Day 25 of my 40 Day Blog Challenge. If I thought Id’d set myself a challenge doing this blog for 40 days, then Josiah Skeats is a challenge legend! I have been following his blog as he cycles around the world, from the UK toward Australia. As a keen cyclist myself, I know how disheartening it can be when you are cycling into a bit of a headwind, let alone some of the crazy conditions Josiah has faced. So I figured I’d ask him about resilience, and he has so kindly written the following blog for us on the subject. Please do check out his personal blog, or follow him on Facebook, it is a truly wonderful story.
Of the many lessons you learn on a 25,000 kilometre cycling journey around the world, learning to be resilient, and to overcome difficult situations is one of the most valuable. Contrary to what you might imagine, the physical challenge of cycling such a vast distance pales in comparison to the mental challenges.
The definition of resilience is vague, described as ‘an ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions’, which seems to raise questions as to how we can develop this ability in ourselves. Is it something we can learn or something we are either born with or not? This blog post explores some of what I have learnt about resilience on my trip.
Six weeks after leaving England, I reached Austria and the Alps, my first taste of the mountains. At 22, I was still adjusting to being fully independent in a way I hadn’t been even at University. Halfway up the mountain I felt exhausted, and found the prospect of reaching the top terrifying and unlikely. I stared at the cars roaring past me, desperately hoping one would help me out, almost reliant upon these strangers. Sure enough, a van stopped ahead, and the driver offered to put my bike in the back and drive me to the top, for free. But that would be failure – I had to cycle it – and in that moment I realised that no-one else could help me, that it was I alone who was going to get me to the top. Shifting my focus from others solving my problems, to doing so myself was a small but empowering shift in mindset, removing the excuses I had and giving me the strength to withstand the difficulty and reach the top myself. I had just learnt what it meant to be resilient, and the importance of that.
A year later, I was in Tajikistan, once again in the mountains and reliant upon myself. I’d had my fourth puncture in less than an hour. I was hungry and tired, recovering from food poisoning, and still three days of off-road cycling and a 4,200 metre pass from the nearest village. Only four cars had passed the last day. Every part of me wanted to stop cycling and wallow in self-pity by the side of the road, and I had to wrestle with my brain, fighting to continue with every pedal stroke. After an hour I was still sorry for myself, but I was an hour closer to the next village than if I had slumped by the side of the road. In this situation, as is normally the case, stopping to feel sorry for myself would have been meaningless; perhaps that is an indicator of people with high resiliency, that they continue rather than dwelling in self-pity.
Continuing wasn’t easy. I wasn’t looking at the bigger picture, thinking of reaching the village three days away. I was wondering what lay round the next corner. I was counting my pedal strokes to ten, and then starting again. Staring down between my feet to watch the ground rushing past. People with high resiliency understand that you don’t suddenly leave difficulty behind, normally it is a process and requires great effort. But they do understand that difficulties are only temporary; they won’t last forever, and if you persevere you will eventually be in a better position. I knew as long as I continued cycling I would eventually leave the mountains.
Perhaps these examples of suffering in the mountains sound negative. But that is not the case, indeed when I’m planning my route through a country I actually look for the most mountainous areas, and the smallest, preferably unpaved roads. This reflects another important lesson: ‘difficult’ and ‘bad’ are not synonyms. Challenge (and resultantly achievement) is a part of life, and actually a good thing for the way it forms who we are and the experiences and lessons we take from it. In a world telling us that ‘comfort’ is the ultimate objective and where everything we need (and much more) seems so readily available, it is easy to shy away from obstacles and exertion. But, if you look at those you admire or those who are achieving the most, they will have rejected the call to comfort, and willingly accepted difficulty in their life. There is a power in knowing you are doing a good thing which will aid you in times of struggle.
Pursuant to the previous point, challenge doesn’t necessarily feel like a good thing at the time. Life is unpredictable, full of twists and turns. I have been arrested in Uzbekistan, and had my bike break in the desert 1,000 kilometres from the nearest bike shop. I reached China and had my visa denied, forcing me to fly to India (I had really wanted to reach Australia with no flights), without any preparation. All seemed very negative at the time, but they have become a rich part of my journey, and I now look back on them as positive experiences. In all moments of change and adversity, I have found it useful to search for the positives and new opportunities that have arisen. This is far easier to do in some situations than others; a minor issue on a bike trip is insignificant compared to the problems some people are battling, but the principle remains the same. If you can find 5 positive things to say about a negative situation, you have made the first and most important step towards overcoming that situation, and becoming more resilient.
So yes, resilience is something which can be learned and improved upon, primarily by exposure to, and overcoming, difficult situations. But, it is also a choice. You will note in each of these examples I had to decide to overcome the challenge. I actively searched for the positives in going to India and not China, I counted my pedal strokes to 10 and I resolved to reach the top of the mountain. These were my strategies to overcome the scenarios I was facing.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off into the mountains of Vietnam which promise to be an exciting new challenge. And that’s a good thing.