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Many years ago, I used to jog the same running route four times a week. By the end of each 6.2km circuit I was utterly destroyed, gasping for breath like an asthmatic goldfish in the Sahara.
Given my depleted state following each run, I naturally assumed that 6.2km was all that my body could handle. I knew my limit. And so it remained for a number of years.
Until one day, a friend suggested that we run together in a novel area. I agreed, and before I had a chance to entirely realise what was happening, we had 10km under our belts/activewear.
That was the day when I realised the limits of self-imposed limits. And since that time, I’ve been fascinated by how achievable goals often hold me back from achieving.
As I approach each target I set myself, it seems that I start to struggle irrespective of what the target is.
If I aim to climb 75 floors on the stair machine at the gym, I’m struggling at 70 floors. If I aim for 50 floors, I’m nearing breaking point at 45.
If I set out to fast for 24 hours, I’m getting peckish at the 22 hour mark. Scale down to a 16 hour fast, and I’m ready to rip a chocolate bar out of a passing toddler’s hand after 14 hours.
It’s as though, by setting an end point, the message is “This is what I’m capable of. This is all I’m capable of”. And the power of the belief makes it real.
Don’t worry; I’m not going to get all fluffy and assert that we can all achieve anything if only we believe we can. After all, no matter how hard we try, most of us will never be the fastest/richest/smartest human on earth, accidentally discover the cure for cancer, or land a date with Liam Hemsworth.
However, it’s certainly clear that we can quite easily stop ourselves from achieving our potential by prematurely capping our targets.
In a society that advocates short-term goal-setting for success, this realisation gives me pause. Might the setting of attainable end-goals actually be unwittingly shooting us in the foot and holding us back?
It’s not that I believe we should ditch targets altogether. Having something to head towards can certainly provide direction, and imbue us with the will to keep going when the going gets a tad tough.
But perhaps abandoning ‘achievable’ short-termers in favour of more fantastical or long-term goals might allow us to realise a greater degree of what we’re capable of.
Of course, setting ambitious targets necessarily elevates the likelihood of failing to achieve what we’ve set out to achieve. If I aim to climb 100 floors, I may ‘fail’ and only make it to 90. But relative to ‘achieving’ my easier goal of 75 floors, a failure of 90 doesn’t actually look all that shabby.
We’re impressed by Olympic athletes who land in last place. We don’t disparage doctors who are ‘only’ able to cure half of their afflicted patients. We still marvel at that guy who ate 8 hot dogs in a minute, even though really he was aiming for 9.
Falling short of something spectacular is inevitably going to thrust us to greater heights than we might achieve by meeting a more paltry aim.
So what’s your target going to be?
Some days, blogs tumble out of me. I sit down and, without really understanding how or why, my fingers frenetically fly across keys, bashing out ideas that somehow manage to render themselves coherent.
Then there are the other days.
Days when I’m struck by epiphanic ideas that somehow never manage to make their way onto page or screen. Days when I’m crippled by some sort of idiopathic inertia.
Today happened to be one such day.
I sat on the porch with a cup of tea, trying to work out why I was sitting on the porch with a cup of tea instead of at my keyboard evacuating the inspiration from my head.
It wasn’t too long before it occurred to me that the answer might be fear of failure.
I realised that before I started to write, the potential for perfection remained intact. My ideas had no opportunity to be opposed. I had no occasion to clumsily mangle them.
There was no possibility of letting myself down.
The realisation that fear of failure was fundamentally underpinning my creative immobility was eye opening. All of a sudden, I started to see the multitude of ways in which the fear manifested:
Researching endlessly to make sure I was adequately “equipped” before writing a word;
Painstakingly perfecting each sentence word-by-word until an entire afternoon had passed without progressing beyond a paragraph of text;
Accepting any offer of activity that interrupted the production process and allowed me to procrastinate further (thus delaying my otherwise inevitable failure).
Ironically, the cruel prophesy created by my fear was self-fulfilling. By virtue of self-sabotage, I was entirely unable to create anything. Let alone anything satisfactory.
I failed as I had been afraid I would. Because I had been afraid I would.
I remembered reading a quote as a child that “boats are safe in the harbour, but that’s not what boats are meant for”. It occurred to me that the metaphor could be extended to my fear of creative failure.
The ideas were safe in my head. But while trapped within, they carried no purpose or function. They had no power. There was really no point holding them there at all.
On the flip side, if I did attempt to translate the thoughts to text, what was the worst that could happen?
I might magnificently muck it up. I may well find myself exuding a poorly-constructed cascade of verbal nonsense. However, were this to occur, upon review I would unceremoniously ‘trash’ what I had written before any other humans had the opportunity to read/recognise my intellectual deficiency.
I might feel a bit miffed by the mess I had made of my once seemingly brilliant idea. But I would probably get over it pretty quickly. Particularly if I had something particularly delicious lined up for dinner.
Yet there was clearly much to gain by expelling ideas from brain.
For one thing, as with almost every avenue of achievement, creativity is essentially a numbers game. Just as we improve our odds of winning a raffle by buying extra tickets, so too do we hike the likelihood of producing something spectacular each time we produce something.
Of course there are bound to be a bunch of disappointing defeats and spectacular failings along the way. Plateaus and troughs are essential inbuilt features of the game of life.
We don’t expect to win the lottery every time we buy a ticket.
But failure is more than an inconvenient hurdle to success. It’s a catalyst for forging a stronger self.
When we succeed at something, we generally feel good but learn very little. Failure, on the other hand, tends to convey a sense of profound dissatisfaction. And if we can push through the preliminary knee-jerk impulse to punch a wall, throw in the towel, and never pick it back up, this dissatisfaction motivates us to become better.
So having recently recognised my own fear of creative failure – despite academically acknowledging its perks – I am resolved to finding a way to constrain its power.
Here’s my plan.
From here on, I will rigorously police my creative procrastination behaviours. Instead of painstakingly picking out the perfect words to form each phrase, I’ll smash out sentences as they tumble from my brain, and save the editing until later.
And each time I churn out a particularly pathetic blog, rather than exiling it immediately to the virtual trash can and pretending it never existed, I will examine it carefully to determine what made it such a total piece of literary tripe.
Then I’ll resolve not to make the same mistake next time around.
I’m getting old.
I know I’m getting old because I’ve started saying things old people say. Things I once swore I would never say, like “Young people these days!” and “Where has the time gone?”
There’s no question that, as I progressively senesce, my discourse is drifting in line with my evolving perceptions of the world.
(Ok, I’m being moderately melodramatic. I may not have quite hit 30 yet.)
Nonetheless, it’s interesting to observe the changes as they arise, and reflect on what they reflect about me and my aging brain.
One theme that appears to pop up with increasing prevalence each year is the apparent acceleration of time.
As a child, days often dragged. As an adult, weeks whip by with alarming alacrity. As a kid, Christmas could never come fast enough. As an adult, it seems to be constantly coming (again).
I listened to a lecture a while ago that discussed the phenomenon. It purported that our experience of how fast time ticks is more a function of our memory of events than of our direct experience of them in the moment.
As such, our retrospective sense of how fast a year passed may be entirely unrelated to how fast it felt like it was going at the time.
Which begs the question; if our overarching perception of time’s tempo is governed by memory, what exactly is it about these memories that makes time seem speedy vs. sluggish?
One theory states that, in retrospect, time feels fast or dawdling depending on how much we can remember from within each window.
Say we recall a whole heap of notable events from a particular period. A couple of weekends away. A wedding or three. An overseas jaunt. A new job. Meeting Molly Meldrum. Adopting a pet iguana. A Spice Girls reunion concert. Winning a hot dog eating contest.
To account for so much having happened, we subconsciously sense that a hefty amount of time must have passed. How else would we have fit so much in (hot dogs aside)?
Thus we perceive the period as having transpired in a more leisurely fashion.
And once we understand why our lives fly by, we can seek solutions to slow them down.
Solution #1: Mix sh*t up
So we know that memories are linked with perceived speed of time passing. And we know that salient (unusual) stuff is particularly successful at driving memory formation.
As such, it stands to reason that incorporating more unusual events in our lives may be the key to slowing down the rate at which we experience them.
Such changes don’t have to be drastic. I’m not suggesting that we all quit our jobs tomorrow in pursuit of a more random avenue of income. But most of us could probably stand to mix things up a little more than we currently do.
It could be something as simple as occasionally picnicking at a park rather than supping at the usual dining table. Splashing some cash on weekends away. Enrolling in random pottery classes. Attempting an escape room. Setting off on a scavenger hunt. Belting out a power ballad at your local bar’s karaoke night.
Sure – it’s more effort than a(nother) night in with Netflix. But the memories will last a lot longer!
Solution #2: Aid the encoding process
Over the past 5 months, I’ve been engaged in a mini experiment (sample size: me).
In an effort to aid my memory, I’ve been compiling a digital document of all of the special stuff that’s happened in my life since starting the list.
As well as forcing me to acknowledge (and appreciate) each event as it occurs, every time I open my list to add something new, I’m reminded of past events that may have otherwise faded from memory.
Fascinatingly, for the first time in a long time, time seems to be slowing down.
Finally, it’s July when it feels like it should be July.
And for once I feel confident that Christmas won’t be here before I know it.
So who knows? Maybe you’re ok with life speeding by. But if, like me, sometimes you wish it would go a little slower, why not start a list of stand-out moments of your own?
Worst come to worst, you may just realise how great life actually is.
They say the only certainties in life are death and taxes.
I disagree. Not because I’m planning to live forever or move to the Cayman Islands. But because I reckon there’s one more certainty that has been missed from the list.
Falling off the wagon.
Unless you are one of those sorry souls who never actually makes it onto a wagon in the first place, falling off – often repeatedly – is one of life’s inevitabilities. And like it’s inevitable relations (death and taxes) it has the potential to rob us of everything we’ve worked for. At least temporarily.
But before we get stuck into the ‘falling off’ bit, let’s delve a little deeper into the whole notion of a wagon, and what exactly it is that constitutes success.
Back in my youth, I used to conceive of success as being some sort of end state. A goal that could be gotten to and neatly ticked off.
Things like attaining a ‘respectable’ score on high school exams. Getting a ‘good’ job. Securing the attentions and affections of the ‘right’ partner.
Then I experienced a bit of life. And I realised that achieving success and maintaining success are two entirely different beasts.
In efforts to banish love handles from my life, there have been tonnes of times when I have successfully ditched the donuts, smashed out some work outs, and and shed a little of my jiggle. Goal achieved – hooray!
But then, over time, I would start negotiating with myself. “You’ve been gymming so hard – you’ve earned a piece of cake today. Heck, make it two pieces. You deserve it”.
Little by little, the hungry hedonist in my head would increasingly dominate this internal dialogue… until eventually someone would leave me unsupervised in Kmart during an Easter egg clearance sale, and it would be all over red rover.
Short-term clean eating is easy. Signing up for gym memberships requires remarkably little effort. But staying on those wagons long-term? Not so easy to do.
As a 30-year-old on a health kick, the notion of maintaining rigid self-restraint and dogged discipline for the remaining 60 odd years of my projected life is downright depressing.
(Perhaps depressing enough to induce an episode of emotional eating… now where did I put that tub of Ben and Jerry’s?)
It’s just not realistic to believe that achieving an aim means that it will never regress, or need to be re-visited.
After all, winds are most fierce at the tops of mountains. The tallest perches tend to be the most precarious. And life has a curious habit of hiding around corners, waiting for opportunities to ambush/knock us off the perilous pedestals we’ve placed ourselves upon.
Sometimes we’re strong enough to withstand such attacks… but sometimes our defenses are down.
Perfect postures deteriorate into slumpy humps during moments of fatigue. Clean kitchens become dirty dish dumping grounds when our schedules are hectic. Creative bursts of prolific production are interspersed with long periods spent languishing in creative doldrums.
And when our wondrous wins are replaced by devastating losses, our first instinct is to falter and self-flagellate. We reprimand ourselves for lacking the commitment and conviction required to remain steadfast upon our chosen success path.
But such falls are a natural (and indeed necessary) feature in the landscape of success.
They’re the speed bumps that force us to brake so that our engines don’t overheat and explode. They’re the forced respite opportunities that allow us to recharge so we can come back stronger the next time.
And perhaps most importantly, they’re the crucial challenges that add meaning to our lives. They force us to keep striving. They give us the opportunity us to earn self-respect.
Anyone who has never fallen has never climbed high enough. And in the long-term, that’s going to hurt far more than a fall ever could.
So next time you take a tumble from whatever wagon you’d been riding, don’t flog yourself for failing.
Instead, give yourself an internal high five for making it onto that wagon in the first place. Take some time to re-group. Re-energise.
And remind yourself that you climbed aboard once.
You’ll do it again.
I’m an extremist eater.
And it’s tough.
Society doggedly extolls the virtues of moderation and disparages its less popular cousin – deprivation. My whole life I’ve been encouraged to “just have a bit” because “a small amount won’t hurt” and “you don’t want to miss out”.
But here’s the problem; not all of us are wired for such a sensible approach.
Sure – you may be entirely capable of casually nibbling a potato chip or three and acknowledging an appropriate ‘enough’ point. But for me, as soon as that first delicious chip passes my lips… the whole bag is going bye-bye.
This is not to say that I’m entirely devoid of discipline. On the contrary, I’m actually capable of avoiding chip-chomping altogether. If I don’t crack a pack or accept an offered taste I can happily go without. Heck, a bag can sit unopened in my pantry for months (if my partner doesn’t spot it, that is).
But like a recovering alcoholic, the key for me is absolute abstention.
I don’t consider this extremist version of discipline to be any different to the discipline of a more moderate person. The discrepancy lies purely in the timing and stage at which it’s easy for each of us to stop.
For me, it just so happens to be before I start.
Unfortunately for me and others of my extremist ilk, society seems to have a hard time understanding and accepting our approach to eating.
We’re advised against absolute avoidance of particular foods for fear that we’ll become cranky with cravings, crack under the pressure, and go rampaging down the street, tearing Freddo Frogs out of small children’s hands.
But even as we and our dietary approaches are looked down upon, it’s really not all bad. Being an extremist eater comes with some distinctive advantages.
Advantage #1: Drug detox
There are certain ‘foods’ that are not only horrid for health but also remarkably drug-like in their effects on our bodily systems.
Sugar is one such drug.
Much like it’s relatives – heroine and crack cocaine – it elicits an instantaneous dopamine hit, keeps us running back for more, and requires progressively larger hits each time to stimulate the same satisfying spike.
Given my extremist predisposition, I knew that the only way to detox myself from the dastardly stuff would be to get off the sugar train altogether. So instead of cutting down as a moderate might, I went cold turkey.
Two weeks after cutting it from my diet, I became aware of the delightful sweetness of carrots, cashew nuts and even milk. The taste of cakes, cookies and chocolates became sickly, and almost unpleasantly overwhelming.
Better still, my previously insatiable sweetness cravings faded away into nothingness. Like a recovered sex addict, I could sit dispassionately beside the object of prior temptation without any urge to put it inside me.
They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. But apparently, when it comes to problematic food and drink-based relationships, it does a good job of making the heart a little less fond too.
Advantage #2: Eliminating the challenge of choice
Some time ago, I wrote a post about the problems associated with choice, including the mental and emotional turmoil associated with constant decision-making.
My health-conscious moderate mates must constantly choose whether or not to indulge in naughty snacks. And in a world of endless office chocolates, constant cake-studded birthdays and cheap treats lining the shelves at supermarket checkouts, such food-based decision points are dime-a-dozen.
To eat or not to eat? To have a big bit or a small bit? To go back for seconds? Thirds? Fifths?
As an eating extremist who used to masquerade as a moderate, I know that it can be exhausting having to constantly weigh up such options, particularly given the guilt so many of us experience in the wake of a poorly-selected decision.
However, since coming to terms with my extremist ways, I have found myself able to happily avoid such struggles, knowing that the choice has already been made. That it’s simply always going to be a no. (Unless there’s cheesecake on the line. In which case it’s simply always a yes. See? I’m not a total martyr!)
Now please don’t misunderstand; I do not, by any means, advocate extreme eating. What suits me and my munching style does not necessarily suit you and yours. Indeed, I have moderate friends who profess that abstinence induces such severe cravings that an epic, illness-inducing binge session is the only natural sequelae to such deprivation.
But if you are a natural extremist like me, don’t fall for the fallacy of moderation. Know yourself, your inclinations, your limits, and the time point at which you’re most able to say no.
And if you’re a self-identified moderate? Please don’t try to sway me into sampling a slice of your lovely-looking birthday cake.
It will last a lot longer if I don’t.