I have a story to share with you this week as you prepare for finals and complete your projects.
When I was about 8 years old my father and I went on our first overnight hike into the mountains above our home in Cache Valley. I remember being so very excited for my first backpacking trip with dad. We loaded up our packs with sleeping bags, a tent, food and water, snacks, and every other little thing we needed, and drove up Logan Canyon to a place called Tony’s Grove, where we parked our car and started walking up the trail to the summit ridge.
I remember having unbounded energy at the beginning of our hike. Eventually my little legs became tired and I started dragging myself along, barely keeping up. My backpack (which weighed almost nothing) started feeling incredibly heavy. The ridge, way up above, seemed forever distant and impossible to reach. My exuberance of the morning turned into exhaustion of the afternoon and my exhaustion turned into discouragement and resignation. I realized I would never make it. I was too small and too tired to get to the top. I was ready to give up and be content with half an effort.
My father had taken other little boys up this trail before. I have three brothers and he knew exactly what to do. He distracted me. He diverted my mind from the seemingly impossible summit task and focused my attention on short, easy goals. “Can we sit down?” I asked. He looked up the trail and said enthusiastically, “Sure, but first, look at that tree up there. That looks like a great place to rest!” The tree wasn’t so far up the trail and I knew I could walk that short distance. So we continued on. Upon reaching the tree my father looked further up the trail and said with a great big smile, “Look at that large rock up there! Let’s go take a look at it.” And so thinking only of the rock, I moved on up to the outcrop. When we arrived at the limestone boulder by the trail he said, “I wonder what we can see from the bend in the trail just up ahead? I’ll bet there’s a great view of the valley from there. Do you want to go see?” And on we went—one small goal after the next—forgetting the big impossible task way up ahead. And before I knew it we were standing on the summit ridge. I had it in me all along. To get there, all my father had to do was help me stop thinking about the big overwhelming task that made me discouraged and help me focus on small, achievable goals. With his help I walked farther than I imagined possible. And I could have kept going.
My father is no longer around to encourage me up the increasingly steep paths I walk in life but I will never forget what I learned from him on that trail. It has become my life’s metaphor. As I grow older my hikes have become longer and my summits more challenging. What I learned that day applies in every aspect of my professional, community, and personal life. Sometimes, even today, when I am overwhelmed by a big project at work or home I draw a connection with what I learned as an 8-year-old on that mountain trail with my dad. I identify simple, little goals. I sometimes even talk to myself. “Scott,” I whisper, “Look at that large rock up there! Let’s go take a look at it.” I know I can walk that far. And on I go.
Every big job you and I face in our future will require knowledge, skill and grit. One of our goals at the university is to help you develop these tools and important character traits. Please, don’t become discouraged as you prepare for finals and complete your projects. Focus on short, simple goals. When you are tempted to quit early, get up, stretch your muscles, run around the building, grab a snack, and then talk yourself into just reading ten more minutes, completing five more problems, memorizing three more terms or writing one more page. And when you have done that ask yourself to do it one more time. And then do it again. You’ve been going all semester. You are close to the summit of this year. Keep working to the end of the trail. The skills and grit you develop during these brief but challenging times turn you slowly into an amazing, more capable person.
I look forward to congratulating those of you who will be walking at commencement next week and seeing the rest of you back at SUU this fall. Please know that all of us here at Southern Utah University are cheering you on. Our work is focused on helping you reach your summits. If you need someone to help you walk the last few steps of this semester please let one of us know. Your friends at SUU are here to help. Remember it’s beautiful on the summit ridge—keep going!
(Oh yes, and have a great summer!)
Scott L Wyatt, President
Southern Utah University