Typically people reach out to me because of specific executive function challenges connected to time management and planning. Those skills are just two pieces in a constellation of executive functions that work together to enable a person to makes choices to reach goals and lead a purposeful life. I’ve been thinking a lot about one executive skill that we often don’t focus on: goal directed persistence. This is the ability or motivation to complete a goal, while resisting the temptation to give in to other demands or competing desires.
I am blessed to live in the state of Oregon, one of the most scenic places in the world. A couple of weeks ago I realized that summer was zipping by and I hadn’t made a trip into the mountains. So I made a date with my husband to explore a new area we had never been to – Table Rock Wilderness Area.
On a Sunday we left at 8 AM armed with lunch, water, hiking sticks and a book published in 1994 about hiking trails in Oregon’s wilderness. Ninety-minutes into our drive, we were beyond the knowledge of Google maps. Shortly thereafter we were out of cellphone range. We promptly got lost in a maze of logging roads. Eventually we backtracked and found the “correct” winding bumpy gravel road that got us to the trailhead. Our guidebook described a two-mile hike to the top. The posted message board explained that due to a landslide, there was a new trail to the top – four miles, one way. Humm… An eight mile hike? Well, we decided we’d come to hike, so we started off.
In short order we came across a family with three young children resting in the shade. The dad encouraged us to pass them as they would be going slowly to the top. He enthusiastically explained that as a child he’d once done this climb and that the incredible view was worth the effort. I assured him that at my age I’d be going slowly myself.
After a gentle beginning, the trail began a steep upward turn. Up, up and up until we hit a talus slope that was a jumble of rocks that had broken off a towering basalt cliff. My husband paused because he couldn’t find the trail. I scanned the base of the long cliff face and spotted the trail way off to right. Lovely. We were going to have to scramble over boulders in the hot sun.
Not being as agile as we once were, we came close to calling it a day. But the promise of an incredible view kicked in my executive function of goal-directed persistence and off we went. It helped that there were ripe salmon berries and huckleberries to snack on! With the boulder scrambling behind us, I asked a young man coming down the trail how much further to the top? When he said that we’d only made it two-thirds of the way, my heart sank. This was one of the hardest trails I’d ever done and I’d hoped to be a lot closer
We decided to pause and eat our lunch, my husband voting for turning back. As we ate, we marveled over the dad who had brought his little kids to do this trail. No way would they make it to the top. And then we heard voices.
Around the corner came the dad and his three kids. I told them that I was really impressed that they had made it so far. To which these little ones, 8, 6 and 4, replied, one at a time, in age order: “We’re going to the top.”
Dad smiled down at his brood and echoed, “We are going to the top.” And off they went.
I looked at my husband and asked, “Are we going to wimp out and go home while those little kids make it to the top?” So off we went.
As we neared the crest a woman greeted me with, “Have a nice summit.” And then the family came back into view, heading down! I gave the kids each a high five and looked the 8-year-old in eye and told her that someday she would face something very hard and she would want to quit. When that happens, I wanted her to remember this day when she climbed a mountain. If she could climb this mountain she could do anything she wanted to do! I shall never forget her serious determined face as she sealed my words in her mind.
The view from the summit, almost 5,000 feet, truly was spectacular. To the east was the Cascade mountain range with the majestic Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson. To the west was the fertile farmlands of the Willamette Valley, bounded by miles of shimmering costal range.
The details of that challenging day are so clearly etched into my memory. I am incredibly thankful that we pushed on to the top. I will always remain inspired by that father and the gift he gave his children: the experience of developing the key execution function skill of goal-directed persistence.
Marydee Sklar is the president of Executive Functioning Success and the creator of the Seeing My Time Program®. She is an educator and author of three books on executive functions, as well as a trainer and speaker. Marydee has more than twenty years of experience working with students and adults with executive function challenges.