To live a great story, don’t wish away the pain. To tell a great story, don’t pretend there wasn’t any.
There is a famous saying from Theodore Roosevelt that is often quoted as “Nothing worth having comes easy.” Dig around the internet a little and you will find the accurate quote. It is far richer and more powerful than the popular paraphrase. Roosevelt actually said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
What makes the actual quote so powerful is Roosevelt doesn’t shy away from the challenge. In his words or, the reader can hazard a guess, his deeds. Unlike the paraphrase, which leaves out the challenge altogether, Roosevelt gets specific and says effort, pain and difficulty. And that matters. To how you live a story and how you tell it.
Last week, I turned off work (for the most part) and visited some of California’s iconic National Parks. First, let me say, wow, California. You are beautiful. I met my sister, Heather, in Vegas, picked up a Mustang convertible and started a one-week tour of the Mojave, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Sequoia, and Yosemite. Most of my recent vacations have been on resorts with quiet beaches, mindless dinner options, and a lot of downtime. By day three, I have been ready to scream. My boyfriend knows it’s coming when I sit up suddenly in the lounger and throw down my book.
“We have to get out of here tomorrow. I’ll lose my mind if I sit on this beach for another day.”
And that means we walk “off campus” (to the complete shock of everyone who works at the resort; “You’re going where???”), find a bus stop, and spend a few hours living like the locals do until we shuffle back to the sedating serenity of endless margaritas and absolutely nothing going on. Ever.
The trip last week made me realize how much I was craving an actual adventure. And when I say “adventure”, I don’t mean an hour on a Mexican bus and a couple of meals in dodgy local restaurants. Because, really, that’s not all that challenging. What I mean, I realized, is what Roosevelt called “effort, pain, difficulty.”
Getting the car stuck in the Mojave sand just hours outside of Vegas was a good start. We had spent the last half hour driving past uninviting compounds – battened up trailers with high fences and, in some cases, Trump Pence signs nailed below the American flag. There was no doubt in our minds. These people were armed. Suddenly, we flew past a random art installation. Because in the desert, we discovered, you have as much chance of bumping into a paintbrush-wielding artist as a gun-toting libertarian.
“What was that?” Heather asked.
“Let’s turn around and see,” I said as I pulled onto a side road and pointed the Mustang back from whence we came. I drove back to the art installation and pulled in on the side of the road. Maybe I had seen the “Soft Shoulder” signs and not really understood what that meant in the California desert. Well, in my opinion those signs should read, “SOFT SHOULDER, YOU IDIOT! You will sink into sand! DO NOT PULL IN!” because the entire time we were touring this funky creation fashioned from coloured plexiglass and beer cans, the Mustang was sinking deeper and deeper into soft sand. It was about 40 degrees when we got back in the car, snapped a cheerful selfie, and tried the gas. The tires spun. I looked at Heather. She looked at me.
“Shit.” I don’t know, I think we both said it.
I tried again, this time pumping the gas a little. Nothing. I threw it into manual transmission and tried a lower gear. Nada.
Then, I was out of the car digging the sand out from around the tires while Heather went in search of anything that could be wedged under them. She came back empty handed and I stood up.
“The sand keeps sinking back in,” I announced, sweaty and dirty. Heather looked at me with dismay.
We tried flagging down the only car that passed us in the next twenty minutes and of course it didn’t stop because that driver knew what soft shoulder meant and there was no way on God’s green earth he was going to pull in to get stuck himself.
I pointed towards a distant compound with a high brick wall, an American flag flapping in the quiet wind, and some rusted-out cars scattered around the property. “We’re going to have to walk over and knock on a door.” I paused, looking at the weathered trailer a little longer. “I think we should leave our wallets. We don’t know what’s in store for us there.” (the heat was clearly getting to me).
That propelled Heather into action. She went back into the bushes and dug up an old fender and some pieces of tire. I started digging again. We got them wedged under the tires and I got behind the wheel while Heather pushed. Pushed like she’d never pushed before. Pushed like the compound was coming for her… and her wallet. And suddenly, the car moved and then we were free.
And what we really thought, as we spun the Mustang back around and continued to Joshua Tree National Park, was, “We’re alive!”
Mid-way through the trip, we stopped at a sports supply store to pick up some supplies. We talked to the man behind the counter about our driving plan for the day: a meandering, winding backroad into Sequoia National Forest.
“Don’t go that route!” he cried. “It’ll take you hours!” He pulled out a map and drew a line with his finger along the Interstate. “Go this way. It’s a third of the time, especially if you get stuck behind a big trailer. You’ll be at your destination in no time.”
We got back in the Mustang and looked at each other. You see, we weren’t on vacation for the destination. We were here for the journey. We ignored the man’s advice, turned off onto the meandering winding road and were rewarded with views that took our breath away.
The photo above is me climbing Upper Yosemite Falls trail on the second last day of our trip. It is easily the hardest hike I have ever done. And I lived and hiked in the Alberta Rockies for 24 years.
The evening before this hike, Heather and I had just finished another hike, Mist Trail, a stunning three-hour up-and-down trail that took us to the top of Vernal Falls, and then, Nevada Falls. We were at a pub just outside the park gate enjoying a beer and waiting for our food when we struck up a conversation with a man at the bar. He was at least a decade older than I am and he told us he’d built a lot of the trails in Yosemite.
“Which hike did you do today?” he asked us and we told him.
“Good hike,” he nodded. “Great steps. I built them. If you want another good one, you have to do Upper Yosemite Falls. But you have to know, I didn’t build the stairs on that one. And they’re awful. It’s a steep climb.”
“How long is it?” Heather asked.
“About six hours up and back,” he said and we told him thanks for the advice and the great conversation but we were probably going to give that one a miss because it had been a long week and we were a bit tired and really we were probably more in the mood for the easy Valley Loop Trail.
He looked at us like he’d sucked a lemon. And the next day we realized why. The Valley Loop Trail was crowded with people. People pushing strollers, people walking with canes, people looking like they could barely walk to the car, let alone to the base of the waterfall, people on bicycles. Basically people who looked like they were quite happy to have the easy life, thank you very much. And we knew. Our trip wasn’t that trip. We decided to start Upper Yosemite Falls trail and see how we felt halfway. We could always turn back.
Halfway up, when we clambered out onto a rock that jutted over the valley to see the entire length of Yosemite Falls, upper, middle and lower, roar towards the valley floor through a shimmering rainbow with the majestic granite of Half Dome and El Capitan framing the opposite horizon, we decided there was no way we were turning around. Our legs were beat but we were determined.
Most challenging were the mercilessly steep switchback trails that made up ninety percent of the trail. Every 180-degree turn brought us to steep stone steps that reached another 180-degree turn that brought us to more steep stone steps. For the last 45 minutes of switchbacks, half my brain screamed, “Stop!” while the other half yelled back, “No!” My legs screamed, “Stop!” the whole time. The hike to the top was a three-hour mental and physical ordeal. And we still had a two-hour descent.
If this hike was an ordeal, I know I could never have done it without the trials leading up to it. There are many mornings when I get up to go for a run or to the gym that my brain whispers, “You can skip it. You don’t have to go.” There are moments at the gym when my brain whimpers, “Let’s just stop. Let’s skip the walking lunges today.”
But there is treasure on the other side of those trials and the ordeal. Breathtaking views that can only be seen from the top of this trail. A feeling of joyful accomplishment that only comes from persistence.
My sister told me after she was also suffering. BUT, we didn’t once say out loud to each other that we couldn’t do it or we needed to turn around. Out loud it was all, “We’re going to do this.” “We’re almost there!” and “Way to go!”
Somehow we had decided what this trip was really about. It was about effort, pain and difficulty. And the bliss that goes along with pushing through all three and seeing a California we never would have seen had we chosen the easy paths. Even the adventures we didn’t seek – getting the car stuck in the sand – will become the most vivid memories because they aren’t of easy times. And that means we have to tell the stories as vividly as we remember them. We can’t just say, “And then there were some moments that weren’t so easy.” Why would anyone care about that?
These are the lessons in Roosevelt’s quote. To live a great story, we can’t wish away the pain. And to tell a great story, we can’t pretend there wasn’t any. This goes for our personal stories and our business stories. When times get rough start thinking about treasure. The effort, pain and difficulty mean it’s there. And if you persevere, you will find it. And when you tell the tale later, don’t erase the effort, pain, or difficulty. Be specific and paint a picture of all three so your listener gets some inspiration to push through their effort, pain and difficulty, so they can find their treasure.
I’m back from vacation. There are some ordeals I need to face if I am going to reach some meaningful goals. The ones that come with suffering but also give you that feeling of joyful bliss when you achieve them.
I’m going to channel Teddy Roosevelt. I’m going to remember the Yosemite hike. And I’m going to take it one steep stone step at a time.