3 Learning Lessons from 2011
Holy Moldy Mayo, Batman!
2011 has been a monumental year for Mr. Zach Davis; this is a simple fact.
It all started with a post.
I was suffering from a fairly severe case of life dissatisfaction. As is a common scenario amongst the employed population, I was at odds with my boss. So- I did what any over-worked, under-appreciated, and slightly over-confident employee does to their boss- tells them to shove it. Unfortunately, in this particular scenario, I was the boss.
So, in search of some life answers, I decided to shake shit up a bit. Me, the class clown, computer nerd, sheltered son to a highly over-protective Jewish mother announced that he would be spending the next half year backpacking through the woods of Appalachia. Not knowing the first thing about backpacking, camping, or really anything related to being outside for longer than 9 innings, I was eager to take on the biggest challenge of my life. And by eager, I of course mean anxious as fuck.
One of two things was going to happen:
1) I was going to find the life answers I was so desperately in search of, or
2) I was going to end up in a bear’s digestive tract.
I am happy to report that not only did I avoid #2, I made decent progress down route #1.
And because so many of you have spent so much time with me during this journey, I’d like to share some of the insights that have found me along the way.
1) Don’t Stress the Future
Pre-Appalachian Trail Zach lived in the future. The soundtrack of my thoughts was an ongoing stream of worrying about what needed to get done. I was a prisoner of my own mind. There was no rest. My impending dissatisfaction was a long-time coming.
Upon my entering the trail, so too did this mindset. Every day involved a comparison of the mileage needed to complete the trail by our projected date versus actual distance covered. If we did 14 miles on a day we were scheduled for 16, the following day called for an equal overcompensation.
And then the woods sunk in.
It’s common for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers to enter into a state of mindlessness. Some refer to this as flow. As days start to blend into one another, the concept of time begins to dissipate. The sun replaces the digital numbers on your wrist, the sprawl of trees replaces the barrage of information, and space replaces stress. You transition into a meditative state where the past and future lose their stranglehold on you – presence emerges.
Without having memories to cherish or goals to strive toward, pre-AT Zach would have denounced this concept of life as void of meaning.
I now believe the opposite to be the case. Goals give us a direction. Memories form the emotional context for our lives. But, life exists in neither. Life exists in the gaps. Life exists in attention. Life exists in the details.
This doesn’t mean that goals aren’t important. They are. Ultimately- through presence, we devise goals better aligned to our true and unique purpose.
The important takeaway, however, is to not get caught up in the chase.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail isn’t about arriving at Mt. Katadhin. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is about each of the five million steps along the way.
Life isn’t about achieving a certain income, “making it” to retirement, or buying a certain house. Like the AT, life is about each step along the way.
Don’t take a single moment for granted and live every day as if it were your last.
2) Capability is a Mindset
I have been an advocate of this philosophy for quite some time. There was only one problem, I wasn’t living it, at least not to the extent that I wanted.
The “you can do anything” mentality was my personal Santa Claus: I wanted to believe in it, but was afraid to dig beneath the surface in fear of discovering a disturbing reality.
I can now say with both experience and conviction that mindset determines capability.
On paper, there was no-one more ill-equipped to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail than me. I was surely destined to join the 80% of attempting hikers that ultimately fall short of their goal.
But- what I lacked in know-how and experience, I made up for with obsessive mental preparation. I put great effort into installing the proper software in my head to assure myself why I was hiking. This was huge.
When the trail becomes difficult, as it does for any attempting thru-hiker, having purpose is what separates those who throw in the towel from those who persevere. Too many hikers dedicate their pre-trail efforts to the wrong practices. Spending countless hours constructing an elaborate re-supply schedule may feel productive, but it will do little to keep you on the trail. Dedicating weeks on the stair-stepper leading up to the trail will make the early transition easier, but again, will do nothing to keep your spirits high when shit hits the fan.
Simply having a clear and compelling answer as to why you are hiking is by far and away the most important way an aspiring thru-hiker can prepare themselves for the Appalachian Trail. With the proper mindset, we are capable of anything.
Today, I’m leveraging this mentality to accomplish another life-long goal: write a book.
For the longest time, I’ve had the idea of writing a book. For various reasons, I kept talking myself out of it. “People won’t read it and if they do, they won’t like it.”… “I’ll do it next year.” … “I just don’t have enough time.”
The critic’s voice will always live in our heads- it still lives in mine. But now I have a new yardstick in my repertoire. “Fuck- if I could hike the AT, writing a book is child’s play.” Note: writing a book is mentally distressing, but in comparison to thru-hiking the AT, it is child’s play.
As I put the finishing touches on Appalachian Trials, I am left seeking my next Appalachian Trail. Accomplishment is crack; I’m feening.
So for 2012, ask yourself what it is that you want to accomplish. Instead of letting the critic talk you into another year of compromise, take the leap of faith. You’ll be eternally grateful you did. I promise.
3) A renewed faith in humanity
This is a lesson I learned directly from you, the reader, the trail angel, and fellow thru-hiker.
Before the AT, I was a cynic of human nature. I saw people as a collection of self-serving robots programmed to consume as much as possible before the end of their days. Albeit dismal, it was my truth.
I attribute much of this perception to the business school culture. In talking to fellow classmates, I often got the feeling that they were calculating to see what was in it for them. If I didn’t present a route for furthering their career, they instantly checked out of the conversation. In looking back, there was truth to this, but I don’t blame the individuals. It’s a cultural issue.
Going into the AT, I had heard much of trail culture, but didn’t really know what to make of it. Was the all hoopla mindless hippie propaganda?
During my 2,181 mile trek, I saw a new side of human nature.
I saw the fellow hiker who was willing to share the rest of his food with a hungry hiker, even if that meant he didn’t know where his next two meals were coming from.
I saw the trail angel, who was willing to backtrack 45 minutes out of his way the night before a red-eye flight to ensure a trio of hungry, exhausted, and desperate hikers saw safety, and more importantly, a restaurant.
I saw you, the reader, send me, essentially a stranger, food, drink, and money simply because you wanted to put a smile on someone’s face. By the way, you did, you totally did.
I saw countless strangers happily inviting haggard, filth-covered, and border-line serial-killer-esque hikers into their vehicles just because they looked as if they needed a helping hand.
I received more well-wishes via e-mail, Facebook message, and blog comments than I can even recount.
I saw a culture whereby a stranger’s well-being was every bit, if not more important than their own. For the first time in my life, I had seen selflessness take precedence over selfishness.
In reality, there is no absolute truth. There are selfless trail angels; there are greed stricken businessmen. But my default position has shifted. Perception is what forms our objective reality. In looking for the bad in people, that’s what you will get. The same is said for the good-natured side of people. After the abundance of care I’ve received during the last 9 months, I simply cannot hold onto my prior views of people. You have converted me- and I must say, I much prefer the lenses of these glasses.
Thank you, truly.