Small steps make a big difference

Mike Grutka
Director of Admissions

I was going up. The woods were tight to my body and the mud was thick. Every part of my body felt like it was on fire. I had woken up at 5am to drive to the trailhead of what the guide book said was a 3.1 mile (each way) ‘hike’. First I hate waking up early. Never been my thing. Second, I had no clue what I had gotten myself into.

I live in upstate NY not too far from the Adirondack Park. At over 6 million acres it is the largest park in the U.S. The crown jewels of the park are the Adirondack mountains. Not as famous as the Rockies there are 46 ‘high peaks’. All of them have a summit that is over 4,000 feet elevation. Becoming a ‘46’er’, meaning you’ve climbed all of them, is a goal people set for themselves. 

On this particular late August day I had decided I would go climb one. I picked Giant, which is the 12th highest one. I mainly chose it because you can enter the trail directly from the parking area and as I said, at 3.1 miles it seemed like a short one. Piece of cake. I’d be up and down in about 4 hours and be on my merry way. I had always been in sports and considered myself capable of doing a 6 mile ‘walk’ up a hill. I was so wrong.

The first thing that happened was immediately upon getting on the trail I went up. And up. And up. Steeply. You may be thinking of course you did, it’s a mountain! True. I did not realize beforehand that picking the shortest trail also meant you had to cover elevation much much quicker than you did on a longer trail. In addition I hadn’t been prepared for how rugged the trail was. It was really little more than a well worn narrow band of mud with some space between the trees, shrubs and rocks. Footing was difficult at best. 

After what seemed like 17 days I stopped. (it was really only about 90 minutes). My legs were done. My lungs burned. My eyes hurt. I was almost to the next trail marker. I knew I must be close to the top. 2.7 miles to the summit the sign read. Mocking me. My heart sank. My mind started spinning. This felt like torture. I wanted to quit. Who needs to do this? It was just for fun anyway. Who would care if I finished? 

I would. I would know.

The rest of the day was a constant battle. Against the mountain. The trail. The mud. My body. But mostly my mind. Every time I thought about the summit I’d get discouraged. It was too hard. Too far away. Too steep. (Did I mention I’m afraid of heights? I am and there were some places where if you went 10 inches to the left there was no bottom to see). Everytime I thought about finishing the negative thoughts crept in. I was too tired. It will get dark soon. It’s not worth it.

A few things also happened that surprised me. I was amazed at how much you actually go down while going up. There were stretches of time where it felt like all the progress I had made was erased by the contours of the land. The next one was my biggest wake up call and it had never even occurred to me until I got to the top. 

I had to go back down.

The summit which had been my only goal for over 6 hours was only half way. I actually wouldn’t have successfully climbed the mountain until I got back to the bottom. I felt defeated. I had come so far. Worked so hard…and I wasn’t close to being done. Plus down is actually the more dangerous part. You are tired. All your muscles have been pushing you up and now everything was in reverse. Also when you go down you realize how high you are. How steep the trail really is. Add in my fear of heights and it was going to be an adventure.

I did finish. I was more physically exhausted than I’d ever been in my entire life. But my mind was alive. I DID IT!

When I was about half way up I made a decision NOT to think about the summit. How much farther I had to go. How tired I was. I instead made small goals: reach this clearing and rest. Check. Get to the bottom of this decline. Check. Count 100 steps before stopping. Check. 

Breaking it up like this made it manageable. Attainable. Each check mark gave me a sense of accomplishment. I didn’t feel as tired because I would take a short break at each small goal. 

I made a lot of mistakes before I even started that day. I didn’t learn about the trail. What it actually entailed to climb the mountain. I didn’t get into shape. I didn’t ask anyone who had done it before what to expect. Or how to prepare. I didn’t even have enough water with me. I made assumptions that I had been in shape at some point. I had climbed some smaller hikes nearby and didn’t think the ‘high peaks’ would be significantly different. In short I told myself I knew when I actually didn’t.

Besides the view from the summit the best thing that happened to me that day was overcoming my own mind. My mind that told me it wasn’t worth it. That I’d never get there. It was too far. Too high. Too hard. I was too tired. It didn’t matter if I finished. It wasn’t like I was going to get a medal…it was just a hobby to hike. The excuses roared at me so heavily that quitting would have been the easy thing. 

Making the shift to just focus on the next stretch of trail. Breaking it down into digestible attainable pieces. Letting myself enjoy each little victory is what got me up and down that day. I didn’t give into the voice telling me it was impossible, that I’d never get there and I might as well give up.

I can say I climbed Giant. It took me 9 hours. I fell in love with those mountains and would finish 28 of the 46 high peaks over the next 2 years. That would never have happened if I quit that day. It wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t overcome my own negative self-talk.

What does any of this have to do with music?

I used to do the same thing with my own songs and productions. I went into everything saying “I know how to play these instruments. I made this chord progression. It sounds good enough…” I would do the things I thought I knew and then…well getting any better or sounding as good as I wanted well that was all too hard. Impossible. After all this was just me in my apartment. How could I do better? I’ll just stop here.

I left that day for the hike with only the guide book which I told myself had all the information I would ever need…I didn’t know about how everything worked together. How all the little details really mattered. I just tried to plow up the mountain. Similarly I knew a little about how to use my DAW, I heard one or two things about compressors  and EQ and just…plowed ahead. I knew enough, I told myself.

None of that helped. Instead what happened was I got frustrated. I got disengaged. I quit. I had everything in the world to blame: equipment, not having a studio, I hadn’t done it long enough. Except-me. My mind telling me it was ok to stop because I’d never get where I wanted anyway because of…XYZ things. I’d never be good enough. The excuses won. I stayed stuck. For a long time. I let my own thoughts defeat me. Which sounds so strange today. I let my mind beat me.

Until I didn’t. I found a way to break things down into small steps. That lead to more progress. That lead to better results. Everything built on itself. Until I finally got up and down. Just like that day on the mountain, this feels so much better.

Telling yourself something is unattainable is easy. Saying it’s impossible is too. 

What I’m asking is that you just focus on the next step. Do the thing. Then the next thing. Until you’re all the way up and down your mountain.

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