Way (way) back when, when I was a high school wrestler, I used to lift weights. This was old school stuff. I spent most of my training time off-season at the local Y surrounded by barbells, dumbbells, and big metal plates, not the wooshing white, ergonomically advanced machines of today.
In my senior year of high school, the guy I trained with, who could bench press well over 300 pounds, changed our routine. Every other day, instead of a regular weight-lifting session, we’d do a pushup workout. In each set, you’d do as many pushups as you could, until your muscles failed. The trick was, instead of counting normally (1-2-3-4-5-6) you’d count in a pyramid:
And so on
The only other rule was that if you gave up before finishing a number you had to redo that number (meaning, if you were trying to get to 15 but you stopped at 10, when your next set started you had to repeat number 15).
The entire workout was to go up to 20 and back, and try to do it in as few sets as possible.
For those of you doing the math, you’ll quickly see that all we were doing was 400 pushups. So why all the rigmarole, and why, week in and week out, would we keep on doing the pyramid instead of counting our way up to 50, 60, or (on a good day) 70 pushups per set?
It’s because even that counting trick was powerful. Each milestone felt achievable. The structure made it hard to how big the whole was. Doing 400 pushups? Wow, that’s a lot. But just doing a first set counting from 1 to 10? That doesn’t seem that bad, now does it (even though it is 55 pushups)?
The work we are all doing requires walking long, hard roads. Long as in years, maybe decades. And hard because we’re taking on the gnarly, unsolved problems in the world.
Part of the way we do that is through deep exploration of and connection to purpose. We must turn on a light inside of us, through a deep investigation of our own “why,” and we must keep that flame burning by revisiting that why time and again.
But we can’t be revisiting all the time, and certainly not every day.
Because most days what the world needs from us is work, not reflection. And what our work needs from us is that we show up, that we see where we need to go today, that we do that work with skill, focus, energy, and with full and hopeful conviction, so that we move the ball forward a bit.
That next achievable, daily milestone is a very valuable thing. It takes the cross-hairs off of the big gigantic goal, moving it to our peripheral vision – still in sight, but not quite clear enough to overwhelm. We can set the milestones so we have to stretch some, because getting to pushup 15 when you feel like you can only do 10, is possible.
Over time, the daily work of doing a little more than we thought possible adds up to weeks, months and years of amazing, surprising progress. It’s always been that the act of showing up today, workman-like, and moving forward as much as we can is actually a great way to do big, important and great things over time.