Wednesday, February 14, 2018

all I know is that I do

Lately, I've been studying success.

I work with athletes and entrepreneurs, two very different sets of people that share a lot of similar qualities.  They tend to be type-A overachievers who are looking for something in the world to push them to their limits.  These may be intellectual or physical or mental limits, but it's the edge they are searching for in business or sport.  And a month or two ago, I got a few emails letting me know that someone had nominated me for a TED talk (thanks, mystery nominator person!).  I applied once four or five years ago, and I didn't make it past the first cut.  I think I struggle with the original idea; as a lifelong educator I am far more qualified to regurgitate the intelligence of others and strain it through into my athletes, clients, students.  I also struggle with the comparison game as well as the intimidation game (but those are topics for another day).  So I spent a few weeks shoveling around in my head the work I've been doing lately in this vein, and I eventually scribbled it all down and submitted it.  I got an email a few days later letting me know that I had made it to the next round.
I ran a training camp in Boulder this last weekend, so I slotted in about twenty minutes for naval-gazing to share some of this with my athletes.  It came down to two separate ideas - personal responsibility and compassion.  We're in a technological world right now where we are watching the erosion of civility, I think Brene Brown said that or maybe she just re-tweeted it.  But social media is also creating a huge lack of personal responsibility in our culture.  Printed text has always added an additional challenge for tone, but still, how quick are we to say, I guess you can't take a joke when we should be saying, I'm sorry?  How often have you seen it play out in the comments, watched someone irrationally burn a relationship to the ground instead of accepting responsibility for their own mistakes or giving other people the same sort of grace?  I am definitely not perfect; I have made plenty of mistakes in my life but as I've gotten older, I know that I have learned to judge others less after working through so many of my own wrongs.  And in the frame of the athletic experience, it is easy to directly link this kind of personal responsibility with success.  The athlete that always has an excuse for why a workout didn't get done, why s/he wasn't prepared, why s/he didn't follow the plan, why the world is an evil villain conspiring against our poor hero(ine) who couldn't possibly fit in the run/finish the swim/get to the gym - that athlete is an unsuccessful athlete, every time.  Because that athlete can't simply say, I should have done better.  It was me.  I'm certainly not implying that we should beat ourselves senseless at every imperfection in life or training - sometimes it's true that good God it was just a thirty minute run let it go - but we should be able to acknowledge that what is happening to us is a result of our own choices.  The athlete that looks inwards first - the one who takes responsibility for the decisions that we all make every single day and then creates internal accountability, that athlete that is not a victim.  That athlete is in the driver's seat of their own personal school bus, no matter how many squirrels it may run over and wrong turns it may take.  And that is an athlete that will reach their goals.
Alongside of that goes compassion.  And when we talk about compassion, we aren't talking about, aw you poor baby let me give you a hug and a cookie.  We are talking about real compassion, the kind where instead of fobbing yourself off, instead of blaming traffic or the barking dog that kept you awake, you can look in the mirror and say, hey Katie, you are not getting the job done right now.  When you aren't afraid to address the tough issues, to work the weaknesses, to give yourself enough grace to try and fail, to fall flat on your face - that's real compassion.  Compassion isn't saying, it's okay, it's too hard, don't even try, just go find your pink sweatpants and an easier task.  Compassion is being okay with the tough conversation and facing the struggle, whatever it may be.  In my world over here, my job is to give a safe place to do so and I'm not going to flip out and fire you/end our relationship/stop coaching you when you fail.  Rather, I'm expecting you to stumble and I'm letting you know that I'll be here to help you sort it all out.  Because you will learn from it, and you will acknowledge your mistakes, and try again, and that is how you will find your success.

These aren't really original ideas, and I'm sure that's why I wasn't one of the finalists chosen to speak (that and my complete inability to talk within a set time limit).  I felt bummed - rejection always stings, no matter how expected - and I told exactly one person about it and that was going to be that.

But as I kept mulling this all over in my busy bee brain, I realized that if I'm going to constantly criticize social media for being nothing but a glowing highlight reel of perfect abs and six minute miles, then I had sure as shit better put my own failures out there.  I know that when I look around me, the people in my life that impress me the most, the ones that I am inspired by (despite my hatred of how overused that word has become), are not the ones that either stroll easily into success or spend a great deal of time putting up a smokescreen to the world that creates a false illusion of success.  And there, finally, went the lightbulb - that is why I've been avoiding this space for so many months, why I haven't been using my tiny little corner of word vomit to work out my shit.  Because I've been afraid to share the fact that I have failed.  Certainly, "not blogging for a while" is not an international sign of distress.  But I've got a dozen two-paragraph drafts saved, and that's not like me, to not barf up everything that is going on, complete with too many adjectives and not nearly enough content slashed to the editing room floor.  I think it's because I wanted so badly for this surgery to be a magical happy ending where I woke up healthy and lost three pounds a week eating cupcakes and drinking beer all the while rolling 350 watts at 130 heart rate and vacuuming the house with my right arm.  And (shockingly enough) it wasn't.  
When I woke up from surgery, all of my nerve pain was gone.  Five weeks later, the nerve pain in my hand was back.  The surgeon is confident that I needed the three repairs that were done (labrum, labrum, bicep tenodesis) regardless of what's happening further down the chain from my shoulder, but it's still there.  More than a few times I've thought it's been gone and then it pops right back up again, as if it knows that I've declared somewhere on the internet that it has been banished for good.  And I'm frustrated and upset and really fucking pissed off when I let myself think about it, which is not very often, which is probably unhealthy in a number of ways.  Failure.

I gained a lot of weight last year, and the next person that tells me that I look the same is getting unfollowed on Instagram (as I have recently learned that THIS is the single most hurtful thing you can do to a person in 2018).  I have gained twenty pounds and lost all of my muscles and no one hesitates to tell me how fantastic my boobs are which means - guess what asshole? - I don't look the same.  And this is not the failure so much as how on January 1, when we got back from Mexico, I swore that I was going to find my good habits in the kitchen again (this is why I have a major beef with intuitive eating - people probably should not be living on potato chips and conversation hearts for extended periods of time).  I found them, for a little while, and then I let traveling be an excuse and pain be an excuse and the flu be an excuse and now it's six weeks later and I haven't burned off any of these boobs back down into the sidewalk.  I want it, but not badly enough, not yet.  Failure.

I sent in PhD applications, and oh my god NO I am not going to stop coaching, I'll probably never stop coaching, but I do think that just sitting here on my ass telling people they aren't bonking, they're dehydrated, is probably not a sustainable business model.  One school nearby plus three other scary schools, and if you don't know anything about PhD acceptance rates then I don't want to horrify you but the really good programs are around 2% or so.  So I haven't really told anyone that I applied because if or when I get rejected by all four universities then I don't have to answer a bunch of embarrassing questions about why I'm too stupid for Stanford.  Let's not talk about the potential to fail at all, let's just slap another sunset on the Instagram and pretend all is perfect and rosy, right?
I got cleared about a month ago to get back in the pool and do some kicking and single arm whatever and you'd think that I would have gone straight from the doctor's office to the locker room but I didn't.  I didn't want to.  There's something muddy in there about how if I can't swim in a real way, if I can't be the powerful athlete that I used to be (at least in the water) then I don't want to be in the water at all, and that's immature and short-sighted and a host of other things that all boil down to fear, but actually, failure.  I'm afraid that I won't ever be strong again, that there is no swimming - which means no triathlon - in my future again, and it may be irrational but it is very, very real.  And I didn't miss the water at all, I didn't even think about it until I spent all weekend on deck working with athletes one-on-one, explaining how flip-turns work and repeatedly trying to demonstrate stroke using my recovering arm, and then it just created this deep and immeasurable sense of sadness and loss.  Complaining, whining, I hate it when other people do it and I hate it even more when I do it so I am trying my hardest not to, especially over things that are a direct result of choices that I have made.  But as good as recovery is going, as hard as I am working to heal, I am sad.  I'm exhausted from so much toughening up and staying strong and fighting and busting ass so I can walk a towel up the wall with my fingers.  I miss my life.  And I am exhausted from my life.  Saying that, in a way, is my failure, because I want to be the person who is doing everything to move forward and not wallowing on where I was, but it's juxtaposed right next to being the person who wants to be raw, and authentic, and real.  The truth is that a lot of it IS going well, a lot of things ARE headed in the right direction, and I'm thrilled about all of those great things, but I'm not going to pretend that the last fourteen weeks have been a perfect pain-free yellow brick road.  
Success comes from things we don't always understand.  Athletes, entrepreneurs, they say it all the time, I don't know WHY I want this so badly, all I know is that I do.  I've spent the past several months convincing myself that maybe I don't need to do an ironman ever again.  Nine is a lot (as my physical therapist tells me as often as she can); maybe nine is enough.  I'll start my PhD, I'll work on my run, take on more athletes, maybe just exercise for health, I'll dig into some research, I'm mentoring a few coaches, we're going to move, there are plenty of amazing things in life to distract myself from the hole where ironman used to be, and that's really been mostly okay.  I've done a really great job on not thinking about it at all, because then I don't miss it, and I've been focusing on all the good stuff around and ahead of me instead of what has been lost.  

But here's the thing.  And it's the damnedest thing.  This weekend Julie Emmerman, an incredible clinical sports psychologist, came into training camp to do an interactive session with my athletes.  One of the first questions she asked was about where athletes feel outside of their comfort zones, and someone shared that his moment is when he is waiting to get in the water at the start of an ironman, in his wetsuit, super stressed out about whether or not he can finish.  I said to him offhandedly, that's my favorite moment.  I let myself think about it for a minute, and the dam - my heart - broke.  Ironman is my favorite day, and in those last few minutes before it starts, when the anticipation is so sweet and everyone is smiling and jittery about what we are all about to do and my heart is pounding with the sheer joy of how lucky I am to be there, that's my comfort zone.  I don't know WHY I want this so badly, all I know is that I do.  
It is true that my history with ironman seems to be rich with far more failure than success, it's true that I am neither genetically nor pharmaceutically gifted enough to be a rockstar at this distance, but it's also the one place in my life where I've never been too afraid to try.  I race ironman because, for whatever reason, it brings me so much fucking happiness.  It's a place where I can look for the best in who I am, and I realized this weekend that I've spent the last few months distracting myself with coping mechanisms as a way to avoid facing the fact that I might never stand on that line again.  I might never sing Kelly Clarkson in my head while trying to sneak in under an hour in the swim, I might never again eat five Bobo's bars in five hours or slam a coke in a portapotty with one hand while applying more chamois cream with the other, I might not get the chance to throw another piece of triathlon detritus at my husband as I zing by at 25mph, I might be done self-adjusting my SI joint on the ground in T2 before I head out the door searching for something as simple as nine minute miles.  And I didn't even realize that what I was doing was trying to find another way forward into joy because I was afraid that if I tried to return to triathlon, I would fail. But the person I want to be isn't afraid to try, to put it all out there in the world, big and ugly and pushing the spandex to its absolute limits, falling down the stairs in the dark and slipping on the pool deck and tripping over nothing at the finish line.  Maybe I'll fail, maybe life will take me sharply in another direction, maybe the universe has other plans for me now.  But also - you know? maybe? - not.