and find a way to enjoy what otherwise can be a struggle
This is one of the most important lessons I learned (and still learning) when it comes to creating, building projects, professional self-expression, satisfaction and sustainability. And here it is:
We are often the ones who make experiences more stressful for ourselves than they need to be. If we only pay attention to our pace, relative to our abilities, we could avoid a lot of unnecessary frustration, exhaustion and disappointments and actually enjoy what could otherwise be difficult.
I’ll start with running as an analogy, but see if you can start drawing parallels to work, hobbies and other areas of your life you as read along.
You can approach running in several ways: some will lead you to giving it up while others can help you have running as a sustainable and fulfilling part of your life. For illustrative simplicity, I'll narrow it down to three approaches, although in life you will likely see these on a continuum and often as a blend.
Approach 1. You can run at a pace below your current abilities
You can notice yourself in this zone by how boring or uninteresting it is. Here, your engagement is low. Here, running/working/creating is boring. Hard to imagine someone running at a 'boring' pace, right? But wait, there is some counterintuitive wisdom coming up about the usefulness of running at a 'boring' pace.
Result: if you stay in this 'bored' zone for too long, you are likely to lose interest and discontinue running. And then - question running as a modality. Here you're likely to say to yourself "Running just isn't my thing". Same with work: be under-challenged and you will find yourself ‘researching useful stuff’ on social media.
Approach 2. You can run at a pace above your current abilities
Here you're straining yourself, continuously struggling and overpushing. Here running is 'hard'. Here you're committing to run 10km when you haven't run 3km before and you didn't get your muscles or your breathing a chance to be ready for it. With this approach at work, you're putting in an insane amount of hours without looking after yourself, but you don't notice this because you're full of adrenalin...
Result: you will likely be out of breath, and therefore uncomfortable and not enjoy the run. If you ignore this discomfort and push yourself harder, you risk being in pain and potentially detesting running. In other words, you burn out. On top of that, if you’re not careful with how you interpret this experience, you may even question whether you can ever be a runner at all and end up with an incorrect self-limiting generalisation, like "I'm just not a runner...".
Approach 3. You match your pace with your current abilities
Here you pay attention to your breath and treat it as an indicator of how appropriately you’ve chosen your pace to match your current ability (muscles, stamina etc.) and available resources (energy). And if you’re out of breath - you simply reduce your pace to match both.
Result: you are more likely to find running enjoyable as a sport and/or meditative practice and have it as a reliable source of energy, restoration and insights.
I’m starting to see that similar parallels can be drawn between running and other areas in life, from hobbies to work and even relationships. Let me explain below.
I’ve observed myself and many others get so excited and “pre-committed” to a new activity of running / new job / new hobby / new relationship that they would purchase the brand new running kit (because, obviously, you can’t start running with old shoes…), run 10km as fast as they can (although they’ve never even ran 3km before), almost have a heart attack, but be proud of themselves… AND not go for another run for months or even years again, avoiding (naturally) experiencing the excessive discomfort and pain they’ve put themselves in earlier.
At work this often shows up when one steps into a new role with so much enthusiasm and desire to roll up the sleeves so fast, that it is this excess enthusiasm itself that stands in their way of sustainable performance over the long term.
In other words, you put in too much of your energy, too fast, carelessly and unwisely. You overcommit.
And if you happen to underachieve in this period (remember, even the greatest basketball players miss shots and lose games), resentment may start to build in you towards your role, perhaps towards your colleagues, and sometimes towards yourself.
I’ve done this too, which is why it is easier for me to recognise it now. Committing to working out, and being disappointed that the fitness trainer gave our group only four sets of exercises in our first training. I did an extra set - obviously. Because I was ”committed”. And this was despite the suggestion from the trainer (hi, Aaron*) to "ease into it" instead.
Result: additional pain and extra time needed to restore, thus going slower during the next training.
Not learning from this experience, I made the same mistake when creating my first online course… Six months of dedicating all the time I had towards perfecting it for the first launch… Even while on a holiday with family and friends. Because the launch was near and “I needed to push myself” (notice the 2nd approach). By month seven, when the first program was running and it was time to kick into second gear and build upon it, polish it, gather good reviews and prepare for the second program, my energy was spent. Like pushing extra hard in the first 2km and being 'spent' for the rest of the run.
I was noticing these tendencies of mine to rush in other areas, but wasn’t changing my approach. I was 'stubborn' (a nice way of saying it) - persevering without adjusting my approach. I even did the same in my first (and only) marathon in the Loire Valley in France: I was so thrilled that running was easy in the first 21km that I was joyously overtaking other runners. Until my knee started to give out on the 28th km and then it became running, walking and limping through pure pain for the rest of it.
Above: me in the "2nd approach" to running in 2018: "push myself at the start, struggle for the rest"
All the while I saw people, who were going much slower than me before, now overtake me without seeming to increase their pace. It took several of these painful experiences and my noticing of this pattern of mine to be ready to really hear Chris Bennett* (head coach of running at Nike) say in the Headspace meditation app:
On your first runs, go slower than you want. You can pick up your pace later - in the second half. The purpose is to enjoy your runs, not to be in pain. You will have times when you will push, when you will sprint, but not today… (paraphrased from memory).
To enjoy your runs…. Even if you haven’t run before…. Is that possible? To enjoy starting a project and not letting yourself feel overwhelmed by what it actually takes? Is that attainable? To enjoy writing without the commitment feeling like an obligation? Is it really about matching my pace with my current abilities?
So now I regularly ask myself and my coaching clients to do a sustainability check. To answer: how long are you planning on having this project alive? How long are you planning on being in this new role? Because:
If your current pace doesn’t match your current abilities and resources, you may be putting yourself at risk of being more frustrated, more exhausted, more irritable, and more over-invested than is needed for you to perform sustainably over the long term.
And not because you’re incapable of being a runner, or leading a project, or working in this role, but simply because you picked an incorrect pace.
Start slower than you want. You can pick up speed later as your capabilities develop.
It used to be hard when I introduced running into my life. And then I’d stop. And start again. And stop. It was a choppy relationship with running that I myself created. Bow now, I’ve been running once a week almost every weekend for the past six years. I go slower when my body needs it. I go faster when my body is ready for a challenge. And it is now easy for me to run. It is a source of joy, time with myself, time in nature, time with ideas, time of blood circulating through my body, filling it with a unique kind of rhythm.
And now I ask:
Can writing become easy for me as well?
Can I find a way to allow the joy to last longer, across the entire lifespan of the project?
Can starting (and maintaining) a new hobby become easy for you?
Can developing a team become more joyful for you through all of its stages?
How about enjoying building relationships where it is now a challenge?
I know that whatever we take on CAN be hard. My question to all of us is this: what can we do to make it easier for us (and, perhaps, for others)?