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The Next Small Step

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

A few years ago, my partner, Behrad, and I decided to summit Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous US. Although tall, it is relatively simple to climb, with a clearly marked path that people often hike in just one day. Being avid hikers, we thought it sounded like a great challenge.

We set a date for June, but the weather took an unexpected turn. Late-season blizzards meant that the trail was completely covered in snow, and we would need crampons and ice axes to make our way to the top. This also meant that instead of hiking up 99 gently-sloping switchbacks, we had to climb an alternative route called "The Chute." This basically meant trudging up a steep slope through snow for two hours straight.

We woke up at 2am to start our ascent. The first few hours were difficult in the high altitude, and I was exhausted by the time we reached The Chute. I struggled up the first section of the slope. My feet sunk into the snow with each step, and my body ached. I looked up at the seemingly endless climb ahead of us and felt completely overwhelmed. There was no way I could sustain my effort for two hours to make it to the top. I collapsed into the snow, feeling completely drained. I wanted so badly to make it to the summit, but it was just too far.

Behrad came to my side and told me not to worry. He suggested that rather than focusing on making it to the top, we should focus on going 50 steps. After 50 steps, we could take a break and see if we had the energy to continue. I agreed to this plan. The summit was impossible, but 50 steps seemed like a reasonable goal. After catching my breath, we continued the climb, counting each step along the way.

One... two... three... four...

I focused simply on the next step and listened to my mind noting the numbers. As we reached the 50 step mark, I could feel a boost in motivation and a sense of excitement, knowing that we were close to our next break.

Forty-seven... forty-eight... forty-nine...

And finally, fifty. We took a break. We caught our breath. I was surprised to find that I was feeling better and more energized than I had been earlier. I still wasn't sure if I could make it to the summit, but I knew I could go another fifty steps. And once we completed those fifty, we did another, and another, until finally we made it to the top.

Behrad and me at the Mt Whitney summit in 2019

It was a valuable lesson for me. Of course, I knew that big goals are accomplished in small steps, however I didn't truly grasp the power of small steps until my Whitney climb. And it's a lesson I've taken with me to apply to all goals in my life.

Establishing an art career is a monumental task, and if you try to wrap your mind around all of the necessary steps, it's completely overwhelming. You have to master your craft, build a body of work, find and grow your audience, cultivate relationships with galleries and collectors, learn business skills, and so much more. Looking at the mountain of tasks to be done, it's easy to become discouraged and give up.

When I am feeling overwhelmed, I think of my Whitney climb and remind myself that everything is just an accumulation of small steps. Maybe doing an entire painting is too intimidating. But I can break it into smaller steps, sketching out the underpainting today and adding color tomorrow. Maybe designing a whole website sounds impossible, but I can start by buying a domain name. Maybe I can't imagine growing a large social media following, but I can post each day to slowly broaden my reach.

These small steps alone don't seem like much, and it's easy for the inner critic to say "it's not even worth it, if that's all you're going to do." However, I know from experience that these steps add up. I know that each small step will bring me closer to accomplishing my goals. Knowing this, I simply focus on the next step and keep moving forward.

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