Really Caring About Something is Hard
The single most important thing when it comes to performance and fulfillment is care. If you care about what you are doing you'll be present for it. You'll put your all into it. You'll get the most out of it.
And yet really caring about something is hard. Some two years of researching and reporting for our forthcoming book made this abundantly clear. To really care about something can be a gift or a curse, and sometimes both. As the poet David Whyte says, "If you care about something it will break your heart."
Caring is a form of radical vulnerability. It requires exposing all of yourself to some endeavor—be it a relationship, cause, or craft—knowing that eventually the tides will change. If you're a parent your kids move out. If you're an athlete your body ages. If you're an entrepreneur the markets shift. If your an activist the cause you're fighting for doesn't come perfectly to fruition. Such is how things go.
It is so important to situate caring in self-awareness, community, reflection, and contemplation. The raw energy of caring deeply needs a space within which to exist. Otherwise it can easily run amok. Really caring about something can take you to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
To Lead, Send a Clear Message: "I'm with you."
At the 1960 Olympic games, a 60-something-year-old man, rail thin, with a full head of white hair, took to the practice track adjacent to the main Olympic stadium and commenced to run as hard as he could. The gangly elderly man grimaced and strained to complete the 3 and ¾ of a lap which makes up the Olympic equivalent of the mile, otherwise known as the 1500 meter run. Crossing the imaginary finish line, bent over in exhaustion, the sporadic onlookers rightfully questioned what this old man was doing. This was before the "jogging" boom had taken flight in the western world, and the act of seeing this man was a confusing sight. Upon recovering from the exhausting effort, the man relayed a message to his much younger pupil. "You may run faster than me. But you will not run harder." His pupil, Herb Elliott, would go on that evening to win the Olympic Gold medal in the 1500 meter run, setting an Olympic and World Record in the process.
The elderly man, Percy Cerutty, was Elliott's coach. In the hours leading up to the race, Cerutty was sending his star pupil a message. I'm with you. I may not be able to run as fast as you, but I have been and will continue to be part of this journey with you. He was sending a message of belonging and mutual sacrifice to the man who would line up against the best in the world in a few short hours.
Cerutty’s eccentric behaviors and lessons didn’t begin the day of the Olympic games; they were part of a culture that he had gradually cultivated. In the years leading up to the Olympic Games, Cerutty, Elliott, and a handful of other athletes spent their time honing their craft at a sparse seaside shack that Cerutty called home. In the amateurism era where even Olympic champions had to work jobs, Elliott would escape from the real world every weekend to spend his days running up and down the sand dunes and circling a grass track with the mission of Olympic gold forefront in his mind.
Cerutty, despite his age, would be right there with them. Running up and over the sandy hills, sending the message that “I am suffering too.” When on the makeshift track, unlike demanding and organized coaches of his era, Cerutty did not always dictate the workouts. Instead, he provided guidelines, encouraging athletes like Elliott to make decisions on how much they could handle and to explore their own breaking points.
In this seaside situation, Cerutty had created an environment that freed up Elliott to explore his potential. As Cerutty later wrote, he believed that "great performance is the result of the intrinsic worth as found and developed in the individual…great athletes rise and create their destiny. For them, life seems to be molded to their pattern, rather than they are molded by life- always the great athlete creates the schedule- never does the schedule create the great athlete."
Later, reflecting on his experiences, Herb Elliott wrote, “(Cerutty) didn’t think of it as training for athletics. He thought it was a way of life."
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