Sometimes, the most important lessons in life are the most difficult to learn. One of these lessons is about how much we can learn from our limitations; how learning to cope with and overcome our limitations can make us better.
I just got back from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology conference in Atlanta. I attended some very interesting sessions on topics such as leadership and social media in the workplace. Our own symposium on procrastination went very well with a standing-room-only crowd that spilled out into the hallway. It seems procrastination is a relevant topic to industrial/organizational contexts.
My blog today isn't about one of these sessions, however (I'll write about that soon). Travel to and from Atlanta provided lots of time for reading, so I finished Lance Mackey's autobiography. Regular readers of my blog may recognize Lance from my previous blog entry. Although the context is long-distance dog sled mushing, the topic is relevant to everyone, particularly "Don't Delay" blog readers - goal pursuit.
A cancer survivor, Lance Mackey's story has some of the elements of the other world famous Lance, Lance Armstrong. In fact, Lance Mackey happily participated in Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong program with this video and related speaking engagements.
I recommend this book highly to anyone struggling in life. Lance's own story involves many struggles. He felt lost and angry in his teens and 20's. Struggled to rise up from what felt like his own "rock bottom," and then came face-to-face with a life-threatening cancer. Since the surgery and radiation treatment for the cancer, Lance now struggles daily with chronic pain of all sorts and ongoing medical issues (the details of which I'll leave for you to read about).
Lance and Limitations
Let me give you one small but salient example of how Lance has learned to cope with his limitations. His cancer treatment meant the loss of his salivary glands. Unable to make saliva, he needs to drink water just to swallow. So, his water bottle is a constant companion. This may seem a simple thing in everyday life, but it takes on unimaginable difficulty when you consider that Lance races thousands of miles each winter with his dog team in sub-zero temperatures (which can be -40 or colder!). Just keeping the water from freezing is a feat. Learning to drink (and eat) often and lots was another task all of its own.
Dealing with his limitations takes special preparations on Lance's part. He has to focus quite specifically and strategically on how he can meet his own needs while he cares for his dog team and races competitively. It's worth noting that veterinarians in both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod have given Lance the highest award possible for his dog care. Despite his own limitations, Lance has learned how to care for his dogs to the utmost degree and win these races year after year unlike anyone in the sport.
The message for me was clear throughout the book. Limitations are what you make of them. Where there is a will, there is a way, as they say. Lance had the will not just to survive cancer, but to thrive despite the limitations it brought to him. In fact, dealing with his limitations was a factor in his success. As he acknowledges in the closing pages of his book,
"In the end, thinking so much about overcoming my limitations
probably makes me a better musher" (p. 239)
This is a lesson for each of us as we face our own limitations. Rather than using them as an excuse not to try or as an after-the-fact self-handicap to explain away our less than expected performance, we can learn from our strategic coping to thrive despite our limitations.
Lance knows that his fans and readers do this in their own lives all of the time. His own life challenges and successes have not blinded him to his common humanity. As he writes when reflecting on his hopes for his book,
"I hope I have inspired others - like they inspire me - to reach out for your goal" (p. 257).
Lance has inspired me and many other readers. His story shows just how far we can go in pursuit of our goals when we plan carefully and put in the hard work necessary. He shows us how we can make our dreams come true even when the rest of the world might think we are really just dreaming.
I think it's clear that I admire Lance. He's a man who has discovered his passions, and strives towards them fully. I totally understand this. In particular, his passion for his vocation as a dog musher mirrors my own sentiments of my academic vocation. As Lance writes in the closing sentences of his book, "I wouldn't trade this for any other job in the world. This is my life, my priceless, precious life" (p. 258).
Knowing that our lives are priceless and precious - a hard-earned understanding that is often forged in our struggles with mortality as Lance did with his cancer - ensures that we won't waste our time needlessly. We will do what it takes to live our dreams today.
Mackey, L. (2010). The Lance Mackey Story: How My Obsession with Dog Mushing Saved My Life. Zorro Books, Fairbanks, AK.
Blogger's note: As I write this, Lance and his wife Tanya are fishing for Marlin while soaking up some southern sun. Family, friends and fans are smiling. Congratulations again Lance and Tanya!