When we adopt a new habit, we often experience a honeymoon period. Partly it's our enthusiasm and motivation at the first flush of hope and desire, and partly we've chosen this time to start because it's particularly convenient or easy.
But the universe will test our resolve not too long after that. It can feel like slamming into a brick wall at the end of a runway.
The weather will get shitty, and your morning walk will become unpleasant, treacherous, or even impossible.
You'll strain your back muscles and have to rest and rehab instead of continuing your 5k training.
You'll get sick, or your kid will get sick, and you won't have the time and energy to devote to shopping for and prepping your big salad or green smoothie.
You'll resent the obstacle. It will feel unfair.
It's like the universe is telling you, “Nope. Not for you.”
But that's not what's going on at all.
The Obstacle is the Way
The universe is actually moving on your behalf here.
The universe first of all wants to know, “Are you serious about this change?”
It wants to see commitment. Resolve. Resilience. Hunger for betterment.
And second, the universe wants to harden you up. Because life isn't easy, or convenient. That's not the story you incarnated into.
Something is always going to get in the way.
As the stoics knew, the obstacles are there not to piss you off or make you give up in despair.
They are there to make you stronger.
just like a beloved teacher will keep challenging you with harder and harder work once you master the easy stuff.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Maybe your next step is to make friends with shitty weather. Our ancestors didn't have a choice in that regard, but you do.
Maybe your next step is to bounce back from the muscle sprain to prove to yourself that this time will be different from all the times you quit in the past.
Maybe your next step is to ask for help with the shopping and food prep – from a partner, from a nearby sibling; from a neighbor – instead of being so damn proud and self-reliant.
The alternative – feeling sorry for yourself – will get you exactly nothing.
And it's hard to describe the exhilaration that arises when you look at obstacle in the eye and refuse to back down. When you regard the obstacle as a challenge, as a sparring partner, as a stone upon which to sharpen the blade of your resolve.
Platform 9 and ¾
In the Harry Potter series, young British wizards and witches have to get to Platform 9 and ¾ at Kings Cross Station to catch the Hogwarts Express. The catch is, you can't just walk there. The only way to access the platform is to run through a brick barrier at full tilt, pushing your luggage trolley ahead of you.
You can't walk up to the barrier and gingerly lean your way through it. You can't sidle up and casually stick a foot into the enchanted bricks.
There's no safe way – or rather, there's no way that feels safe to your rational mind – of crossing the barrier.
The barrier is not an actual physical barrier. It's an illusion. But a very convincing illusion.
And that's what makes it an effective sentinel of the threshold between past and future. Your comfortable and stale old identity and your scary and exciting new one. Crossing the barrier requires courage. Commitment. And the triumph of faith over doubt.
And like all barriers, the one guarding Platform 9 and ¾ looks like it's there to hinder you, to get in your way, to slow you down or stop you outright.
But that's part and parcel of the illusion.
Obstacles are Slingshots
Let's take two hypothetical people who have decided to do a Couch to 5k program, Anne and Beth. Anne clears time every morning, and makes steady progress on her daily walks and jogs for 60 days straight.
Beth, on the other hand, is good for 30 days, but on Day 31 she pulls a muscle in her back and has to take three weeks off from her training. She spends some of the time reading about running form, watching YouTube videos on back stretching and strengthening exercises, and begins a gentle foam rolling practice. On Day 52, she restarts her training, returning to the earliest, easiest workouts since her conditioning has gone to shit during convalescence.
The question is, who has made more progress by Day 60?
At first blush, it's an easy math problem. Anne is far ahead, as she's done way more workouts and has made more material progress (speed, stamina, etc.)
But hold on.
Neither Anne nor Beth has ever done anything like Couch to 5k before. This is a new experience for both of them. With every workout, every interaction with the app, every calendar accommodation they make to fit in the day's activity, they are forging a new identity.
Anne has demonstrated daily consistency over two months. That's worth a lot, and it's awesome. A+ for Anne.
But Beth has overcome an obstacle. She's dealt with pain, disappointment, and doubt. She's grown her understanding of her body's limits and weaknesses, and developed a plan to deal with them.
And most important, Beth got back up on Day 52 and reclaimed her identity as a 5k athlete.
That moment accelerated her inner journey in a way that an incident-free process never can. It acted as a slingshot. She can now observe herself walking around the block after that 21-day hiatus, amazed at her own resilience.
If she needed proof that she was serious, that this time would be different from all the other times, this was it.
What seemed like a 3-week setback actually served as a powerful ritual of initiation into the tribe of Athletes. Beth has gone through the crucible, and come out certain of herself and her commitment.
That's the power of the barrier. It looks like it will slow you down or stop you outright – and it will, if you lose heart.
If you see through its illusory nature and use it to manifest your commitment to a new and scary and oh-so-wonderful future, you will emerge transformed.
It occurs to me that Platform 9 and ¾ might not be the best metaphor here. I don't want you to run into brick walls (or run with a cranked back) just to prove how tough and committed you are.
You don't have to become recklessly aggressive with your training. You don't have to go 100% raw vegan if your goal is to reduce processed and animal-based foods from your diet. You don't have to begin your meditation practice with a 30-day solitary retreat in darkness.
Don't go looking for trouble. That's just ego justifying itself, or a secret wish to self-sabotage wrapping itself in bravado.
Instead, be like Anne. Do your thing consistently, undramatically, pragmatically.
And when obstacles arise, be like Beth. See them for what they are – opportunities both to deepen your skill and your commitment.
Be patient. Be kind to yourself. And see through the illusion that these obstacles are there to spite you, to warn you off, to make you small again.
The obstacles are the portal. They are there to serve you.
The only way to fail the test is to refuse to take it.
Once you push through your own doubts and fears, you'll be amazed at the magic that's available to you on the other side.
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New Audiobook: Use the Weight to Lose the Weight
Listen to Josh LaJaunie and me narrate our latest audiobook, about how to start moving when you're obese.
It's $10, and Josh and I split it evenly 🙂
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