November 8th, 2011
07:56 AM ET

Human Factor: A goal is a direction, not an end

In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle - injury, illness or other hardship - they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week meet Kyle Maynard. Despite being born without arms or legs, Maynard has played football, wrestled, and he's hoping to hike Mount Kilimanjaro.

Since I opened the doors to No Excuses CrossFit, a small gym in an Atlanta suburb three years ago, I’ve come to learn that fitness instructors are closer in their roles to being a life coach or psychologist than someone solely focused on a workout regimen. The best trainers understand there is a massive amount of motivation required to start, let alone stick to, any plan.

One of the reasons we require so much motivation to start on the path to improving our health is that we build up a huge lie in our minds of how improbable or even impossible reaching our goals will be. We think about how hard it’s going to be to resist dessert or how much time exercising is going to take away from our lives. Then to make matters worse, we say things like “I have to lose 10 pounds in the next month.”

Have you ever thought about the bind that puts your mind in? Let’s say you succeed in that goal and lose the weight, now what do you do? Stop working out and go back to your old habits, eventually putting the weight back on? What happens if you don’t succeed - do you call yourself a failure?

Your goals should serve you, not work against you. They should provide you with a general direction and not be your end all be all.

I’ve coached people who lost several pants sizes, but because they didn’t reach their weight goal by a few pounds, they became so discouraged they quit. And I know of several more who reached their goal, but since they didn’t know where to go after that, a few weeks later they were back where they started.

If I choose to enjoy the ride and concern myself less with a specific outcome or goal, then I cannot fail. If my goal is to enjoy the path I’m on, whether that’s in my health or really any area of my life, then all I have to do is show up.

Several years ago I became very interested in mountaineering and around six months ago I set the goal to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. Climbing Kili is a challenging goal for most people, and being a quadruple amputee without anyone to consult on how to pull this off doesn’t make it much easier.

Dating back to 2006, my first pair of hiking shoes were made from a pair of hotel towels that I tied to my arms using a rope I cut off the back of my wheelchair. The towels enabled me to crawl on all four limbs without cutting my arms open on the rock. And after obliterating a pair of blue jeans, I made it up to a peak that was somewhere around 1,500 feet high.

Kilimanjaro’s summit is a little bit higher... right at 19,340 feer. I never said I wasn’t one of the people thinking some of my goals might be improbable or even impossible at times.

Throughout the whole process there have been close to a dozen different attempts at adapting equipment and many of those resulted in painful failures. Each time we failed trying something new, we moved on to try something else. We’ve made small, incremental improvements over time and the whole process has been a rewarding challenge. Now we’re about two months away from our time on the mountain and we’ve finally gotten to a point where the gear is beginning to work.

It’s always going to be the same in your life too. We’ll never be where we want to be until we learn to slow down and enjoy our individual journey. As long as you are doing something to move towards the direction you want to go in your life and your health, you cannot fail.

If you’d like to learn more about my trip, please visit www.missionkilimanjaro.com

Watch Human Factor weekly on "Sanjay Gupta, M.D.," Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 a.m. ET

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.