When you have those feelings of purpose and passion, it’s easy (in my experience, anyway) to get really excited and develop high hopes, even expectations, as to what the future holds. It can feel so right, that you can’t imagine how it could possibly go wrong.
And then reality hits.
This is when your mettle will be tested, you get baptised in fire, the men/women get sorted from the boys/girls. This is when you need GRIT.
I love the double meaning of the word GRIT. It can mean courage and resolve. It can also be the irritating little piece of sand that gets into an oyster shell and gets coated in calcium carbonate to create a pearl, a rare and precious thing of great beauty. Here’s the story of how I made my pearl.
My first voyage, the Atlantic, was horrendous. I had been so convinced that this was my true calling, fulfilling my life purpose, that somehow it was going to be divinely blessed, a wonderful, spiritual, enjoyable experience.
Not so much.
There is a lot to be said for naïve enthusiasm when you need to persuade yourself to leave harbour, but it is a hell of a shock when that naïve enthusiasm runs slap bang into harsh reality.
It was noon when I left the island of La Gomera in the Canaries to row 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to Antigua. It was a lovely sunny day, and although there had been a hurricane blasting its way through the islands just a couple of days earlier, now all seemed well.
Not for long.
What Was I Thinking?
By sunset that first evening, I was hanging over the side of the boat, being violently seasick, wondering why on earth this had seemed like a good idea.
As it turns out, I had picked the worst possible year to row across the Atlantic. There would be more tropical storms that year than in any other year since records began. And pretty soon the rough conditions were taking a toll on my equipment.
During the next four weeks, two oars, the camping stove, and the stereo would break. By the time I reached the halfway point at about six weeks, all four of my oars had broken.
Although I had trained like a demon, spending up to 16 hours in a day on the rowing machine, specifically to avoid repetitive strain injuries, I got tendinitis in my shoulders within the first two weeks. Also saltwater sores on my bottom, which is a particularly miserable affliction, making it impossible to sit comfortably on the rowing seat.
So I was having lots of physical and technical problems, but it was maybe the psychological struggles that were the worst. After the stereo broke, I was left with nothing but my own thoughts to entertain me. I’m not sure if any of you have ever spent 103 days alone with your own thoughts, with no TV or music, and precious little conversation, but I found it incredibly tough.
There might be some people whose happiness setpoint is higher than mine, who don’t give in to negative thoughts and self-doubt and self-criticism, but wired as I am, for me it was a character-building (equals “hellacious”) experience.
(Here’s the short video. Warning: may involve excessive whining.)
But as time went on I started to develop what you could call grit, or perseverance.
I spent a large part of the early days of that voyage feeling disappointed. Disappointment is the gap between what you expected, or hoped for, and what you actually get.
My hopes had been SO huge, and hence so was my disappointment.
I was disappointed on two levels. First, I was disappointed in myself. I had resolved that I would not be one of those whining adventurers, always complaining about how miserable everything is. I was really determined to enjoy this, and thought that if only I had a sufficiently positive mental attitude, I could overcome anything.
So I was putting a whole additional layer of pressure on myself. I kept thinking, “I’m supposed to be enjoying this” (gritted teeth) (oh, wow, there’s another meaning of GRIT).
Finally I admitted to myself that ocean rowing really sucks, and that took a huge amount of pressure off. Instead of trying so hard to enjoy it, I accepted that I was going to be miserable for the rest of the voyage, and paradoxically that acceptance really cheered me up.
And then, I was really disappointed in the ocean. I suppose that because I was out there to raise awareness of the damage we’re inflicting on Mother Earth, and had even named my boat after the Inuit goddess of the ocean, Sedna, I thought I deserved some kind of special privileges, that the ocean might go easy on me and let me have a swift crossing.
I was wrong, so wrong.
I had done some sailing on relatively small boats in preparation for my ocean crossing, but even so it was a massive shock to the system. In a rowboat you’re not so much on the ocean as in the ocean. Everything is wet, all the time. My sleeping cabin was supposedly waterproof, but I don’t really believe in that word any more. Water has a knack of getting into all kinds of places it has no right to be.
Because the boat doesn’t have a mast and a keel it tips from side to side as well as forward and back, which is really nauseating, and makes everything take about three times as long as it should. You have to be really careful when you put things down, because with the rolling of the boat and waves crashing over the side, chances are it won’t be where you left it if you didn’t stow it properly.
And the ocean seemed to have a really unpleasant mean streak. Sometimes, towards bedtime, there wouldn’t be a big wave for a while, and I would start to get hopeful that I would be relatively dry when I went into the sleeping cabin. And then, just as I was stowing the oars for the night, a huge wave would come along and soak me. It was like it just knew.
So I learned why sailors have a reputation for bad language. I don’t normally swear much, but it really did make me feel better to let loose a volley of very unladylike language or indulge in some primal scream therapy. On the ocean (as in space), no one can hear you scream.
There were many times when I felt really low. The voyage took me about twice as long as I’d hoped, and there wasn’t a single day when I didn’t wish I was somewhere else. My subconscious helped somewhat, filling my dreams with visions of friends and family and food, so I’d often wake up in the morning feeling like I’d been to a great party, only to realise I was still alone on my 23-foot rowboat.
We Always Have A Choice
There was one day that my mother gave me a kind of gift. It was a few days before my satphone broke, and we were talking. It was one of only two occasions I have ever been reduced to tears on my boat. Most of the time there’s not much point in crying. But this one morning I was really low. I’d been out there for so long, and still had so far to go.
I had even looked over the side of the boat, down into the two-mile deep water, and thought that I could just slip over the side and nobody would ever know what had happened to me.
It must have been really tough for Mum on the phone that day, hearing me so sad. She said, “Rosalind, do you want to give up?”
My first instinctive response was “YES!” I’d given it a good shot. Nobody would be that surprised if I called for rescue – it’s what the naysayers had expected all along.
But then almost immediately I realised I would never forgive myself if I quit. There was only one thing worse than carrying on, and that was to give up.
But what Mum did for me in that moment was to offer me a choice. I had been feeling so trapped – trapped on that tiny boat, trapped by my own commitment to do this – and Mum reminded me that we always have a choice. We always have a way out.
“Can I Do This?” Is A Bogus Question
I realised I’d spent a lot of time asking myself, “Can I do this? Do I have what it takes?” And when my mind searched my memory banks it didn’t find any evidence that I could do this, as I’d never done it before, so that answer came back, “No, we have no evidence that you can do this”. But now I realised that was a bogus question, that the only way to find out if I could do this, was to keep on doing it, to keep showing up and sticking my oars in the water. And only time would tell if I had what it took to get me to the other side.
So even if we don’t have the grit to do much else, if we can just find the grit to keep showing up and doing what needs to be done, day after day, then we’re still in the game, and success is still an option.
And I realised, eventually, that even the incredible, indescribable, almost intolerable degree of discomfort that I was in on a daily basis – physical discomfort, psychological discomfort, emotional discomfort – was in a strange way exactly what I wanted. In the run-up to the row I had quite glibly said to reporters and anybody else who asked why I was doing this, that I wanted to get outside my comfort zone, to find out what I was capable of.
I had conveniently overlooked that fact that getting outside my comfort zone was, by definition, going to be uncomfortable. When I had that moment of insight, I realised that this extreme discomfort didn’t mean I was failing, it actually meant I was exceeding my wildest imaginings of success.
Fantastic! I’m having the worst time ever! That means I’m succeeding in getting outside my comfort zone!
Believe me, if you can convince yourself that getting far outside your comfort zone is actually good for you – the world is your oyster (pearls again!). You will have the courage to face absolutely anything.
And you know what? I really believe that the harder you’ve struggled, the more you’ve had to grit your teeth and get on with it, the greater the sense of achievement when it finally comes good. So many times I thought I had hit my limit – of pain, frustration, boredom, exhaustion – and yet when I simply kept on showing up, I realised that the limit was really a mirage, and when I had passed through it and looked back, it had simply disappeared.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. When have you had to get your grit on? How did you make yourself keep going? What were the rewards?
If you’ve enjoyed this post, please check out the rest of my COURAGE series by following the links on the right. And to keep it fresh in your mind, you might want to download and print off the handy PDF one-pager summarising the Seven Steps to All-Conquering Courage. Stick it on your refrigerator! Live courageously!!