Have you ever told yourself that you weren’t able to do something? Then one day you just got up and did it?
To kick off the new year, a few thoughts on the power of doing, committing, expectations, and motivating oneself to do better – through my own personal — and admittedly tortured — relationship with running. If you don’t care about running, imagine in its place something you keep telling yourself you cannot do.
“I’m not a runner.”
It was mantra-like. I told myself and others this for a good, unhealthy chunk of my adult life. Whenever I uttered these words, I did so definitively, as if to put an end to both the discussion and the possibility that it could be any other way.
But then something changed. And I became a runner. It didn't happen overnight. And it wasn't easy.
But here's my approach, not only from taking the first step but understanding the motions and emotions — sometimes productive, often destructive — that precede and follow it.
1. Rationalizing Limitations
During all those years when I’d proudly declare I wasn’t a runner I'd justify my own negative reinforcement by saying something like, “I’ve always played sports that required sprinting, never long-distance running.” As a high school athlete, I recall holding my own on the short, quick suicide runs at the end of tennis or basketball practice. The problem: each time the coach sent us to run a mile I felt as though my heart might erupt. Even the thought of that long-ish run made me ill.
Through the emotional and the physiological and back again, I believed that my body was not — and never would be — physically capable of a long distance run, let alone finding joy in it.
2. Trying, Slowly
Then, inspired by a short talk I heard at the World Domination Summit (WDS) in Portland back in 2012, I did something astonishingly simple: I ran.
I put on a pair of athletic shoes and walked the few blocks from our apartment to Tempelhof Park, the now shuttered airport once the site of the Berlin Airlift. At the edge of the park, I looked out over the vast field and intersecting runways in front of me. The openness was both liberating and daunting at the same time.
“I’ll just run for a few minutes. I know I’ll be out of breath soon and can just walk the rest of the way.”
I set off, slowly. Those first few minutes turned into thirty.
Thirty minutes and my heart didn’t explode. My legs didn’t fall off, either. I almost couldn’t believe that my body didn’t self-destruct after all those years of cemented self-doubt.
3. Realizing What’s Possible By Simply Doing
Astonishing things happen when you put one foot in front of the other and run.
When you run, you run. Obvious, isn’t it? But for so long, it wasn’t obvious to me.
Think of all those things you believe you cannot do, are certain you cannot do. Writer, painter, lover, cook, photographer, inventor, businessperson. Whatever it is – once you begin doing it, something undeniable happens: you’ve done it.
Not only was I running, but upon each return I noticed that I’d cover the same ground a bit faster.
But just doing doesn’t make for mastery. That is a longer process. Don't let it get you down, but be aware that the work doesn’t end by starting.
4. Struggling and Setting Priorities
I wish I could tell you that once I took that first run the skies cleared and never has there been a cloudy day since in my running world.
Most days, I still need to motivate myself to get out there. It’s so easy to put it off for another day. Weather is an excuse, as is time. “I’m too busy” – now there’s a destructive mantra. Then I think of people I admire who are doing 10x what I do, while taking care of children and running multiple businesses.
And they still find time. They create time. They resist making excuses. Or maybe they just do.
Accomplishment, in large part, is about will applied through the lens of one’s priorities.
I realized something else, too. I must do something consistently and regularly before declaring “it isn’t for me.” This is the commitment not just to try, but also the promise to abide some rough patches, before making a decision to embrace or abandon the cause.
It’s said that habits take 21 days to firm. I imagine the reality is different for each of us, but it’s a nice ballpark figure to measure one’s attempt.
As an ENFP (Myers-Briggs speak), this commitment part is really difficult for me. As in, extraordinarily difficult. Dan can tell you with a great moan how many “great ideas” and habits I’ve entertained briefly only to abandon them, having been distracted by the next shiny concept or idea to cross my path.
I think about all the aspects of life where this lesson of commitment applies.
6. Shifting Perceptions
After finally making my commitment to running, a new challenge emerged: winter in Berlin.
Now, I used to think people who ran in the snow and cold were nuts: Why would you put yourself through that? Where’s the enjoyment in that?
This time, though, I was determined not to abandon my newly formed habit. So I tried it – running in the cold and snow — myself. And it was more than OK. Actually, it was exactly what I needed in the middle of a Berlin winter – something to get myself out of the house (and away from the laptop), breathing fresh air, moving.
It shocked the hell out of me that here I was, a person who was once firmly not a runner, enjoying running in the snow.
I was now one of those crazies.
Isn’t it funny how when you actually try something that you believe you’re “not meant to do,” you can prove your doubting self wrong?
Perspectives shift. The way you think of yourself in the context of what you’ve chosen to do changes.
The way you begin to perceive others changes, too.
7. Doubting and Reaffirming Abilities
“But I’m still not a real runner.”
I still find it difficult to call myself a Runner — you know, with a capital R. I run just 30-45 minutes a few times a week; I’m not training for a marathon. I don't look as good or run as fast as Dan. [As Dan edits this, he resists excising such folly, but he leaves it alone.]
But what I do know is this: I’m now aware that my body is completely capable of running. I have shared that beautiful reality with myself.
I’ve reaffirmed more generally that I can push myself to do things I’ve never done before, even at my age. And instead of wanting to less as I get older, I find myself, in fact, wanting to do more.
This is a good thing. It's also a remarkable feeling.
8. Motivating To Do Better
Some may say that I should stop being hard on myself, stop trying to live up to the expectations of what a real runner is. But I’ll argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing. There’s motivation in it: to do better and to not just sit back with where I am now. Perhaps most importantly, to work up to what I think I could be.
This feeling carries over into other areas of my life as well.
Writer. Photographer. Speaker. Yes, I do all these things, even with some regularity. But I don’t always feel that I do them well enough to live up to what the title means to me. You know, the title with a capital letter at the beginning.
But it’s clear it takes doing, discipline, and time to get there. That’s what leads to improvement and mastery.
9. Reflecting and Doing Once Again
But when I consider all this processing, it's clear that the most important step is the first one: giving yourself permission to do, to try, to experiment, to fail, to work it out. To let go.
For you’ll never know if you can sustain the journey if you never choose to set off.
Update April 2016: I completed my first half-marathon in Berlin in just over 2 hours, faster than I had imagined. After cheering on others at this race for years, it was so incredible to be one of the runners and to feel the energy of the crowds and bands. Guess I'm slowly inching towards being a runner with a capital R…
Have you tried something recently that you never thought you could do? What happened?