New Years Reflections and Anti-Resolutions
This year was a good year for me. I was fortunate enough to have a lot of very good things happen, as well as a few trials and tribulations that are necessary stressors that make you grow, adapt and develop as a person in ways that I doubt I could have predicted a year ago. And while I’m incredibly thankful for all that the year brought me, I think that’s the point. You can’t predict what will happen in a year.
With the new year, we are treated with New Year’s resolutions which invariably fail. Some research claims that only 8% of people stick with their resolutions, which if given those odds in almost any other scenario, we’d be mortified by the failure rate. Instead of resolutions, I’m going to suggest an anti-resolution. Perhaps, a shift in mindset, instead of a defined goal is what is needed, so for my first post of the year, I’m going to indulge you with a bit of philosophizing.
One of my favorite quotes from Baseball’s “Moneyball” guru Billy Beane is:
“The day you say you have to do something, you’re screwed. Because you are going to make a bad deal. You can always recover from the player you didn’t sign. You may never recover from the player you signed at the wrong price.”
Of course he was talking about managing his baseball team and signing players and such, but I think this philosophy, for lack of a better term, holds true in life.
Today, with social media, an ability to instantly compare ourselves to any of our peers, and a high premium placed on accomplishments and “success”, it’s hard to escape the feeling that we have to do something. We have to accomplish some goal, take some job, marry some guy or gal, all on some set time line or else we’re perceived as a failure. Society and culture put us in a place of “forcing” us to do something.
And if we subscribe to Mr. Beane’s philosophy then in the end we are screwed. Why? Because Beane believes that bad decisions are made when we put stress on ourselves and back ourselves into a corner. We shift the way we make decisions.
When we feel forced to make a choice, we put pressure on ourselves. And while some pressure is advantageous, what happens is our lovely stress hormones stick around at higher levels for a longer period of time as we put off making that decision. This chronic stress of feeling pressured shifts how we make decisions, biasing us towards doing things the way we always have instead of critically analyzing them.
It will all work out:
Venturing away from the science for one second, long time friends of mine can tell you that I annoyingly say “It will all work out,” way too many times. It’s almost like this shrugging of the shoulders and saying “whatever” to big picture goals and demands.
It’s certainly a coping mechanism I’ve developed. It shifts the responsibility away from putting everything on myself. So what I’m left with is this idea that if I just do what I need to do, work hard at it, and enjoy the things I’m doing, things will figure themselves out. By doing this, I boil it down to things I can control, such as the process of working hard at things I enjoy, and not worry about the outcomes, which can drive you nuts.
For the majority of my adult life, I’ve lived like that. I’m guessing I probably developed the mindset during my early college days when my running was going to crap and I needed some way to cope with pouring everything into a single outcome and not having that outcome be what you wanted. Essentially, because I’d grown up on such an outcome driven sport, it had always been the focus. “What time did you run?” was always the question I had to answer. Or in my case it was that bloodied 4 minute mile which provided the ultimate outcome measure.
While not getting religious here, it’s the same coping mechanism that people utilize when they say “it’s in god’s hands” or “god has a plan” although theres is divinely driven, and mine is just a simple “faith.”
Which brings me to the point. You can’t force things. In life or in running. You’ve got to let them come to you.
In running, big breakthroughs occur when you let them happen. You’re more relaxed while still driven and focused during the race versus tense and pressing in which you are trying to force a new Personal Record. Ask any sprint coach if people run faster relaxed versus tensed and you will find your answer to why forcing a race does not work.
My college team gets the probably annoying phrase of “Let the race come to you, don’t chase it,” drilled into their heads.
And while I now know why forcing things rarely works, I largely learned this lesson through banging my head against the wall trying to force myself to run faster in years of running, while not realizing that the way I lived my outside life of “not-forcing” was bringing me way more success.
The key though is not simply thinking “it will all work out” but instead acknowledging the first portion which is if you work hard at things you enjoy, love the process, then eventually things will work out. Perhaps not always in the direction you want them to, but for the most part they will.
It’s all about shifting the mindset.
What’s the reward?
We get caught in the rat race of trying to chase success, satisfaction, happiness, and outcomes. The reality is that this is simply an evolutionary mechanism designed to keep us engaged. Researchers have found that it’s not the actual reward that gives us the most bang for our buck in terms of the wonderful feel good hormone of Dopamine. Instead, it’s the chase that gives us the huge bump in Dopamine.
We’re designed for the process, but we focus on the outcome. It’s this nice little trick of mother nature that makes us follow through and get things done. It’s why we suffer from this nice fallacy of “If only I had X, I’d be happy/satisfied/whatever…” We then chase X, feeling pretty good about ourselves as we chase it, but then are torn down by the feeling of discontentment when we finally reached our goal and while the payoff was nice, it most certainly doesn’t meet pre-conceived expectations. So we are left with the inevitable “so what now…” that predictably follows.
Then we start the chase all over again.
We are ingrained with an internal bias, termed the teleological fallacy, that gives us “the illusion that you know exactly where you are going, and that you knew exactly where you were going in the past, and that others have succeeded in the past by knowing where they are going.” This creates a false sense of need to know direction in order to be successful. It also creates the idea that others who were successful, knew exactly where they were going.
What I’m hoping you get out of this rambling philsophication of mine, is that it’s about shifting the mindset and letting things take place. Yes, you need to work hard. Yes, you need to be driven and all of that jazz, but don’t force it.
Tying this all together, another example from my own life. For the large majority of it (in my non-running life), I just kind of thought things would work out. I didn’t define the path that I wanted to take exactly, I gave myself a rough sketch. That’s why I ended up deciding to do my masters about 3 weeks before school started, ended up completely changing courses and moving across the country to Oregon for a job I had no idea existed, and ended up back home in Houston for the job I currently have. No set plans, just enjoying the process.
But for about a year or so period, I went through a patch where I thought I had to force myself into success. I’d worry about having good athletes to coach, making the right decisions to be at “X” place X years down the road, and meeting some pre-set goals and expectations.
And that period was miserable. It was spent chasing things, worrying about losing things, expectations, and all of those wonderfully stress inducing components of life that suck.
It took my not-so-smart self a while to realize that I’d fallen into the rat race trap of chasing outcomes. So I switched back to annoying “It’ll all work out” Steve and got back to doing things that I enjoy doing. So back came the “random” life decisions based on picking things I like doing, like returning to my habit of applying to my PhD program 2 weeks before school actually started, and taking on lots of additional work that might increase the hectic schedule of my life, but we’re all things that stimulated my curiosity.
And that’s the key. I’m not selling some “don’t be driven, don’t work hard manifesto”. Instead I’m selling the opposite. Work your ass off at things that you enjoy the process of doing. If you do that, let the outcomes come.
For instance, after this semester of my doctoral program, I haven’t even looked at my grades and don’t really plan on doing so. Why? Because at this point in my life it’s not important. Although I have a reputation as a “science” guy and perhaps even an intellect in the running world, for most of my academic career I’d consider myself a slacker. I didn’t really care because things didn’t interest me. Until I learned that when I studied things on my own, that I actually cared about and wanted to learn about, I not only loved it, but I retained the knowledge and grew from it.
I learned a long time ago, that if we learn things from our own ambition, and not within a structure that feels forced, it actually remains interesting and “sticks” with us. So in a school environment that tends to push you towards ‘forced’ learning, at this point in my life where it doesn’t really matter how I do, I try to set it up where it’s not forced learning. One of my favorite quotes on this idea is from Nassim Taleb in reflecting back on his knowledge base notes:
“But there is something central in following one’s own direction in the selection of readings: what I was given to study in school I have forgotten; what I decided to read on my own, I still remember.”
Bringing it back to the track, my middle distance runners spent all last year chasing fast 800m times. They were determined to run fast, in shape to run fast, but through a series of crazy races with collisions, falls, tactics, and shot puts almost hitting one of them, it never happened. And with each fail, the pressure to force things grew and grew. Until, at a small local meet at Rice, they stopped chasing, started racing, and 3 of them ended up going 1:48.4, 1:49.0, and 1:49.3. All big PR’s because they let the race develop and come to them. They stopped freaking out over trying to be in the perfect spot and what splits they were supposed to run.
So after all, when I look back at my running moments, the races and glory is great, but man it was the week in and week out grind of training with some of my best friends that is most memorable and shaped who I am. It was a ton of hard work, but it was the process that made it. The outcomes, we’re just bonuses that came as a result.
As Taleb summed up in his book Antifragile:
“The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading.”
So for the next year, I won’t have any defined resolutions. I’ll continue along with the philosophy of chasing those things that are passions, seeing where it will take me, and believing, like one of my favorite bands Weezer newest album title, Everything will be alright in the end.
Wherever that leads, I’m sure it will all work out.
Have you read NNT's Black Swan yet? He speaks directly to not chasing after the expecations of others. If not, it's a must read!
PS – How long did it take you to read Anti-fragile? I am struggling….
Anti fragile is excellent and a must read. Taleb talks about his 3 books as one big book developing a theme.
As to goal setting and processes, I am currently reading an excellent book by Randall Strossen called "Stronger Minds:Stronger bodies". Whilst aimed at strength people (hence off your radar!) the sports psych is very practical and has lots of ideas based around "letting go" "willpower" and "controlling the controllables". Written more than 20 years ago, it stands up very well.
While I have enjoyed many a Magness post, including this one, the VERY BEST recommendation out of this one was the pointer to the new Weezer album. I would not have given that a listen had it not been for this. That sir is some good sh*t.