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Lessons Learned in Graduate School: Do the Impossible

Part 2 in a series of posts called Lessons Learned in Graduate School. Read Part 1

When we chose teams in gym class, I was always picked near the end — not because I didn’t have any friends, but because my friends knew I’d still be available in later rounds. I’ve described myself as pathologically unathletic — I played softball for over a decade growing up, but I’ll still drop something tossed to me from a few feet away. The first time I stepped on a treadmill, I set a 12-minute mile pace and jogged for 20 minutes. I was utterly exhausted.

running-marathon_iStock_000051566246_MediumSeven years later, on a chilly Saturday morning — one of those mornings when you watch before your eyes the summer grudgingly give way to fall — I ran 26.2 miles in the Baltimore Running Festival.

Today’s lesson was best stated by Norton Juster in his brilliant novel, The Phantom Tollbooth: “What you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do…. So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.” I believe this breaks down into three distinct but equally important lessons:

First, set goals that are hard. In fields that come naturally to you, this may mean choosing goals that seem downright impossible. Choose them anyway. And second, achieve those goals. Achieve them whether or not you thought they were possible to begin with.

This is a story about a race, but the lessons are just as important for school and research. Have you ever taken a class you knew you could ace just to add another 4.0 to your GPA? Do you wonder what opportunities you may have missed by staying inside your comfort zone? I’ll be the first to admit that my experience is limited. But in every single instance I have found that modest achievement as a result of hard work and dedication is far sweeter than effortless excellence.

I didn’t officially register for the marathon until I had already been training for months, because that’s how long it took to convince myself that I might actually be able to do it. In the days leading up to that chilly Saturday, I would tell people I was training to run a marathon, never that I was going to run one.  Because what if, after everything, it turned out that I failed?

The third lesson here is perhaps the most important of all: when you set impossible goals, the inevitable truth is that you won’t always reach them. As it turns out, failure is an inextricable part of success. After all, every success you achieve is just an example of a time when you could have given more. Until you run so far that you literally can’t take one more step, by definition, you haven’t given everything you’ve got. So every time you do fall short despite trying as hard as you can to achieve the impossible goal, be sure to celebrate with pride having given 100 percent of your absolute best.

Registration is open now for the 2016 Baltimore Running Festival. Are you in?