Small Steps

Starting a new goal or routine can sometimes seem unimaginable. Understanding that your body can run a marathon seems impossible when you are only in the early innings of training. The same is true for those looking ahead at retirement. The task seems almost like climbing a mountain, and to some, an unattainable goal.

Over Christmas break, my wife and I took a trip out to the Grand Canyon. Both of us have had this on our bucket list and wanted to challenge ourselves to a full day’s hike.

Arriving at the Grand Canyon, the views are spectacular. We stayed at a hotel inside the South Rim so we could get up early and walk right into the trails. From the hotel, you can see all the way across the rim and overlook the below trails. We grabbed a map and starting planning the next days hike.

Our view from the top of the Grand Canyon South Rim

For those who have never been to the Grand Canyon before, there are warning signs everywhere:

“Do not hike to the river in one day!”

“There are no water stations open due to freezing temperatures”

“Do not become a statistic!”

Warnings aside, we decided to set ourselves a B.H.A.G. (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) to hike to Plateau Pointe. If you look at the photo from above, it is the very end of the trail that winds through the valley. The Grand Canyon maps call this a 9 – 12 hour hike and something novice hikers should not attempt.

We set a plan to wake up early and tackle as much of the trail as we could.

The trail down was surprisingly easy. With the assistance of gravity, we descended all the way down to Plateau Pointe in just a few hours. We stopped for lunch and enjoyed the views.

It doesn’t really hit you until your heading back, but you just climbed down about 5 miles of rock. Now, the ultimate test is in front of you…the hike back to the top!

There’s a great quote attributed to General Creighton W. Abrams during the Vietnam War.

“When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time”

The thinking here is easy, take small consistent steps in the direction of where you want to be. For us, we were staring at 5 miles of rock to climb. That doesn’t seem that bad until you have to strain your neck just to look back at the top.

A look up at the first 3 mile section back up

As we walked from Plateau Pointe to the first rest point, the fear of failure set’s in. You have no refills for water, you are already exhausted, and the longest part of the journey lies in front of you. It may have been a rather easy climb down but now you have a long path, against gravity, to the top.

As we climbed, I kept saying to myself “one bite at a time”. The more I talked to myself about this, the more I kind of forgot the pain of the ascent. But with each step forward it almost seems like no progress is made. Every single step seems useless when you keep looking up at the massive walls of rock ahead of you.

Until you turn around and look at your progress…

View from the 3-mile rest area on the climb back

As we kept climbing, I was missing how much progress we were making. As you keep looking up at this massive obstacle ahead, you begin to miss the amount of progress you have already made. By simply looking back at how much progress we had made, we kept getting reassured we were in fact going to make it.

This climb was long, challenging, and quite the mental obstacle. But as we kept walking, I kept realizing the parallels to planning your financial future.

Retirement, at times, can seem like you are at the base of the Grand Canyon. Looking up at some massive obstacle. Maybe that obstacle for you is saving enough to stop working. While for others, it might be a large debt or expense. But the one thing that holds true with either, is how you attack the obstacle…

“When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time”

  • Those regular monthly contributions to your 401k plan will get you to retirement.
  • Those regular mortgage payments will payoff your home
  • Those regular payments on your debt will get you out of debt

At the end of the day it all takes time. You will not get to retirement or payoff your home overnight. Waiting for a homerun stock pick or lottery ticket is a fool’s errand and will instead push your progress out further.

Instead, it takes one bite at a time to slowly chip away at your goal. Instead of continuing to focus on the mountain ahead, take some time to look back at the progress you have already made. You will be surprised how much ground you cover when you look back at the accumulation of small steps.

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