How to do Hard Things.

When talking about conquering hard things, I never understood the metaphor “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

The earliest citing for this phrase is from 1945 in a book called An Introduction to Industrial Statistics and Quality Control By Paul Peach.

The job may be lengthy, but, in the words of the great Kung Fu Tze, a man can eat an elephant if need be, one bite at a time.

Admittedly, elephant eating is difficult for me to relate to. When talking about difficult challenges, my favorite reminder comes from St. Francis of Assisi:

Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible. 

When conquering difficult feats, even those thought to be impossible, it is important for me to have a plan. Afterall, Winston Churchill stated “Those who plan do better than those who do not plan, even should they rarely stick to their plan.” Here’s my plan of action when asked to do hard things:

  1. State my vision
  2. Set my goals to carry out my vision
  3. Set milestones to work towards each goal
  4. Celebrate the milestones and goals
  5. Pause for reflection briefly yet often
  6. Positive self talk
  7. Find tribe mates with positive self talk
  8. Know what me and my tribe mates need in times of struggle
  9. Listen to those ahead of me and beside me in my journey
  10. Trust my gut and my gear/tools

I found my elephant.

I recently came back from celebrating my 10 year wedding anniversary in Argentina…kid free. My husband and I planned the perfect combination of our mutual and individual interests. We started with a night in Buenos Aires exploring the city, followed by a 4 day hut-to-hut trek in Bariloche, finished with 5 days wine tasting in Mendoza.

My elephant story begins as we approach the trekking portion of our itinerary. With a backdrop of the Andes and a glacier lake at our feet, we literally plunge into the laguna with the excitement you would expect from two tired parents, alleviated from any responsibility for 14 days. It was freezing yet invigorating! Our guide, Martin, stopped by that night to go over the details of our trek which started the next morning. He let us know day one would be easy, day two medium and days three and four were the hardest. He turned around to a floor to ceiling window, pointed to a giant mountain, and said “we will conquer her on our last day.” He then assured us “each day we have options so no worries!” Clue #1 there was an elephant in my future.

Refugio Emilio Frey

The next morning we set off in Patagonia. The views, the wildflowers, the history lessons – perfecto! Martin was spectacular. His joy was contagious in his whistling and ease of sharing his wisdom of the world around us. He was right in Day 1 being relatively easy: 5 hours of hiking through forest, up zig zag trails of mountain rock and passing over waterfalls. We came to our first refugio and there were enough smiles, hot tea, macha and cafe con leche to share that overcame all language barriers amongst fellow trekkers.

Day 2 was accurately described as more difficult than day 1. It is humbling to realize you are the anchor of the group and the pace is set on your stride. This is why it’s important to surround yourself with tribe mates who are interested in supporting you through hard things. At one point, while taking a break, my husband unknowingly captured my mental state when snagging a panoramic view of our landscape. When he asked “are you having a good time?” I replied with a curt “sometimes” and he gracefully offered me the space and silence I needed to work through some of the internal gremlins telling me I was not capable of conquering the mountains ahead of us.

We reached our second refugio and I quickly retreated into the private room Martin secured for us (have I mentioned Martin is awesome?). This is where I defined my plan for conquering the trek.

  1. Vision: Hike Patagonia
  2. Goal: 4 days / 3 nights hut to hut trek
  3. Milestones: Red dot trail markers
  4. Celebrate: Look up, find the next dot, put one foot in front of the other. Future dots are not your concern. One dot at a time.
  5. Pause: turn around and look at what you just accomplished!
  6. Positive Self-talk: “I can do hard things. I am strong, capable and brave”
  7. Tribe mates: Kyle and Martin.
  8. Support: “You’re doing great.” “I am proud of you.” “This is hard for me too.” “You are capable of tomorrow.” “Perfect.” “Muy bien!”
  9. Advice: Use your pole. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Lead with your heel. Use your whole foot. Bend your knees.
  10. Gut and Gear: I am shorter, therefore my steps are smaller and that is ok. Commit to my breathing technique to slow my heart rate and clear my mind. Use gloves even if no one else is. Your shoes were meant for this terrain – trust their grip.

I confessed to Kyle that I was not confident in my abilities to do two days of “hard” when a day of “medium” was hard for me. He listened, related to my fears and assured me I was capable. Next, we spoke with Martin and I went to bed optimistic for our 10-hour trek the next day.

At breakfast, the Buenos Aires couple who had been following our same path reacted with wide eyes and whistles when we said we were headed to Laguna Negro. And not the joyous whistles of Martin. The “better you than me” whistle under your breath kind. Normally this inspires me to know others find my goals far-fetched. Not this time since I was already battling the gremlin of insecurity in my trekking capabilities.

Onward we went.

The morning started with a hike around one laguna to another and then some light rock climbing up to leftover snow from the previous winter. We anticipated the winds to pick up but not to the degree they came nor the sideways rain that accompanied. To go with our amped up weather came serious rock scrambling. While confident in my abilities, I really started to question our decision making skills. Why would we choose to free climb up a mountain when our two small kids depended on us to make it home safely…and in one piece? Why did we willingly put ourselves in a situation where one misstep could lead to a fatal plummet onto the rocks below? Enter: my (dramatic) elephant.

My vision of hiking Patagonia was blocked by an elephant of desperation and concern for making it home safely. While my confidence was wavering on my abilities the day before, it was not my lack of confidence that caused the elephant to appear. It was the fear of not making it home safely that altered my perspective of the goals and milestones required to make it to Laguna Negro. That fear turned a challenging adventure into an elephant.

Now I understood. No one wakes up one day and decides they want to eat an elephant. The elephant in not the vision, it is the fear, magnificent and daunting, standing between you and your vision. So how do you eat the elephant that stands between you and your vision? One bite at a time. So how did I eat my elephant? Follow the plan:

Spot the next red dot trail marker and focus solely on the one ahead. Use my poles, wear my gloves and trust my shoes – they are all tools to help me succeed.

Positive self talk and great tribe mates. “I am capable of hard things. I am brave. I can do this.” Kyle and Martin were incredible. From verbal reassurance to outstretched hands to even guiding me through a dislocated knee 4 hours into the 10 hour day.
We did it!

Our elephant bites included uphill rock climbing, sliding down a snow field, windy ridge lines, crossing waterfalls, downhill rock climbing, marsh crossings, and miles and miles of beautiful, even if daunting, Patagonia terrain.

With about 2 miles remaining, Kyle stopped me and pointed out Cerro Catedral, where we ended day 1. To see how far we’d come was what I needed to take a few more bites and endure the final uphill trek to Laguna Negro. With about a mile to go and “the windiest part”, Martin says “there she is!” and low and behold the little red Refugio Italia in all of her glory stood before us. We were there. The elephant was gone and we were almost “home”.
That night, we celebrated with a bottle of wine by candlelight swapping stories with Martin of adventures of raising toddlers and previous life experiences.

I chose not to take off my compression pants that night as the pain from dislocating my knee seemed to be at bay. We opted for the 14 km hike into Colonia Suissa rather than tackling Cerro Lopez for our final day. We were rewarded with the trail literally ending into Berlina Patagonia Brewery where we high-fived and toasted to a wonderful experience while awaiting our ride back to Bariloche. There was no elephant to be seen.

Moral of my story: Good gear, solid tribe mates and a positive mindset can overcome any elephant that stands in your way of accomplishing hard things. One bite at a time.

Published by Empower-Lead

Hello! My name is Karen and I am an executive and career coach + serial non-profit board member. I've worked for large, publicly traded corporations as well as start-ups grasping to make payroll and the in between. My coaching expertise evolved from a consulting career where I led non-profit and corporate executives in strategic planning, change management and employee + client engagement efforts. Through that experience, I uncovered my unique strength, passion and desire to build deep connection with people and empower others to explore and create their most fulfilling life by showing up “on purpose” in every aspect, especially professionally.

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