“How do you find the courage to continue?”
Teddy Roosevelt once reminded us that “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.” But in our struggles to achieve, that difficulty can be enough to make us want to quit.
Where can we find the strength we need to get beyond the temptation to give up? I think the key to carrying on lies in our minds, and we can teach ourselves to be unstoppable. Here are 12 ways to help you find the courage to continue.
Ready to Quit
The 2018 Boston Marathon was run in some of the worst weather in 30 years. With strong headwinds, temperatures in the 30s, and bone-chilling rain, conditions were abysmal. On top of that, Desiree Linden wasn’t having a great day. Suffering in the cold, not drinking enough fluids and fearful of leg cramps, she was having her doubts about even finishing.
She wasn’t quite ready to quit just yet, but as she ran with the lead pack, she told American favorite Shalane Flanagan she’d be willing to help her before abandoning the race. Flanagan soon paused for a quick port-a-potty break and Linden waited for her, then paced her back to the lead pack. It cost her energy, time, and forced her to accelerate her pace in the chase back to rejoin the leaders.
After they had caught back up, Lindon said she still felt miserable. Yet she realized that by then she was in third or fourth place, and thought, “I probably shouldn’t drop out, so I kept going.”
It’s a good thing she did. She went on to chase down the lead runner and became the first American female to win the Boston Marathon since 1985. It was her first major marathon victory.
After the race she said, “Sometimes when you pick it up and just forget about how you’re feeling and just engage for a little bit, it can kind of turn everything around.”
The desire to quit can be strong, but if you are doing something you believe in, there are lots of ways you can teach yourself to keep going. Linden’s experience is a great example of two of those.
1. Commit to somebody else. Focused on herself and her own trials, she had already half-convinced herself that she would quit – she was miserable. By committing to help Flanagan, she changed the focus to something outside of herself. Now, with someone else depending on her, there was a new reason to continue and she had a stronger motivation to keep running.
Our need to be thought well of by others is extremely powerful, often stronger than our need to please ourselves. To keep from quitting, tap into this power by linking what you are doing to how others are depending on you. It’s one of the most powerful tools you can use to achieve your goals.
2. Change the pace. If what you are doing seems to be losing effectiveness, alter the approach. In pacing Flanagan back to the group, Linden had to block the wind for her friend and accelerate to help her catch up. She didn’t feel any better for having done so but was surprised to find she was suddenly among the top contenders.
There are many ways to achieve our goals and many paths to success. If the pace or the path you are on don’t seem to be working out, try something different. Maybe even speed up for a while.
With these two approaches as a starting point, here are 10 other ways you can teach yourself to be unstoppable and find the courage to continue.
3. Do some cognitive priming. Like a car engine on a cold day, our brains work best if they are warmed up before we ask them to do something hard. So if you know you have a challenge coming up, get your brain in gear before the starting gun goes off.
Visualize yourself being successful; watch motivational videos, listen to energizing podcasts or music. Or even just talk to yourself a little bit.
And not just the fluffy rainbows and unicorns “everything’s going to go great” stuff; think about how it’s going to be tough, the unexpected will happen, but that come what may, you will stay flexible, think clearly, and get through it.
4. Segment. Big tasks can be intimidating. Focusing on the enormity of the challenge can make us question our ability to do succeed. Break the job down into little pieces and focus on one piece at a time.
Run to the next intersection, get through the next meeting, make one more phone call. Whatever you are doing, figure out what the next small, actionable step is that you can do right now, and take it.
5. Distract yourself. If you are doing something repetitive or rhythmic, like running, it can help to focus your attention on something else, like counting steps. As three-time world champion triathlete Lesley Paterson explains, counting occupies your mind and takes up mental bandwidth that would otherwise be used for wishing it was over.
It’s another way of not dwelling on the discomfort while you are getting through it.
6. Don’t sell yourself short. Think about the investment in time and effort you have already made. What will be lost if you abandon the effort now?
With all that you and others have done up to this point, why throw it all away? Focus on the accomplishments you have already achieved,
Why not build on the progress you have already made?
7. Parallel the wall. David Goggins is a Navy Seal and an ultra marathon runner. This short inspirational video highlights some of his accomplishments, including winning a 150 mile race. He talks about those walls we always seem to hit in the middle of big efforts, and what to do about them.
His remedy? When you come to a wall, instead of hitting it head on, go parallel. Turn left or turn right and move along it until you find a door – some other way through.
He says, “Once you open the door and go through it, your mind resets… your body gets back in tune again and you’re ready to go.” We’ll always encounter walls; the key is to move along the wall until you find a door to pass through.
8. Relish the underdog role. If the odds seem against you, sometimes it can help to think of yourself as the underdog. Witness the Philadelphia Eagles in the run-up to the 2018 National Football League Super Bowl. Counted out by pundits and sports writers alike, they embraced their role as underdog, and dedicated themselves to proving others wrong. Their loyal fans even wore dog-faced masks.
Accept that others may doubt you. Let that doubt feed your determination to prove them wrong. Quitting only shows that they were right. Have the courage to continue.
9. Realize everyone is in the same boat. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to focus on yourself and the difficulties you are facing. As a result, we can forget that others are operating under the same conditions.
Ulysses S. Grant learned that lesson in 1861. In his excellent autobiography, he shares that in one of his very first battles, he was ordered to move against an encampment of soldiers in Missouri. The closer he got, the greater his fear of the fight to come and what might happen.
It got to the point, he wrote, that he “would have given anything to have been back in Illinois.” Yet he kept on. When he reached the valley, he was surprised to find it hastily deserted. The troops were gone.
He realized that his opponent had been just as fearful as he was. It was a lesson that served him well through the rest of the Civil War.
Whatever fears you are facing, others are likely facing them, too. Under those conditions, success comes to those who keep going anyway.
10. Tap into your other 60%. One of the many lessons I learned from my experience in the U. S. Army’s Ranger School it is that you are tougher than you think. You can do more, go farther, and last longer than you give yourself credit for. There is always more that you can do.
There’s a Navy SEAL who calls it the 40% rule, the idea that when you think you have reached your limit, you have only really used 40% of your capacity. Part of your brain is telling you “that’s enough” like a sort of throttle; but if you persevere, you’ll find that there’s a strategic reserve you can tap into that will let you keep going.
When you think you are done, you are not. There’s always more in the engine room.
11. Don’t limit yourself. The four-minute mile barrier was thought to be unbreakable until Roger Bannister finally proved that it could be done. Then just 46 days later someone else ran even faster; the following year, three runners broke the four-minute barrier in the same race; now thousands have done it.
The human body didn’t suddenly become better at running. What changed was the mindset. Once others realized that it was possible they found themselves able to do it. Numbers can become mental barriers if we let them.
Don’t focus on the limits, focus on the possible.
12. Don’t decide while you are still climbing the hill. This one has helped me many times. The toughest part of a race can be the hill climbs, and that’s when we are most tempted to quit. But tell yourself: no decisions about quitting while you are still on the hill. Only when you get to the top and can catch your breath, is it OK to think about it.
It’s the difference between letting the hill (or any other outside factor) decide your fate, or reserving that decision for yourself. If you are thinking about quitting, make sure you are doing it on your own terms, and for your own reasons and only when you can think straight.
Get to the top of whatever hill you are on first, then give yourself permission to think about it. If your reason for starting in the first place, your WHY, was a good one, then that decision will always be: Forward!
Unstoppable – The Takeaway
I remember late in an Ironman Triathlon I was doing a few years ago I saw a sign held up by a spectator. After ten hours of continuous exertion, it was a good reminder to keep going:
Another version of that idea comes to us from Winston Churchill, who has seen his share of struggles and even defeats.
Whatever we are striving for, in the end, it’s not so much the physical but the mental that can keep us from going as far as we are capable. These tools and techniques are all simply ways to train your brain to find new ways to keep going, even when things aren’t looking so great.
Make up your mind to keep going, and you can.
If you think you are beaten, you are;
If you think that you dare not, you don’t.
If you’d like to win, but you think you can’t,
It’s almost certain that you won’t.
– Walter D. Wintle
Think of the brain as a muscle. Every time you have the courage to continue, you train yourself to become even better at being unstoppable.