December 10, 2014 • 6 minute read • by Saeed
“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
– Mark Twain –
Thought to self: if you think you can’t, then you won’t.
It was July 1989 and this was the thought that came into my head as I was cycling up National Highway 1D, also known as the Srinagar-Leh Highway, in the state of Jammu & Kashmir in Northern India. This 262 mile (422 km) stretch of road connects Srinigar, the capital city of Kashmir (locally regarded as the Switzerland of India), to Leh, the capital city of Ladakh (“land of high passes”), where the people are predominantly Tibetan and where, except in prayer, they do not have the concept of the wheel in their lives (evidence of wheeled vehicles appears from the second half of the 4th millennium BC).
The Srinagar-Leh Highway is one of only two roads that connect the highly remote and forbidding region of Ladakh with the rest of India. The highest pass on the road is at 13,478 ft (4,108 m) elevation, which is approximately half the height of Earth’s tallest mountain, at 29,029 ft (8,848 m) elevation. The road generally remains open for traffic from early June to mid-November but heavy snowfall blocks traffic, cutting the region off from the rest of the world for some six months each year.
I was young and inexperienced. My cycling shoes were a pair of flip flops purchased in a New Delhi night market (BTW: best pair of footwear I have ever owned – seriously). My panniers were filled, not with rations for survival, but with philosophy and anthropology books, a Sony Walkman and music cassette tapes (Steve Jobs: where were you then?).
My fuel was an unreasonably large-sized bag of dried apricots (they have been cultivated in Central Asia since antiquity and the dried ones were an important commodity on the Silk Road). I had purchased them in the town of Kargil, an important transit hub, which sits at about the half-way point (and when you’re there please try the restaurant on the third floor of the building in the main street near the mosque, which offers pleasant and inexpensive Tibetan dishes – and tell Lobsang I said hello!).
The day I set off from Kargil, was the day I planned to cycle to the highest pass on the road.
That day was all climb. And as I did, I naturally began to wonder what in the world had possessed me to torture myself in this cruel way. The more negatively I thought, the more I felt my brain, not my body, giving up. There were certainly plenty of physiological considerations. The air was thin, but I had acclimated. Physical conditioning was required, but I had been on the road for more than six months. My body sponged up water, but I was hydrated and my gut was full of; well dried apricots (one serving cup delivers 81 grams of total carbohydrate).
It was not my body but my brain that was telling me that I can’t do it.
You may have heard the old adage that sport is 10% physical and 90% mental. Psychologists began studying sports in the nineteen thirties and forties. Research conducted in the 60’s and 70’s concluded that mental practice facilitated motor performance in about fifty percent of the studies. More recent control group studies of performance athletes have validated the earlier findings and gone further concluding that the brain gives up and subsequently sends signals to the body to also cease, even though the body is not showing physical signs of complete exhaustion. Not only do the new studies emphasize the idea of mind over matter, but they also demonstrate that the brain can be trained to allow the body to physically handle more. It is the brain that holds us back from pushing past a certain point and allows or limits our endurance performance rather than the body. But we often confuse mental fatigue with physical fatigue.
So, brain is boss and by that logic we must manage up.
The brain comes conveniently equipped with a control mechanism to make sure that the marathon runner reaches the finishing line not in a completely shattered state. There is always a little reserve. You may be the next Usain Bolt or you may be a nonprofit program manager or a social entrepreneur in the process of pursuing a new innovative solution to solve a vexing social problem. Whatever your goal, be it conquering a hill or a mountain or changing the world, you will have to be persistent in the face of challenges, adversities and failures in order to ultimately succeed.
When your brain throws un-motivating messages at you, it may just be that same control mechanism that exerts its influence over athletes, holding you back from pushing past a certain point. As with athletes, the secret to success comes with structure, discipline and focus.
Most of the time, success does not happen overnight or on the first try. There will be times when you will want to give up and when you will feel you have nothing left. You will ponder the challenges and you will wonder what possessed you to do this in the first place. You will run out of money, fans and friends. There will be times when you will simply think you can’t. The same way you train your body for endurance, you must also train (or trick) your mind for perseverance. It is your mind that will push you that final step, or hold you back from realizing your dream. If you succumb to the trickery of your mind and think you can’t, then you won’t.
I made it that day and I can tell you unequivocally, it wasn’t the apricots.
©2014 – All images and content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.