The 39th Step – Making a life change

Ned Hamson

Originally Printed in The Hindu, India A regional and national newspaper, Signpost Special Section for Young Adults: May 2001

“I want to live an Open Life with grace and simplicity.

I want to be more creative, to be constantly learning and growing.”

Many of us hear these words and our heart sings back, Yes, so do I!

Then our head says in a not so pleasant voice, So, how do I do it, how do I begin?

The best advice usually is: begin at the beginning – right?

The first step on a journey is the most important one, right?

In this case, these two rights make a wrong. Why?

Most, if not all, of us have taken the first step in creating a new pattern, a new way of thinking, a new behavior hundreds, if not what seems like thousands of times.

It is not the first step that is crucial, it is the 39th or 40th step in the direction you wish to travel that determines whether you will succeed, isn’t it?

For by the time you reach that step, you will have already traced a pattern that has made a visible difference, and one which can be used to plot out further steps along the way.

What is the logic here? We all tend to begin a new personal journey with great energy and intent. So much so, that we rush headlong along the new path and either burn ourselves out, or inevitably fall so flat on our faces that we give up, now believing we will never change or succeed.

What we have forgotten, or perhaps did not realize, is that creating a new pattern or behavior almost always means destroying or discarding old patterns, behaviors, or habits. The American storyteller Mark Twain had one of his characters explain this in these plain words:

“Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window… but coaxed downstairs a step at a time. – Mark Twain in the story of Puddnhead Wilson.”

Let me tell you how I, a “professional,” life long dieter, finally managed to get control of my weight and to become as fit as I always could have been.

When my physician finished reading off the scores of the tests he had performed on me, I knew enough to know I was in serious trouble. I had two alternatives:

  • A. Begin a regime of taking pills, constantly worrying about my health and not liking the way I looked carrying 105 pounds of fat around day and night.
  • B. Doing something about losing weight and getting fit.

My doctor wished me good luck on trying to get fit and lose weight and gave me a prescription to deal with the high blood sugar and told me to return in 3 months for another check up.

I spent the next three days in misery. I had been on THE BIG DIET program four times before in my life and each time had returned to my fat ways within a year. Then I remembered that a friend had told me that she had permanently lost about 40 extra pounds simply by walking. Not the most “manly” way to lose weight but effective. She walked three miles a day, every day. I could do that! I thought. Then I remembered, “Yes, and it will half kill you and you will give up on it in no time flat.”

Then, I found the Mark Twain quote. And a little bell went off in my head, so to speak. If I can force myself to just do a reasonable amount of walking until it is normal, I will also break my habit of overdoing things — the habit I really had to break.

Then I remembered a story told to me by former prisoner of war (Viet Nam) Ed Hubbard. After a nearly year of beatings and near starvation he began his personal physical and psychological rebuilding process by doing as many sit ups and push ups as he could that day and to add one of each the following day. He had a “partner” in the adjoining cell with whom he communicated via the tapping code system American soldiers had worked out during their stay in the “Hanoi Hilton.”

The long and the short of it was that for two weeks, I only walked two extra city blocks in the morning and in the evening. After those two weeks, I only added another two blocks for three weeks. Everyday, rain or shine whether I felt like it or not. And since it did not take long, or because I built in a trip to the store, I was able to do it. After three months, I was walking an unheard of, for me at the time, two miles a day. And that is how it went.

Almost four years have passed now. I enjoyed seeing my doctors jaw drop to the floor every time I weigh in (in six months things had improved sufficiently that the medication for Type II diabetes was no longer needed). I now regularly walk 12 to 15 miles a day: sometimes I enjoy it very much, sometimes I dislike it but do it anyway. And I know that it was taking reasonable steps and raising the bar only when I had really mastered the current level that helped me go from the 39th step to the 40th without even thinking about it.

This has been a story about losing weight? No, it has been a true story about destroying old patterns of thinking and doing, and creating new ones in a steady and reasonable way. It is a method which may be applied to creating anything new in your life that you desire — as long as you focus on getting to the 39th step and not so much on the first step.

Oh, and just for the record, I have walked my way to being 115 pounds lighter – now at 136 pounds which is reasonable for being 5 foot 7 1/2 inches. By last July, I had walked  [whew!] a bit over 3,600 miles in the previous 12 months. If that had been my goal or expectation when I had started, I do not believe I would have begun — would you have?

Update: 2021: My start point in 1999 was 255 pounds – yuck! This past year holding steady at 145 pounds – Yippee! Waist at start: 51 inches (Open the door a little wider please?) Waist now: 29 inches. Mostly walked more than 50,000 miles plus since July, 1999 – whew – grin. Now walking 3-4 miles a day (from 2005-2018 was walking 10-15 miles a day. The important part, Blood Pressure from 185/110 to 105/68, Good/Bad fats in the blood, and blood sugar are in normal range – no diabetes, all that stuff – really good.

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