Interesting Thought: Make Yourself Bigger
When you decide to do something—anything, really—what is going through your mind?
Depending on the situation, perhaps you're thinking any one of the following:
I have to do this (whatever "this" may be)
This will make me happy
This will bolster my reputation
This will make me comfortable
I've committed to others and must follow through
These are just a few of the many common reasons we do what we do. If you haven't recently reflected on the drivers behind the activities in your own life, take a minute to do so now.
Sometimes our actions come before our motivations, like when we are literally forced to do something and we make up a different, perhaps rosier, story for why. But more often than not, especially for those of us living in the developed world, it's the other way around. Our motivations tend to drive our actions.
If we are motivated to be happy we'll do things that make us happy. If we are motivated to be comfortable we'll do things that make us comfortable. If we are motivated to bolster our reputation we'll do things that bolster our reputations.
But what if we predominantly desire activities that will lead to a meaningful life? Not those that will necessarily make us feel good now, but those that will fulfill us over the long-haul? What if our motivation is personal growth and becoming?
This may sound a bit soft and self-helpy coming from me, and I'm totally OK with that, because on its face it is. But I also think it's important and worth thinking about. Why do we do what we do? Why should we do what we do? I think far more "soft" than considering these questions is not considering these questions.
The psychologist James Hollis agrees. He is someone who has given a lot of thought to these questions, and his answer (in the form of another question) has provided a heuristic I've been using to great benefit as of late:
"Ask yourself of every dilemma, every choice, every relationship, every commitment, or every failure to commit," he writes in his book, What Matters Most, "Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?"
Not everything you do has to be supremely enlarging. I'm a firm believer in embracing the simple joys of life, and the latest psychological science says doing so is important for resilience. You can ask my wife Caitlin, I've got nothing against watching a Netflix comedy come 8PM, when I can hardly spell my name let alone construct a worthwhile thought—or god-forbid a cogent sentence.
And yet, when it comes to larger life decisions—for example: deciding whether or not to marry; have kids; pursue a new career; become a whistleblower; devote yourself to running an ultramarathon; begin volunteering or giving of yourself in some other way—I think Hollis hits the nail on the head. If your goal is to live a meaningful life, I'm not sure there's a better guide for deciding what to do—at least for the big things—than asking his question.
As for the answer, that's up to you: The things that diminish you, don't do. The things that enlarge you, do.
Coaching Corner: How to Make Marathons Manageable (In Running and Living)
When is a race (or other athletic event) most difficult?
Chances are you answered somewhere around the halfway point of whatever race it is you pictured in your mind. Perhaps some of you said closer to ¾ of the way, or maybe a select few even said the beginning. But I’m willing to bet hardly any of you said the end.
Yet it's in the final meters of a race that fatigue is at its highest. Your legs are burning, your heart is pounding, and your body is straining for the finish line. Your effort is at its peak to keep you from drowning in fatigue. However, hardly any serious athlete will ever say the end is the most difficult part of a race.
How can this be?
At the end of the race, the finish line is in sight. You can clearly see a conclusion to your agony, a reminder that your pain is finite. You can project how bad you are going to hurt (and for how long) with a reasonable degree of accuracy. There are no surprises in the last few meters. Your mind can somewhat easily ("easily" being relative, of course) handle the pain largely because it knows what to expect.
When you are stuck in the middle of a race, with fatigue slowly seeping into your body, you haven’t reached the level of pain or effort that you'll need to confront shortly. In fact, it’s only going to get worse. Yet, this is the point of the race that often feels most difficult. The uncertainty is the problem. You are too far away from your goal to know what to expect, or how long it will take you to get there. You can’t accurately project forward how you will feel in a mile, or if you can even last that long. The uncertainty leads to doubt and the doubt to discomfort. Ultimately, you are left to fight an inner battle to get you far enough through the race so you can see the finish.
The middle isn't just the toughest in racing; it can also be the toughest in the tasks that make up everyday living. We’ve all been there, where we have started a project only to get overwhelmed by thinking about how much we need to do and the amount of work we have left. Our enthusiasm for the activity we decided to undertake is gone, and in its place is the stark reality of the demanding job that’s only partially complete.
Fortunately, there are strategies to combat this uncertainty. In a race, we might break the remaining distance down, focusing on making it to the next mile marker, or even just the upcoming turn in the street. The same strategy can be applied in broader life when struggling with a task. Break it down into manageable challenges. No one writes an entire book at one go—neither in reality nor in their minds. Rather, the way to write a book is point-by-point in an outline, chapter-by-chapter in the running copy, edit-by-edit in the refinement process.
Breaking our goals down into bite-size pieces allows us to mentally manage a much larger task, and perhaps more importantly, literally see progress along the way.
The difficulty isn’t simply about how much effort we put forth or the level of physical or emotional discomfort we endure. It's much more about time (how much of it is left) and control (how it can feel like we have so little). But if the end is in sight—even if the "end" is just a segment, making it to the next turn down the road—the challenge, and our perception of it, lightens.
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