When climbing any mountain, focus on the steps, not on how steep it is

Back in December, I hiked a segment of the Inca trail over several days to eventually end up at Machu Picchu. This photo is of me looking on to Huayna Picchu (in Quechua, literally “the young peak”, where Machu Picchu is “the old peak”); about 400m (or 1,300ft) of vertical hiking that I still had ahead of me.

The problem is that a previous hike two days before of twice that height elsewhere on the trail had given me really sore blisters on my feet, I had only slept 3 hours the night before so that I could get in to watch the sunrise from the ruins, I only had a small bottle of water – not enough for a full morning of activity, and the mountain awaiting me was a lot bigger in person than it looks in photos.

400m in one morning isn’t that much compared to real hikes, but looking at that big peak and then realizing that you have to go down again from the ruins before you even start hiking up (so it’s even bigger a hike than it looks), was really intimidating, especially in my current exhausted and thirsty state. (3 months of eating too many IHOP breakfasts in the states just before this definitely wasn’t helping my physical state)

Maybe I should have been sensible and realized that I just wasn’t meant to do this hike.

But after a few wasted moments of despair, I discarded the negativity, and just got started on it. I stopped thinking about all the problems I had, stopped being such a crybaby and just got on with it.

Whatever countless number of steps awaited me didn’t matter. The way I got to the top was simply by focusing on making each step, and reaching my next rest point. Some parts of that mountain are so steep that you can only hike them with the support of holding on to a rope, so it would tire you out quite a lot at times. However, I saw a point that I was determined to make it to just up ahead, and thought of nothing but getting to that point. My impatience to do so meant that I would get there that bit quicker, focusing on the task rather than my physical limitations.

I don’t know how many steps it was and don’t care. All I know is that I had my mini goals of reaching one particular point so that I could rest, and as painful as it was to get to each one, I soldiered on through until I did. I didn’t like that hiking experience at all (you try doing it with blisters on your feet while smiling), but disliking it made me want to get it over with to reach the top that much quicker.

While perhaps I could have done it better if I was better prepared with exactly the right hiking equipment (not buying crappy shoes for $15 a week before would have helped), I dealt with problems as they arose. When I ran out of water, I used the most valuable resource available to me and simply asked for another kind hiker to share some of his with me. If you are more pragmatic about things, and focus only on progress and the most urgent immediate problem, you will solve it, and the only way you can go is up!

Focusing on how damn steep the mountain is and how many problems I had, would have been a terrible way to go about getting to the top. All that matters is getting there in as efficient a way as possible.

By focusing on the steps and getting to the next rest-point, I did indeed reach the top. Perhaps other people enjoy taking their time with the hike, but it was this view that I was looking forward to most, and it was totally worth it when I got there. Of course, I stopped for a long time to take it all in and swap stories with other hikers.

While this post is about a hiking experience from someone who is not an experienced hiker, it actually has everything to do with language learning and taking on any seemingly daunting task. When climbing your mountain, are you so intimidated by how steep and tall it is, that you get too dizzy to even move forward?

Getting to the top of that mountain seemed next to impossible when looking up from the base, and the actual process definitely wasn’t easy, but there is no “impossible” when dealing with so many real world tasks. Break it up to solve the tasks you have right now, and don’t get stuck. Because I focused on the task itself, rather than its “impossibility”, I was progressing the entire time and I did indeed get to the top.

Feed any opportunities and starve the problems; it’s the best possible way forward.

With the same mentality, getting to the top of a mountain of speaking a foreign language can also be within your reach. Forget about how much you don’t know yet – that doesn’t matter and a woe-is-me attitude about how hard it is will never, in a million years, actually help you.

All that matters is progress. Think about that progress and nothing else. How steep the entire mountain is, is irrelevant. Can you deal with your current one little piece of it? Good. After that, you’ll deal with the next one. Before you know it, how steep that mountain is won’t even matter – you will eventually get to the top!

Let me know about the mountains that you are facing in the comments below!



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  • Matt

    Mr Lewis, 
    You are an inspiration.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      I’m just a not-so-fit engineer who managed to climb a mountain that hundreds of thousands of other people have before me, and many will after me. Every challenge I face is something many have dealt with before me, and I may have had some setbacks they didn’t, but I worked around them – hopefully in reminding people of that, they’ll give their big challenge a better try too :)

  • Simon J

    Great advice. Could be applied to every big project in life, not just language learning (though it is particularly applicable for that giant mountain!) I wouldn’t be able to even face my PhD work every day without thinking like this.

    When people said it takes 3000 hours of Mandarin practice to become truly fluent, that almost put me off. But then I remembered how much I’ve done already, and how happy it makes me to have come as far as I have (in perhaps 100-150 hours of learning)

    Coincidentally to your current mission, there’s a famous Chinese quote from the Dao De Jing that applies here:

    千里之行,始於足下- The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.
    – Laozi

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      That’s right – the reworded quote is quite popular in English via the original Chinese and really applies to so many things!

  • David

    What a great article Benny. The title is perfect. Thanks for posting.

    [irrelevant link removed]

  • Glyakk

    Thank you for this post, been having some “Machu Picchu” moments lately and not sure how I will overcome them, and I do not really have the option not to. I have been dragging my feet with getting started. I feel more enthusiastic about it now.

    The view must have been incredible from up there.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      A photo can never describe it – I EARNED that view, and could see the long path that I had just come from. This is way more beautiful than appreciating some random mountains, since I had a true scope and appreciation of the distances involved.

      I know what you mean, but the secret really is to stop thinking about it so much and get a move on in whatever way you can. Best of luck!

  • Andris

    Benny,  Just wanted to write a quick thank you.  I am living abroad and had to deposit money today for the first time for my rent.  “Bank terms” are not ones I’m familiar with yet, and I was scared, but I had the thought “What would Benny do?”  So I went in with a smile, explained to one of the tellers the best that I could what I needed, ignored my mistakes, cared little about embarrassing myself, and successfully deposited my money not using English at all.

    Anyway, thank you for your encouragement and wise words!  I love your blog!
    Please write a blog for how I can get my mom to stop Skyping me and making me speak English. :D

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Great work Andris!! :)

  • Himalaya Guide


    Good Blog. Its
    enjoyable to read.

    Nepal Tour

  • Lee Richardson

    I have reached a stop in my Spanish learning and have tried every approach i can think of.I just simply cannot progress.I have stayed positive,concentrated on small steps ,honed the things i do know etc etc .Any sound bite you can think of …i have done it.I CANNOT become fluent .It is driving me INSANE .I get so far and then my brain packs up.Same with French.WHY WHY WHY ? Agggghhhhhhh !!

    • Joe Gabriel – Fi3M Team

      you’ve hit a wall!! Just two questions: 1) What is your current level of Spanish? 2) How do you define fluent?