What I Learned About Long-Suffering

My theme for 2019 was long-suffering. I selected it because it stood out to me as an important quality in shifting my focus towards goals with longer horizons, which has been a growing priority for me. I’ve found I’ve done quite well at taking on projects that last from months to a year or so, but I don’t have many goals I am specifically working towards that have longer in horizon than that. I am at a point in my life where I want to have more of those though, hence this focus.

Throughout this year I took on various efforts that would help me learn about different aspects of long-suffering in order broaden my understanding of the topic. Here are some of the things that I learned.

1. First I should define what long-suffering means to me. I really like the definition: ‘patiently enduring lasting hardship’. The one thing I might like to correct is that this definition seems a bit passive. Both the words ‘patiently’ and ‘enduring’ feel like they imply someone sitting there bearing something – be it something as benign as waiting in line or as gruesome as physical torture. I’ve found that often long-suffering is very active in nature though. I was surprised to learn how active Nelson Mandela was during his time in prison. I had erroneously assumed those were mostly wasted years in his, but in fact, during his prison time he was constantly doing everything he could to advance his cause. Sometimes this was on a very local level, like protesting in the prison for his right to wear pants. But during his prison years he was also meeting with world leaders and writing what would become the start of his autobiography.

2. Passion is a necessary part of long-suffering. In fact, the best way to measure how much someone cares about something might just be to see how much they will suffer for it. Interestingly, the latin roots of the word patience are closely tied to the word passion, which makes a lot of sense. It is literally the property of suffering for what we care about.

3. I have found that sometimes what you care about can get a bit muddled. Do I care about running fast because it is intrinsically important to me, or do I want to be known as the person that did it? History is littered with stories of people that said they cared about one thing, that was nicely disguising their true (though perhaps not even acknowledged consciously by them) goal. Does Elon Must really want to save humanity, or does he want to be remembered as the person that did? Perhaps a bit of both.

4. I have seen this muddling result in a drop off when it is pushed too far. Tech companies are famous for their grand visions of transforming the world, but often making a lot of money ends up being the real priority. I’ve written before about how the people that care more about one of those often need the help of the people that care about the other. It is interesting that both need to see how theirs will be true in order to push through the hard work that rapidly growing companies always are.

5. Even when striving for a goal that will take decades to accomplish, it is really important to have milestones along the way. Whether it is place to rest, or just accomplishments to feel like at least that much is secured. Dealing with incredibly long periods of waiting is mentally challenging and comes with increased risk. Making slow and steady progress in smaller increments comes with many benefits. So my moving towards 20 year goals doesn’t mean I have to give up having one year goals, it just means that more of my one year goals will string together towards a common long term goal.

6. I previously wrote some about how uncertainty can greatly hinder ones ability to endure. It is no wonder the prison guards didn’t want Nelson Mandela and his allies reading news from the outside that showed they had support. Without that knowledge, they might have eventually felt their struggle wasn’t worth it and given up. But with the knowledge that those outside were supporting and watching them, it gave them the strength to continue on.

7. The certainty needed must entail; the goal being meaningful, the impact being possible, and the strategy being fruitful. I’ve watched business leaders lose the ability to push their teams, not because the mission had changed, but because there was no belief in the current strategy. I have seen this both at a team level, where momentum just slowed down, as well as at an individual level, where someone stopped believing they could get a promotion, and so stopped working hard for it, and thus fulfilled their belief.

8. Conversely, sometimes just changing one of those items can boost someone’s ability to endure. Perhaps they still agree the goal is important and possible but they stopped believing in the strategy. Maybe a competitor has a slightly different take on things and that is enough to encourage them. Or maybe it is the same exact strategy, but they are just more willing to believe it from someone new. I suspect this belief is at the heart of a lot of companies, sports teams, countries, etc. changing their leaders and repeating the same patterns – they just needed a little bit more of something to believe in.

9. This year my long-suffering was mostly independent, but as I suffer for the strategies of others and as others suffer for mine, it is important to remember how important belief in both the mission and strategy is in people’s willingness to sacrifice for a goal. I have found big goals always require a lot of sacrifice and the people that are able to figure out what it is that a person cares about, and frame the impact in that way successfully, are able to get that sacrifice from others.

Fast in the Wilderness: Complete

This year as part of my Yearly Focus I challenged myself to fast in the wilderness for an extended period of time. On December 10-12, 2019 I did so and thus completed the challenge. Here is the writeup.

Purpose

This challenge fit into this year’s theme of long-suffering both in that I would be suffering a bit as I sat there hungry and that the time away would be a good time to clear my head and think about the goals I was willing to suffer for over the coming years.

I challenged myself to walk into the backcountry, find a comfortable spot and sit there for an extended period of time, on the order of 2-3 days, without food, any entertainment, company, etc. Just me, my clothing, a tent, some water and a few ‘break glass’ emergency items.

Fasting in the wilderness is a tradition that crosses cultures and goes back a long time. It is used as a right of passage and also as preparation for big undertakings. Putting my evolutionary biologist lens on for a second, I think it creates a situation that taps back into some deeply buried survival instincts that our ancestors required. My theory is that given two early humans, both hungry and wandering the wilderness, the one that was able to kick into a hyper-focused mode is the one more likely to survive and reproduce.

When you put yourself in a situation like that, your mind and body drop a whole lot of peripheral activity in order to help you survive. When you do it in a controlled way, there is something powerful you can tap into.

Location

I ended up going down to Joshua Tree National Park in California and hiking out into the backcountry. I had originally planned to do this last summer up in the mountains of Washington, but logistics didn’t work out. As I got closer to the end of the year, the weather turned cold and wet in the Pacific Northwest and I knew my only shot at doing this safely in 2019 was somewhere warm. Thankfully there is California.

Gear

My goal was to increase the silence & long-suffering by bringing as little as possible while also managing risk and being respectful of the national park. In a risk free environment I might have only brought water, but to hedge the risk of the backcountry I also brought a few emergency items like a knife.

Because I was in a U.S. National Park, there are a few rules I had to follow – where to camp, where to go to the bathroom, not to have fires and not to collect water. If I were trying to test my survival skills, I could certainly have brought even less gear and made use of my Tracker School skills, but I don’t think that would have added to the experience and it might have actually taken away from it by distracting me. So I brought my trowel, TP, a sleeping bag and ~7 liters of water.

I also brought a light sleeping pad and tarp, more so to protect my gear. It isn’t that I couldn’t have done without them, I just didn’t feel that skipping them added to the purpose.

Recap

Tuesday morning I had breakfast – that would be my last meal until Thursday breakfast. Before lunch I started the three hour drive out to the park. By the time I arrived, I was quite hungry, and I hadn’t even started yet.

The first evening I didn’t do much, I found a good spot to setup and explored the surrounding area to make sure I knew which animals would be around that night. As the sun set around 5pm, the temperature dropped and I got into my bag. I love how easy it is to fall asleep outside in the dark when you have no distractions. Sometime late that night I woke up, having gotten what was a usual amount of sleep for me. A pack of coyotes yipped somewhere not too far away – but not close enough that I was concerned. I’m pretty sure I could take a coyote hand to hand if I had to. Rattlesnakes were the real concern and it was too cold for them to be out.

Wednesday was a full day of solitude outside. In fact, from the time I left my car until the time I got back I didn’t see another human. Various times when I was up on some rocks I saw cars in the distance, but I wasn’t within eyeshot of a human for ~40 hours. If it weren’t from the constant stream of aircraft coming from LAX, I wouldn’t have known if an ‘everyone disappeared and you’re the last human left’ type thing happened.

Surprisingly I didn’t feel hungry on Wednesday. Around late morning I decided to go for a walk. In the desert you can just pick something tall and walk towards it and you’ll eventually get there. There weren’t any trails, but periodically I’d see signs of past humans; a cairn, some climbing hardware, a few rocks lined up in a pattern.

In retrospect I’m not sure if that walk was beneficial. I figured it would deplete my glycogen stores a bit faster, so I’d be in more of a fasted state, but it also gave me something to think about. I don’t do well sitting still and usually do my best thinking while running, so I’m a bit torn as to whether this made things easier for me because they were more comfortable or whether it made it easier to think in a good way.

I watched the sunset from on top of a boulder. Sitting still for an hour as a murder of crows circled overhead trying to decide which one would be the first to check if I were food yet.

I got into my bag early again, it was getting cold, into the 40s by then, and the constant light wind was enough that getting low and insulated was a good idea. I had an hour of so of stars before the full moon rose that cloudless night.

After sleeping for some time, I woke up to the moon high overhead and the eeriest glow all around me. Bright enough to see, but still dark enough, it was quite a trip. I climbed up on a big rock and sat for an hour or so, looking out over the landscape, listening to owls and coyotes.

Eventually I got back in my bag and slept until I eventually caught the first glimpses of light coming up from the east. I again climbed my rock and watched in slow motion as the sky changed colors for an hour. It would have made a nice picture, but you’ll just have to believe me, because I didn’t have a camera or phone on this trip.

Eventually I walked back to my car and found it was still a bit shy of 48 hours from when I last ate, so I waited a bit longer. I’m pretty sure I’ve gone 24 hours without eating before, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone 48. Perhaps I did under medical care after having my tonsils or wisdom teeth removed.

My first bites of a stale granola bar made it apparent how heightened my sense of smell and taste were. Perhaps magnified in an attempt to zero in on some food, or perhaps just reset from no recent experiences to create diminishing returns.

I suppose easing back into food would be a good idea, but I only had a few hours left in California, so I scarfed down a big breakfast, followed by some carne asada for lunch before getting a surf session in. There was surprisingly little impact from the whole thing.

Some Thoughts

This whole trip was surprisingly uneventful when I think about it. I used to think surviving a weekend in the wilderness with nothing but a knife would be a really cool challenge, but now I realize that if it is pretty warm and you have a water source, it is really a non event.

If the duration were longer, eventually you’d need a food source and shelter, but, were it legal, there were a few rabbits I’m pretty sure I could have speared, there was plenty to burn to cook it on and there were lots of caves I could have used as shelter – assuming there weren’t existing inhabitants I had to fend off. I bet I could do a month or so out there with nothing but my clothes, a knife and a lighter. I don’t think I’ll get a chance to test that idea for a while though.

I have a really hard time not doing anything. While having no alone time to think usually results in a lot of stress for me, having too much time without action does too. I’m not sure if in this case 48 hours was just not enough time to get me really unplugged, given the amount I have to process through. I didn’t get anywhere near the point of needing to pain a face on a volleyball for company. In some ways, it felt much more like sitting on a beach at a resort sipping a fancy drink with an umbrella than I had imagined it would.

I suppose when you take on challenges, if they are far enough removed from things you’ve done before, it is more likely that the difficulty of the goal will be uncalibrated from what is possible. I thought in this case 2-3 days would be long enough based on the fact that I usually can’t make it from lunch until dinner without getting lightheaded or having a snack – but in this case I don’t think it was. I don’t think finding more time for something like this is in my immediate future, so I suspect I’ll need to continue to find more intense and short duration challenges.

2019 Focus: Three Quarters Year Update

With the start of a new year, I take the time to set my focus for the coming year. I believe that by being selective about where I direct my energy, I can achieve results that are exponentially greater than if I split that energy across many different goals.

I detailed my 2019 focus here (read that first if you want more context). Here is how I’m progressing.

2019 Theme: Long-Suffering

I have recognized two things about long-suffering this quarter.

One thing is that it is much easier to grit through the difficulty if there is a known finish line. Or at least a check in milestone where I know I’ll have a place to rest. Our minds (mine at least) don’t deal with the notion of infinite very well, so the idea of pushing forever is mentally untenable, but the idea of pushing until a specific milestone seems possible. I’ve found that the rest at that milestone can be a tiny fraction of the time and still serve its purpose – a single day off of work for a quarter or 15 minutes sitting by the side of the trail after 6 hours running.

The second learning is that uncertainty exponentially decreased my ability to long-suffer. When there is lots of certainty about what I need to do and why I want to do it, digging deep is easy enough. When my mind is uncertain, it is difficult to dig that deep. This uncertainly can be related to purpose, why I am doing it, or strategy, whether the steps I am taking will get me there. I found this true when getting lost while running around the Wonderland trail.

In my experience, the effort I can put into enduring something can only be as strong as the conviction under it and my certainty that the work will lead towards the results. So if you require grit to accomplish something, it is best to ensure your convictions are aligned and your confidence in the strategy is high.

2019 Challenge: Fasting in the Wilderness

I had plans to head to the backcountry to fast this past August but ended up deciding to postpone the event. Instead, I took my oldest son on a backpacking trip with one of the backcountry permits and cancelled the other. I’d been away a lot in August and decided another two days of me not being home wasn’t the best thing for the family.

We’ve now gotten into the part of the year where the weather has turned cold enough that being alone in the PNW wilderness with no gear or food isn’t a good idea. Instead I am eyeing doing this in the deserts of souther California this fall/winter.

2019 Habit: Minimizing Digital Entertainment

In Q3 I averaged 53 minutes a week of digital entertainment time. This was mostly in the form of movies and a few bits of video gaming w/ friends. I stayed under the one hour goal in 9 of the 13 weeks and even logged six weeks of zero minutes, something I hadn’t done this year prior to this quarter (who knows how long it has been before that). What is really tricky about the target being one hour, is any feature length movie would push me over the target for the week. As a result, the one movie I saw in a theater, was a guaranteed miss for that week.

Most of the progress I made this quarter was from a) being busy with projects (both for my employer and personal projects) b) being outside frequently (camping, hiking, biking, trail running, etc.) c) spending evenings getting ready for said outside activities (assembling gear, loading the car, etc.). I wouldn’t say I did anything too different than previously, I just had higher priorities that kept me busy. Perhaps that is the secret.

Averaging out the year to date I’m at 2.06 hours per week compared to my goal of 2. That means if I stay under 1.82 hours for the final quarter of the year, I will hit my yearly average target. Based on the success I’ve had so far, I’m going to try and keep it even lower though. I’ve set my target for Q4 at 60 minutes per week, the same as Q3. Although I easily achieved that this time, it will be much harder going into the winter, when being outside is less desirable. This should keep some steady pressure on me to develop other patterns in how I spend my time.

2019 Exemplar: Nelson Mandela

I published my exemplar review for Mandela in July. I didn’t make any additional progress in Q3.

2019 Bucket List Item: Run the Wonderland Trail at Mt. Rainier

Bucket list item complete! I ran around Mt. Rainier on August 13-15th. I’ll write a bigger blog post recapping it soon. As predicted, it was eventful.