Sunday, November 25, 2012

Bronchitis, Broken Toenails, and Why Some People Never Quit until They Reach Their Goals

One of my family's favorite movies is Gattaca. If you haven't seen it, it's set in a futuristic society where people are tracked based on biological tests taken before birth. Those with genes that predict high intelligence, strength, and/or talent are chosen to live at the very top of society. Everyone else is doomed to slog away at the bottom. The main character, played by Ethan Hawke, is one of the unlucky slobs stuck forever on the lower rung. But what the Powers That Be don't recognize in this supposedly perfect, meritorious world is the role that motivation plays in success. Our main character wants to achieve his dreams and through sheer determination (spoiler alert) he does.

When I was teaching high school English I used to have these long, painful talks with the parents of students who were failing my class. Most of the time it had nothing to do with the kid's intelligence; in fact, many of my "struggling" kids were very smart, but for some reason they just didn't care about doing well in school. The parents gave me various reasonable excuses for their kids' failures. After-school jobs, for example. Or intense sports schedules. Some of these kids were parents themselves and had to take care of their own children. One woman told me, in complete seriousness, that she traced all of her son's problems back to when she had to switch his baby formula from milk to soy-based.

I never knew what to say to these parents. They wanted an easy answer, a magic pill to inspire motivation. But there's only so much you can do to make another person (even if that person is your child) DO something. There's an element of intrinsic desire--wanting to do whatever it is--and then there's the self-discipline necessary to continue working toward it. You could be talking about something very simple: wake up, get to school on time, and do your homework, but for some people you might as well be telling them to go climb Mount Everest.

Funnily enough for the purposes of this blog  post, I actually know someone who climbed Mount Everest.  Andy Politz, cool dad of my son's best friend, climbed the mountain seven times, making it to the summit once. Climbing a mountain, any mountain, is something I have absolutely no desire to do. Still I'm fascinated by Andy's experiences, and every time I see him, I pester him with questions.

Summiting Everest is a pretty big deal. It costs quite a bit of money. It involves putting your life on hold for roughly three months. Once you get there and begin the trek from camp to camp, acclimating yourself to the higher altitude, the conditions are, to put it mildly, uncomfortable. It's freezing. It's difficult to breathe. Plus, Andy told me, it's also kind of boring at times. But every year a few hundred people manage to reach the summit.

Many more people turn back. Some stuff is out of their control. A freak snowstorm. A broken leg. Others quit because they get sick or they break a rib. Andy doesn't see those reasons as good excuses. Everybody breaks a rib, is how he puts it. Everybody has bronchitis. 

Of course as he was telling me this, I was thinking, geez, bronchitis seems like a pretty good reason to me to quit. (Which is clearly why I will never climb Mt. Everest.)

Apparently, I will also never hike the Pacific Crest Trail, unlike Cheryl Strayed, the author of the absorbing new memoir Wild.

Wild is a classic coming of age story with a how-to hiking manual twist. At the beginning of the book, the author's mother dies and it sends her into a downward, self-destructive spiral. One day she gets it into her head that she'd like to hike 1000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, this despite the fact that she's not much of a hiker and has never carried a backpack. The book is about how she does it. Alone. Carrying her insanely heavy pack. And wearing boots that don't fit her properly, leading the poor, suffering woman to have to tear off her broken and dying toenails every couple hundred miles.

Here's what I'd love to know: Where does motivation, that drive some of us have to reach a goal, come from? And what keeps us striving toward it, putting one (throbbing) foot in front of the other, rather than giving up when the going inevitably gets tough?

Anyone who knows the answers to these questions, feel free to weigh in.

Tune in soon for Andy the Mount Everest climber's response.


  1. For me, the answer to these questions comes back to your post about the book with the man who lived walled in a plague ridden city and just kept rewriting the same first sentence of his novel over and over. The other characters you described had found other things to fill their days while they waited for death to come. I know it sounds morbid. But whenever someone asks me how I could possibly find time to write when I do so many other things, I keep telling them I cannot NOT write. It keeps me going and makes the journey I'm on worthwhile. I imagine that it may be the same whatever the passion that drives someone. Climbing mountains, the Pacific Crest Trail, creating music, writing novels, carving sculptures. Human things for this brief human time we have that make us who we are. Laurence Gonzalez had much to say about this drive and survival in his 12 rules and DEEP SURVIVAL, a longer book he wrote that stays in my mind for climbers. I wait now to see if Mr. Politz has something similar to say or if I'm off my writing rocker. Yipes, what a long comment...

  2. Karrie, I'll have to check that Gonzalez book out. What you've said makes sense to me. There doesn't seem to be an answer, except you just do it. In WILD Strayed talked about counting her footsteps and said that for long stretches on the trail that was the only way for her to keep going. I guess I count words. And Andy told me once that he counted breaths. Sort of a zen thing that pushes you forward when you're really really wanting to quit. But I'm still wondering why some people seem to have this drive and some don't. I know a lot of people who don't have a passion for anything or who quit at the first sign of difficulty. Is there a gene for motivation?

  3. Hmm. Still thinking about your question. I wonder if it has something to do with whether they believe they can influence events and even their own intelligence. Here's a study the teacher trainers have used lately: And then I laughed a little today at serendipity when I happened across this video to show my students as we set beginning quarter goals: I don't know why this boy is so motivated. But he clearly is. Maybe it's a gene (like that entity theory), but I'd like to believe it's something we can develop since living without motivation feels awfully drab to me.

  4. I'm going to have to ask Andy about that boy.
    When I was teaching gifted/talented students I came across a similar study about learning--that kids who thought their giftedness was an innate trait often had a difficult time learning a challenging new skill. They were afraid of failure and believed that having to work at something (and possibly messing up in the process) meant they weren't as smart as everyone assumed. I saw this in action all the time, with kids giving up immediately, even when we were doing something ostensibly risk-free, like a puzzle. I definitely think you can hone the motivation "gene" or whatever it is. But I also think that it's a trait some people don't have to work as hard to hone.