Sunday, July 31, 2016

Find Your Limits

On Competition
I am a competitive person. In my line of work - academia - my competitive drive serves me well. But it also tends to make many people uncomfortable. In fact, I've heard a lot of colleagues say they chose their profession for the opposite reason. Many will even say they are against competition and don't like it at all.

At the heart of my drive to compete, though, is not a will to dominate others. It's much more personal than that. 

Race for Ralya 2016, second in my age group

The roots of my personal motivation for running, cycling, and just about everything else I do that looks to the outside world like a competitive activity is this: finding my limits. What am I capable of? Where does my ability to endure, to execute, to concentrate come to its ragged edge? Every time I lace up my running shoes or ramp up the cadence on my road bike, this is what I want to know. What can I do today?

There is always an answer. And it changes with every opportunity I get to answer. It is one of the best lessons from a lifetime of searching for my limits, in fact. These change. Day to day, and over long periods of time. In those moments when I've paid extraordinary attention to monitoring my limits, I've learned I can push them back...enough to surprise myself, even.

Over the years, I've learned that everyone else's limits are subject to the same dynamics. When I compete as an athlete these days, I race. Racing teaches a lot of valuable things about limits - mine and those of others - about failure, and about how the fleeting value of the answer to "what am I capable of" that results from an event like a race can be understood as something other than a summative judgement. These are things I carry with me into my work life too.

Two Lessons On Limits and Failure I Learned from Racing

1. Limits Vary with Time
Most of the squabbling that happens over how to measure competitions is about how the measure should be done: the how. Too little attention is paid to what I understand to be the biggest challenge with measuring limits: the when.

My performance today may usefully predict my performance tomorrow, but it doesn't determine it.

It is true that for some types of competitive activity, knowing your own limits becomes clear only with a comparative measure. How do I perform in comparison to someone else? In that situation, it need not matter if those giving the performances being compared are equally invested in the competition. This, too, makes a lot of folks uncomfortable. But it happens just the same.

Where others are engaged, my best performance today may still fall short of where another person's limits are on that same day. This could be true even if I did nothing wrong and performed at the limit of my capability. When you see a competitor genuinely happy for another who has beaten him or her after a race, you see someone who has learned this lesson about limits.

But if you really want to experience this camaraderie among racers, hang out at the starting line before the race begins. There will be, among the veteran racers in particular, enormous respect for those who lace 'em up and wait for the starting gun. That respect comes from having been at one's limit and bested, and from the anticipation of same. It truly is the foundation for joy when one wins. But it is isn't only the rarity of a win amidst the confrontation of limits that makes victory sweet. It is also the acknowledgement that it takes the best effort everyone seeking those limits to make a win possible. 

2. Failure is Feedback, not an Outcome
Following from lesson 1, I would ask you to consider that to lose is to find your limit on the day. And to find your limit is to belong. 

Those are pretty heady words to write about failure, no? Now, there are plenty of narratives out there about failing these days. We are admonished to "fail fast" and "fail forward." The lessons in these stories are usually meant to emphasize the learning that comes from either the reflection that follows a less-than-successful attempt at something. Occasionally, there is also the notion that failure, rather than winning, is the norm in almost every kind of competitive situation (and thus, winning is sweet).

Both of these lessons fit into a broader truth about failure for me: it is a process, not an outcome. Failing rarely happens all at once, in other words. There are confrontations with limits all along the route to failure. Each of these tends to push those limits back the next time. And each confrontation sorts us into the group of people with whom we can share the experience of coming up short. These are the faces on the starting line.

Racing is a good teacher of this lesson because, more than anything else, it reduces the range of limits on performance to a very few possibilities. In most things we do, the situation is much more complicated. Opportunities to confront limits are everywhere. Any one of these confrontations may put us in the group of the many - those who tried and failed - vs. the few who won. But with racing we reduce the variables and control the environment to make a little more possible what everyday life confounds: a simple test of limits. A race is so pure a measure in fact, everyone save a lone individual fails. This simplicity is achieved by capturing a measure of limits in a single moment in time. Of course, this also defines the weakness of a race as a measure. Why the result can not hope to hold up. After all, the winner is the only one who walks away from a race unacquainted with her limits. 

Your Only Obligation: Find Your Limit
Lesson number two teaches us that, in racing, only a winner stands alone. Failure means belonging. And it means a clear answer, on the day, to the shared question: what can I do?

There is a curious kind of failure involved in winning a race - the failure to find one's limits - that shrouds the athlete on the top step of the podium. In most cases, the overwhelming uproar of accomplishment drowns out the much more faint signal about what might have been possible.

This is why a "good winner" is quiet. It is not just a show of humilty, but an attempt to capture the thing that racing teaches racers not just to endure, but to crave: knowing where the limit is.

I heard a very successful racer - a woman who wins a lot and in a dominant fashion - recently talk about her goals in a race. Hers were all about process, she said. Something common enough to sound like a cliché. But then she went on to explain that by this she meant that when running she paid close attention to her stride length, so that she could feel with each step she was extending her leg using the muscles in her upper leg and carrying the motion through down to her foot. Tuning in like this for every step in a ten thousand meter race. Every swing of each leg was an opportunity to get it right or to fail. A good race would mean every step, or almost every step, executed in the same way.

I think of this woman and the way she transformed the race into a near-constant stream of feedback on her limits quite often. All alone, out front, she finds a way to belong. She says having a good race is more important to her than winning. Again, we might hear it and dismiss it as hackneyed humility. But I hear it differently. I understand it.

Your only obligation is to find your limit. A good day is when you know the answer.
Do you know where yours is t

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