We have all heard the old adage, “The journey is more important than the destination,” (or some variation of it) time and again. What few people discuss, however, is what makes the journey so important.
Look at any newspaper story describing an athletic accomplishment, and you may notice that while the headline comes from the accomplishment itself, the body of the story is, in fact, a story. It is the story of how the athlete achieved his or her goals, typically through preparation and adversity. Take for example, Ben Saunders.
In 2014, Saunders accomplished a journey that no one previously had—he trekked to the South Pole and back on foot. He and his partner ventured 1,800 miles, spanning 105 days—shattering the record for the longest human-powered polar journey by over 400 miles. However, it wouldn’t have been a journey without obstacles along the way. After experiencing consistent headwind slowing them down, the two cut back their food rations to half of what they should have been consuming, and eventually ran out. 46 miles away from their storage of food, hungry and suffering from hypothermia, Saunders made the decision to call for assistance. It was not easy, and Saunders called it “one of the toughest decisions of [his] life.” He went on to say, “I don’t regret calling for that plane for a second, because I’m still standing here alive, with all digits intact. But getting external assistance like that was never part of the plan, and it’s something my ego is still struggling with. This was the biggest dream I’ve ever had, and it was so nearly perfect.”
In today’s fast-paced world, we constantly try to achieve the next goal as fast as humanly possible. We try to change the definition of what is humanly possible. We are obsessed with perfection and being the best. However, we must shift our focus from the end point to the point we are currently in. We must focus on accomplishing our current challenge before we prepare for our next challenge. Runners build up their endurance by running 5, 10, 15 miles before running a marathon. Swimmers do not swim the 400-meter freestyle without spending time in the gym building their muscles and physical strength. Athletes (much like Ben Saunders) do not accomplish great feats unless they first spend a great deal of time preparing.
We need to learn to be content with the place that we are in and not just the destination. Crossing the finish line takes a split second, but the journey takes so much longer. If we are only living for the finish line, we are only enjoying a few moments instead of the weeks, months, or years of preparation. The journey is where we learn. When people recall their stories, they don’t just say, “Well, I crossed the finish line at this time and then that was that.” They tell their stories. They talk about overcoming obstacles—when they learned what their breaking points were after being pushed to their physical and mental limits. They talk about the relationships they formed with their teammates and crews. They talk about how, in the most brutal of conditions, they learned what they were made of. We don’t learn what we’re made of after we complete goals—we learn during the process.
After Saunders completed his journey to the South Pole and back, many people asked him what would be the next milestone he would conquer. Reporters wanted to know the next destination, but Saunders was still reflecting on his journey:
“Looking back, I still stand by all the things I’ve been saying for years about the importance of goals and determination and self-belief, but I’ll also admit that I hadn’t given much thought to what happens when you reach the all-consuming goal that you’ve dedicated most of your adult life to, and the reality is that I’m still figuring that bit out. […] I’m also standing here saying, you know what, that cliché about the journey being more important than the destination? There’s something in that. The closer I got to my finish line, that rubbly, rocky coast of Ross Island, the more I started to realize that the biggest lesson that this very long, very hard walk might be teaching me is that happiness is not a finish line, that for us humans, the perfection that so many of us seem to dream of might not ever be truly attainable, and that if we can’t feel content here, today, now, on our journeys amidst the mess and the striving that we all inhabit, the open loops, the half-finished to-do lists, the could-do-better-next-times, then we might never feel it.”
To hear Saunders’ full story, watch his TED talk here.