In my line of work, educating and coaching, I often get asked for advice by 18-25-year-olds on how they should tackle their next steps in life. In a question and answer session at St. Mary’s University, I was asked: “what piece of advice would you give yourself when you were just starting out?” Advice giving always seems strange to me. I could give some trite, cliche advice like “follow your passion” or “work hard” and walk away feeling like I did my job. Or, I could take the time to reflect and offer something of value. The following article is a part of that reflection, a letter to my 18-year old self on lessons I wish I knew. To set the stage, as an 18-year old, I was coming off running the fastest mile for a US high school runner for the year, and completely running obsessed, caring about little else. I didn’t read, I didn’t write, I didn’t explore ideas, I just ran.
Dear 18-year old Steve,
You are on top of the world. You just finished a miraculous season, dropping your mile best from 4:17 to 4:01 and leading the nation in both the mile and Distance Medley Relay. Visions of NCAA championships, Olympic Games, and more are all firmly planted in your mind. That’s quite normal. You’ve done a great job and deserve to dream big.
Forget it all. None of it matters. It may appear as if it does; that running fast, or just being successful, is all that counts. You may even convince yourself that the times, the records, the accomplishments matter to you, but they don’t.
This may seem rather harsh, but please do me a favor. Read through it all before chunking it to the side and rationalizing in your mind why I must be wrong. I know you pretty well. And I know that if I can get you to think, then you’ll see the light of truth shining through. Maybe not at first. You’ll be stubborn and reject these ideas, but like the future science aficionado that you will become, what will matter to you isn’t whether the suggestions below are harsh or kind, but whether they work.
1. Control and Direct Your Obsession
I know, I know. You are brushing this off as nonsense. Of course, running fast is what matters; it’s all that seems to matter right now. But, you’ll come to learn that the journey is what shapes you, not the results. That sounds cliché, or in the words of Lauren Fleshman, like a bit of “woo-woo,” but growth is firmly rooted in the process. The friendships, camaraderie, the wins, and especially the losses, are what will create a lasting impact on whom you become.
The truth is, you don’t know what is important right now, and that’s all right. Your world revolves around a singular focus of running. You are all-in, obsessed, and it’s truly admirable. That obsession will serve you well one-day. But right now, you see going all-in as the heroic thing to do. It’s the Quinton Cassidy moment of throwing life to the side and moving to a cabin in the woods to pursue one goal. This is the path to success that you know. The only route that seems available; head down, and push forward in a singular direction.
It’s not. There are other paths. They all will require moments of head-down, driving forward single-mindedness. But they will also require patience, calm, and awareness to change directions.
The real secret lies in learning how to control and direct that obsession. What all of those inspirational stories of the best athletes fail to tell you is that the best athletes are quite obsessed, but they also know how to turn the switch off. They have cultivated the ability to decipher when it actually matters to be all-in, and when to turn the dial down, shift focus, and entertain other ideas and hobbies.
I know, that sounds sacrilegious right now. You want to be single-minded. You want to be obsessed, that’s in your nature. I’m not telling you to give away your secret power. Obsession can be both a gift and a curse. It all depends on how you utilize and handle it. Treat it with care. Learn how to direct it and master this ebb and flow.
2. Separate your identity from what you do.
You are a runner. That’s how you identify yourself, and how the small niche of runners in the world identify you. It’s something that you take pride in. It’s a badge of honor.
It feels great right now, but it will become a problem. When you tie your identity too closely to what you do, anytime you fail at running, you will take it as a failure of your true self. It won’t be that I failed at running. Instead, it will be Steve failed.
If you can’t separate yourself from what you do, the losses will hit particularly hard. A downward spiral will soon follow, as you beat yourself up looking for an answer to why you aren’t better. If you fall into the trap of “hard work” being the answer, you’ll double down your efforts, which will be entirely counterproductive, and put your deeper into a hole.
Instead, embrace your complexity. Understand that running is something that you are really good at. It’s a passion. Embrace how much you care about the sport. But always remember it isn’t who you are.
3. Develop a Short Memory and Stop Comparing
If you want to succeed as a runner, or in life, developing a short memory is a must. If you don’t, you’ll be stuck in a constant state of comparison; against yourself and your competitors. Anxiety and angst will soon follow as you attempt to live up to unreal expectations.
The comparisons are never fair. You’ll look back at your best races and ask “why they all don’t feel this way?” You might browse through your training logs, asking why you can’t run mile repeats as fast as you did 6-months ago.
Comparisons lack context. We aren’t terribly kind or rational when it comes to our evaluations. We look to our best races and workouts, instead of all of the average ones that were far more prominent. We forget about circumstances surrounding our current state, reflecting with a tinge of nostalgia for our best days. While also zooming in so far (i.e. last time I closed this workout in 2:00 for my final 800m repeat!) without seeing the entire picture (i.e. I may have been slightly slower because I ran 80 miles this week, compared to 50 the week I last completed the workout).
Let it all go. Don’t get stuck in comparison mode. Don’t look fondly at the glory days and think that they hold some secret to success. It worked in that moment. That moment is now gone. Focus on what you can do in the moment to get better.
You already know this lesson though. What has coach Stewart repeatedly told you after just about every race, “Don’t get too high with the highs or too low with the lows. After a good or bad race, celebrate or sulk for a night, but the next morning, put it behind you and get back to work.”
Those words are valuable and true. Take them to heart.
4. No one gives a shit.
In the future, an NCAA champion is going to share some powerful advice. Listen to her. Phoebe Wright will tell you rather abruptly that “When I get nervous before an Olympic Trials or a big meet, I try to zoom way out, and remember that it’s just track. And in the end, no one really gives a shit about track.”
Phoebe’s not trying to downplay the sport you love. We could substitute any number of pursuits, and the saying would hold true. It’s not that they aren’t important, but you aren’t performing surgery to save someone’s life, you aren’t saving the world from nuclear disaster. You are just running around in circles or writing words on a page.
The message should be clear, keep things in perspective.
It doesn’t mean that running or any of your other interests aren’t important, they are, but they should be important to you. Not for anyone else. You get to decide how much value you assign to each craft you undertake. You do this every day by giving it attention. What that really means is do the hard work and get to the bottom of why you passionately pursue what you do. The answer lies there, not from some external source.
5. Don’t follow your passion. Do interesting things.
At your age, the sage wisdom is to follow your passion. That’s wrong. It’s bullshit.
Passion isn’t attached to a singular item. It isn’t a magical soul mate that will solve all of your woes. Instead, passion is something to apply. It’s a state that lies in the interplay of interests, obsession, and curiosity. It’s a tool.
Instead of following some mythical state, keep it simple. Do interesting things.
That alone is the real key to success. Interests allow you to explore. To see what can be cultivated and grown, and what may simply be, an initial spark of excitement that slowly fades. You never know what is going to ignite your curiosity and push you into a deep dive on a given subject, unless you explore.
Allow your interests to percolate, fuel the ones that show promise, and the rest of the process will largely take care of itself.
6. Don’t let your goals weigh you down.
You are ambitious. You want to conquer the world. You have goals written above your bed, serving as north starts to guide your way. All of the psychologists and self-help gurus proclaim the importance of such an act.
Concrete goals are good and fun…until they aren’t.
Your goals will slowly shift from aspirational to anchors. While well-intentioned, the very things that may motivate and push you forward can ultimately weigh you down. They become comparison points, stark reminders of how you “failed.”
Instead of placing the focus firmly on an external result, shift the focus internal. You can’t truly control if you ever run a mile in under 4 minutes, or write a NYT bestseller. What you can control is getting better.
Being a better runner, person, and student. I know better is ill-defined, but for someone as driven as you are right now, that’s the point. Focus on what you can do in the present moment to improve upon your craft. Have faith in yourself that if it is something that is truly important, you’ll work your way through to the end.
You don’t need help being motivated. You ran 100 miles per week as an 18-year old in the swamp that is Houston, TX. If something grasps your attention long enough, you’ll pursue it for all it’s worth. You don’t need to know the end destination. You’ll find your way there, wherever that may be.
Getting away from concrete goals allows that end destination to shift, to go where the path demands it. Not where you thought it should lead 6-months ago.
7. Read More
Your current library consists of Once A Runner and Running with the Buffaloes. You’ve only read one book, Tom Sawyer, during 4 years of high school English class. You “read” the children’s comic book version of A Tale of Two Cities to understand what was going on, and somehow ace the test.
I get it. Reading isn’t your thing right now. It seems drab and boring.
But someday it will be.
You hate reading right now for one simple reason. You have nothing to connect it to. Like a runner who starts interval training instead of building a base first, the act of reading is painful and slow. It’s a grind. It brings little or no meaning to life.
Reading is the same as running. The benefits escalate the more you read. You’ll begin to see how philosophy may teach you more about how to run fast, then the latest training book. Or how cognitive psychology helps you understand fatigue better than exercise physiology.
Information on its own contains little value. It’s only when we assign meaning to that information that it becomes valuable. And we intuitively sense this.
That subtle jolt of insight, of “ah! This makes sense,” that we receive when we make a connection, is our minds way of keeping us interested and invested. It’s a reminder that we are getting value out of whatever it is we are doing and should continue on. Non-fiction tends to create the feeling with usable information (“This will help my golf game!”) or explaining interest (“wow, I never knew cramps were caused by…”), while fiction tends to create it by intrigue (“What will happen to this character.”) and having characters be relatable.
Our mind creates an incentive for learning by giving us a hit of that pleasant feeling every time we make a connection. The more connection moments we have, the greater the incentive grows. It may not seem like it, but soon, the same feeling you got from reading about Quinton Cassidy scorching the dirt track with forty 400 meter repeats, will occur by reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
Read far and wide.
8. Take Notes
Good ideas are like crops, they need time to grow.
Give them space; let them stew in your mind until you are ready to come back to them. Coming up with good ideas isn’t an issue. If you read lots, do interesting things, and are open to experience the world from a variety of views, ideas will come.
Most people get stuck at that initial “aha!” moment. They get excited, work hard for a short period, and then gradually lose interest, leaving our once promising idea to the barren wasteland. In a rushed, modern environment, our ideas are never nurtured and allowed to grow. We expect fully edible produce, instant-microwavable meals, that provide us with proper nourishment.
Instead, record your thoughts. Keep a notebook documenting anything that piques your interest. Half-baked ideas are perfect for keeping in notebooks. By writing them down, you give your thoughts some space on paper and in your mind. Your subconscious can stew on your latest interest without the need to immediately turn it into action. Why? Because it’s always there for you to retrieve in your notebook.
And it doesn’t hurt to look back and see the many concepts and partially formulated theories in your notebook. Like a running logbook that becomes a record of your journey towards fitness, your notebook can show your evolution of thinking.
9. Remind yourself of and stick to your principles
When you are challenged, stuck in an uncertain situation, you will need something to fall back on. A light that acts as a beacon, guiding you through the fog.
Principles are that guide. Developing them seems challenging, but is rather simple. Find what you value, what truly matters. Those are your principles.
Take your time and make sure you perform a particularly deep dive on this subject. Don’t settle for the superficial. Don’t rely on others to tell you what matters. Find what sticks in your core.
This will require some deep reflection, but it is well worth it. When you are at your lowest lows, if you stick to your principles, you will always find a path forward.
These will be tested, you will falter and fail to live up to them, but try to reorient and make sure you align yourself with what you value. Everyone has principles when life is easy, it’s when you are challenged that having a firm foundation will pay off.
10. Life works out if you let it. Don’t force things.
You are going to experience some tremendous highs and some depressing lows. You’ll question why you do this sport, your job, and much more. At times, life will appear meaningless.
Life works out.
I know that sounds silly to say, and very unscientific, but it does. You just have to figure out what actually matters to you, and work hard towards that. This doesn’t mean that it will be smooth sailing, in fact, it won’t. You will continue to be tested in every way imaginable. You will suffer; triumph, and face boredom, thrill, complacency and just about every other emotion possible along the way.
The enjoyment comes from the work. Sometimes it leads to phenomenal results, other times, nothing. That’s fine. Just don’t try to force things.
When you force things, you become anxious, you press. You start pushing the boundaries of your principles as the external result begins to supersede the work. Don’t let it.
Like most things in life, the analogy to running is apt. You will soon learn the hard lesson (again) that you can’t force a breakthrough. You can’t shove your way towards running fast. Instead, all you can do is do the work to put yourself in position to succeed, and see what’s there.
Let it come to you. Don’t force it.
Consider sharing to those who might find the aforementioned advice useful!