What’s the longest-term goal you’ve accomplished? Something that couldn’t be checked off after a tough afternoon of grinding it out…one that required not only enthusiasm but also marathon endurance and grit? Maybe you finished your degree after long nights of studying and papers and angst. Maybe you crossed the finish line after hours of training, gallons of sweat, and sore muscles. Maybe you paid off a debt after months (or years) of scrimping and saving and saying no to things you wanted.
There’s something about accomplishments like these that feel significant—not just because we have the thing we aspired to—the degree, the medal, the freedom—but because of what happens to us along the way. When we pursue a big, long goal like this, we are changed along the way. We aren’t the same person we were when we started; we are stronger, tougher, more disciplined. Or maybe it’s not so much that we’ve changed; maybe we had this capacity for toughness in us all along and never knew it. This goal simply allowed us to see that truth about ourselves.
Nine years ago, when my sister graduated from college, she got the biggest gift she’d ever received. I mean that literally—it was a seven-foot by seven-foot crossword puzzle. She hung it up in her bedroom after starting grad school, and I kid you not: it took up the entire wall.
Meghan and I worked on the crossword puzzle together whenever we could—both in person, when I was visiting her, and when she emailed me obscure clues to research. She came to live with me for a summer during one of her internships, and she brought along one big square of the puzzle. Every morning over coffee, we worked a few clues together. When she got a job after grad school, we continued crossowording over the phone before work, and when she became a mom and I got married, we made weekly phone dates during her kids’ naptimes and my lunch breaks.
That crossword puzzle has seen us through a lot of life in almost a decade. Between the two of us, we have experienced marriage, motherhood, new jobs, and multiple moves. We’ve lived a broad gamut of loss and love and heartache and happiness.
Not long ago I was visiting Meghan for the weekend, and we worked on the crossword puzzle over coffee, per tradition. It’s harder to do this than it used to be, so we woke up before our husbands and her kids and tried to do as much as we could before everyone else was ready for breakfast. On that Saturday morning, we found ourselves at a startling spot: I was reading her the very last clue in the puzzle (out of 28,000).
This clue represented nine years and six residences and big life changes and who knows how many hours together. And now it was coming to an end. Meghan gave me the answer, and I found myself with pen in hand, paralyzed. We had been trying to accomplish this goal for almost ten years, but now that the end was here, I didn’t want it to be over. She finally convinced me to write the final letter in the box.
After I got home, Meghan sent me this quote she’d found by someone who had reviewed the same puzzle: “I dread its completion, yet yearn to make it happen as soon as humanly possible. This must be how the male praying mantis feels.” That seemed about right.
We hadn’t just completed the mother of all crossword puzzles. We had learned a lot along the way—not necessary about vocabulary (I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten any new words or factoids I gathered along the way), but about ourselves. We learned that we can accomplish big goals. That we can persevere. That we can take on a seven-foot by seven-foot by nine-year challenge and conquer it. And perhaps most of all, we learned that we aren’t just sisters, but friends. The crossword puzzle united us, even as the rest of our lives diverged.
No one prepares you for the sadness you feel when you accomplish your goal. You graduate, you cross the finish line, you fill in the last crossword square, and you expect the elation. You’re not prepared for the letdown afterward.
So what’s next, once you’ve finished that momentous thing? Here’s my bit of advice, from someone in the throes of finishing: Take time to celebrate. Don’t rush past your accomplishment—savor it. And then, when you feel like you’ve duly marked the occasion, find a new goal. Maybe even a wall-sized one.
Most dazzling human achievements are, in fact, the aggregate of countless individual elements, each of which is, in a sense, ordinary.
Angela Duckworth, Grit
What big thing have you accomplished recently? And how did you feel when it as all over?