Alli Rainey was clinging to a sheer rock overhang 120 feet above the ground when she felt her fingers go numb. She’d spent the last 40 minutes painstakingly working herself up a route called Madness in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. Now at the most difficult part of the climb, she realized the muscles in her hands were about to give out. She looked down at the emptiness below her and screamed in terror as her grip slipped and she tumbled from the rock face. Fifty feet down, her belay rope pulled taut and she bobbed in the air, dangling in her safety harness.
The crazy thing was that Rainey has an incapacitating fear of heights, yet she’s chosen rock climbing as a full-time career. Then again, doing things she believed to be impossible has been a constant theme of Rainey’s life. And she’s not alone. There are people who’ve figured out how to do things that they believe, that they know, are totally beyond their capabilities—and then do them anyway. I call these people The Impossibles. Are you one, too? If you say no, don’t be so sure—someday you could be.
Take Gerry Duffy. In his 20s, he was unambitious and complacent, “blissfully, miserably happy,” as he puts it today. Driving around his native Ireland as a salesman, the only exercise he got was an occasional game of golf. He ate too much and was especially helpless around chocolate bars. Practically every month he’d go on a diet, and hardly a week went by that he didn’t try to quit smoking—“I tried a thousand times,” he says—but inevitably he’d fail within days. He knew he ought to live better, but he had no idea how to make his resolutions stick.
Then one day he was at a golf event and had his picture taken with his personal hero, the Spanish champion Seve Ballasteros. When Duffy looked at the photo, he was shocked by the appearance of the chubby man standing next to the legendary duffer. Like an alcoholic hitting rock-bottom, Duffy had a moment of clarity. Come hell or high water, he told himself, he somehow had to turn his life around.
Duffy came up with a counterintuitive plan. Instead of vowing to change everything he hated about himself overnight, he decided to focus his energy on tackling one small, simple goal: He would walk. Every night, seven nights a week, he’d head out after dinner and walk for an hour. It was easy and pleasant, and very quickly he established a track record for himself. Before long the walk became effortless.
For the first time in his life, Duffy was actually taking charge of himself. He was winning. And that motivated him to make his goals incrementally bigger. He cleaned out all the candy from his cupboards and allowed himself only one chocolate bar per week. He started getting up early and going for a morning run.
Duffy was no expert in physiology or psychology, but he’d managed to hit upon a remarkably effective approach to self-transformation. He took an incremental step that was significant enough to feel worthwhile, but small enough to feel easily within his grasp. “The most important thing about goals,” he says, “is that they have to be realistic.”
Duffy was able to make his program permanent. By the time he reached his 30s, he was back to his high school weight and ready for more challenges. “I thought, What else can I do?” he recalls. So he quit a well-paying job, went back to school, and then started his own company. Six months later, his brother invited him to take part in a triathlon. Duffy accepted the challenge, and took part as a member of a relay team. He loved it so much that the next year he ran a whole triathlon by himself, then a double-triathlon.
Starting with one small, easy step, Duffy began a process of gradual transformation that led him ultimately to a state of extraordinary self-mastery. In 2010 he ran 32 marathons all over Ireland in 32 consecutive days. The following year, he won an international endurance race called the Deca, which consisted of 10 full-length triathlons over the course of 10 consecutive days. As Duffy puts it, “If you had told me even five years ago that I was going to run 10 triathlons in 10 days, I would have said, ‘That’s impossible.’ ”
Gerry Duffy, now 45, isn’t an alien. When he set out to change his life, he was just like you and me. What was different about him is that he found a counterintuitive way to work around the inertia inherent in being human.
We often choose ineffective strategies because we misunderstand how the mind really works. You often hear human beings are “creatures of habit.” Now it’s certainly true that we spend a good portion of the average day engaged in habitual behaviors—brushing our teeth or driving to work. It can take a certain amount of effort and perseverance to wipe out bad habits (like cracking your knuckles) and instill good ones (like flossing). But the kind of life change Duffy accomplished is an order of magnitude more difficult than merely changing a habit. You don’t smoke or eat too much or skip exercise out of habit; you do those things because you want to do them. You also want to not do them. There’s a collision of desires within your brain.
Psychologists who study self-control have long puzzled over why we should find ourselves in this kind of struggle. After all, if someone perceives a course of action as being in his own best interest, why shouldn’t he be able to just do it?
Back in the late ’60s, psychiatrist George Ainslie was conducting research into pigeon behavior and noticed a funny thing about the way the birds make decisions. He set up an experiment in which he gave pigeons the choice between a button that would reward them with 4 ounces of grain in 14 seconds and a button that would give them 1 ounce of grain in 10 seconds. Both rewards were off in what to a pigeon seemed like the distant future, so they preferred the reward that was bigger in absolute terms, the 4 ounces of grain. But if they had to wait eight seconds for the 4 ounces and only two seconds for the 1 ounce, they now had six seconds more to wait for the 4 ounces, so they then preferred the smaller amount.
Ainslie called this tendency to prefer immediate payoffs “hyperbolic discounting,” and it isn’t limited to pigeons. It’s something all animals do, including human beings. When we think about two future rewards, one big (like being healthy) and one small (like the pleasure of sitting on the sofa), we want the greater one right up until the moment the smaller one is right in front of us. Our subconscious reward-processing center flips its preference, willy-nilly.
“We all overvalue the present,” says Ainslie. “That’s what original sin is.” This tendency to cave to temptation is annoying, but it’s not dysfunctional. It’s simply how we’re wired.
People are different from other animals, though. We can override impulse and choose what’s good for us in the long run, at least some of the time. That’s because we can imagine the future. When a smoker thinks about quitting, he can perceive a tradeoff between having a cigarette right now versus a longer, healthier life in the future. A dieter can pass up the sundae, thinking about the thrill of wearing a bikini this summer.
Yet fighting temptation is always a struggle. Why? Here’s where Ainslie hit upon a really remarkable insight. He suggests that, subconsciously, you can’t add up all those future benefits unless you really think you’re going to stick to the program. If you trust yourself absolutely—if you know 100 percent for certain that you won’t give in and have that cigarette tomorrow or the day after—then choosing not to smoke will be effortless. But if you don’t trust yourself, if you know in your heart of hearts that you’re going to give in and smoke tomorrow anyway, then you can’t count on the future reward of good health, because it will never arrive.
It’s a vicious circle, or as Ainslie calls it, “recursive self-prediction.” If you have faith in yourself, you know you’ll be able to turn down that cigarette in the future, and that makes it easier to turn it down now. If you don’t have faith, it will be very hard to resist temptation right now, and you’ll fail. Either way, your prediction about your future behavior becomes self-fulfilling. And so this is why change can seem impossible. When we’re trying to quit smoking, or eat better, or start exercising, we’re trying to leap from a state of disbelief to a state of faith, despite all prior evidence to the contrary.
In desperation, we often make grandiose declarations that from now on, we’ll make a radical change for the better. Think of all those grand resolutions that get made every Dec. 31. The problem is that the next time temptation comes around, the subconscious doubt is still there, and we give in to the urge, destroying our credibility all over again. By the second week of January, the gyms are empty and the bars are full again.
So how do we climb our way to self-faith? The answer, as Gerry Duffy discovered, is little by little. His breakthrough came when he decided to put aside ambitious resolutions and focus on a goal he knew he could accomplish. Every time he walked, he earned himself a bit more internal credibility. After a few weeks, the personal rule “I will walk every night” was something he knew he would abide by indefinitely. And that belief meant he could count on its long-term benefits. The alternative—vegging out in front of the TV—didn’t seem so compelling anymore. In fact, giving in to the lazy option would mean throwing away all the self-faith he’d spent so much effort accumulating, and that wasn’t appealing at all.
The more Duffy succeeded, the more power he had to succeed at new personal rules. He finally quit smoking and gorging on chocolates. He realized that he had a tool that allowed him to conquer any self-control challenge he wanted. He knew how to craft the right kind of personal rule—one that was simple, unambiguous and, above all, modest in scope. At least at first.
Nathan Stooke is a very different kind of Impossible. He overcame not a physical challenge but an intellectual one. By the time he was in elementary school, Stooke found himself falling further and further behind his fellow students. “In third grade, all the other kids blossomed, and I just didn’t,” recalls the Illinois businessman, now 37. While everyone else was diving into the pleasures of reading, he could barely sound out the letters of the alphabet. When he started that fall at a new school, his teacher asked him to write down his preferred nickname, and young Nate laboriously wrote out N-A-T. So for the rest of the school year, everyone called him Nat.
“That kind of thing was an everyday occurrence,” he says. So were countless other petty humiliations, all of which added up to a constant feeling of failure. “I really felt that school was a waste of time,” he says. “I felt like I was doing all this work and not getting anything out of it.” Eventually a physician diagnosed him with dyslexia, and he was assigned to a special ed class. There he found that many of his fellow students had given up on learning. Stooke says that if it had been up to him, he would have stopped trying, too, but his mother was determined that he keep at it. Under pressure from her, he worked four hours a night on homework that took the other kids an hour or less.
By the end of sixth grade, he was close to despair. “Here I was, putting in three or four times as much work as everybody else, and getting nothing out of it,” he recalls. “I had to wonder, how far am I going to get in life, anyway?”
Then in seventh grade, he had his own epiphany. When he entered junior high, grades were given for overall performance in each subject, rather than on the individual skills students needed. So he was able to use his strengths to work around skills he didn’t possess, and he received an A in each of his seven subjects. What he experienced in that moment, he says, was “an immediate switch, a night-and-day transformation.” He saw at a stroke that all that effort wasn’t purposeless. At last he had a metric that accurately reflected the value of the work he was putting in. He’d found the second major component of self-transformation: positive feedback. “I thought, If I can do this, I can do anything,” he says.
Stooke didn’t have to painstakingly transform his self-doubt into self-faith the way Duffy did. Thanks to his mother’s iron will, he’d already nailed down the personal rule of finishing his homework each night. But he would have faltered if circumstance hadn’t provided a way to see the value of his efforts. “Whatever your goal is, it has to be connected to something bigger,” says Chris Jordan, director of exercise physiology at the Human Performance Institute, an Orlando-based executive coaching company owned by Johnson & Johnson. “You need something that can get you through on a cold, dark day.”
From then on, Stooke never looked back. He racked up straight A’s through high school and college. He still had to work four times as hard as everyone else. But he no longer cursed his bad luck. Instead, his new attitude was: “OK, I have a disability. How do I work around it?” Sometimes, he found, being dyslexic offered advantages. Given an unlimited amount of time to take tests, he once spent 14 hours laboriously completing a calculus exam and wound up earning the highest score ever awarded.
Today Stooke has thoroughly disproved his childhood conviction that he’d never amount to anything. The company he founded a decade ago, Wisper ISP, has grown to become the largest Internet service provider in the St. Louis area, he says, doubling in size in just the last two years. Looking back, Stooke sees his long struggle with dyslexia not as a source of trauma but as a foundation on which he was able to build. “All the hoops I had to jump through growing up,” he says, “made running a small business seem fun and easy in comparison.”
For Alli Rainey, a 39-year-old professional rock climber, just following her lifelong passion required a different kind of Impossible transformation: an emotional one.
Rainey was a 17-year-old high school student living in the suburbs of Boston when her boyfriend introduced her to rock climbing. “I got 2 feet off the ground, and I was instantly hooked,” she remembers. Rainey loved the physical and intellectual challenges of working her way up a rock face and connecting handholds and toeholds. There was just one problem: Rainey was afraid of heights. Time and again she’d find herself frozen in panic on an exposed face, unable to move a muscle. The low point came when she slipped and fell during a climb on the Shawangunk Ridge in upstate New York and came to rest dangling at the end of her safety line. “I was paralyzed, just screaming with sheer terror,” she recalls. “I had to be lowered to the ground.”
The simplest solution would have been to find a different hobby. But Rainey wasn’t about to give up. “Like a lot of teenagers, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I’d never had a passion before. And then I discovered climbing, and I thought, Oh, sweet—this is what a passion feels like!”
As she persevered, Rainey came to learn how to work around her phobia. It was no use trying to conquer her fear by taking on radical new challenges in one great gulp; like Duffy, she found that overambitious goals only primed her for failure. Instead, the personal rule she set for herself was to push back against her fear just far enough that it wouldn’t trigger out-and-out panic. “I have to teach my subconscious mind gently and slowly,” she says. “I’m reaffirming to it that everything’s OK.”
Bit by bit, her self-faith increased as she refused to let self-doubt win. Whenever she feels that fear is about to overwhelm her, she deliberately jumps clear of the rock face to demonstrate to herself that the safety gear will catch her and that she is in no actual danger. “The only way to beat your fear is to face the fear,” she says.
Like Stooke, she finds immense reward in watching her efforts translate into concrete achievement. “My favorite thing,” she says, “is getting on a route that feels impossible and working on it and gradually getting to the point where I can do the whole thing without falling. The idea of pushing the impossible and making it possible is what rock climbing is all about.”
Still, after 15 years of climbing, Rainey believed there remained one type of rock wall she would never be able to conquer. It was what she calls “steep stuff,” overhangs that project out past vertical. “I made excuses,” she says. “I told myself that my body wasn’t made for that, that I was too scared of the exposure.”
Then came the day she accompanied her husband, also a climber, on a trip to the Red River Gorge. Looking up at the cathedral-like vault of the cave called Madness, she felt awe. And, gradually, an outlandish idea began to worm its way into her consciousness: What if I could do this?
She started to train. Sure enough, her body wasn’t suited to the new style of climbing, and the exposed faces terrified her. But she trained steadily, physically and mentally. Finally, in the fall of 2011, she returned to Kentucky and set to work on Madness. Day after day for a week she steadily tackled the route from the bottom up, slowly gaining power and confidence. On the seventh day, near the top, she reached a section where it’s difficult to reach the metal anchors that climbers attach to their safety line. Her hands numbed out and she fell, “screaming all the way down.” The second time she fell again. But, as ever, she remained determined. Finally, eight days after she began tackling the route, she hoisted herself up the last handhold, stood atop the lip of the cavern mouth, and trembled with joy. “It’s such a cool thing to do something that such a short time ago seemed totally unobtainable.”
And then she was off in search of her next conquest. “There’s a route here in Wyoming that’s so steep, it’s almost horizontal. The first time I saw it, I was like, No way. Not in my lifetime,” Rainey says. “But you know… ”