Not a marathon, not a mountain

When I was 7 years old I was invited to run a 400m race (approximately 440yards). I had no idea how long that was. I remember thinking I needed to pace myself. I was prepared to get injured, and persevere, to breathe until my lungs burned. But I was gonna make it. These other kids probably didn’t even prepare!

The day was overcast and chilly when we finally toed the starting line. Then it was over in a few measly seconds. It turned out everyone in my class could run 400m full out. In fact you could run the race several times a day without getting very tired.

In my mind it had been a marathon. But in reality, it wasn’t. A lot of problems we struggle with are like this.

It looked like a marathon to me because I lacked perspective, and I expected this new thing to be difficult. I didn’t know it back then, but I was exhibiting learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is behavior exhibited by a subject after enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control.”


The term was popular for a long time before it was discovered that this definition is actually backwards. We are born helpless, and our default mode of being is helplessness. What we need to learn is that more things are within our power to than we believe. Problems are solvable. We are not fated by birth, nor doomed by our situation.

We start learning this as children, but most of us stop after a certain point. Where that point is, can define your world view.

Most problems in life are like my race. Even many mental issues are like this. The situation might be hard, or the emotion overwhelming, but the actual issue is our lack of experience. We haven’t learned that we can change them.

Popular media portrays some people as having been through tough times, down on their luck, burned out. While other people are portrayed as if nothing bad ever happens in their lives, like they were born with a surplus of luck. And there are real differences – especially at a young age – that shape us in ways that are hard to undo. But this world view is mostly wrong.

It’s more likely that person A with infinite luck has seen more adversity than person B who’s down on their luck. In fact that’s the main reason why person A has better tools to handle problems. This portrayal and world view is holding us back. It’s helping us stay in the comfort zone, full of anxiety about the marathon of hurdles between us and our goals.

Of course we need appropriate amounts of adversity to grow instead of burning out, but most of us probably need more adversity, not less. And the only way to truly know is to try it.

That huge problems that’s currently stopping you? It’s not a marathon, it just feels like it. At the finish line, you’ll look back and wonder why you spent all that time waiting to run. You can do this.