What if we approached life’s challenges and setbacks like our own hearts continuously strive to meet the demands of our body—unrelenting, constant effort, and action even in dire circumstances? Rather than shying away from these obstacles, or dwelling on our mistakes and misfortunes, what if we just kept methodically moving forward, onwards and upwards, without skipping a beat, focusing on what lies ahead, and hell-bent on conquering what we set out to accomplish? We could affectionately refer to this strategy as “The Heart Way.”
The symbolic significance here cannot be overstated. By substituting the word “heart” for hard, we are consciously nullifying the negative connotations of any challenging or unpleasant task. In so doing, we are effectively empowering ourselves to overcome that self-sabotaging force of inertia holding us hostage and preventing us from taking the pivotal first step towards fulfilling our dreams. It also invigorates us to persist along this quest when the going gets tough, and we’re tempted to throw in the towel. Pulling this off is admittedly much easier said than done, especially these days, where instant gratification has become everyone’s top priority and entitlement. Virtually every want and need imaginable, from food to entertainment, is just one click away. To make matters worse, glamourized stories of overnight success, celebrity, and material wealth are endlessly streamed via social media. These household names have absurdly emerged as the new role-models for our youth, prompting widespread repudiation of any course of action they deem even remotely difficult or unpleasant.
But make no mistake, a number of facts still hold true, no matter how topsy-turvy the world has become. Shortsighted, get-rich-quick schemes and other vapid pursuits driven solely by selfish desires for fame and fortune are ultimately unfulfilling. It’s just how we’re wired, not to mention, prisons are full of convicts that opted for life in the fast lane. Our choices have consequences, and anything truly worth doing is not going to be easy. If it were easy, then everyone would do it. That’s what makes the journey special and genuinely rewarding, so there’s no use overthinking it any further. There are no shortcuts, easy ways out, or free lunches. I’ve come to find that The Heart Way is the only way.
Life is about balance and moderation. There’s a time and a place for leisure, letting your guard down, celebrating small victories, and enjoying precious moments with friends and family. Likewise, there’s also a time to buckle down, to stare down your goals and launch headlong into battle with your obstacles, enduring all the gut-wrenching setbacks and failures along the way. By all intents and purposes, it seems the pendulum has swung disproportionately over towards La La Land, following our increasingly hedonistic tendencies. This principle of balance holds universally true for both our physical and metaphorical hearts.
There are countless, painful choices we must make for our greater good, be it for our overall health or to further our quest for success. These daily choices often entail delayed gratification, gritty determination, and willpower to forego the path of least resistance and all of its shiny distractions and temptations. For the better part of my late teens, twenties, and thirties, I sacrificed tirelessly to stay on course. I kept my eyes on the prize. When my counterparts were out partying, clubbing, or sleeping in, I was chipping away at my dream, one assignment at a time, class after class, semester after semester, year after year. Had I not invested this time and effort, I can assure you I would have never become the heart surgeon, or man I am today.
When you deviate from the Heart Way, the repercussions can be catastrophic in all phases of your life, even fatal. Your heart’s only job is to keep beating, to keep you alive, moment after moment, until you take your final dying breath. But not all hearts have the same physiologic capacity or level of efficiency. Like us, they aren’t invincible. They’re vulnerable to the cumulative effects of our unhealthy practices and dietary choices. Unable to circulate adequate blood supply, a damaged heart may not be able to meet the demands of our body.
A healthy heart will not falter. It will not hesitate, or agonize over whether or not to beat. It just beats, no matter the circumstances. Think of how more productive and resilient we would be, or how much simpler life itself would become, if we just reflexively acted more and hesitated less. In the face of stress, hardship, tragedy, or failure, we would just proactively keep on trucking instead of waving the white flag. Less time would be wasted wallowing in self-pity or perseverating over our mistakes, the opinions of others, or how we will be perceived. There’s no telling how far we could reach, or how little would be beyond our grasp. Like the powerful heart of an elite athlete, forged by deliberate exposure to grueling levels of physical stress, our metaphorical hearts could be engineered to withstand the worst life could throw our way, yet still claim victory. As we plod along battle after battle, our endurance builds, our confidence, resilience, and grit accumulate. Trying circumstances become effortlessly manageable, formidable tasks seemingly surmountable. Success becomes habitual. This is living the Heart Way.
Obviously, this doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. No one is born with the heart of a world-class cyclist or marathon runner. No one is born a master chess player, concert pianist, or Superbowl MVP. I wasn’t born being able to do heart surgery. What’s the common denominator? It’s a process. You must be willing to relentlessly and repeatedly push yourself well beyond your comfort zone and skill set. It’s all about the reps, the “10,000-hour rule.” That’s the story of my life.
Brian Lima is a cardiothoracic surgeon and author of Heart To Beat: A Cardiac Surgeon’s Inspiring Story of Success and Overcoming Adversity―The Heart Way.
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