I’m an expert at nothing

It’s an old analogy but when asked where his talent lies, a fish that has spent many years diligently practising the violin, making huge sacrifices to become as accomplished as possible, could justifiably cite musicianship as his or her thing… and completely ignore the fact that he or she is not only a bloody good swimmer but one that can breathe underwater.

It’s hard to identify our own strengths. Those most noticeable to us are where we’ve suffered to acquire them; where we’ve had to make an effort, or make sacrifices, usually for a sustained period of time. But we ignore those things that come naturally to us.

When we can do something without thinking, there is no effort for us and it seems too easy to be worthy. Or perhaps we think others must find it as easy and as natural as we do. This was the case with Greg Louganis, the gold medal winning Olympic diver. I heard an interview with him in which he explained how, from a very young age, he would execute all of his practice in his head, and when he had it right in his imagination, then he would execute it with his body. He thought everyone went through that mental rehearsal and it wasn’t until many years later that he realised how rare this was.

We also tend to think first of sports, arts and trades when it comes to expertise: she is a good runner, she is a good carpenter, she is a good sculptor, etc. We forget those attributes that are less visible: he is a good organiser, he is a great lateral thinker, he is one of life’s connectors and he’s the one that keeps our social network together.

I emerged from school without any A grades in my national exams (of which there were 15) and this was despite being able to choose most of the subjects myself. I didn’t win any sports events at school. If I’m looking for my own expertise then I need to look at my life in a different way. Or maybe we need our friends to tell us, because what is natural for us might not be for them.

If you’re a fish, make friends with an elephant. If you’re a painter, make friends with a mother who only has time for their family. If you’re a runner, make friends with a weightlifter. You may see in the other what you are not. You might be able to help one another. And you’ll have someone to remind you that it’s really pretty cool to be able to breathe under water.

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Endurance training is like spinning plates

There are 8 plates, and each plate has a name, all begin with ‘S’:

  1. Strength
  2. Speed
  3. Stamina
  4. Skill (or Technique)
  5. Sleep (and Rest, or Recovery)
  6. Suppleness (aka Flexibility)
  7. Sustenance (Food, or ‘Sprouts’ if you want a food beginning with ‘S’) and
  8. Sychology

We like our numbers when we publish blog posts or write book titles, and since I’ve managed to shoehorn the letter S onto all of them, I was tempted to call this “The 8 Ss of endurance sports”, except that half of them have noms [sic] de plumes and the eighth S is a son-of-a-nutcracker. But I’m beginning in the middle of the story, so let me be kind, rewind (and generally Swede this blog post) a little.

In running, triathlon, freediving, and so many sports and physical activities, we are constrained by one of the 8 Ss. Sometimes it’s our schedule that stops us from cramming them all in and sometimes it’s our preference. (I just don’t like yoga.) It might be a persistent lack of sleep that prevents us from being a faster swimmer, or a lack of speed work that prevents us from running faster, a lack of strength that prevents us from cycling harder, or a lack of attention to what is going on in our head (sychology) that prevents us from holding our breath longer during freediving.

That which constrains us at any one point in time will depend on the person and the activity. Strength is more important in running than freediving, where flexibility and sychology feature more prominently. But where these 8 Ss have really helped is when my life has been too disrupted and disjointed to follow a strict training plan.

In weeks with no training plan I know what constrains me and I can give that one S more attention. But I also try to hit them all to some degree. Strength might come from a random set of burpees, or a high gear workout on a bike; suppleness gets some focus with a foam roller work in front of the telly. As I go through the week I can mentally tick off the Ss I’ve hit and those I haven’t until I get to the eighth day, when I can reward myself with sprouts.

This post was inspired by reading a wonderful book called “The art of running faster and I have shamelessly taken the lessons from one of the authors, Julian Goater, to heart.

You are good enough 

To those of you who are not captains of industry, you are good enough. 

If you haven’t climbed Kilimanjaro or run a marathon, you are good enough. 

To you who weren’t valedictorian, who didn’t graduate summa or magna cum laude (and who think if you speak Latin at all it should be used to say things like nunc est bibendum) you are good enough.

I visited a university campus last weekend and I had a flashback to my own college experience. On getting in and getting out I felt that pressure to prove I had milked every last second for every bit of opportunity so my prospective college/employer/friends could see I am smart, hard working, creative, sociable, a leader, athletic, responsible, reliable, charitable, determined, focused… I had it easier than it must be today. That pressure now feels like it’s all the way up to 11. 

You don’t need to prove anything to me. Be a good person. Do no harm. Get enough sleep. Try not to be a dick; know that sometimes you will be and for those times I only ask you feel humility and remorse. Life is not a competition but if you want it to be, if that’s what makes you happy, I don’t mind that either.  If you feel that pressure to be better today, know that your mere desire to want to be better means that you already are good enough. 

Justification and excuses

The girlfriend of the leader of a political party in the UK made a racist statement when talking about Meghan Markle, Prince Harry’s fiancée. Then came the excuses, the same sort of excuses I read and hear from politicians on this side of the pond, and probably the world over.  

The excuses largely fall into two camps. You have the flat denial, “it wasn’t me” (as they stand next to a large plate full of crumbs with chocolate sauce all over their face). And then you have the you misunderstand me responses:

“My bigoted statements were taken out of context.” (And presumably blown out of all proportion.)

“My misogynistic conversation happened over 20 years ago.” (When I was still more than 50 years of age.)

“My racist tweet was actually referring to a different foreigner.” (None of which are my own immigrant ancestors.)

But it’s when we start making the excuses for them that I really worry.  

“The president may be a murderer but he’s only murdering criminals.” 

“Sometimes you just need a murderer to catch a murderer…” (… and then sometimes you just need to elect them into office. )

But when is such behaviour bad enough? Why do we hold those in positions of power to a different standard from those around us? And why do we make excuses for them?

All of us make excuses for those we support. I’m just wondering at what point we flip our stance and finally say, “ok THAT is not acceptable”.

We’re not consistent. Little Jamie didn’t mean to hurt anyone, they were just playing. Jan wasn’t really lying,  they just didn’t say what actually happened. My son isn’t really racist, he was just using words he heard.

We hold those outside of our circle to a different standard. And we hold those inside our circle to different standards each day depending on how much $h!t we can deal with at that moment in time. (We’re only human, and we all have a limit.)

Maybe we need a checklist of questions:

  • Would I be sacked if I said / did this to my boss? 
  • Would I let my child get away with this? 
  • … 

But a checklist will only work if we also throw out our own checklist of excuses:

  • Ah but home is different from work.
  • Ah but children don’t know any better.

Loon, tit, cock, and booby

… all feature in the names of bird breeds.  

Place names have hilarity too. In Ireland you can find Bastardstown, in the USA we have Big Bone Lick, and from the UK we have Fanny Barks, Brown Willy and Bell End. 

But it’s the onomatopoeic quality of words that delights me the most. Some are just so much fun to say. The shape your mouth has to make and the way you move your tongue to form them is a joy in itself.

Words with “oo” in the middle… words ending in “-t” or “-k”… we need these words in our lives. And when the words have a story, an exoticism, a heritage, they are more beautiful still. 

Words like papoose, cacophony, solipsism, baboon, salacious, purple, mama mia, Tuareg… 

I could go on. I already have. Find your words. Say them out loud. Enjoy them. And on that note I’ll leave you with a bushtit.

Your discomfort zone (version 2) 

As the saying goes, if you keep doing what you did, you keep getting what you got. The way we progress is by doing differently. Differently can mean a more uncomfortable version of what you are already doing, or something entirely new. Either way it’s not what we’re inclined to do or else we would be doing it already.

It takes mental effort to put yourself in a place of discomfort, and more to stay there. When I think of this, threshold training comes to mind. A former running coach summed it up quite well: 

“… you know that feeling you have when you get to that running pace where it stops being comfortable, but you’re not throwing up; you can live with it but given a choice you wouldn’t choose to – you’re kind of at the ‘point of yuck’ – that’s your anaerobic threshold. That’s what you’re looking for. Just hold that pace.”

There you go then. Just find that point of yuck and live with it. I can say from experience that the longer you live with it, the less uncomfortable it becomes. It’s just not a natural state, and you can’t live with it all the time. For those other times I recommend whatever hedonistic joy takes your fancy. After living at the point of yuck, I guess you could call this embracing the state of yum. 

Your discomfort zone (version 1)

Last year I took improv classes.  There I was, my British restraint cast aside, and I’m yelling, laughing, and loving the troop with whom I found myself.  Free from judgment, and where the prime directive is to support your partner, it’s a place of safety. But despite that nurturing environment, the instincts remain.

One Thursday evening I was quite happy producing (admittedly poor) Scottish, Irish, French, and South African accents, but as soon as I was called on to produce an American one, I clammed up; suddenly I had 15 experts who’d judge me!

Their attitude was nothing but supportive. Indeed their response when I finally caved was similar to that of my friend, Geoff, at karaoke. Namely that it’s not about being good, instead it’s about having fun, having a go, and letting go. 

One of my favourite sayings about friendship is that a friend is someone who knows you and yet still loves you. When in their company they provide a little papoose of comfort and safety.

Getting older also helps dissolve those deeply rooted fears of being judged, because the older I get the less I care. I wish I had been older when I was younger. 

The importance of owning stuff 

We come into this world with nothing. We leave with nothing, and yet we spend so much time and energy acquiring things.

In Plymouth, Massachusetts, you can hear from descendants of the Wampanoag – the native American tribe without whom the Mayflower Pilgrims might have perished. The pilgrims arrived with a their very Anglo Saxon concept of land ownership and the Wampanog must have wondered why these Europeans wanted to give them things. 

If someone came up to you and told you they wanted to give you money for an experience you had last year you might say think they were crazy but you would thank them for their generosity and tell them to knock themselves out. How then would you then react when you suddenly needed to call on that experience, only to find it had disappeared from your memory?

The concept of owning is not a genetic imperative. Another need comes first: survival, food, shelter, providing for those you love. Owning things allows you to meet those other needs but at some point the stuff itself becomes the need: more land, more clothes, more gadgets and toys… or if you’re a cyclist, more bikes.  Time with loved ones diminishes in importance, and you waste time and energy on things that shouldn’t matter. (Happiness and health do matter. )

I live in a country where there is a strong drive to acquire stuff, especially if it’s free (and shiny). Yet the joy is ephemeral.  

No lecture here. Just some morning thoughts as I realise I did grab the airline goodie box from my flight last week, because it was free – and shiny – even though it’s full of things I don’t need. This posting is also an opportunity to finish off with the genius that is George Carlin, and share with you his thoughts on stuff.

… as long as we don’t talk politics

“What do we want? More of the same! When do we want it? WHENEVER… WE’RE NOT THAT BOTHERED!”
How often do we turn on the TV to see protestors with placards saying that?

The status quo does not galvanize people into action (unless we’re talking about the rock band, who opened Live Aid in London in 1985).

When people do hold a stance opposing my own my natural inclination is to push back or shut down / run away; we have a fight or flight response. The more passionately I feel about something – the U.S. presidential election, Brexit, gun ownership – the stronger my reaction, but there is a third way, and it’s something we find at the heart of the martial art, Aikido.

In Aikido, you have a partner rather than an opponent whom you disarm rather than dismember. That disarming commonly begins by manouevring yourself until you’re aligned with them or by manoeuvring them until they are aligned with you: their stance becomes yours, their point of view becomes yours… you even take their hand (wrist).

Exponents of this martial art might point out that the analogy breaks  down after this point because you can then proceed by slapping them to the mat like a bitching sack of spuds (but you would only delight in doing this if you’re a dick or an arsehole).

By taking a step to the side rather than forwards or backwards, by standing with them, by seeing from their perspective and by taking their hand, confrontation and opposition has disapperared.

We need to do this outside of a dojo. We need to do this so often that the Aikido way becomes instinctive and our lizard brain’s fight or flight response recedes.

Let have a stab (as it were) with the three topics I mentioned at the beginning of this post:

“I recognize that Republicans have a reputation of being fiscally prudent but I feel the same way about Democrats. And yet I was reading that every president, regardless of party, has left the country with a debt level greater than when they came into office. What are your thoughts?”

“I agree with you that the EU is a bloated  bureaucracy that seems to be indiscriminately pressing people down a path of harmonization without respecting their individuality or that of their sovreign nation. I also think it’s easier to change things from within than without. Mainland Europe will always be our neigbour, and I think what the EU does will affect us whether we’re in the club or not. How do we move forward in concert with them?”

“It feels like crime is rising and that there are more and more mass shootings. I don’t know the answer but I think that if more guns is the answer then the USA would be the most crime free nation on planet. How do we protect our own children without increasing the risk of someone else’s dying?”

And so when certain friends and family members next come to dinner, DO talk politics, DO talk religion. We will never come together if we sit holed up in our own own view of the world, ready to hide from or attack anyone that sits outside it. And if it helps, show them the Aikido way.