Hard Trying

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” – Hunter S. Thompson

Last week I tried really hard to find a boat to take me from India to Sri Lanka. It should be easy — the two countries are separated by just eighteen miles of sea — but since there’s no passenger ferry, it isn’t easy at all.

So last week I made over a hundred phone calls, sent a few dozen emails, and met with several folks in person. I reached out to cargo ship companies, sailing clubs, fellow travelers, the local Couchsurfing community, and anyone else I could think of who might be able to help.

At the same time, I was busy with my book launch and two big web projects, amounting to an average of ten hours per day in front of my laptop and less sleep than I would have liked.

By the end of the week I was exhausted, and not much closer to finding a boat to take me to Sri Lanka. And yet I felt remarkably good about myself. Two reasons why…

1. Capacity Improvement

Cal Newport got me thinking about this with his article on hard focus.

He writes about how it’s entirely possible to train your focus muscles, to the point where you can sit down at your desk and concentrate on one thing for several hours on end, be it writing or programming or whatever. Just like training for a marathon, you might only be able to stick with it for 20-30 minutes a session in the early days, but over time you can’t help but build your discipline and endurance.

Last week I felt I greatly improved my capacity to try. I picked myself up and brushed myself off after every dead-end and every rejection. I was right at the edge my comfort zone throughout the week, and it was often stressful, but that’s where I needed to be to stretch myself, to increase my capacity to try.

When’s the last time you pushed up against your edge?

It’s not a place you want to be all the time, but you don’t want to be away from it for too long either. At your limit is where you redefine yourself and move the chains.

2. You Just Have To Try

The second and bigger reason I felt good about myself despite failing to find a way to Sri Lanka last week, was that I knew I’d given it my absolute best shot. The trying was its own reward.

I never once self-sabotaged, never once gave into laziness or fear or procrastination. Despite all the setbacks and roadblocks, I kept coming up with more things to try, more people to contact, more possibilities to explore.

I still haven’t found a way to Sri Lanka, but I’ll continue to try and try hard.

Failure doesn’t bother me so long as I do everything in my power to succeed. As one of Coach Wooden‘s favorite verses goes…

At God’s footstool, to confess,
A poor soul knelt and bowed his head.
“I failed,” he cried. The master said,
“Thou didst thy best. That is success.”

So here’s me encouraging you to try

Even if it seems impossible and you think you’ll likely fail, know that the goal itself doesn’t really matter that much.

What matters is that you give it your best shot.

Win or lose, you’ll learn plenty of valuable lessons along the way. You’ll be left feeling good because you followed your true path, you fought for your dream, and you expanded the definition of yourself.

How hard are you trying?

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  1. I know its a long time ago but in 1977 i took the ferry from Rameshwaram to Jaffna……….
    I suppose that has stopped running due to the civil war in Sri Lanka and never started again…

  2. I enjoyed your talk today. Sticking with a project or task is a great skill to have.

    I do set goals for each day so I get things done.

    My strangest goal lately is chasing four pigeons out of my barn. They left after one of them was killed by Garfield, my cat, then returned a few days ago, after being gone all summer.

    With no gun nor slingshot, I thought of the idea of tossing a small piece of gravel onto the very high metal roof, then getting out of the way when it fell back down to the earth.

    The pigeons were spooked and I may have to do this for some days, but it is unsettling them & they may move on.

    The pigeons do not seem to have hatched out any young over the summer when they were gone.
    Never forgetting to try, try again!

  3. I don’t know whether this is true or still in service, but I just found it online: http://goindia.about.com/b/2011/06/15/india-to-sri-lanka-ferry-service-resumed.htm

    I get what you’re saying about pushing the edge of the comfort zone, but I find sometimes I’m just happier with stability and low stress. I guess it just depends on what point you’re at in your journey and pushing yourself sometimes, and sometimes getting to a place where it feels good to just take a step back and relax. I feel like you can’t just constantly live on the edge, you know what I mean? That isn’t living any more than never visiting the edge is.

    1. Another Google search says it was suspended in November. There’s something about a Tuticorin to Colombo service operating from April this year. I expect Niall’s been through all this. Only 18 miles.

    2. Yeah, that ferry service was suspended last year, unfortunately.

      And I’m with you on not being at your edge all the time, Jennie. I mentioned that in the post. I do have days and weeks where I mostly allow myself to relax and recuperate. Those times are important, too.

  4. This post is pretty well timed. I’m finding myself pushed to the edge of my limit in what feels like about twenty different projects each pulling in a different direction and taxing my time. Something about reading your completely different yet somehow similar run along your limit-line makes my focus-muscles feel a bit more stretched out and ready to go. Thanks for that.

  5. This is a great topic! The most rewarding events in my life are the times I’ve tried the hardest and discovered my limits.

    I heard Cal Newport speak at WDS 2012, the speech was excellent. I’m eager to come across his new book, So Good, it’s about leveraging one’s hard work at their ‘job’ to build a fulfilling career. He has the research to back up his points!

  6. That is a terrible shame Niall. I feel so sorry for you after all this effort you have put in. Have you tried to get a visa for Pakistan and then go into China from there? It seems very hard to get to Sri Lanka by sea.

    I wish you lots of good luck.

    1. No need to feel sorry for me, Maxine. I’m enjoying the ride 🙂

      Going thru Pakistan and China is one of my many back-up plans. Not sure if I can actually get a visa for Pakistan though without going back to Ireland. We’ll see.

    2. I am glad to hear that you are still really enjoying your trip Niall. I really hope a person on a yacht is going over from India to Sri Lanka that will be able to take you there. It is such a shame overland travel isn’t possible into Burma. Years ago travel was easier through Pakistan. It was annoying they stopped the ferry going from India to Sri Lanka. Graham Hughes got some fishermen over to Cape Vere Islands and he got put in jail over that. It was lucky he got out and went with a yacht and its folk back to mainland Africa. I wish you loads of luck.

  7. Great article, Niall! I love the quote you began with, very motivating!

    I believe everyone should always strive to live their life at the edge of their comfort zone. Trying new things (mostly what we feel uncomfortable doing) is simply the best way to experience life and evolve into a better version of yourself!

  8. Did you write this post for me? Haha very timely indeed, I have projects coming up that I will give it my all and that’s all you can really do.

    After reading the post on Carl’s site I also read this one I felt this post went along with this post.

    PS This was my first html link in a comment so if it turned out bad you can just delete it.

    Good luck with your plans, I am rooting for you.

  9. Great post! I’ve just started following you this week and am reading your ebook and am enjoying it very much. I’ve wanted to live in another country or travel the world for at least 15-20 years and haven’t done so for various reasons. I’m now at a perfect spot in my life where I can do that, so I’m doing my research and coming up with a grand scheme / plan. I’m hoping I can leave by the spring??? Best of luck to you in getting to Sri Lanka by means that suits you. Yes, sometimes it’s the “ride” that is the most interesting and the best stories, and I love a great story! Thanks for being so inspiring on being focused. I’m struggling with that this week for sure.

  10. Have you thought about swimming?

    Haha, that was a cruel joke. What about finding someone with a private yacht to take you over?

    This post definitely resonated with me. I’m living outside of my comfort zone with the type of work that I’m doing and this gives me the strength to push on those chains a little harder.

    Thank you Niall.

  11. As to working past one’s limit, pushing oneself, I always had to do that with my low paying jobs that expected 30 hours of work done in 15 hours. So I know how to do that, but just enjoying a slower time in my life right now. Working for $6 an hour take home really hard was a daily challenge for years.

  12. Isn’t capacity improvement, arguably an outcome for many after participating in a Vipassana retreat? You found a way to improve your capacity on your own terms without an external authority figure–way to go!

  13. Hi! I’m flat out full on 100%++ trying … at least partly due to 2 major falls this summer that put me way past any edge. First one knocked me out (literally); second busted stuff in both knees (including some pillow things called bursars).

    Hey! Here’s an idea that just struck me for getting you by boat to Sri Lanka.

    (1) try the children sponsor groups. I used to sponsor a bunch a long time ago and when I was in Bangalore India went by car to Mysore then by 4-wheel drive to a small village in a no-roads no-water area and visited with the folks there. Including the family I’d gotten pictures and stories about (due to culture was sponsoring village not child there). I had been sponsoring with same organization in Sri Lanka tho not gone there. TOo many names so don’t recall thru the physical pain right now but try contacting all of the child sponsor type organizations. Hey maybe even visit and write up stuff so they can get more sponsors?? You wanted to write professionally so maybe trade a ride for your writing?

    (2) I used to be a Rotarian before my life fell apart and I remember we were world wide. Maybe a Rotarian will give you a ride? Again – try for a trade, you’ve got incredible skills, surely some business owner would love to hire you in exchange for getting you there. Who knows you might end up on a private yacht!!

    (3) The first time I met Mother Teresa I was with the CEO of a major Indian company. He told me about the stuff they did with the Lions. Another service organiation! He was President of the then-Calcutta group. He introduced me to many other Lions gentlemen who did all kinds of work on behalf of people and improving the world. Most were business people, either owners or senior execs. Perhaps you can do something for them for which they’d be thrilled to get you by water across. Again, international organization, and again, perhaps get you a private yacht journey.

    Anyways, struck me to write these three to you just now.

    beyond the edge…


      1. Thanks! I’m on bed rest for a few days. Most difficult part isn’t the pain – it’s missing Mass. Giving the pain to God but that’s insufficient consolation.

        Best wishes as you check out my ideas… I have a feeling you’ll find a way to help lots of people as you get yourself a ride!


      2. loved the ideas too and love how the whole notion of no air travel is forcing Niall to think outside the box and find creative solutions..

        definitely trade is good when hitching rides. it’s only proper to have some sort of energy exchange! be it money or otherwise.

        1. Janet, you’re right! Energy exchange is a great way to put it.

          Niall, here’s another creative twist?!

          How about you drop the flirting as an October experiment.

          Instead? Pick up a focus on each and every person you meet as a person. Really connect (lots more work than flirting) and see where that leads you in terms of honest conversation about your goal of getting to Sri Lanka.

          Maybe someone’s got a connection to an international group that would love to exchange your skills for a ride.

          Maybe someone’s already got a trip planned and can pre-pone it (unlike the West where every minute’s scheduled? you’re in a place where people actually make plans fit life… I’ve been in Chennai quite a few times, though long ago – most recently 2001).

          Hey, here’s a way-out-there idea for you. I seem to recall that you were raised Cathorlic because like me you left the church.

          How about a really wild experiment?

          Go back in Reconciliation to the church.

          Hey, who knows, you’re in a place where there are Rites of the church where priests marry…. maybe you’ll end up connecting so much with the church in India and Sri Lanka that you end up as a married priest (as I say, different Rites from the Latin Rite church you experienced in Ireland).

          Or who knows maybe you’ll end up in the Latin Rite as a priest in charge of the web design and preparation phases for World Youth Day as 2 year projects one after another and end up some day working at the Vatican telling the Pope what to do for technology;)

          You say you’re trying all kinds of stuff… that sure would shock your family, huh?

          best –


          P.S. I made it to Mass today! Hurray. Two days without was too much for me. Gotta get the fluid out of the knee… only temporary bed rest… but no more forcing walking a couple miles a day for a while now til I get the fluid stuff behaving right.

          1. Hey Cynthia. Thanks for the ideas, but dropping the flirting and becoming a priest to get to Sri Lanka is definitely not something I’d be willing to do. Think I’d rather swim!

  14. i had this motivational cup.. as in, something to drink out of, when i was a kid. it was my favorite cup, despite it being plastic, faded, and with a broken handle. the cup said: “You can be a winner if you try.” I don’t remember the faded graphics.. but I don’t think it mattered.

    Anyway, kind of random, but your post made me think about it.

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