Not long ago I was going through one of my crazy circuit training routines when one of the employees at the gym looked at me with a peculiar, perplexed, almost confused face. She’s seen me there dozens of times—always friendly and conversant—so I was wondering why she was looking at me in such a manner. Her confused look was actually, well, confusing me a bit. Later she walked by and said “Why do you work so hard? Is it like your thing or something?” I didn’t really know how to respond. As odd as it sounds, I initially felt the way I did when I was in high school, the same way a lot of kids, struggling to find an identity, to fit in yet stand out, feel. I thought back to a time when doing the best you could in school meant you were being a “teacher’s pet”, “bookworm”, or worse yet, a “know-it-all”. I remember when my teammates called me “Coach’s Favorite” just because I did my best to be first in every sprint, first in the weight room, and last to leave the field after practice. Even as you get older, these labels don’t escape you. Young men and women who go to college are often accused by their less ambitious friends and classmates of “thinking they’re better” than them. Even wearing a suit to work, as I experienced firsthand, can create a stir and be frowned upon when those around you are more comfortable in Kakis and Polo Shirts.
So, I was actually unprepared to respond to Jo, the employee who had caught me off guard with her comment. I forgot what my response was. I probably said something I thought was funny like “I have to keep at it because the pool boy my wife hired is too handsome.” Or I may have brushed it off with “Nobody’s going to do it for me.” Whatever I said, I realized later the real reason. And unlike my normal witty and charismatic responses, it’s not very funny, clever, or necessarily inspiring or informative. It is however, law. It is a universal law that, while boring and simple, is one that few accept, let alone embrace.
I’ve gotten to where I am, you see, not by large jumps or progressions. Whether as a student, a finance professional, a wanna-be programmer, a father and husband, or a fitness junkie (and sometimes coach), it’s always taken (actually taking) some time to grow and learn. And I’ve always understood and accepted that. It was never—it is never—one big step. It is dozens, hundreds, even thousands of small ones. When you’re chopping a tree down, for example, you never know which chop ultimately brings it down. It’s a combination of all of them. When you study for a test, you can never pinpoint which hour or minute ultimately produces the outstanding score you receive. And it’s never one, two, or even three things that make someone fall in love with you. It’s the entire you. The whole is always more than the sum of the parts.
Here’s the catch, though. You never know how thick the “tree” is that you are cutting or how long the “road” on which you are walking is. You don’t even know how much of a dent each “chop” makes or how big the stride of each “step” is. But you know two things for sure. You know that each chop, each step, brings you closer to your goal. And you know that chopping or stepping is the ONLY way to get closer to your goal. That second fact is the sobering reality with which many—most even—can’t deal. It matters not, you see, how big your tree or long your road is. And I understand that some of you have bigger trees or longer roads than others. Maybe you have more weight to lose than others or have poor genetics. Maybe some of you grew up in a rough neighborhood with a poor education system. Maybe going back to school while working to survive as a single parent seems an obstacle much too insurmountable. But it matters not. And I understand that some of you have duller blades (when cutting the proverbial tree) or shorter strides (along the metaphorical road) than others. You might learn more slowly or just differently than your coworkers. You might not be as naturally fast, big, or strong as others on your football, soccer, or basketball team. And you might not be able to afford a private tutor or test prep course like some of your classmates. But again it matters not. Because no matter how big the tree and dull the blade, you must still chop. And no matter how long the road or short your stride, you must still step.
I’m not saying it’s easy. Heck, it can be downright discouraging and frustrating at times. But if you want success in life, there really is no alternative. Sure, you can stop chopping and try a different tree, but you will not know how thick that new tree is. Veering off onto another road might be tempting, but who’s to say it’s any faster and not filled with big potholes? No, you’re better off staying the course. Even if the chop is small, the stride short, do it anyway. They–the tedious chops and steps– will add up. Even if the efforts seem futile, do it anyway. Even when others seem to have thinner trees and sharper blades, shorter roads and longer strides, focus on you and your goals and do it anyway. You can slow down and pace yourself if it helps. You can even take the occasional break along the way if you need it. But don’t look around at what others are doing. Don’t get down on yourself. And don’t give up. When you feel the inertia of mediocrity pulling on you, when you’re drawn toward inaction and apathy rather than hope, promise, and encouragement, remember this phrase and I hope you will be back on track in no time:
Keep Choppin’and Keep Steppin’!