From Whence Shall Come the Quit?

Roberto-Duran-Gives-Up-001In exploring the connection of mind, body and spirit, I am a bit fascinated by the  moment of surrender.  It’s not from a morbid sense of curiosity, but more from the vantage of why does it happen when it happens.  What causes us to stop?  To relent?  To “No mas” a la Roberto Duran?  It can certainly depend on the activity in question.

The genesis of my fascination has nothing to do with obsessing over having given up at some point.  We all end up at that place one way or the other.  I want to figure out why it happens and then get better at pushing past that moment if possible… well, provided it’s an activity I give a damn about.  It’s not like I am going to study like a medieval monk to master the art of eating broken glass or some crazy nonsense like that.

So at the moment where it all comes apart, I want to know why.  An example may be in order:

Think of someone deep in physical training of some kind or another.  Perhaps it’s a powerlifter constantly seeking to move bigger and bigger weights or, at the opposite end of the training spectrum, the marathoner who conditions herself to run for 26.2 freaking miles.  (Umm, as you can tell, I am blown away by long distance runners because I cannot imagine trying to run that damn far).

For either of these individuals, which will usually quit first?  The mind as it obsesses over each pound or each mile?  The spirit as the will to go prove something wanes in the face of greater and greater physical demand?  Or will it simply be the body reaching some point of pure capability when one more pound or one more step is completely impossible?

In these cases, I find it is usually much less about the body and a lot more about some combination of the mind or spirit.  The body can accept an inordinate amount of physical work (for periods of time, mind you) provided the mind sees some value/end goal and the spirit stay strong.  The trick is to keep those things well in mind.

What about a test of the mind?  Does this change the equation at all in terms of the weak link from the body/mind/spirit continuum?  Possibly.  I think of people pulling all-nighters where their only limit is pure physical exhaustion (or running out of caffeinated beverages).  That being said, I am still tend to think mind and spirit may give out before the body.  The all-too-common declaration of “Good God, I think my brain is full…” jumps to mind for me, likely because I have uttered it a few times when deep in study back in law school.

In the end, I think that the greatest bang-for-your-buck in learning to push past previous points of failure is more of a mental and spiritual challenge, even if the activity you are seeking to improve is primarily physical.  Take Michael Jordan – physically gifted? Definitely.  But Michael Jordan did not become MICHAEL JORDAN because of his physical gifts… it was because of an absolutely indomitable will to win.  He was just plain mentally tougher than anyone else on the court.  Period.

And how do you build your will?  Great question.  For myself, I am going to take it in 2 parts since I need work on this as does… ohh… pretty much everyone.  First, pick some activity that is about discipline and work on it.  Second, build up this activity sloooowly.  For instance, I want to be better about developing this blog, so starting next week, I am getting up 30-45 minutes earlier in the morning to write posts, comment on other blogs, do Twitter, etc.  It’s not earth-shattering, but it requires extra discipline and sometimes there is something cool about doing a hard, lonely thing.  You need to do it slowly in order to notch up a few successes along the way.  If you are working on running a marathon, maybe you start doing a few of your runs at the crack of dawn or purposefully at the end of a really long day for the sheer purpose of knowing your mind will rebel mid-way through your run and will begin to rationalize why cutting it short and heading home for “American Idol” is really not that bad because you can run tomorrow.

Pick your hard lonely thing. Tell yourself you just need to push through it ONE time and then do it.  A few days later?  Do it again.  Let the momentum build and the will shall follow.

Be fierce.  Be mighty.  Above all else, just give it a shot so you at least know you didn’t let a chance for something better slide on by.

Fight the Fear

I like to be fairly regimented with the training schedule I keep and do my best not to skip days because of some lousy excuse I came up with on the fly.  Missed sessions (I try never to call it “work outs” because that tends to sound more random and unplanned) have a cumulative effect and it really pays to sometimes have what a lot of coaches call a “punch the clock” sort of session.  It may not be great, but it’s always better than a complete miss.

However, there are also certain sessions I might delay for a few reasons.  One is that I might just be completely wiped from lack of sleep, stress or poor eating.  The second (which is closely tied to the first) is that for a lifting session where I know I need to dig down deep, I want to be sure I have as many factors as possible in my favor.


Because for those sessions, I am fighting a fear of failure.

Perfect example is shown in the video below:

Watching my final “work” set of deadlifts, there probably does not appear to be anything all that unusual with the moments leading up to my initiating the lift.  I walk past the camera… get some chalk on my hands… mark my shirt with some chalk (I will explain that some other time)… set up for the lift… hit a particular part of the song I am listening to and boom!  Go time.

What you don’t see is how incredibly keyed up and anxious I am as I step up to the bar… how my stomach is completely fluttering and I am wondering if the exertion of the lift will make me throw up half way through.

A sane person would likely ask, “Umm… I thought you worked out and lifted and all that because you enjoyed it.  That doesn’t sound like something too enjoyable.”

Not a totally unfair point, but the reason I get so keyed up is that part of what makes weight training so meaningful to me is the chance to face that fear of failure and go at it head on.  I don’t always win in these fights, but the effort of doing so is worthwhile in its own right.

And when I do win the fight?  When I know my best before was deadlifting 400 lbs for 10 reps and today I did it for 11?  That brief moment of exuberance punctuated by my personal war cry kind of carries me through the day.  It’s amazing… and that, my friends, is serious fun.  That’s why I will be doing this for the rest of my life.

Fighting the fear can be fun… and lead to alliterations (but that is a different kind of fun entirely).

The Aging Athlete and Fighting the Inevitable

Last night was the third game of the basketball league I just got involved in after not playing at all for several years.  While I have been in some of the best shape of my life of late… well… let’s just say my hoop skills are not what they once were.  I mean, not even within the same ZIP code.  It’s not that I was amazing at any time in my life, but I was a solid outside shooter, played good defense and could push the ball decently well on a fast break.

Now? Hoo boy.  It’s not just the skills being rusty, but the lack of confidence in not playing in such a long time.  Well, that and the fact that I really don’t want to put my team in a bad spot… which probably just makes me more tentative. Kind of a vicious cycle.2009_10_cleats

After I subbed out with a few minutes left to play and watched the rest of the game  from the sidelines, I had a strange moment of reflection.  I had to make a choice: (a) work harder on my game; (b) accept the state of my game as it is; or (c) or hang up the sneakers entirely.

I had a moment like this playing soccer this past Fall.  I found myself not keeping up with the forwards I had to cover or getting winded too easily.  I am someone who has a lot of athletic pride, so the notion of just accepting things as they were was simply untenable to me… at least in soccer.  Also, I really was not ready to go gentle into that good night by playing in a less competitive league… so the decision there was to get myself in better shape or stop all together.  I went with a personal ass-kicking and the results (at least for the indoor soccer I have been playing) have been great.

But these moments I experienced are likely not going to be passing things.  At the delightful age of 37, they will only return and likely with shorter and shorter intervals between them.  While I certainly do not feel like I am 37 in terms of my outlook or how I feel, I know that there is a certain inevitably that comes with the wisdom of years.

Part of this is a matter of life getting in the way.  We get older and have more job and family responsibilities… we get a little bit more sedentary… play our sports just a little bit less… and then the years slip by and you end up standing on the sidelines of your rec basketball league wondering what in the name of all that’s holy happened to your jump shot.

In fact, I am stubborn about the notion that the problem with aging and athletics is really a lot less about the physical changes from time and more about the reduction in total activity.  Of course, it’s totally possible I view it this way because this is a philosophy whereby renewed effort should be able to return some of the sparkle of former glory… and I want my sparkle back.

So for the foreseeable future, I will not go gentle into that good night and will rage, rage against the dying of the light.  I have no reason to give up… no reason to quit… and truth be told, few things stir my blood like a good challenge.

And this challenge?  Oh this challenge is a good one for me.

And this will be my anthem:

Everybody gets knocked down. How quick are you gonna get up?

JK Rowling on Failure

kevin 111A fairly old adage says that the two unavoidable things in life are death and taxes.  I actually can think of two other events that fit the parameters of being unavoidable: change and failure.  Quite a list there, eh?  Death, taxes, change and failure.  Possibly four of the greatest fears most people probably have.  I know I have had them at one time or another in my own life – well, maybe not a fear of taxes, but certainly a less-than-rosy view of them.

I’ve also had my own moments of failure, disappointment and heartbreak.  It’s never a good thing to decide as a senior in high school that all you ever want to be is a lawyer… to go to college and spend so much focus on getting into law school… and then working your ass off in law school to get that first shiny job with a big firm… only to realize you despise being a lawyer.  Or to be working at a job and be part of a 1/3 of the company lay-off, move home to live with your parents at age 29 and spend 9 months out of work, all the while doubting whether you can truly make something of yourself.  That’s all happened to me and while a lot of it brought me down to my knees, I also think I learned an enormous amount about life and myself in that time.

JK Rowling spoke 2 years ago at the commencement for Harvard University and touched on what failure (as painful and agonizing as it was), did for her.

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

The point she makes that stuck me most was this:

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure?  Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential.  I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.  Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believed I truly belonged.  I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized and I was still alive and I still had a daughter whom I adored and I had an old typewriter and a big idea.  And so rock-bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

That last line is an incredibly powerful insight and mirrors my own experience.  Granted,  I was not in a place probably as difficult and dark as Ms. Rowling, but I was certainly not at the pinnacle of my powers in any sense.  And it sucked – bad.

But it shows that when difficulties come, they are very rarely terminal.  They will require an ego-check or some pride swallowing, but they are surely not the end of it all.  It’s just a another example of keeping one’s perspective when you face the inevitable difficulties of your life.

So I would love to add a fifth unavoidable to the initial list from this posting, but maybe it’s not an “unavoidable” as much as it is a near certain result when you face some ugly times:

This too shall pass.