Last week, long before the first rays of sun started to warm the eastern sky, I waded into the waters of Lake Kalamalkha (Vernon, B.C.) and jumped atop a stand-up paddle board. Alongside me were Duff Gibson -- Olympic Gold Medalist at Torino -- and his teammate Kelly Forbes. Our goal: to paddle 100km before sunset.
Warming the high school basketball bench marked the previous peak of my athletic career, so setting out beside two former national team athletes to face this physical challenge was intimidating. Worse still, until two months earlier, I had never even seen a standup paddle board (or SUP).
After mail-ordering an inflatable board and 3-piece paddle, I headed to a lake near my home in British Columbia's mountains, where spring ice clung to shady shorelines. Shakily, I set off. Within five minutes I'd already tumbled in; splutter and shivering. A mere six kilometres of paddling left me sore and tired; an inauspicious start.
But day after day, week after week, I went back. Soon I was paddling 20km, then 30km. Some days the wind howled, the angry water full of white caps, and I spent most of the time balanced timidly on my knees. But other days I glimpsed speed, and found the hours passing easily.
The most noticeable effect of all this preparation was the joy it brought to my life -- which might be counterintuitive, because make no mistake, it was hard work. But suddenly, there was a spring in my step, and a focus to each day.
My life has been marked by big projects and seemingly "impossible" challenges -- riding camels across Arabia, rafting forbidden African rivers, even writing books after failing high school English. With the SUP challenge, I recognized once again the tonic-like effect a goal -- beckoning on the horizon -- can have on life.
Around the same time, a good friend made a hushed confession over dinner: "I think I'm addicted to my new smartphone."
Sure, it is a common issue, but my barefoot, sun-saluting, Tibetan-chanting friend embodies a purity and detachment that runs counter to our busy, modern existence. And she was chronically hooked? Yes indeed, there she was again, peeking under the table, checking email and social media while waiting for her vegan bean salad.
I'm no psychologist, but I'd be willing to wager that the majority of people (myself included) experience a tiny spark of pleasure -- a nibble of happiness let's call it -- when receiving a message on their phone.
Life today is rich with opportunities for such "quick nibbles" of happiness; a specialty coffee in the morning, our favourite television show at night, weekend shopping. Without realizing it, these little rewards can become the focus of our days, months -- even years.
But sadly, the little nibbles don't accumulate into anything meaningful. Nor do they endure. Consider this: Could 100 coffees, or even 1,000 emails, ever compare to satisfaction you'd feel after writing a book, or climbing Kilimanjaro, or learning to speak Japanese, or whatever sparks your personal imagination? Clearly not. But these little nibbles -- which make us comfortable and not truly happy -- numb the motivation to dive into bigger challenges.
Remember the hand-scrawled recipe card that went viral a few years ago? On one side, a small circle labelled: Your Comfort Zone. Opposite it, in a much larger circle: Where the Magic Happens.
We all recognize this, instinctively, to be true. I've seen the phenomenon over and over, in every realm of my career. Participants on No Opportunity Wasted -- a CBC reality series for which I was the host -- continue to reap the rewards of facing fears years after their episodes aired. Travelers with Canadian River Expeditions -- where I have guided for 18 seasons -- invariably arrive in the Arctic worried about bears and bugs and cold, but leave with life-changing memories. And I'd seen it in my own expeditions. From the Himalaya to Arabia, from Burma to Bhutan, it was the journeys that gave me butterflies beforehand that really matter when I look back.
During the marathon SUP challenge itself, long hours of rhythmic, almost Zen-like paddling, offered time to reflect on the experience. The two months of preparation had reinforced many things I already knew to be true: fear points towards opportunities; there are only so many tomorrows; little steps can overcome insurmountable obstacles; and there are always bozos who scoff at our dreams. As the minutes and kilometres ticked by, and exhaustion grew, a small part of me felt forlorn that the empowering experience would soon end.
Eighteen hours later, as darkness again enveloped the lake, Duff, Kelly, and I crunched onto the beach, 100 kilometres behind us. If one thing felt clear, it was this: Every part of the process -- the trepidation, the learning, the growth, the setbacks, and the ultimate achievement -- had been a joy.
This summer, I am thrilled to be part of Husqvarna Canada's "Challenge the Impossible" Story Contest -- a chance to tackle your own personal challenge, an initiative meant inspire Canadian's out of their comfort zone, and into the magic of human possibility. By sharing a personal challenge you overcame at www.husqvarna.com/ca/en/stories/ until August 11, 2013, you can inspire others, and possibly win some great prizes too. But most importantly, you can put aside the little nibbles of happiness for a few days, and take a big bite out of life.
So this summer, think about what gives you goose bumps, and then do it. Don't compare or judge your "challenge" with others. Whether it means taking an autistic child camping, learning to read a foreign language, or swimming across the cottage lake -- if it represents a leap outside your own comfort zone, that's all that matters.