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Why we are all like Sisyphus

An ancient Greek myth describes the story of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was the first king of Corinth who brought great wealth to his city but was known to be arrogant, devious, and straight up cruel.

To show off, Sisyphus would kill visitors coming into his city; a big ‘no-no’ with the gods, as it broke a sacred agreement.

The gods were aware of this and were mad, but didn’t pay too much attention to him at first. So, Sisyphus kept with his ways, cutting corners, cheating people, and just being generally nasty. Finally, Zeus (ruler of all other gods) got mad enough to do something.

As punishment, Zeus sentenced Sisyphus to be chained up in the underworld by the god of death, Thanatos. Say what you will about Sisyphus, but he was a smart dude.

When he got down there he chatted up Thanatos and was even sly enough to get Thanatos chained up instead.

This was the god of death, now chained up because of some trickery that Sisyphus pulled. Because the god of death was now chained up and couldn’t do his job, people couldn’t die and the world went into chaos.

Now the god of war, Aries, was annoyed because wars were no longer fun for him. What’s the point of war if you can’t kill anyone?, he thought.

So, Aries goes to see Thanatos in the underworld, sees he is chained up, and lets him free.

Sisyphus knew Thanatos would be coming back for him, so he came up with another plan to cheat death. At this point in the story things get a little complicated, but Sisyphus ultimately escapes Thanatos and cheats death once again.

Now, Zeus is pissed. Our boy Sisyphus is in real trouble.

Zeus decides to take matters in his own hands and goes and gets Sisyphus. Instead of sending him back to the underworld with Thanatos, he sentences him to a different and far worse punishment.

Sisyphus’ punishment was straightforward.

He was to push a giant boulder to the top of a hill. Here’s the catch: as he approached the top, the boulder would roll back to the bottom of the hill and Sisyphus would have to start over.

He was sentenced to do this for eternity.

Sisyphus’ has now become known for his punishment; his name has even turned into an adjective. To engage in a Sisyphean task means to do something that can never be completed.


Looking back on 2020, how often did you feel like you were doing a Sisyphean task and gave up because of it? Did you accomplish the goals you had set out for yourself? Complete your new years resolution?

Humans are exceptional at looking into the future and making predictions; arguably too good.

We naturally project into the future and anticipate all the challenges we will face in route to something it is that we want. While trying to anticipate challenge is an important aspect of planning, all too often we let those challenges make that specific task or goal feel too distant or too daunting. We start believing that it is Sisyphean, that it can't be accomplished.

“There is only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time” - Desmond Tutu.

Have you ever been in the middle of a hard workout or run and suddenly become aware that you are not even halfway finished? When that happens, do you persevere? Or, do you say “screw it, I’ve done enough today” and give up? Just the realization that we are not as far as we thought can crush motivation.

Or maybe it is an ambitious project you started but never followed through with because of how difficult you predicted it to be. As you started in on it more and more challenges started popping up.

Never mind that those challenges might be far off from where you are now.

In that moment it doesn't matter that a majority of those obstacles are miles down the road from where you are now, it is reason enough to believe it's too difficult.

You're worried that the book won't sell, before you've written the book.

Concerned that you're not capable enough to play in college when you still have two years left of high school.

You’re letting things that haven’t happened yet - and might not happen at all - distract and demotivate you.


It is said that once Sisyphus got bored of pushing the boulder up the hill (which I assume was pretty early on), he did things to make it more interesting. He would challenge himself to push the boulder up in different ways each time, such as going backwards, using one arm, etc.

In effect, he was forcing himself into the present moment. If he thought about how much longer he has to go (forever...) he would go crazy. He forced himself to stay in the present moment by challenging himself and focusing on the task at hand.

When you start looking towards the future and all the challenges it holds, what do you do to stay present and focus on what's right in front of you?

What if, in those moments you forgot about where you are trying to go, and just focused on what you needed to do in that moment?

What if in those moments you thought less and did more?

What if you trusted in your ability to figure it out?

There is a time and a place to plan for the future, predict what challenges lie ahead, and prepare accordingly. Then, focus on what you can do today and bring your absolute best to it.

Don’t let the thought of the boulder rolling down the hill prevent you from pushing.

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