In my previous post, I wrote about my latest adventure: facing my fear of heights by tackling a high-ropes obstacle/zipline course. In the process, I learned a lot about myself and about life.
Life Lesson #1: We Are Capable of More Than We Think
I used to think of myself as someone who couldn’t and wouldn’t do anything that involved heights or upper body strength. I didn’t believe I would be able to do it, so I avoided putting myself in situations where I would be forced to try. I never questioned whether my belief was accurate. I just accepted that it was true.
Turns out, that belief was wrong. I was able to do the full obstacle course. And that makes me wonder what other things I’ve been telling myself I can’t do that I really am capable of doing. What other artificial limits have I been setting for myself?
I think this is true for most of us. We each have stories we tell ourselves, stories that limit us, stories that may be based on one or two bad experiences, or something someone else told us about who they thought we were. Only by stepping outside our comfort zones, pushing our boundaries, and trying new things, especially things that make us nervous or uncomfortable, can we ever discover what our true potential is.
Life Lesson #2: Things Are Usually Not As Scary As They Appear
After I signed up for this adventure, I went online and found pictures and videos of the course. The obstacles looked really intimidating. On top of that, people who had done this kind of thing before had told me that standing on the platforms might be really scary for someone with a fear of heights. So, my imagination went wild, and I built up this idea in my mind about how terrifying the experience would be.
Once I got to Go Ape and learned about all the safety features, I discovered it was pretty much impossible to fall. I started to see how silly my fears had been. The ladders and platforms turned out to be a little tricky to navigate, and the obstacles required some physical effort and coordination, but they were nowhere near as scary as the vision I had in my mind. By tackling them one at a time, I made it through just fine.
It was actually a little anti-climactic.
This happens so much in life. We worry and anticipate worst-case scenarios, and work ourselves into a state of fear. We often let these imaginary futures scare us away from even attempting to go after our goals and dreams. But the truth is, most of the time, what we were scared of happening never materializes, or we discover we’re more than a match for the challenge.
Life Lesson #3: Fear Only Holds the Power We Give It
Before I tackled this course, I gave my fear of heights a lot of power. I let it stop me from trying new things. But once I fully committed to doing this course, I discovered I didn’t have room for the fear anymore. It was free to be there, I didn’t deny it existed, but there was no point in dwelling on it. I had made the decision that I was finishing the course no matter what, and focusing on fear would only slow me down.
And the amazing thing was, as I went through the course, fear faded into the background. My mind was completely absorbed with how to navigate the obstacle immediately in front of me. A few times I made myself look down at the ground, and to be honest, the view didn’t even phase me. The swinging boards and wobbling ropes held my full attention.
I think this teaches us a lot about how to approach scary situations in life. We can make ourselves miserable by thinking about our fears and everything that could go wrong, or we can focus our thoughts more productively on how we’re going to navigate the situation, and what we’re going to do next.
Life Lesson #4: When Facing a Formidable Obstacle, Focus Only on the Next Step
Some of the obstacles on this course looked really intimidating from the safety of the nice solid platform. When I looked at the series of swinging boards or dangling ropes, or mentally calculated the distance to the next platform separated from the one I was standing on by a really narrow tightrope or vertical cargo net, it was overwhelming. I had no idea how I was going to make all the moves it was going to take to get to the other side.
I didn’t know what would happen in the middle.
But I had to move, so I took a first shaky step… and from there, I figured out how to take the next step… and then the next. I just kept figuring out the next step… and then, all of a sudden I’d see the oasis of the next platform right in front of me. I’d made it!
How often do we approach life this same way? Especially when we think about big, long term goals. We get so intimidated because we can’t see how we’re going to handle all of the possible challenges that may or may not come up along the way. We psych ourselves out, and then we either procrastinate, or ditch the dream altogether.
The thing is, we never have to tackle all of the challenges at once. We can figure them out as we go along. A lot of the time, the skills and confidence we develop by managing the first few steps provide us with what we need to handle the ones in the middle. The challenges may get tougher as we go up the ladder toward our dream, but so do we – we grow in our abilities and knowledge and confidence. The obstacle that looked like a mountain when we were starting out turns into a molehill by the time we have to face it, not because the obstacle has changed, but because we’ve changed.
So, when you find yourself shying away from a big goal or dream because you don’t know how you’re going to handle potential challenges down the road, focus on taking that first step. What is the first thing you need to do to move forward? What is the first resource you need? And once you’ve taken that first step, figure out the very next step. Do what you can do with what you have right here and right now – and trust that you’ll have and be what you need in the future.
Life Lesson #5: Visualize Success, Not Failure
The first few days after I signed up for this adventure, my brain went wild with how scary it was going to be. I had a few mini-anxiety attacks. But then I started to focus instead on how good I was going to feel after I completed the course. I saw myself posting pictures on Facebook, and blogging about my experience. I imagined how empowered I would be afterwards, and how this would impact other areas of my life. These images got me excited.
During the course, I did the same thing. Whenever I started to feel shaky, I pictured myself standing next to the “You Did It!” sign at the end. I never allowed myself to even imagine quitting as an option. I saw myself succeeding, and that pulled me through the tough spots.
This approach works in life, too. When you commit totally to your goal, and see yourself succeeding, it programs your brain to look for solutions to overcome any obstacles in your way. It makes your imagination go to work. If the first few things you try fail, your brain will keep coming up with new ideas, recalculating a path to the end goal (like an internal GPS), as long as you stay focused on your eventual success. It may take a thousand tries (look at Thomas Edison and the light bulb), but your brain is infinitely creative. However, if you give yourself a way out, if quitting is an option, your brain will take the easy way out when it takes too many tries, or when a big enough obstacle comes along.
I hope these first five insights have made you question the limits you may be setting for yourself and where fears may be holding you back in your own life. This week, I challenge you to find one way to step outside your own comfort zone – and act on it. Your true potential awaits! Share your accomplishment in the comments below.
And come back for Part 2, where I’ll share five more lessons on life that I learned from climbing outside of my comfort zone…