One of the rites of passage I underwent as a young man was compulsory military service for a period of over two years. This still is a facet of life in Singapore, and many men recall their military conscription period as a significant part of their transition from boys into mature men.
The demands of military life meant that rigorous physical training was the daily norm. We took part in regular calisthenic exercises and went for runs nearly every alternate day to toughen us up.
As a more academically-inclined student, I was woefully unprepared for the physical rigours. Many of the young men in my cohort were similarly unprepared and for us, physical training was akin to a living hell which we had to endure. Many of us had to endure long hours of remedial training and exercises to enable us to pass our physical training.
One aspect that I particularly dreaded was running. I was great at sit-ups and moderately good at the other physical exercises but running was one area that I could not excel in. I tired easily and would easily give up, and that would only push the physical training instructors (PTIs) to push me harder and harder. It felt like I was straining against a gigantic boulder and nobody cared that I was getting more and more exhausted each time I strained against the weight.
Then one PTI took me aside and gave me a couple of sentences that gave me a shot in the arm out of my situation.
He said: “When the muscles tire, you can slow down. But never ever stop or walk. Keep running or jogging, even if you are far behind. Keep the momentum.”
I thought he had lost his mind. I was struggling along as it was, and there was no way that my tired leg muscles could have taken the strain. But he continued by saying the next sentence: “If you stop or start walking, you will never keep on running. And you will never finish the race. Keep going, and at least you know you gave it your all.”
I decided to take his advice. Eventually I noticed that I was slowly able to condition myself to the more rigorous training and running schedule. My times improved, and although I never won awards or really excelled as a runner during my military stint, I was able to enjoy it.
Fast forward years later, and I see how that PTI’s advice holds true even in life’s challenges. Many of us start our quests well, but end badly or quit when the going gets tough or challenging. The exercise regimen starts out with gusto, but we get discouraged when we see little improvement, and give up soon afterwards. The plan to write that best-seller starts well with the wee hours devoted to writing but we soon find it hard to keep up, or wake up or put the words to paper or computer screen. End result — the dream bites the dust.
The biggest enemy of our dreams is not our lack of dreaming or resources. It is the lack of consistency.
The road to out dreams is never smooth but will always be filled with obstacles and challenges. Trying to write a book while balancing family and a full-time job? You will have to factor in sick kids, late night visits to the doctor, late hours at work, sickness, sick spouse, sudden setbacks, and a host of other unexpected emergencies that can never be effectively planned for.
Trying to lose weight and balancing a full-time job? Then get ready for late night assignments, illness, family parties and drinking bouts with your buddies. They will set you back as quickly as you move forward.
The only way to get ahead is to keep going. Just keep going and don’t beat yourself over the head when you stumble or fall (and that will be often).
Failed seven times? Never mind, get up eight times! Failed nine times? Get up and go 10 times!
The way that succeeds is often close than we think and victory is nearer than we give credit for. A former teacher told me once: “Many times, you will be discouraged when you cannot master your subject of study, despite all your efforts. But then do not forget how far you have come. You are further along than the others who did not pursue your field of study. And thanks to that, you are not the same person you were before.”
Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said: “If you fall behind, run faster. Never give up, never surrender, and rise up against the odds.”
Former Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg knew what those odds were like when he said: “ I never give up in a match. However down I am, I fight until the last ball. My list of matches shows that I have turned a great many so-called irretrievable defeats into victories.”
When you are discouraged, face it, understand it and take time to rest and internalise it. Then get back into the game. Take the setbacks as opportunities to practise more until you get it right. Thomas Edison said: “ I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Imagine what legacy he would have left behind had he quit at Experiment 10,000 and never moved on to Experiment 10,001?
Author and anti-slavery campaigner Harriet Beacher Stowe expressed this never-say-die spirit well when she said: “When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”
When you keep going despite the odds, you will also know how to handle success when it comes your way. Humans adapt well to bad times, but we often don’t know how to handle success well. Abraham Lincoln knew this trait when he said: “ Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
When Viola Davis became the first black actress to win Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2015, she later told ET: “Tomorrow I go back to work. That’s how I digest it, ’cause I can press the fast-forward button and I know that I’m gonna have to continue to be an actor, continue to make choices, continue to perform in a show every week.”
So the next time the black clouds of discouragement come your way, step back and retreat if you must, but don’t you quit. Check your course, change direction or strategy if you need to, and then get back into the game.
And who knows? Success may be just round the corner this time.
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