About 10 years ago, I began to ride my bicycle as a way to get in shape and stay healthy. As a college student, I rode my ten-speed bike everywhere—to classes, social events, and even to church. And I rode at any time, through rain and snow storms, so picking up cycling again was not too much of a stretch for me. I set distance goals that eventually enabled me to ride 70 miles for a YMCA fundraiser.
While working my way up to longer distances, I noticed that I avoided a certain route that started with a relatively long uphill climb. I found myself choosing a less challenging route each time I rode without thinking too much about it. It turns out that that less challenging route also was less appealing. It was more industrial and less residential and bucolic than the route that began with that hill.
One day, I realized why I was instinctively avoiding this route. It was the hill. Now, this hill wasn’t formidable. It was about a half a mile long and had a grade of about 7 percent, enough to take your breath away, but it wasn’t the French Alps by any stretch. And yet, because it was at the beginning of the ride, before I was warmed up, I avoided it, relegating myself to a less-than-satisfying workout. I allowed my fear of hills to preclude me from taking full advantage of these great rides.
One morning, I told myself that I would ride just this hill, and nothing more. I was determined to get better at climbing hills. I must have ridden that hill 10 times. I rode it different ways—sitting on the saddle, then standing on the pedals, each time trying to beat my previous time. The reward for working hard was turning around and coasting downhill, reaching speeds of 30 miles an hour with the wind in my face and the joy of knowing I earned this simple pleasure.
After about 30 minutes of riding up and back down, something happened. I experienced an Attitude Shift. My hill-phobia became a hill-affair. I began to see this hill as a challenge to be conquered, rather than an obstacle to be avoided. I immediately sought out hills that were incrementally more challenging. There was one about 3 miles from away that was about a mile long with a steeper grade than the smaller one by my house. I would ride to that hill and take it repeatedly, timing myself so I can measure my progress. I actually enjoyed riding hills.
Something else happened as well. That first hill which I thought was a formidable foe was no longer a challenge for me, especially since I started to look for and conquer steeper and longer hills. For many years that followed, when I climbed that first hill, I marveled at how I once feared and viscerally avoided it because I failed to embrace and challenge it.
It occurred to me that the hill challenge was a metaphor for another fear I faced up to years earlier. I never considered myself to be a great speaker. As an engineer, speaking and writing were not considered my core competencies. When I had to give a speech in church, or a talk at work, I’d have to work very hard at practicing the talk over and over, making sure I got all the transitions right. I made sure I knew what I was going to say, when and how I would say it. Fear of failure motivated me. I was afraid of experiencing stage fright: Getting up there and not remembering what I was to say or, even worse, having an anxiety attack when all eyes were on me.
Over the course of my career, I had given talks to both small and large groups in many different venues. However, my lack of confidence wasn’t borne out in the speeches or writing assignments I chose to accept. No. It played out in the numerous opportunities I rejected, especially on those occasions when I was asked to speak extemporaneously, say in a workshop or some other informal venue. In those situations, my fears overcame me and I rarely volunteered to be the spokesperson for the group. Speaking (and writing) were my hills.
One day, like that hill, I decided that I would no longer avoid situations when I would be called upon to speak. My growth mindset instinct kicked in. I resolved to get better at this skill if I were to progress in my career as a professional and as a person, so I decided to embrace the challenge. It was liberating. I made a commitment to intentionally volunteer to be the group spokesperson in any class, workshop, or seminar where the opportunity arose, regardless of the status of the people in the room. Knowing that I wouldn’t get it right immediately, I was comfortable with the fact that the first few times I would probably stumble. And I did. I’d forget some things, or bumble through my talking points. Once in a class, I even had an anxiety attack, barely getting through my 10 minute presentation. Still, my inner growth mindset kicked in. I knew that I would get better at it. And I did.
These days, most people are surprised when I share this story; they are shocked that I ever had a problem speaking extemporaneously. I am more willing to take on writing projects for the same reason. My attitude about these and other areas of growth now is, I’m not good at this…yet, but I’ll get better.”
I hear countless stories from students about their fears of math or writing. “I hate math” or “I have problems writing papers” are constant refrains. Students avoid classes, topics, or even majors just to steer clear of confronting what they fear most. I recently heard about a freshman who switched majors to avoid taking chemistry because, six weeks into the semester, he struggled in the subject. This young man failed to embrace his hill. Too bad.
What’s your hill? What subject or skill do you avoid because you are ostensibly not good at it. Stop and think for a minute. What would happen to your self esteem or your quality of life if you no longer feared that hill. Are there new opportunities that would open up for you if you no longer avoided it but instead embraced the challenge? Perhaps you can see yourself as a lawyer or teacher after overcoming a fear of public speaking, or an author or professor after committing to developing your writing or analytical skills. Your aspirations may not be as grandiose. How about no longer being shy around certain people, or getting over the fear of letting your team down at critical moments. Instead, ask for the ball. Take the last shot. Approach that girl or boy. You may stumble at first, but commit yourself to getting better. The sky’s the limit if you adopt a growth mindset about your hill.
Whatever your hill, attack and embrace it and commit to getting better.