We’re not wired to deal with situations without finish lines. This has been something I’ve been wrestling with lately. I’m concerned about keeping my mental state strong and about the strength of yours. The basis for what I write below is from an article by Jonathan Beverly. I’m crafting his thoughts through my filter and he deserves much of the credit.I know that some of you are athletes and either are or have been runners. What if I asked you to go on a four mile my run with me, we settle into a brisk but comfortable pace and then at mile three I say, “Just kidding, we’re going to run 10”? How would that make you feel? How would it affect your outlook? Well, that’s COVID in 2020. First, we hunkered down for a few weeks, then a few months, then maybe by the end of the summer. Now what? Is September of 2021 when we will glimpse getting back to “normal”? Maybe, but BIG possibility of maybe not.
Considerable research shows that how we experience fatigue isn’t just based on biological signals from our muscles but is a complex system of evaluation designed to prevent bodily harm and ensure optimal performance. One of the key elements of that evaluation is duration; by knowing the finish line and how far we have to go until we get there, our brains calculate how fast we can go and tell us how tired we are. Studies show that, lacking an end point, not only does the same effort feel harder than if we know how far we’re going, our bodies will also reduce the level of effort we’re able to put out in order to conserve energy for that unknown possibility.If knowing how long we have left in a race — or a crisis — determines how we set our pace and expend our energy, we can’t help but be paralyzed when the finish line extends out to infinity. And we’re all feeling somewhat paralyzed by uncertainty.Alex Hutchinson, author of the book Endure, describes how his family reacted to schools in Toronto being closed for two weeks, then another two weeks, then another… “Each time,” he wrote, “My wife and I buckled down and said, ‘Okay, we can get through this for two more weeks by skipping this and compromising on that and so on.’ And each time the finish line got pushed back, it got harder to deal with. Eventually, we realized we had to stop anticipating the finish line and focus on making right now sustainable.” Sound familiar?
Hutchinson says that when the finish line is either unknown or so far away it doesn’t provide any anticipated relief, we have to figure out how to move forward at a sustainable pace, establishing patterns and habits that are more than temporarily endurable…“I think a key is to shift your perspective so that you’re no longer focused on an end-point.”
Champion ultrarunners like Courtney Dauwalter are masters of endurance. When asked how she wraps her mind around a race with no finish line, Dauwalter says “I keep the focus on, ‘What can I do right now’ because I know that I have to keep moving forward. So… not wrapping it all up in focusing on a finish line. Then trying to be really present in the moment. If the reality is that forward motion is required, then I try to think through the facts and stay where my feet are, on how to move forward as best as I can.”
Dauwalter finds it important to assess the current facts and separate them from the emotions of the situation. “’How’s it going, what do I need right now?’” she asks herself. “And then pushing past any of those speed bumps along the way, and forgetting them. Leaving them really in the past, and not dwelling on what they did to me or how bad they wrecked me in the moment… Just taking account of the facts, what are the facts of this situation right now, and then adapting.” These are also important traits of successful leaders. Traits of resilience and reliability…The ability to quickly adapt, learn from, and move past a mistake or “speed bump”, and be relentlessly steady.
Ian Sharman, another ultra champion, says that given the variables of a long race — the weather, the chance of getting lost, how your body will react, and more — mean you truly can’t count on a finish time or distance. To counteract this, he adopts a strategy of preparing for it to be longer than anticipated. It’s a strategy called defensive pessimism, and it works outside of the running sphere too. “If I sort of assume it is going to be longer or harder or tougher than it actually is, then I can cope with those things,” Sharman says. “If you assume that the pandemic is going to be three more years, then it is one more year, then at the end of the year it is a positive rather than negative.”
Sharman is big on turning negatives into positives in many ways. “Remaining positive in the face of adversity, no matter how bad things get, and therefore keeping yourself motivated,” he says, “is the biggest skill for a distance runner.” The goal, Sharman says, is that when things get rough — even when your race is going off the rails and you’re vomiting in a ditch — you’re able to say, ‘Here’s a new challenge. The reason I’m doing this race is that it is really hard; that’s the value to it. And the thing I’ll care about afterwards is how well I deal with challenges.’ Some of you may have heard me say at different times, “There is value in the struggle”. It is often the struggle that causes results. It’s often the struggle that spawns creativity. It is often the struggle that brings about the excellence of the Last 5%.
Duration isn’t the only variable that is uncertain in a race or in life. You can use positivity to become the type of person that powers through surprises and rough patches, a person who is more successful when the conditions are tough — because you deal with the difficulty better than others. This requires letting go of expectations, accepting the facts, adapting to new parameters and keeping motivated in the new reality. “And that can be the case with the pandemic,” Sharman says. “You can be someone who thinks, ‘I’m someone who deals with challenges well, I’m going to take this on, and I think I’m going to come out of it better than the average person. I’ll be looking for opportunities, I’ll be trying to take advantage of anything that goes my way, and anything that doesn’t go my way, I’ll let it go.’”
So, how do we stay mentally healthy in the face of a constantly shifting pandemic environment, odd working conditions, disconnected corporate culture, young children at home struggling with the new challenges of virtual education, and arduous societal expectations?
Guard yourself against getting sucked into a downward spiral of uncontrollable expectations. Adapt to challenges and put mistakes quickly behind you. Keep a flexible mind and realize that its impossible to know when or if the pandemic will stop affecting our lives and our business. Embrace where you are, right now, and together we will be incredibly strong.