Quite the Compliment

A friend of mine ran a Boston Qualifying time of just about 3:17:00 at the Providence Marathon on Sunday.  On Monday before our group run my buddy Duke and I had done a bit of a warm up, and when we arrived back to catch up with the larger group, Bill was there, ready to run. To highlight his stellar achievement, I mentioned that he had just the previous day run a marathon in the time it took us to do our warm-up run. Let’s not pay attention to the fact that here was a guy who had just run a 7:30 min/mile marathon the day before and he was out for a 5-mile run the next day. This guy is pure animal.

On our way home, my boy – he’s 12, mind you – asked me why I always seem to denigrate myself in complimenting others. Obviously, I protested – c’mon, boy, what are you talking about?  I suggested that he was fast running the marathon, not that we were slow running our 5k, but he came right back with the devastating question, “why couldn’t you have just said he was fast?”

And that just kind of hung out there for a while.

What am I going to do? Deny he was right? My 12-year old is a sophisticated enough speaker of English that he recognizes that linguistic habit. He gets the idea that the net effect of doing that is lowering my own standing with other people. In some cultures, that’s not necessarily the case, but in Twenty-first Century America, it certainly is.

I’ve never really thought about it before, but now that its been pointed out to me I can think back as far as high school and see that pattern. To show people how good they are, I have to be less.

That’s not normal.

I think it is a competitive thing for me. I strive to be better, I want to be better, and somehow someone performing at a higher level diminishes my performance. Its a ranking. While most 12-year olds don’t understand linguistics quite to the same level – or perhaps they do, they just don’t articulate themselves that way…or perhaps we just have a relationship that allows him to speak honestly to me – he nailed it. In taking control of the conversation in the way he did by just making an observation, he demonstrated a skill I didn’t know he had and demonstrated an aspect of our relationship I am proud of.

Either way, he not only went straight for the unvarnished truth, he reframed my experience, just. like. that. He listens. He processes.  He knows. We all know kids are sophisticated processors of information – as a parent, I’ve wondered and worried for years just what my kids would say about me to each other many years hence. What they’d each remember of their childhoods with me. What sort of counseling they’d need because of me, or perhaps more specifically what maladaptions would they take with them that work to a certain point and then doesn’t?

I feel a lot better knowing that, while he has definite expressions of a strong personality that will both be a great attribute for him and will also get in his way, he knows enough to be able to process these traits. I listen to him and wonder where he picks certain things up…only to hear myself utter similar things hours or even minutes later, so I know I have to show him the same skill he’s shown me. I also know that I should expect a similar response, “c’mon Dad, that’s not what I’m doing…”

He demonstrated he trusted me to listen to him and respect his point.  We have some tough conversations and yet at the end of the day, he always wants to check in with me and at the start of the day, he always wants me to walk with him to the school bus. He knows me pretty well and he’s comfortable asking me questions like “why do you denigrate yourself?”

So, it was important that I follow up with him, and thus I did. I told him that I thought about what he said, and despite my protestations I thought he was right and would seek to change my linguistic habits. “Great job” is a lot more positive than “That’s so much better than what I could do.” Positive for the recipient, and without denigrating anyone.  Lifting someone up without cutting anyone down. My boy has helped me be a better friend and person.  And, I hope, a better father.

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Preventable Failure: The Cycle of Self Recrimination

Over the last we’ll say 30 some odd hours, I’ve been cycling through various stages of self-recrimination.  At first I was angry that some volunteer could have made a determination that I didn’t have correct push up form or raise my arms over my head doing burpees. Then when I saw not only was I not counted for having done the correct number of burpees at one station, but at each one I attempted, I was upset with myself. Then I spent some time with the rule book and found that even shorting myself 10 burpees wouldn’t have disqualified me, just added some time to my score. Less than 20 does.  And on the second to last obstacle I failed to do even that.

And the recriminations cycle again.

Worst? This is a stupid race. A race.  It means nothing in the greater scheme of things.  I did it. I have the GPX file to prove it. I have a finishers medal and t-shirt and anyone whose ever volunteered at a Spartan races knows how closely those things are guarded. But, I just don’t have an official time.  5 burpees. 100 yards from the finish line.  It’s all I have been able to think about.

I went out for a run with my running group tonight and the topic of conversation? “How was it?” Ugh. So don’t want to talk about it. I’m not sure what’s more ridiculous – that I’m that hung up about it, or that I have something to be hung up on.  It’s a spiral and I can’t seem to find a way off of it. Even my run tonight sucked which gave me plenty of time to perseverate. I’m mentally ill. I have to be. That’s the only explanation.  Either that, or I’ve just placed too high an importance to these things.

The important thing is getting out there and getting it done. I failed. I goofed, didn’t do what I should have and as a result, I failed. It’s really that simple. People fail all the time – often in far more catastrophic ways: they kill a pedestrian after driving while impaired; they come a point shy of passing their bar exam; they make split second decisions that play out in the worst consequences.  There are a lot of worse things than spending 4.5 hours on a mountain, testing your limits, and coming up short.  No one died, thousands of dollars weren’t lost, no one’s life is worst for me having failed. Its one of those things that happens. Google “race DNF” and find stories of just crushing proportion.  I found THIS article on actually DNF-ing a Spartan. I didn’t DNF, and that cat actually did the burpees, but I guess in reading other people’s stories of failure it helps me to process my own.

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This is from a remarkable blog entry on just this very topic from a slightly different view. She’s talking about dancing competitions, I’m talking about a Spartan Beast, but the lesson is the same: control your inner dialog, your definitions of success.  

No one wants to fail. No one expects to fail. My inner dialogue during the race was all about knowing I was going to finish. Never once did I think I would screw it up. But I did. I’ve screwed up plenty of things of greater importance in my life and screwed up things I’ve worked harder on and things that were far less gratifying to undertake. There are far worse things in life.

And there we are, on the other side of the cycle. At one point I wrote about the implications of negative internal dialog – your beliefs become destiny.   I need to remember these lessons. There’s two ways you can travel on a spiral: you can either slide downward or you can take the long way and crawl back up.  Sliding down is easy, its hard work going up. Just as hard as the combined 10,000′ of elevation 2 Spartan Beasts over the weekend were.