People have different strategies for climbing mountains. Some people like to talk to each other to pass the time, others like to zone out into a trance-like rhythm. Some people like to constantly check in with their overall progress when they are climbing something, keeping the goal visible on the horizon, and others like to focus only on their immediate future. But there is really only one way a mountain can be climbed, and that is by taking a step. And then another step. And another step. One by one, all the way up.
Looking all the way up at a peak looming many, many steps up ahead of me never ceased to discourage me, to remind me of how far I had to go, and suddenly when faced with the sheer number of steps that lie between me and the end, each step felt more difficult, more exhausting. What I tried to do instead was to look down at the ground below me, to focus on just the step I was taking and the one after it, to concentrate on my footing, to get into a comfortable breathing pattern, to break up the big task ahead of me into small tasks. Right that second, I wasn’t climbing a mountain. I was putting a foot forward. And I found that when I hiked this way, before I knew it I would glance up and realize that I had reached the top. That what had seemed so overwhelming, when broken down into steps, was actually quite manageable.
Entering adulthood feels a little bit like suddenly finding yourself at the base of a giant, looming peak that you are expected to climb. Figure out what you want to do. Get a job. Find an apartment. Be financially independent. Succeed in your field. Have a social life. Travel. These are all types of terrain you will be expected to successfully navigate before you reach “Adulthood.” And when you look at all of them at once, stacked one on top of the other, towering in a massive heap above you, it’s enough to make you want to shrug off your pack and take an extended water break. Or have continuous panic attacks about what you are expected to do. But the bottom line is—you’ve got to climb the mountain.
You can’t take all the steps at once. You can’t climb up the grassy low-angle incline and through the boulder field and up the steeps all at once. You take one step. And then you take another step. That is how you climb mountains. That is how you do anything. By focusing on doing the one thing you can—the thing right in front of you. Start from the beginning. Break it into pieces. Don’t forget about the mountain, but don’t focus on its immensity so much that you are paralyzed, unable to take even a single step forward. Break the mountain down into what it is—a series of steps.
It feels sometimes like we are expected to have a complete route plotted out from the beginning, that we are expected to know exactly where we want to go and how we’re going to get there. We’re supposed to be able to list our passions and our skills, we’re suppose to be able to find a job using the degree we earned, we’re supposed to be able to live somewhere cool and surround ourselves with friends, we’re supposed to constantly embark on new and awesome adventures, we’re supposed to establish ourselves in the field we want to be in and continue to rise through it, we’re supposed to be happy and sure of ourselves, we’re supposed to have enough money to pay our rent and take trips and have gym memberships and buy drinks and Christmas presents. We’re supposed to have it together, or at least look like we do.
And trying to make all of that happen at once, trying to achieve all those things so that we feel like we’ve succeeded, so that we can have an acceptable, ready-made answer to the “So, what are you up to?” that we’re constantly getting from friends and acquaintances and relatives, is like trying to climb an entire mountain all at once. Don’t do that to yourself. Don’t look up at the thousands of feet of elevation gain you have to somehow cover and dissolve into a panicky, avoidant puddle of fear and self-doubt. If you’re getting vertigo from staring at the far off peak above you, look down. Look down at your feet. Look down at where you have to go now, not where you have to go 2,000 vertical feet from now. Think about the first step, not about all the steps. Where are you going to put your foot now. What is directly in front of you, what is the best way to scale the terrain you are standing on. Maybe the first step is figuring out where you want to live. Maybe it’s getting a job, any job, that will allow you to save enough money to get you where you want to go. Maybe it’s having a good long think about what you love, about what you’re good at, about what you might be interested in doing. It’ll be different for everyone, but picking one thing and doing it is better than thinking about 25 things and doing nothing.
In Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth, the spiritual teacher and author urges readers to focus on the present moment of their lives and not dwell on the past or worry about the future. He also talks about breaking things down into steps, and not just during the transition into adulthood, but throughout our entire lives:
Realize that your entire life journey ultimately consists of the step you are taking at this moment. There is always only this one step, and so you give it your fullest attention. This doesn’t mean you don’t know where you are going; it just means this step is primary, the destination secondary. And what you encounter at your destination once you get there depends on the quality of this one step… what the future holds for you depends on your state of consciousness now.
The quality of your steps matter. The thought that goes into each one, the planning, the strategizing, the effort, the heart. A bad step early on could mean ankle pain for the rest of the hike, could dent your resolve or your courage or your self-esteem. The quality of this step, of the step in front of you, of the only step you’ll ever have, will define the quality of the entire journey—will get you from the bottom of the mountain to the top of it. And if you’re walking right now and thinking about the steep switchbacks up ahead, you might lose concentration and trip or twist your ankle or fall. Worrying about future steps weakens the step you are taking now. You will get to those steps when you get to them, as you got to this one when you got to it.
If you are trying to figure out what you want to do with your life, stop right there. Life is this absurdly vast, Himalayan-sized mountain range that goes on for miles and miles and miles that no one has ever figured out. Don’t try to figure out what you’re going to do with your life, figure out what you’re going to do right now. Figure out what it is you want, and the steps you have to take to get there. And then take the first one. Just the first one. The second one will come in its due time. Not every step is the same, not every step is easy. Sometimes you have to jump a little, sometimes you have to get your feet wet, sometimes you have to just get down on your hands and knees and crawl. But all the steps you take, especially the difficult ones, make you a better mountain climber.
There will always be mountains ahead of us. Ranges upon ranges stacked one in front of another as far as the eye can see, until the end of our days. You reach the top only to continue climbing. And thinking about it all at once, thinking about the length and the vastness of the journey ahead is too much. It’s not productive. We are not meant to process it all at once, to think of all of the things we want to accomplish and try to make them happen all at once. Take a step, then take another. That’s all any of it will ever be, that’s all we’ll ever have to do. And little by little, we’ll find ourselves traipsing through forests, fording rivers, stomping through snow, rock hopping through scree fields, standing on top of peaks, walking along ridgelines. Little by little, we’ll get where we want to go. Step by step, we’ll be where we want to be.