“Don’t Let Your Trophy Room Become Your Mausoleum:” Keys to Living an Extraordinary Life
Ask anyone who has ever accomplished a BHAG (Big Hairy Ass Goal) what it’s like in the aftermath. You celebrate (well, at least I sure hope so), you do a happy dance, you bask in your newly-earned confidence. You give yourself a well-deserved pat or two on the back. Maybe you led your team to the Nationals. Perhaps you won a gymnastics competition, or a beauty contest, or you got a scholarship. Maybe there’s a ticker tape parade for you, or a trophy.
That’s a really, really good question.
Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen both wrote deeply evocative songs (about men, obviously) who had peaked out early in life. The high school quarterback. Glory days. Long gone, dustier each day as memory fades but feats grow larger in the far distance. For some of us, our youngest years were when we felt the most powerful, and believed that we could achieve the most. We were young and beautiful and unstoppable. Forever.
Or at least that’s the story.
Life’s arc varies greatly for each of us. Although many of us mourn our youth, some of us also forever mourn the notion that great achievement only comes to the young. We should all be Mark Zuckerbergs.
Um, I beg to differ.
Achievement-however we might define that for us individually- comes the moment we’re ready. The opportunity to live an extraordinary life is like a UPS package sitting on the front porch.
That is, should we choose to open it.
The great blind climber Erik Weihenmayer, as he was coming down from summitting Mt. Everest, reported that his guide gave him a piece of advice that was more important to him than having made it to the top.The first blind man to stand on the world’s highest mountain.
“Don’t let your trophy room become your mausoleum,” the guide said.
Weihenmayer has since gone on to break extraordinary ground for disabled outdoors people, including kayaking 277 miles of Class IV rapids in the Grand Canyon just shy of a year ago this week.
Pardon me but that takes balls. I can kayak low-level Class III and I have perfectly good peepers. That frankly scares me to death enough.
I can’t wait to find out what Weihenmayer does next. Part of what I find so instructive about his momentum is that he leapfrogs from one extraordinary feat to the next, always looking to carve out new ground. What he does has great impact on the possibilities for others with impairments, so his work is hardly just about personal bragging rights.
By contrast I offer you the extraordinary teen Jade Hameister who skied for 37 days and 600 km to the South Pole. She made a ham and cheese sandwich for the online trolls who told her she should “find a successful man and make him a sandwich” . She’s just getting started. This isn’t a kid who’s going to stop. Ever.
And about those trollers…..
Are people going to come after you if you try? Count on it. Here’s what a few superb athletes have gone through as a result of the useless troller morons who have nothing better to do than to go after people with real gonads. People will attack you. They will laugh at you. They will take out their ugliness on you. You can use this to lift you up, or you can tumble to the turf with the ankle biters and stay in the slime forever.
By further contrast I hand you this about those who have discovered their inner adventurer late in life, underscoring the argument that it is never, ever too late. Using age as an excuse is, to me, just a wee bit weak. Why? Simply because being deeply motivated to live outside the lines has a lot to do with opening doors, no matter where you are in life. In other words, what do you want to be right about? What’s possible or what’s holding you back?
About three hours ago I fired off an email to a man who organizes lengthy, challenging horseback riding trips in the dense, far northern British Columbia wilderness. It’s epic to get up there, it’s expensive, and you’re completely isolated. The guy’s an expert. His trips fill up early every year. Not a lot of this kind of land left. It’s my chance to see griz in their element, without being surrounded by numbnuts who think it’s cute to climb into the grizzly enclosure to get a selfie with Papa Bear. As someone who loves very long days in the saddle, and who trains for very high mountains (not Everest, but still), this is right up my alley. Small groups, campfires, tents. A river of stars so bright you don’t need a full moon to see your way around.
I could have chosen to ride near Banff and stay at a comfy hotel every night.
Not on your life.
By that time I’ll be 66. This November I’m climbing Mt. Kenya, and then riding with a guide for a week in Madagascar. On my birthday in January, I head off to Indonesia for a sailing adventure to some of her most remote spice islands. Weeks at sea. Swimming, snorkeling, climbing mountains, exploring cultures with SeaTrek Sailing Adventures. Awesome.
I want to hear the shuffling of a griz or the howls of wolves nearby. I want to watch baldies wheel overhead and momentarily blot out the sun. I want to cuddle in my sleeping bag as it rains like holy hell in the high country. I did that in Peru. Nothing like it. You and your horse and the elements and some of the most monumentally gorgeous country imaginable. Accompanied by damned competent people who put their horses first, as it should be. Otherwise, you die.
I could have stopped at climbing Kilimanjaro when I was sixty. For most folks, that would have been quite enough. However, and this is why I love Erik’s guide’s advice, that was the springboard. If I could do that, then what? The more I do, the farther I want to head out. My biggest enemy is a combination of funds (look, this stuff is expensive) and time.
This isn’t about “look what I did” so that I could drag some poor unsuspecting moke into my trophy room and show off my laundry list of accomplishments. That’s as yawn-worthy as subjecting your unsuspecting dinner guests to an Amway presentation. More, I want to push the outer boundaries of how I define myself, my athletic competence (which admittedly ain’t much, but I train hard) and my love of the outdoors. I love to write about what happens, lessons learned, and how the body responds to challenges. Of course I’ve been injured. Of course I do face plants. Of course I’ve made monumental mistakes and failed miserably. That’s part of the package. I’ve been airlifted out of some pretty remarkable places. However at no point did I ever consider quitting.
The people I find the saddest are those who had looked over the edge of a bridge for a bungee jump and came up with a billion reasons why not. That bungee jump is an analogy for all of life. Shoulda, coulda, woulda. Let me tell you what it feels like to do a perfect swannie off the tallest bridge in Croatia, as you sweep out and down in the sweet clear air, and watch the broad blue river take shape below you as you smile into the teeth of the wind.
Yes I can. My god, that was amazing.
When I did that swannie in Croatia, I had just spent nearly a week with people half my age. They laughed as I learned how to paddle a kayak in the ocean, which is very different from white water. They made fun of me when I fell behind until I mastered the open ocean paddle stroke. They hooted and howled as I learned how to ride a mountain bike ( I am a very competent road cyclist, that was my first time on an MTB). I became the “old lady.” Then at the end of the trip I launched myself in perfect form off a tall bridge that nobody else would attempt. Nobody laughed after that. I’ve got 130 skydives. I LOVE throwing my body into the air. Comparatively a bungee jump is child’s play.
Every time we take a step, whatever that step is, it erases a boundary. How you define yourself shifts. I can’t became I can. Whether it’s dumping 100 lbs and keeping it off, or quitting smoking, or asking for that promotion, or moving to a new city where you know absolutely nobody, or saying yes to that first date. It makes no difference what your personal bungee jump is. The point is to take the first leap. As you feel the wind in your face, the first question is “Why on earth did I wait so damned long to do this?”
When we live in fear, we draw the Linus blanket of our insecurities tightly around us as protection against the world’s ills. Most of those ills will find us anyway, no matter how many layers we pile over our heads, no matter how hard we suck our thumbs. Life creeps in. As we age, we find a litany of excuses. Well, old people don’t do that. Well, I can’t do (x) any more. Oh, what would my (friends, family, kids) think? People will make fun of me.
Forgive me for being so blunt, but who gives a flying shit what your friends, family or kids think? This is YOUR life. How dare anyone tamp down your heartfelt desires, our wish to become something else, achieve something worth doing? Who is anyone to put roadblocks in our way because of their own deepest insecurities? It has always struck me how many reasons you shouldn’t do (fill in the blank) come from people who have done little or nothing with their lives. Consider the source. Then consider your birthright to become who you were meant to be. Those who make fun of us are expressing their own deepest fears of failure. Not your problem.
In my favorite football movie “Rudy,” there is a poignant scene which speaks to the very heart of this issue. Rudy’s best friend was killed in an accident, and he realizes that if he doesn’t get himself to Notre Dame to try to play football then he never would. As he waits for the bus at the downtown station, his father shows up and regales him with a story about his grandfather, who had a dream of a dairy farm. The cows got sick, he lost everything during the Depression, and one day he just left and never came back. That, according to the father, was the reason why you should never ever follow your dreams. Instead, Rudy- who was barely over five feet and about 150 lbs soaking wet- went on to get a college degree from Notre Dame, play on the practice squad, and play for seven seconds in the final game of the year. He’s the last player to be carried aloft off the field. He turned those seven seconds into a lifetime speaking career. The rest of his family went on to get college degrees. This is the power of saying yes to a dream. Not only do you transform your life, you honestly have no clue how many others you are going to transform by the courage of your convictions.
When I got wicked sick in Indonesia last January, a very close friend wrote me that it was time for me to come home. “You don’t need to be doing this any more,” he wrote. I ignored that instruction, as I understood the intention. That’s the wrong thing to say to me. I wrote back politely, saying that while I was indeed ill, that was a speed bump compared to smashing my back in four places. He backed off. Good move. This is someone who has never done anything even remotely close to what I do, and this is his reference point. It’s not mine. Doesn’t make him wrong or bad, but I refuse to live my life by someone else’s standards. That’s a prison. Unfortunately people do this to each other all the time in the name of “just being concerned, just wanting you to be happy.”
No, they don’t. THEY don’t want to be shown up by someone else’s guts. Their willingness to break out of a prison of fear. THEY don’t want to be compared to someone who wants to live out loud. Or, they simply- for whatever complex reasons of their own- cannot imagine themselves having permission to live lives they define on their own terms.
Look, it’s damned hard enough to get up the gumption to do things that are truly difficult. We don’t need naysayers trying to convince us to remain mediocre.
Somewhere along the way we buy into the lie that we can’t, so we don’t even try. For some, it’s age. For others, it’s infirmity. Others still, something that happened years prior. A trauma. A trauma that becomes a lifelong excuse to not have life worth living, however you might define that life. Paralyzed from the neck down? Read about Robin Cavendish (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_Cavendish). Missing your arms and legs? Read about Kyle Maynard, who is also a mixed martial artist https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyle_Maynard.
Fear of failure is a huge weight on so many of us. I have a dear childhood friend who was told charming, wondrous stories by her grandfather about a mythical creature called the Gillygalloo. She alone now has those stories. Years ago she came to me after I’d just published two books and asked about writing a children’s book. That was eight years ago. Since then she’s been gifted with grandkids. To my mind, the most lovely long lasting gift she could give them would be a book of those very stories. She now uses the grandkids as the excuse to not write the book. The Gillygalloo will likely die with my friend. Perhaps not, but to all appearances, that seems likely. To me, that’s a genuine loss. I honestly believe, as a good friend once pointed out to me and as Steven Pressfield writes in his in-your-face book The War of Art, that we owe the world our greatest gifts, not our most creative excuses.
I’ve been obese. A five-pack-a-day smoker. I’m a rape survivor. I’ve been bankrupt. I could use any of these and a great many more reasons-including being in my sixties- as reasons why I should stay home, slow down, take it easy, and become a lump on the couch.
Not on your life.
It’s remarkable how many people use their limitations as the very brush with which to paint a superb canvas. Most of us have heard about Helen Keller. However the world is full of such people, folks who came out of the gate without what most of the rest of us have. And yet they persevered, they prospered, they rose. They make a mockery out of every single one of us who shivers at the prospect of attempting anything beyond our comfort zone. These people were born outside their comfort zones.
Yep. You’re right. I didn’t know I could climb to the top of Kilimanjaro til I did it either. August, my guide, has likely by now done that same thing at least 500 times or more. For him, climbing to nearly 20,000' is a walk in the park. We have to begin where we are. Give ourselves permission to fail repeatedly. Learn to laugh along the way.
I don’t have a trophy room. I have a training room full of weights, a bench and a mirror. The only other items on the wall are photos of zebras, one of my favorite animals. No plaques. No bragging rights. Just that mirror that reminds me that time is not on my side, and there is work to do before I sleep. I deal with a cranky knee and various aches and pains from the insults I’ve thrown at my aging body. Those are speed bumps. You learn to train around them, wear a brace, use hiking poles, and keep right on going. This is most certainly not for everybody. This is how I choose to live this life.
Whatever you may have done before, the most important question is what’s next? If you’ve done nothing that you feel deeply proud of as yet, the most important question is, what now? As Eleanor Roosevelt said, Do something every day that scares you. The remarkable thing about this is that when you eventually do face off with a BHAG, it doesn’t scare you half as much.
You will never know the strength and power of your wings until you leave the nest. And when you do you will wonder why on earth it took you so long.