When I first started running more than 20 years ago, I was slow and couldn’t last for more than 5 or 10 minutes without taking walk breaks. I more or less kept at the same pattern (and same trail) day after day, not expecting much of myself. I didn’t feel like a runner, but I had the strange idea I should try anyway.
One day I completed the little trail loop without stopping to walk. It crossed my mind: What if I tried going around a second time? I did, without needing to walk. I felt a bit more like a runner that day.
I reflect on that moment often, because of the feeling of genuine surprise. It’s a reminder that we don’t always know what we’re capable of until we ask it of ourselves—or have no choice.
For some, this is what the spirit of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is all about. What can I accomplish if I push myself? What could I do if I put my mind to it? It’s such a human impulse as to be a cliche, yet when we break through a barrier that we thought impossible or beyond our capability, the world and its challenges look very different on the other side.
Last year, I took on one of the most significant writing projects of my career, which required that I produce roughly 120,000 words in three months. I agreed to do it before I really thought through the math of what I needed to accomplish: 10,000 polished words per week on top of my usual work load. But I did it, on deadline, and no writing project has since felt the same. I’m trained differently now—I am trained to go around the loop twice without stopping—and in the end it really wasn’t that bad.
Such challenges don’t always have a happy ending, and that’s the rub. It’s hard to know where the line is between testing your limits in a way that strengthens you, and pushing past them in a way that causes long-term damage. When I first began accepting freelance assignments early in my career, I regularly missed my deadlines and had to ask for extensions. Because I felt so embarrassed, I stopped freelancing for more than 10 years. Mainly I failed at these early tasks because I had no discernible practice or system in place—no kind of discipline that helped direct how such work would get done. Eventually I developed the right habits to allow me to succeed later, but it took years of gathering up the nerve and trust in my own abilities.
A challenge like NaNoWriMo—or any informal challenge that you might set for yourself—is that it gives you the space to figure out how you’ll develop the habit or discipline of showing up, day after day, to get the work done. You get accustomed to your own methods of avoidance and self-doubt; you learn to deal with the voice in your head that says your ideas are dumb or that your writing is bad. You learn to just get on with the work, and put in the miles, regardless of what’s happening around you, and before you know it, it’s been two loops around the trail.
Tell us about a time you surprised yourself about what you could accomplish. What have you learned about your limits?