While out running one beautiful, early summer’s morning, nearly 20 years ago, I learned a simple principle that has stuck with me, and guided me, ever since: the principle of ‘The Next Step’.
The sun was low in the sky, the breeze was refreshingly cool, and it was too early for the morning traffic to have built to its frantic, rush-hour levels. It was just me, my music and the street. Perfect. Perfect at least until I hit the half-mile marker, that is. Yes, you read that right – the half-mile marker.
As I passed the bus shelter that acted as my ‘you’ve made it a whole half mile!’ signal, I began to feel like I had nothing left in the tank. And, with four and half miles still to go, that was not a good thing.
Determined not to give in, I fixed my gaze on where I knew the one-mile marker lay, and began a mental war of words as I tried to convince myself I could – and would – make it at least that far.
The more I peered into the distance, however, the further away that mile-marker seemed. And the ‘you can’t do this’ voice became way, way louder than the ‘you’ve got this’ voice. I knew I was losing the battle.
About to give up and turn back, I heard another voice – a voice I recognised, but wasn’t mine. The voice said ‘Andy, don’t concern yourself with how far you have to go. Simply lower your gaze and focus on your next step’.
I took heed, lowered my gaze and, as instructed, attempted to focus on my next step. It felt awkward to be looking down, and I imagined that I would run straight into a tree, or a signpost, at any moment. But I persevered and, gradually, began to find a groove.
Even so, the urge to look up was strong and, each time I succumbed, the sense of impending defeat returned. So, I began to chant ‘next step’, over and over, in my head. ‘Next step. Next step. Next step.’. Over, and over, and over.
As I watched each step hit the tarmac, and heard the voice in my head remind me that my point of focus was where my foot would land next, the urge to look up subsided.
As I focused on each step, I became more aware of everything around me than I ever remember being before – on any other run, or, indeed, at any other time. I could hear each inhale and exhale. I could feel each step. I felt ‘present’ – fully alive in that moment.
Later that day, as I reflected on that run (which, incidentally, I completed in a time slightly better than my average), I realised that to focus on your next step was not just a lesson for running, it was a lesson for life, and it was this:
Success or failure, in whatever you are doing – whether it’s running, raising a family, building a career or pursuing the adventure into your real life – lies in where you put your focus.
Of course, part of your focus must be on what lies ahead – it’s important to know where you are heading. But, when your focus is too far into the distance, you set yourself up to fail.
You see, when you look into the distance, you see only small pieces of what lies ahead, rather than the full picture. You quickly become overwhelmed as you see the ravines and cliffs that lie between where you are and where you want to be, but not the paths through, around or over them.
Those paths are only revealed to you when you are fully present in that space in which you find yourself in that moment.
If your gaze is fixed not on what lies in the distance but, instead, on your next step, you encounter every detail. You awaken your senses to the richness of where you find yourself; and to the opportunities and challenges around you. Sure, you see the ravine or cliff right in front of you, but you also see the path that will take you beyond it.
You see, in everything, and especially in the adventure into your real life, success is not the product of giant leaps. No, success is the product of many, many steps – some small, some large, but all taking place in the present, not some distant, far off space in the future.
And so it must be, because you cannot know with certainty the steps you will need to take tomorrow. But you can, and do, know with certainty what steps you must take today.
The challenge is not to see far into the distance, but to see where your foot must land right now. So, keep a picture in your mind of that destination at which you want to arrive some way in the future; but keep your focus on where your foot will fall right now – on your next step.
You see, when your focus is on your next step, you can make it count; and when you make it count, you will see your dream – the life you long for – your real life – become a reality.