Why the little victories are the sweetest

victory grand canyonI’ve done some pretty adventurous stuff in my lifetime. These adventures usually combined travel with some physical endurance challenge.

For example, last month I ran 45 miles (72 km) over three days in the Yorkshire Dales of north England.

In 2009, my husband and I spent a month cycling through Vietnam.

bike vietnam
My husband and I in Vietnam, 2009

Six years before that, I trekked for three weeks to Everest Base Camp and the summit of Kala Pattar (18,500 feet/5,600 km) .

Getting to the end of each of these journeys was pretty incredible; they were big victories by anyone’s standards. Of course I was proud of my efforts, but in all those cases, I was much prouder of the little victories that had come before — and enabled — each of these big victories.

Let me explain.

Four months before I started training for the 45-mile trail run through the Yorkshire Dales, I had trained three days a week for five weeks to run my first 10K; I managed it in just under an hour, my ambitious (for me) goal. That was when I knew that if I stuck to a doable training plan, I would be okay in the Dales, too.

Same with the 875-mile (1400-km) bike ride through Vietnam. I knew it was something that was achievable after my little victory: a day trip in Slovenia eight years previous. When I got on that rental bike, I had not been on a bike since my early teens. I had never been on a bike that had gears; I didn’t even know how gears worked. In the morning, I was super wobbly and was afraid I was going to fall over, hit someone or be hit; I seriously considered backing out, not sure I’d be able to make it from Lake Bled to Lake Bohinj and back (27 miles/44 km), our plan for the day. But by lunchtime, I’d hit my stride and when the endorphins kicked in and I sailed past the three guys I was with, I felt like I could do anything.

Everest me
Me in front of Mount Everest, 2003

Three months before doing the Everest Base Camp trip, I wasn’t a hiker. At all. Up to that point I had never hiked more than two or three hours in one go. Then I found myself in China with the two-day Tiger Leaping Gorge hike as one of the must-do tourist attractions from the town of Lijiang where I was. Travelling solo, I didn’t have anyone to go with, and wouldn’t have attempted the hike alone. So I decided to go ahead to an outpost town further north thinking that perhaps I’d meet some other travellers to do Tiger Leaping Gorge with when I came back to Lijiang. In Shangri-la (formerly named Zhongdian), I met two English guys who had themselves met while trekking in the Everest region. We hit it off, and they were more than happy to do the Tiger Leaping Gorge with me. We even upped the ante by doing the hike starting from a point near where we were and connecting to Tiger Leaping Gorge, so it became a three-day hike instead of two. The first day, we hiked some 9 hours. After doing that, the daily 5-7 hours of Tiger Leaping Gorge was a cinch. And being able to keep up with my new friends convinced me to sign up for the Everest Base Camp trek.

But it’s not only about physical challenges. Here’s an example in which a small victory convinced me I could do something far bigger and scarier:

I didn’t think I was someone who could learn a foreign language as an adult: After all, I had taken four years of Spanish in school, lived in Los Angeles and I worked in restaurants where most of the kitchen staff were Spanish-speakers. Yet, I couldn’t understand all but the most basic Spanish and couldn’t utter a sentence in Spanish to save my life.

When I decided to travel through Central America, the first item on my agenda was to learn Spanish because not knowing any Spanish there was not really an option. Being able to converse for a whole night in Spanish after a week of intensive 1-to-1 Spanish lessons was huge. A few months down the line, when I met my future husband in Nicaragua, and I decided to move to Germany for him, I wasn’t daunted by the idea of learning German. Had I not first conquered Spanish, I might never have had the nerve to move to Germany and attempt to learn German, and I certainly wouldn’t be doing some freelance German-to-English translations now.

In other words, I didn’t start out as a runner, biker, hiker or language learner, but achieving those little victories proved me wrong and showed me I could be all of those things and more.

So you see, while others might celebrate and glorify your big achievements — “Wow, you biked through Vietnam, you ran 45 miles, you moved to a country where you didn’t know the language!” — you will always remember those first victories the fondest and savor them as the sweetest. I certainly do.

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