Interesting Thought: A Case Against the Quantified Self
The running of the 122nd Boston Marathon this past Monday showed us that while the whole idea of the quantified self—data and metrics and real-time tracking for everything—can be helpful, it is never a replacement for the real self. 25-to-30-mile-per-hour gusting headwinds render pacing information from even the fanciest GPS watch useless. Couple that with pelting rain and temperatures in the 30’s and suddenly heart-rate becomes a pretty crappy proxy for effort too. The only way anyone was running a decent race at Boston was by listening closely to their body. Unfortunately, many athletes have become so reliant on tracking devices that they’ve forgotten how to do just that.
It’s not just athletes. Sleep trackers, productivity trackers, and various “recovery” trackers have become common in just about every field. Forget that oftentimes these devices aren’t accurate to begin with. Even if they were, they interfere with what I think are two of the most important attributes to peak performance in any endeavor: caring and love.
I know, I know. But Stay with me here…Because when you care about something and love it you shine.
To me, caring is about being fully present with the object of your affection. That can be a person or that can be a craft. When you’re having great sex you probably aren’t tracking the force of your thrusts. When you’re singing to a baby you probably aren’t tracking the pace of her movement. What you are is totally there. Deep in the act. The result? Great sex and a calm baby. Peak performance. What makes running or writing or holding a good meeting any different? If you really want to nail something, you should put as few things between you and that thing as possible.
Love is what you get from caring. When you love someone or something you feel a deep attachment to it. You’d do just about anything for it. Love is especially important in situations during which the going gets tough. Unless you truly love starring at a watch or counting words or measuring your heart-rate-variability, odds are all that tracking is probably detracting from your ability to love what you do. And if you don’t love what you do, you don’t really want to do it—at least not well—when the going gets tough.
This isn’t to say that you should never use real-time tracking stuff. I actually think you should. But if we are talking about achieving long-term, sustainable peak-performance, then eventually you’ve got to wean yourself off of it.
If you’ve stayed with me this far, thank you! Your reward is my trying to connect the soft philosophical stuff to a hard framework: the well-known four levels of competence developed by Noel Burch in the late 1970s:
Level 1 is unconscious incompetence. Here, no amount of data or tracking will help you because you have no idea what you’re doing in the first place. Get a coach or a mentor or invest in some books instead.
Level 2 is conscious incompetence. Here, data and tracking start to help you. You don’t know what you’re doing but you’re aware of that, and real-time measures can bring you along and assist in your development.
Level 3 is conscious competence. You know what you’re doing but you still need to think about it. Again, data and tracking can be helpful here, but only at first. Because eventually, they actually get in the way of development and become a hindrance to the fourth level.
Level 4 is unconscious competence. This, to me, is equivalent to caring and love. Some call it “flow” or “being in the zone.” You’re just doing your thing, completely immersed in it, with no regard for anything else in the world. This is when peak performances occur.
In summary: Use tracking and data when it’s helping. But just as important is realizing when it’s not and gradually shutting down the electronics and tuning into your body and mind instead. Easier said than done, of course, but I think worth the effort. Because who doesn’t want more caring and loving experiences in their life?
Coaching Corner: To Handle Anxiety, Think Negative.
When it comes to pressure in sport, there are few things worse than an Olympic track final. It's you, alone in your head, on the starting line with thousands of people in the stands and millions back home watching on TV. There's a hush that falls over the stadium before every race, almost as if to tempt nerves to swell to the top of your mind.
Mike Marsh is an Olympic Champion, winning the 200-meter dash and 4x100m relay at the 1992 games. When he recently came to speak to the University of Houston track team, the first question that was asked was a predictable one: "How did you handle the nerves, anxiety, and pressure of the games?"
Marsh had a simple, yet profound routine. The morning of every important race, he asked himself two questions:
1. Realistically, what's the worst thing that could happen?
2. Can I handle that?
Yes, the day of the big race, Marsh started by looking at the negative, not the positive. While pop psychologists might question his sanity, Marsh went through this reflective exercise for a reason. Often, a fear of failure is what holds us back and contributes to our pre-race anxiety. Our fears are often ambiguous and ill-defined; we fear failing without actually thinking about what that encompasses. Is it the end of the world if we get last? Will we die or be fired? Will we not be able to provide for our family?
By acknowledging what the realistic worst-case scenario was, Marsh provided a degree of clarity to an uncertain situation. His mind couldn't ruminate on a bunch of absurd scenarios.His second question is just as important. He is eliminating the concern entirely, by informing his mind that he has the capabilities and resources to handle the situation.
By acknowledging the worst possible outcome AND then asking if he could handle that, Marsh was preventing his mind from spiraling out of control towards the negative. This technique allowed put Marsh in a situation where he wasn't trying to ignore or deflect the anxiety or pressure, but instead attack it head-on. He took a situation that breeds uncertainty and gave himself full control.
When we are on the starting line or about to face an audience, our gut reaction is to overwhelm our mind with positivity. Yet, if we can take a moment and acknowledge the downside, it can often free us up to perform to our potential.
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