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3 Keys for Achieving Any Goal That I Learned From My Thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail

The truth is, most big goals aren't accomplished in one fell swoop. Rather, they are accomplished little by little, step by step.
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On January 23, 1999, after more than five months and 5 million steps, I completed a southbound thru-hike of the nearly 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail (and raised $109,000 for cancer research in the process). While you may never wish to do such a thing yourself, I believe the lessons I learned from that hike can be applied to whatever personal or professional goal(s) you do have.

1. Know your why. Knowing why you want to do something is far more important than knowing how you'll do it. Although I virtually knew nothing about long distance hiking at the time, I was very clear as to why I wanted to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. I have von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) disease (a cancer syndrome that causes tumors throughout many of the major organs of the body). Over the years, I've had numerous surgeries to remove various tumors. I lost my left eye as a result, have had two brain surgeries, surgery to remove kidney cancer, have spinal tumors and more. But, as many problems as I have had with the condition, it's nothing compared to what many go through. My plan was to do the hike like a walkathon (for the Von Hippel-Lindau Alliance, an organization that raises funds and awareness for people with Von Hippel-Lindau) where you are paid so many cents per mile. I wanted to show others that even though I have VHL and have gone through a lot because of it, I could still do such a feat. In that way, the hike fit with my overall purpose of inspiring others to know that they can do more than they think they can. I want them to see what's possible by showing them, rather than just telling them.

And, while your reasons are probably different than mine, you need to know what yours are just the same. Those reasons will drive you forward, and have you continue when things get tough.

2. Face your fear. About a week before my thru-hike, where I was going to spend up to six months in the deep woods by myself, without any sort of weapon to protect me, I did something pretty dumb. I watched a program on the Discovery Channel called "When Bears Attack." Not good! Before watching that program, I had never even thought about bears, but now they were all I could think of. I just knew there was one out there in Maine somewhere waiting on me.

Still, even though I was afraid, I was committed to doing the hike. I had to find a way to deal with the fear. Fortunately, I was reading a book at the time that recommended that when you have a fear, the fastest way to rid yourself of it is to face it. So, that's what I did. And, you know what? It turned out that most of what I was afraid of, I'd just made up. Which is how most fears are. And, while you may not have to deal with the fear of bears to accomplish your goals, chances are good there will be some sort of fear that will come up that you'll have to contend with. Use my lesson here as an example for you to use in your own quest.

3. Break it down. In order to do a southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, you begin where about 98 percent of the other thru-hikers are ending -- at the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine. So, with that in mind, the first day I began my climb to the top of that mountain with gusto. I was feeling great, until I got to about the halfway point. It was hard to breathe, I was cold, my legs were tired, but mainly, my feet were screaming. I could only imagine what they must look like. I tried my best to ignore the pain though, and continued to make my way to the peak. Once there, I removed my boots and socks, and looked down at my feet. What I saw was shocking! Huge blisters had formed along the heels of both feet, but had somehow busted, so now my feet were just a bloody mess.

As I sat there, shaking my head, I asked myself what in the world was I thinking? I had 2,160 miles to go, two bad feet, and no real long-distance hiking experience. It might be time to throw in the towel. But, I wasn't willing to do that. What I did instead, is something I've used many times since, and something you can use to accomplish your goals. So, what did I do? I broke down the large goal into smaller, doable, steps. See, it was overwhelming to think about how I had to walk all the way to Georgia. I couldn't even wrap my head around such a thing. But, I could focus on walking for the next 30 minutes, or to such and such a point by lunch, etc. I used that same technique all the way to Georgia. I recommend you use the same method to reach your goal.

The truth is, most big goals aren't accomplished in one fell swoop. Rather, they are accomplished little by little, step by step. Always remember the old adage of eating an elephant, a seemingly overwhelming task if you think of doing it all at once. But, not so if you break it down. So, how do you eat an elephant? Simple, you do it one bite at a time.

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