I suspect John Glenn figured February 20th, 1962 was going to be a big day for him. He had to have been pretty sure of that before they got to T minus ten. Whether or not Friendship 7 achieved space orbit—BIG.
Of course, that date really wasn’t the start of anything for him; it was a culmination of a career spent flying—first as a fighter pilot during World War II, later making the first supersonic transcontinental flight across the U.S. He had an onboard camera that took the first continuous, panoramic photograph of our country.
In 1959 he was selected as one of the Mercury Seven team, the nation’s first astronauts. Everything he did, everything he learned—every flight taken, every barrier breached—built up his physical and mental capacity, his readiness to orbit the earth three times.
I can’t tell you the exact date I started my path to healthy, happy living. I know it was mid-August 2016, but that’s it. That’s because I started so quietly, with more hope than plan in mind. I knew I needed to lose weight, but didn’t have any kind of goal in mind. I knew that I needed to learn how to maintain my weight once I reached whatever goal I chose. I knew I didn’t want to diet and I knew I was going to start taking medicine that might or might not help me.
That was about it. There was no great fanfare; I told Marc I was embarking on something new to help me lose weight, but I didn’t mention it to anyone else. I had no intention of exercising; I hadn’t even considered that my emotions might be somehow involved in my inability to live any way but fat, unhealthy and disabled.
It’s hard to imagine that something with such an inauspicious beginning could change my life. But, change my life it did, one small change at a time. Little tests of change, to see what worked best for me.
Tiny tests of change creating the momentum to drive breakthrough change was in my wheelhouse as a nurse leader in clinical quality. One of the great gurus of healthcare quality, Sir Don Berwick, put it like this:
“What can you do by next Tuesday that won’t harm a hair on the head of a patient?”
We challenged each other to try one thing differently, a potential improvement in the way we provided care, on one patient and observe what happened. Was care a little safer? A little more timely? More efficient or effective or equitable or patient-centered? Then repeat, with two patients. Measure again, adjust, improve and spread to an entire nursing unit.
That was my approach in my pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. I started this journey with a few breadcrumbs to point me in a general direction. I experimented, I journaled, I thought about my obsession with food. I faced up to an inferiority complex that I had denied for sixty years—not to wallow in it, but to understand it better, and to dig up its roots. As all my tiny tests linked up with one another, my breadcrumbed-trail broadened its presence and permanence with concrete.
My exercise started the same way—small and seemingly insignificant. Twenty-five minutes, five days a week, with truly easy exercises and ten minutes on the elliptical. Very few people would have been at all impressed with what I was doing—exercise at its most basic, its least challenging. From there, though, I built it up slowly, learning the importance of good form. (Tiny test: do I feel like my exercises are more effective if I keep my back straight, my core engaged, my eyes straight ahead? Answer is a big “yes!”) I learned how to know when I should advance an exercise and I learned to give myself two weeks once I had made a change before going back to the way I was doing it before. Two weeks gave me enough time to determine if it really was too difficult for me or if I was just unhappy because I was having to work harder.
I am sure there were many tiny tests of change in John Glenn’s career that led to that 1967 orbit. I wonder how many of those tests he could recall, or if he even could identify that one moment in his life that started his path towards spaceflight and heroism? Perhaps it all started with a childhood dream that he could lift up his arms and fly.
If the journey you want to take in your life has quietly begun, be glad of those early steps and build on them. A journey started with a whisper can end with a triumphant roar as long as each day you try one little thing to help yourself take that next step.