As I often do toward the end of each year, I’ve been thinking about big picture personal goals. As part of that, I’ve been reflecting on how these goals all fit into a single common theme that guides almost all of my interests and has become a kind of inner compass.
I’m not necessarily talking about a moral compass, although clearly my actions also have to be consistent with my values. Rather, I’m finding that my compass represents a central theme in my life: my quest to find equilibrium at my mental and physical limits.
Finding equilibrium at my mental and physical limits may or may not be the best way to phrase it, but it’s what I’m working with currently. As luck would have it, today’s quote in one of the newsletters I subscribe to was:
“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes…” Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady, diplomat and activist
Buoyed by Mrs. Roosevelt’s observation, I’m judging the words I’m currently using to express my philosophy as being good enough for my purposes! In particular, I like the phrasing I have for the following reasons, which I can match up to the choices I’m making and the actions that follow:
- “Finding equilibrium” implies the process or the journey being the thing that makes it worthwhile for me. There’s no single endpoint – thank goodness! I’d hate to think I’d achieved everything in my life and have nothing left to explore.
- It also implies movement. My idea of equilibrium (which for me results in a statement of contentment and deeply rooted happiness) is not a static thing. Physically, I like to be in motion. Mentally and emotionally, I need to continually grow and seek. Yes, even though I’m happy where I am in the moment.
- “… at my mental and physical limits” seems to imply knowing where those limits are. So far, I haven’t found them – and that’s a good thing! The ever-deepening search for them is where the value is for me.
- “Mental and physical” is shorthand for combining what’s going on in my body with “everything else” – some people call it mental or emotional or spiritual or whatever other combination of labels seems appropriate. The label doesn’t matter to me; what matters is that I am constantly challenging my assumptions about both myself and the world around me and constantly pushing myself to learn, develop skills, and grow.
How does this play out in my interests and in the central theme that I’ve committed large parts of my life to?
As a side effect of living this life, I guess I’ve signed up to be permanently uncomfortable and to always feel slightly incompetent, as I push my understanding, my skills, and my endurance. This is a great outcome, since complacency is not my cup of tea. I prefer to be uncomfortable, knowing that I’m growing and that I have a chance to apply my ever-growing skillset to improving the world around me.
Limits that are not limits
Earlier this year, I pushed past two limits that were not really limits: In the spring, I completed my first ever 50-mile trail race. Wow, that felt good! Actually, it hurt – a lot. The blisters I developed were gruesome and slowed me down to a crawl, and at one point in my mental haze I was pretty convinced I was going to lose not just a toenail but a whole toe (I didn’t). For several weeks afterward, as my skin peeled off, I joked about losing “chunks of foot” at a time.
Still, it felt great! I actually completed what at some point would have felt like an impossible distance. And in my emotional and physical and mental state on that particular day, it was both an achievement and my limit. But guess what – a few months later, on the same course, I completed a 100K (62 miles, 12 miles more than my previous limit). Could I have done more? Physically, it hurt. Mentally, I was wiped out. On that day, it was enough. Am I complacent in this new place? Not at all – my next perceived limit is 100 miles. It will again challenge me physically and mentally, and there will no doubt be times when I feel overwhelmed and out of my depth. And yet it will be fun (during) and something to be proud of (after).
Why do I do this? It’s not that I consider myself a runner – running is not “the thing” for me. I hardly train for running, go for weeks without running at all, and don’t really care about ranking. (To be clear, I don’t train for running. I’d be lying if I claimed I didn’t train a lot, so it’s not like I’m couch surfing and then do ultra-marathons sporadically. It’s just that I love other physical activities more than running, and typically swim and do other things. Pushing myself while running simply gives me a cross-training excuse to do a moving meditation, while getting to spend the day outdoors.)
The fun for me comes from hearing the voices screaming “enough!” and still finding that one calm voice that says “really? You think you’re done? You can dig a little deeper and go a little further.” If I can smile while finding the calm voice, even better. (Sometimes the smiling part is optional!)
I’ll report back on whether 100 miles turns out to be a real limit or another milestone along the way.
“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction writer and inventor
In the meantime, I invite anyone else whose own philosophy of life may overlap in any way with mine, to share your experiences and insights. What are your perceived limits?
Alternatively, if you think this is nuts, I’d love to hear why and what drives you instead. Comment in my blog posts, or reach out to me by email or on LinkedIn, as you prefer.