard abs you’ve always dreamed of, or the finish line of an Iron Man, but you will experience happiness in the most contented form. Depending on who you are, you may not find anything wrong with that. For about 24 years of my life, I didn’t either.

It wasn’t until I actually put effort into something that I realized the rewards were worth the sacrifice. The tricky part, though, is finding the thing that’s worth the sacrifice. Oftentimes, before you can commit, doubt sets in, and the urge to make excuses is too strong to stand against. Chores like laundry, grocery shopping, and fixing household gadgets are some easy go-to excuses that trick you into thinking you no longer have enough hours in the day to possibly pursue whatever challenge is nudging you. It’s an excuse I’ve made and an excuse I’ve heard over and over again. But here’s the truth: there’s time if you make time.

Take ultrarunner Sally McRae for example. The 34-year-old member of the Nike Elite Trail Team is also a mother of two and manages to balance a grueling training schedule, motherhood, and her personal coaching business. In an interview with Outside Magazine Sally said, “Stop using parenthood as your excuse not to run or workout…being a good parent doesn’t mean you throw your health out the window; it also doesn’t mean you teach your children that when they, too, become parents, that their goals and dreams are no longer important.” (You can read the full article here). McRae plans out her entire day to the hour the night before to ensure there’s enough time to fit in all she has to accomplish.

Another example is Michaela Kiersch, a 22-year-old professional climber and senior at DePaul University who manages to fit in a full course load, rigorous training schedule, and coaching five days a week at the local climbing gym. Kiersch made the first female ascent of “The Golden Ticket,” a 5.14c in the Red River Gorge. In the short film about the ascent, Kiersch talks about her hectic schedule, “I only have a couple time slots throughout the week and if I don’t climb on Monday’s at 2:30 exactly, then I can’t climb again until Wednesday at 10am. And then the drive to the Red is seven hours, and every weekend we just make this trek, this mindless drive to Kentucky, and we do every weekend without fail.”

I can hear the excuses already, “Yeah, but they’re professional athletes, it’s different.”

But where do you think they started?

I’m not saying we all need to take up some crazy-intense Double Iron Man training plan. I’m also not saying it has to be an athletic endeavor. It could be a creative pursuit. Learning the guitar, writing a book, and baking are also activities I’ve personally put off because I “didn’t have enough time.” Truth is, I’ve always had enough time, just not enough drive.

I say we all start with something small. Everybody has at least ten minutes to spare in any given day. Use that ten minutes for something you’ve always wanted to make time for. Do it for yourself. Someday that ten minutes might turn into thirty might turn into an hour, and before you know it, you’ve found the key to unlocking time by pursuing the things you love.

The Importance of Passion

We know it when we see it. The girl with overactive hand gestures talking about the project she sent. The guy telling us about the backflip he landed at Snowbird’s terrain park. The research scientist detailing the minutia of their current experiment. The father with pictures of his kid atop the podium for the state track championships. And we smile with them, applaud them, cheer alongside them, and then wonder what it is in our own lives that brings us the same kind of joy.

I have known too many people to choose stability over passion. They turn down job offers, forgo van trips, and choose more economical majors in order to pursue the path most taken. Our FOMO is real in a more practical way than we realize. In some ways, we make choices in our twenties under the assumption that opportunities won’t present themselves later in our lives. So we purchase houses, settle with the corporate job, and begin saving and planning for children. There’s this lurking sense that if we don’t do it now, then maybe we never will.

Do we not trust ourselves? Because that’s what it is, right? If we take this van trip, quit our jobs, pursue a vagabond lifestyle, will we have the willpower to return to life as we know it?

The truth is, life won’t be the same. After a serious diversion from life’s inevitable path, perspective changes. You realize you don’t need that much stuff, simplicity is the key to happiness, and, you guessed it, bigger isn’t necessarily better.

Our fear of change and growth keeps us from pursuing big dreams–the dreams we’re most passionate about. I’m no different. My job is stable. It provides a solid paycheck, and I don’t have to work most of the month. Right now, my lifestyle is pretty good. But there are things I’ve always wanted to do that I can’t pursue with this job. And it’s really, really tempting to stay in this career, for, well, my career.

But in my dogged pursuit for passion, I can’t settle for a job that doesn’t stoke my fire. The most inspiring people,to me, are the ones who break away from society–the artists, the non-profit starters, the dirtbag climbers living in vans. I’m inspired by people who pursue freelance careers, who sell all their belongings, who sacrifice their time for years of schooling in order to become whatever it is they so long to become.

Who inspires you? They are the people that offer a glimpse into what you value and the life you long to pursue. We’re inspired by the doers, the dreamers, and the go-getters. The people that said enough, and went on to pursue their passion. As corny as it sounds, we can’t let life go by without following our dreams. So many people get to the end of their lives only to wish they had pursued a career in fashion, or quit their job to travel the world, or started a non-profit in their favorite sector.

Logistically, it might be a nightmare. And in the beginning it might be scary as hell–the unknown always is. But I can guarantee you, it will be worth it.

*this post also appeared in Thought Catalog