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What I learned about goals on the Appalachian Trail

Lao Tzu said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." What does Tim Burke say about a 2,200-mile journey?
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appalachian trail marker

Image by Steve Raubenstine @ Pixabay

As a hiking enthusiast, I had always dreamed of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Every time I drove up into the mountain for a day or weekend trip, I'd think of all the Appalachian Trail hikers and the kinds of people who embark on such a journey—the mental and physical exertion, the months away from family, friends, and work, the lack of those "real-life" creature comforts like hot showers and dry socks.

I finally got the opportunity to hike the Appalachian Trail in April of 2017, and over the course of four and a half months, I completed the entire 2200-mile trip. And though the experience was a very personal journey, I still found myself learning lessons that I felt applied to other areas of life and that I thought might be of use to others on their own personal and professional journeys. In particular, I thought about goals, and how there are ways to go about setting and pursuing them that set you up for success.

Take the first step

When you talk about the Appalachian Trail as a 2200-mile hike through the rugged forest with very little in the way of comfort, it can seem daunting, an unachievable goal. That was me, every time I drove up for a day-hike, just wishing I could be one of the AT hikers. At a certain point, I thought to myself, "well, what exactly is stopping me from being one of those people?" and I found that, upon examination, I was the only one standing in my own way. That very day I sat down and started planning my trip. The next thing I knew, it was time to head up the mountain.

Very often, the only thing you need to do is take the first step toward your goal, and momentum will carry you forward. Taking that first step puts you in the mindset that you are doing this now, you're on this journey, it is no longer just a dream.

Then take the next step

The first three weeks of this hike—this hike that I'd been dreaming of doing for years—were chilly and relentlessly rainy. I can't lie; it was pretty miserable, and I had plenty of longing thoughts about a hot shower and my own warm bed. But how could I quit when I had just started? When I worked so hard to get here? It may have been a sense of pride, or stubbornness, but I was not going to give up. And what that made me realize was, as important as that first step is, it's even more important to take the next one. And then the next one. There's almost always going to be adversity or obstacles that pop up right at the beginning of any journey worth taking.

But you can't let those initial obstacles rob you of what you'll gain from the act of overcoming them. For instance, during those first few rainy weeks, I learned better ways of building shelters and keeping my pack dry, and I was a more skilled hiker after. While I don't wish wet socks on anyone, I do think that the discomfort is minor compared to the skills I learned and the confidence I gained.

Set a series of small goals to get to your larger ones

As I said above, the sheer mileage of this hike is itself daunting, and that's before you think of all of the other challenges along the way. So, instead of thinking of it as a 2200-mile goal, I broke it down into lots of smaller goals and milestones that I thought of as achievable. And wouldn't you know it, they were. When I didn't psych myself out by the idea of hundreds and hundreds of miles of walking but instead set a goal of X number of miles, say, or just hiking until sunset, I made steady progress and felt my confidence growing with each new accomplishment.

This principle applies to pretty much any kind of goal; there are always stops along any journey and ways for you to recognize small achievements along the way. So you haven't become VP of your own division yet, but you've gotten a chance to lead some really cool projects on a smaller team and build your knowledge. Why shouldn't you celebrate that, even if you have other aspirations?

Watch out for hidden pitfalls

To prepare for this long journey on foot, you might think I spent a lot of time walking and hiking to train, right? Well, believe it or not, most of the preparation involved logistic details and doing my homework about the trail itself. The reason people fail to complete the whole hike is usually that something creeps up that they didn't prepare for. This just made me realize that it's not the obvious obstacles that prevent people from reaching their goals; it's the little things that can go wrong and undermine a whole operation. In some ways, it's not preparation but luck that allows some people to overcome those kinds of challenges, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't think creatively and solve for those possibilities ahead of time.

Final thoughts

I suppose it's easier to grasp in retrospect, but finally realizing a years-long goal of mine made me wonder what other goals I might have put off in my life because they seemed too big or I thought I wasn't enough. It's easy for us all to get discouraged by those kinds of thoughts, but it's also possible to shift your mindset and start thinking of any goal as achievable if you just start working toward it. After all, you can't hike 2200 miles if you don't take the first step.

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Topics:   Career   Sysadmin culture  
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Tim Burke

Tim Burke is a founder of RHEL and lead its engineering for over 18 years.  He also lead OpenStack, RHV and Red Hat Storage for many years. Tim loves building teams and leaders. And is most proud that we together at RH have shown the world the power of open source development. More about me

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