This content was published first in The Sunday Letters Journal: https://sundayletters.larrygmaguire.com/p/a-metaphor-for-life-and-work by Larry G. Maguire on Mon, 20 Mar 2023 00:10:39 GMT
I have a marathon coming up, and my wife has a half, both in Connemara in April. Training hasn’t been perfect over the past few months for either of us with minor injuries interrupting best-laid plans. Despite the setbacks, we’re ploughing on in the hope that enough work will be done.
We were out together this morning for a long run, her on one 12k lap and me on two, when on the back side of the loop and the top of a 1km climb she said, “my head is telling me to stop”.
That’s the biggest challenge of running long distance, and it doesn’t matter what level you’re at—recreational runner or elite—the battle inside your head is the one you’ve got to win. It’s tough on your own especially when physical pain kicks in or energy levels drop. Negative thinking is never far away so it helps to have someone there to offer some positivity to help process things.
The more you expose yourself to the practice, the more your mind and body become familiar with it and the better you become at managing it. But before that happens, you’ve got to be willing to do the hard work. You don’t have to know how, you’ve just got to be willing to get your hands dirty. And so sport can be a great teacher and takes on all the colour and shape of everyday life and work.
The thoughts that run through our minds from second to second and minute to minute direct our actions to a large degree. They form part of the behaviour loop;
Cognition > Emotion > Behaviour
(Thought > Feeling > Action)
How our behaviour plays out is never this simple, however, and is rarely in this linear way. The behaviour loop merely serves as a reasonable starting point for understanding ourselves. Our experiences influence our thought and feeling, and these, in turn, influence our response to those same conditions. If we can learn to think differently about our experiences, then we may be able to find a better response and break the loop.
Others can help in that process, challenging our knee-jerk response… “this is so shit, too painful, I should just give up”, for example. That said, there’s a time and place for giving up, but often our pattern of thought is so confused and caught up in what we’re feeling and what we think we’re supposed to feel, choosing a favourable response seems impossible.
It goes back to practice, building momentum under calmer, lower-stakes conditions. There must be sufficient time and space available without pressure to perform in order that we can develop the skill—the mental skill.
When we’re in the heat of the moment, it’s too late to try to change our thinking. Our emotional response takes over and no amount of trying to think differently about it will help. In fact, it’s likely to make things worse.
So we have no choice.
Regardless of the conditions, if we want to produce more favourable results in life, we’ve got to do the work . Just like the marathon runner who must fight the thought that tells them to stop, we must be willing to challenge automatic negative thoughts that limit our development and progress. It’s not easy, but we must accept the possibility that the initial thought might be wrong and then choose one that’s more helpful.
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For example, in the face of the mental and physical challenge the marathon runner feels as they reach the top of a climb, they might say to themselves;
“the climb is over. It was tough, but I got through it and now here comes a downhill section. When I reach the bottom, there’s going to be another climb but it’s only a short one, and I’ll get to the top of that one too just like I did this last one. My legs might be hurting, but I have the stuff to do it. It’s not easy, but I’ll do it. And when I get to the top of that incline, I’m only a few km from home. And when I’m done I’ll be one step closer. I’m getting stronger, and with every step, I’m getting stronger still.”
This kind of conversation doesn’t mean we ignore injury or, indeed, serious psychological illness. That would be foolish and over-optimistic to a damaging extent. Instead, this is a tool for overcoming ordinary everyday procrastination and the difficulty of getting to that place we wish to be.
Paradoxically, this kind of internal conversation accepts conditions as they are but expects we will reach somewhere better. It recognises that change will occur of its own accord without us forcing it. And, in fact, forcing it will only serve to keep us where we are.
In many ways, the challenge is to remove thinking from the process altogether.
All of this takes practice.
It’s the daily work of watching our thoughts and challenging the ones that don’t serve us. It’s realising that in the calm of our own company, we have a choice about how we speak to ourselves.
Will we be kind and supportive, or will we be critical and harsh?
Challenges are important. They offer us the opportunity to learn something about ourselves. But if we respond in the same unhelpful way every time, we learn nothing.
These are the kinds of conversations I have with people with whom I work. They form part of building more favourable responses to the challenges of everyday life and work. Book a 15 min call to find out how these conversations can help you too. Or find out more about this work .