Tag Archives: Growth


There’s a poster in the bathroom at the climbing gym that says: Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow.

I really like this. I am moved by it every time I see it, and I have seen it many times. It has pushed me to be a better climber: Do the pull-ups, go through the routine on the hangboard, take the lead fall. It has pushed me to stop running, climb more frequently, and dedicate an afternoon a week to core training. When I started climbing a few years ago, I knew I’d found something special, something that I really loved the way I hadn’t loved anything since I moved away from snow and left my skis behind. I want to be good at it and I have been working to make that happen.

The climbing gym has other inspirational posters (Sometimes stillness is harder than movement and Climbing is like dancing on the wall) that never fail to catch my attention but this is the one that speaks to me the most.

Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow. Just last week I wrote this on the board for my grade 12 students. They are currently sitting their mock exams in preparation for their real AP and IBDP exams in May. Most students’ university acceptances depend on these exams and they are learning right now how prepared they are. So, this is a pivotal time. This is an opportunity for students to gain confidence in what they know and make adjustments to habits and patterns in response to what they don’t know. Are you, right now, doing what is required to get you where you want to be? There is force and agency behind this question, as well as the explicit onus of responsibility.

But there is a significance far beyond grades and university acceptances. There is the cold, hard fact that all of our actions have consequences. The choices we make, and we are constantly making choices, set us on certain paths and allow for different possibilities. This not only affirms who we are, whether or not that is who we want to be, but also lays the foundation for who we will become.

I’ve been thinking back lately to the understanding I had of myself and those around me when I was younger. Over time, I have met people who I look up to, admire, and still aspire to be like, years later. But I have also met people who have had quite the opposite affect. The memories of the words and actions of these people still send anger coursing through my body. Years and years later.

Part of our understanding of where we want to be, therefore, should come with an awareness of who we want to be around. We want to be around people who will lift us up rather than tear us down, people who will answer the phone far too late just because we called when it was far too late. We want to be around people who challenge us in constructive rather than destructive ways, people who give us room to grow. If we are lucky, we will also surround ourselves with people whose trust goes unquestioned, people who have already forgiven our trespasses. And when we find people like this, we should hope that we will know better than to let them go.

Where we are thus encompasses who we are, and who we are helps us make choices about where we want to be. I could not be planning yet another move alone to yet another country had I not made the choice to be the person who makes the most sense to me. And this choice has not come easily, which is also how I know it is right. The life I am living is a life I never could have imagined and I would have laughed at anyone who told me three, six, or ten years ago that this would be my world. Thinking back to what I thought I wanted, and thinking ahead to what I dream about, is sometimes a masochistic exercise fuelled by hard liquor and late nights. But this is the driver of change. Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow.

And according to an artist whose work I bought many years ago when it brought me to tears: If you want something you have never had, you must do something you have never done.

East Coast Park, Singapore – March 2021

On Strength

I first tried to climb the black route on lane one at the climbing gym some time ago. After weeks of alternately attempting and staring at the tricky holds in dismay, I climbed it. The next day, I tackled the purple route, the one with the big sloping handholds. I got higher than I ever have, fell, and then climbed one hold higher. While I had developed my strength since that first attempt, I have also become more deliberate and more precise. In climbing, as in much of our lives, this makes a difference.

Feeling stronger has me thinking about what strength means and where I have found it over time. As a friend once pointed out, I have written about human fragility and vulnerability but I have not focused nearly as much on strength and resilience. I think there are good reasons for this, but that was then. Now is a different time.

I would like to talk here about physical strength in the sense that it takes mental strength to grow physically stronger. I’m reading The Rock Warrior’s Way by Arno Ilgner right now and much of what I’m reading aligns beautifully with my experiences learning meditation. The mind has a remarkable influence on the body and, as Eastern philosophy suggests, there may not be any separation between the two. When I’m feeling happy and positive, the world looks prettier. So too, my body moves more easily. Conversely, when my shoulders are cramped from hunching over a desk and my mind is already in a rut because my shoulders are sore, my body responds unhappily when I ask it to move and my mind continues to complain.

But there is more to strength than the link between mind and body. There is, for example, the sensation of soaring when the two work in concert.

Strength is the feeling that whatever comes next is within my grasp. It is reachable. It is possible.

Strength is the feeling of trust in myself and courage in the face of difficult choices. Strength is the commitment to this thing right here right now rather than acquiescence, resignation, or tacit agreement.

Strength is the ability to challenge oneself and to ask, as I learned in a Coursera course during Singapore’s circuit breaker, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”. Listening to the answer to that question is far more frightening than asking it, but crucial to ask if we are to learn who we are and what we are capable of.

A long time ago, I knew a group of people who measured worth, achievement, and level of respect due someone based on their estimate of the person’s 5k run time. It didn’t matter if you were better than them in any other thing; you couldn’t run a 5k as well as they could. To these young men, speed was the form of strength.

I have been running for about ten years now and I, too, measured my running in terms of speed. A good day was a fast run and a bad day was characterised by a slow run, regardless of how much I might have enjoyed it. Taking time off running, whether for injury or travel or anything else, was sapping the physical strength that defined my understanding of how strong I was or could be. Slowing down, be it physically or mentally, was a sign of weakness, despite how much I might have needed it.

I am older now, older, wiser, and a bit more beaten around by the world than I was back then. I took seven weeks off of running and recently started again, very slowly. But I breathed the air, felt the heat from the sun, and experienced the expansiveness of my heart that comes from being along the water and moving my body in the company of strangers doing the same. Would I have noticed this in the way I did without the time off?

This ability to notice, and then to see, is a sign of strength. Otherwise, I am merely going through the motions without ever doing the hard work of asking why. And without noticing, I fail to take the opportunity to learn.

To be strong means to attempt, to err, and always aim to learn. We are in this life to grow and to leave the world a better place than we found it. Having the humility to recognise that others have things to teach us and that we do not know all is a form of strength.

Recent global events have tested my capacity to tolerate, to embrace, and to be flexible when confronted with things I disagree with, dislike, or wish were different. Personal experience has taught me that while it is important to know what I can and cannot tolerate, there is also a difference between cannot and will not. In many ways, this is a choice.

And I believe I am stronger for having learned that.

And I believe I am stronger for looking at those black and purple climbs and asking, “What if I?” instead of telling myself, “You can’t”.

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.” -Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum

Interlaken, Switzerland – December 2019