Afraid of the Dark

As longtime readers might recall, I have a bit of a hot-and-cold relationship with swimming.

Swimming freestyle scared me as a kid. Nevertheless, swimming has always seemed like the kind of thing I could love, so I’ve spent a good deal of time over the last five years learning Terry Laughlin’s Total Immersion approach to swimming. In addition to helping me swim better, it was also my introduction to kaizen, a learning philosophy that emphasizes specific, hyper-focused continuous improvement. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Over these last few years, I’ve made enough progress that I now appreciate swimming and from time to time I even have good swims. However, swimming remains low on my list of priorities, so my progress has been slow.

That said, I can now work my way through a mile in the pool reasonably well and with limited agita—even if being truly relaxed in the water eludes me most days.

Nevertheless, quarantine has been a chance to go deep in all sorts of physical activity, and recently I had the chance to spend a week by a big, beautiful lake in Maine. The only problem was that open water swimming still gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Given this backdrop, and as a nod to safety, when I have the chance to swim in this massive lake, I decide the best approach is to swim laps to a buoy that is about 40 meters from the shore.

I dive in, imagining that soon I be cutting through this pristine lake gracefully.

Then I put my head in the water. It’s nearly pitch black. I cannot see the bottom and I have no idea where I am or how far I away I am from the buoy.

The old narrative in my head kicks in. “This is scary, and I can’t do this. How much longer until I get to the buoy? Should I pick up my head or swim some more? I can’t see, I don’t know where I am, I don’t know how much progress I’ve made or how far I still need to go!”

I am unmoored. The sensory experience nearly overtakes me.

And yet, if you pulled back the camera, what you see looks nothing like what’s going through my head. I am swimming, just as I always do. I’m making progress to and from the buoy. I’m not going particularly straight, but it’s not too bad. Sometimes a wake bounces me, splashing some water in my mouth. Mostly I’m swimming the way I always do.

So which view is the right one, the real one? Is it the one in my head, or the one you’d see from the shore?

What saves me from throwing in the towel is that I remembered the order of operations inside my head: first I have feelings and emotions, then I make sense of them with the story I tell.

The feelings I’m experiencing: disorientation due to darkness, no sense of where I am, of whether I am stuck or making progress.

The emotions I feel: fear and panic.

The story I tell myself: this will never work, I am failing, I should give up.

This pandemic is a bit like those black waters. Stuck at home, we can lose our sense of place, of progress. It’s harder to tell where we are and where we are going. The clarity of what it feels like to go from point A to B and back again has been yanked away from us.

We feel unmoored.

This feeling results in emotions.

These emotions result in a story about what we can and cannot do.

Thankfully, in the water, I had put in enough work before plunging into that lake that I know how to swim reasonably well. I kept the initial panic at bay by talking myself down from the ledge (“Nothing, objectively is wrong, even though I feel afraid. This is not that different from what I do in the pool. I am OK.”). But mostly what I do is continue to swim. Stroke by stroke, breath by breath, I keep on doing the thing I had set out to do. The story my mind wants to create rattles along in the background. I let it be while I continue to do.

In the end, the story never vanishes, but it also doesn’t win. I swim with fear until I swim with less fear until, for at least some bits, I just swim.

These are, objectively, scary times for too many reasons.

The more we believe the worst stories our mind tells us—stories it creates to make sense of our feelings and emotions—the more power we give to those stories.

Rather than try to figure out, analyze, or beat back those stories, we often are better served by putting our heads down and doing the work we set out to do.

The work deserves that much, as do the people it serves.

Remember, courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is continuing to act despite feeling fear.

Focus on the Flats

Back when I was a high school athlete, the theme song of choice was “Eye of the Tiger.”

Our coaches yelled a lot, pushing us to go to the max and stay there as long as we could. Greatness was achieved, apparently, through Rocky’s last one-armed push up, his angry smack of the speed ball, his last, shaking and moaning chin-up.

The only thing is, this is the wrong approach for most sustained change—in physical activity or otherwise.

How much longer?

For example, as I returned to running these past few months, I noticed that I spent most of my runs counting down how much further I had to go (“only two more hills after this one.”) Suffering, apparently, was not optional.

Then it occurred to me to ask: what would it take for me to have running, at a good pace, just be running? To have it be no big deal, something I could sustain?

At first this felt like copping out on my max-effort philosophy. But that’s an illusion. Over the course of a 40 minute run, at most I might be able to really “push it” for 5 minutes. Why would those 5 minutes, and not the other 35, be where I focus my attention?

Work on the Valleys, Not the Peaks

The point is, we eventually max out on our ability to make our peaks higher.

At this point, we discover the greater opportunity in redirecting our attention to lifting up our valleys.

This means refocusing our attention on two things:
1. Not letting peak effort knock us off our game
2. Spending most of our mental energy on a strong recovery rather than on peak effort

Why Do We Get So Tired?

The reason peak effort kicks our butts isn’t because of physical exhaustion.

Instead, we hit mental overload from crossing a perceived threshold of what we’ve decided we can do. Because we lack a practice of strong, sustained and resilient recovery, we run out of psychological gas.

And, just as we’ve all been broken by a hill or a sprint, we’ve also crossed mental breaking points when someone shouts at us; when the tension in a professional conversation gets too high; when we’re in the thick of a sustained period of heavy work.

When we get through those moments on our last emotional breath, it can take days or weeks to get back on our game.

If, instead, we have trained ourselves (emotionally, physically) to find the ease in the midst of our effort, then we’re able to sustain a higher threshold of effort and we learn to recover more quickly to a comfortable, productive steady state after peak effort. Ultimately, this grace after fire (in addition to grace under fire) makes us more effective.

Focus on the flats

This change only comes when, in our training, we focus on the “easy bits.”

My running will only improve, and get more enjoyable, when I can be completely relaxed on the flats. This doesn’t mean going slowly or not trying. It means finding a place of sustained, comfortable effort and practicing staying calm and present through that slow burn.

This is the work of building up our foundation, of making it more solid and more stable. It is a mental practice more than a physical one, demanding sustained attention and focus, not maximum heart rate.

When we build deeper, not only does our minute-to-minute performance improve, we also get harder to dislodge.

Then, whether it’s a hill or a disagreement, a sprint to a finish line or a sprint to meet a deadline, the act of sprinting no longer unmoors us. We learn the skill of snapping back quickly, easily, and with minimal fuss.

By all means, don’t give up the sprints. They’re fun, and they lead to both discovery and growth.

But, more often than not, a sprint is just another way to get the run over with–it’s not the path to sustained and lasting improvement.

Ease and Effort

I just completed my 30-day yoga commitment, and while the physical experience has been front and center, there’s a lot more going on that I’m trying to notice.

I’ve particularly appreciated what I’ve heard about ease and effort from Rolf Gates, a wonderful yoga instructor, substance abuse counselor, ex-Army Ranger, and author. I first met Rolf 20 years ago and he’s still one of my favorite teachers (bonus: he’s now giving excellent live online yoga and meditation classes).

In yoga, and in life, our intention is to be in flow, which Rolf describes as “maximum effort without an ounce of unnecessary effort.”

“Maximum effort, without an ounce of unnecessary effort” requires us to maintain focus, calm and discipline even while engaged in something strenuous. Which is to say: the thing we are doing might be strenuous, but that does not mean that we need to experience strain while doing that thing.

I encourage you to contemplate this profound idea while doing something physically challenging–a yoga pose, a sprint, lifting weights, even just holding your breath for 30 seconds–to see what you discover.

This is another way of describing the integration of ease and effort that is at the heart of yoga. Rolf does a lovely job explaining this in a class I took with him last week:

In life we tend to like the ease of life and we don’t really prefer the effort.

And what we’re taught in our practice is that we need both ease and effort to keep growing.

But we want to organize our life around what we like (and we want that) and what we don’t like (and we don’t want that).

We struggle in this battle, this inner battle: ease good, effort bad.

And what our practice is telling us is that the two things are really the one thing, that we don’t have growth without both.

Needless to say, this is not just about yoga. The yoga poses are simply a chance to explore this idea.

For example, every time I get into an elevator (ah, the good ol’ days) and hear someone say “only 2 more days until Friday,” I’m hearing “ease good, effort bad.”

Of course, work can be hard, and weekends can be wonderful. We need a healthy dose of both to have a balanced life.

But balance doesn’t come just from the right proportion of work and rest. It also comes in a more profound way from our experience of work and rest.

The mindset “ease good, effort bad” is not neutral, not at all. That mindset is not a reflection of our lived experience, it profoundly shapes our lived experience.

If there’s one thing most of us non-essential workers are living during this pandemic, it’s the blending together of “work time” and “free time.” For those of us with families at home, this blending is making it harder to be productive in a traditional sense. For those without families at home, creating boundaries around work can be especially difficult, since our office is just a few feet away. In both cases the division between work and rest has blurred.

This, then, is a golden opportunity to observe our mental model of the duality, “ease good, effort bad.” It is a golden opportunity to explore finding the ease within the effort, and the effort within the ease.

What we find there is at the heart of a much more sustainable long-term strategy for all of us.

10 out of 30

Two weeks ago, to address some recurring pain in my knee, I made a 30-day yoga commitment: a minimum of 30 minutes of yoga a day for 30 days. I even have a big ol’ Austin Kleon 30 Day Challenge calendar hanging in my kitchen, with giant red-crayon X’s for each day I’ve completed.

10 days in, I noticed a few things.

The beginning is not the hard part. In fact, beginning big commitments is fun. There’s a bit of fanfare as you tell folks. A sense of self-validation that you’re doing something big and courageous. You spend time imagining the amazing results that will come at the end of 30 days.

This glow remains for a few days. Those first days are a living, breathing validation of all that excitement. They’re still fun.

Then, about a third of the way in, the excitement dies down.

You’re by yourself, alone with your commitment.

There’s no fanfare, no fans.

It’s just you, stuck in the middle. You’re tired and struggling for time and motivation. Maybe you’re noticing that you’ve not made as much progress as you originally imagined.

What a tempting moment to quit.

“Who will notice, really? Maybe I’ll just skip a day.”

I know that my motivation to start on Day 10 was zero. Same for days 11, 12, 13 and 14.

Here’s a dirty little secret about hard work, especially the kind that leads to real and lasting change: the middle bits (and lots of the bits) aren’t all that glamorous.

They’re hard not just because of the actual challenge of doing the hard thing we’ve decided to do. They’re also hard because the act of following through is itself sometimes a grind.

All of us, 3-4 months into this pandemic, find ourselves past the beginning stage of this new world and new life. We’re far from the shore we left, and we’ve got no clear end in sight. No doubt we have felt, or are about to feel, a dip.

Whether or not you’ve specifically made a 30-day commitment, you’re no doubt spending your days doing new things, trying on new approaches, working on new ways (slowly…but also surely) of becoming the person you’re meant to become: a healthier you, a stronger you, a more accepting you, a more confident you, a more grounded you, or maybe a you that’s more at piece with the fact that kid(s) + job(s) = a different calculus on what “productive” really means.

In case you find yourself stuck, I thought it might help to hear this reminder: just because the middle bits are hard doesn’t mean it’s time to give up.

In fact, the middle bits being hard are the best indication that you’re doing something worthwhile, something that will yield important results.

Keep showing up for yourself.

The results will come in time.

 

Privilege is

I’d written this blog post already, and then came across this TikTok from tWitch and Allison, which does a much better job at making my point on a visceral level.

If you didn’t click, here’s a paraphrase of what they’re counting down on their fingers. White Privilege is:

Never having been called a racial slur.

Never having been followed in a store unnecessarily.

Never having had people cross the street to avoid walking by you.

Never having had someone clench their purse in an elevator with you.

Never having had someone step off an elevator to avoid riding with you.

Never having been accused of not being able to afford something expensive.

Never having had fear in your heart when having been stopped by the police.

Never having been given a pass on a citation that you deserved.

Never having been stopped or detained by the police for no valid reason.

Never having been denied service solely because of the color of your skin.

Never having to teach your child how not to get killed by the police.

 

Here’s what I’d add to that list.

Privilege (white and otherwise) is also:

If you, or your kid, breaks something you love, you know you can get a new one.

If all your schools were always well-resourced, were not overcrowded, were filled with qualified teachers.

If you’ve ever had a private tutor of any sort.

Or private instrument lessons. Or private lessons of any kind.

If you expected, from the day you were born, that you would go to college.

If you’ve ever had an unpaid internship.

Or an informational interview with a powerful friend of your parents’ or their friends.

If you’ve never been truly afraid to walk down a dark street at night, or to your parked car in a garage, alone.

If you’ve rarely, if ever, been forced to be conscious on a daily basis of your race or another element of your identity—indeed, if you barely think about your race or other element of your identity if you don’t want to—because it almost never engenders an experience of outsider-ness or threat for you.

If you’ve never had to explain to someone else what it feels like to be a person like you—when “like you” is about a group you’re part of rather than “you” as an individual.

If, most of the time, especially in situations of consequence (classrooms, school and job interviews, sales meetings, industry conferences, fundraising pitches, board rooms), you are in groups made up of almost exclusively of people of the same race, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity as you.

If most of the people on TV shows, in ads, and in magazines look like you…

…and the same goes for the person who saves the day in nearly every movie.

If you don’t have a parent, uncle or aunt, grandparent or great-grandparent who was systematically persecuted, tortured or killed for some aspect of their identity.

And if you feel like you’ve had the choice of whether or not to pay attention, feel personally affected by, and act in response to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Terence Crutcher, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Bettie Jones, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Laquan MacDonald, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, and Dominique White.

 

What I appreciate at the end of the video of tWitch talking to Ellen is his saying that he and his wife, and he and his in-laws, are having much deeper conversations about race than they’ve ever had before.

And, as he rightly says, while it’s not enough, it’s a start.

Until white people fully see the privilege we have, until we can see what Peggy McIntosh called (in 1989!) our “invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” then we are, honestly, in no position to contemplate the steps we need to take to be part of the solution.

 

 

 

Black Lives Matter

It’s hard to know what to say at a time like this, shrouded as I am in privilege and what Ta-Nehisi Coates aptly calls a “belief in being white.”

What we know is that the response to the murder of George Floyd is the boiling over of longstanding, simmering, justified rage at the systemic institutionalization of white supremacy in this country.

This means it is long past the time to talk about, acknowledge, and take steps to rectify all the ways that white people benefit from and therefore are complicit in this system.

Which is to say: if you are a person who believes yourself to be white, and if you’ve concluded that it’s enough simply not to be actively and overtly racist, I’d encourage you to take time to stop and reflect.

Most days, I find it breathtakingly, astonishingly easy to ignore my own privilege and advantage in this America that I live in. This means that I have more than my own fair share of work and reflection to do about my personal complicity in, and, by definition, daily endorsement of all of the ugly, undeniable truths that have been laid bare about this country.

That’s my work to do.

And lest I, or you, think that our moderate, progressive views are somehow an improvement on the active, fetid, ugly racism increasingly on display across so much of this country, I’ll offer up this passage from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I’ve had the privilege to lead discussions of this text with social entrepreneurs from the U.S., Kenya and India. The most shocking, nearly universal conclusion that every one of these groups of progressive, bold and brave activists has come to, collectively, is that we are all, nearly all the time, white moderates.

Whatever our progressive thoughts and liberal ideals, we cling to our comfort through our daily actions and routines, and, in so doing, live out more devotion to ‘order’ than to justice.

Self-education, fellowship, use of our privilege and power to dismantle the foundation of the corrupted system we find so normal…these are first green shoots of how we can all show up, each day, and demonstrate greater devotion to justice.

And if you’re hanging on to the notion that what’s going is anything less than the laying bare of a foundational failure to deliver justice in this country, I encourage you to listen to Dr. Cornel West’s take on America as a failed social experiment.

Cornel West on George Floyd's Death

The Work of a Clean Kitchen

Anyone can splash around and follow a recipe.

Good cooks have the presence of mind to keep mentally ahead, to anticipate and stay calm, and to react quickly and smoothly when things go awry.

If you and your team can move through the chaotic moments with this kind of mastery, you’ll get much more than good immediate results.

You’ll give your people the chance to know what it feels like to remain fluid and present in the heat of the moment, to do great feats and stick the landing all without breaking a sweat.

That builds a confidence for the next round that’s like lightning in a bottle.

Dog Days

I can’t resist: I’m training our 6-month old, exuberant, I-must-sniff-and-greet-everything-and-everyone puppy, Birdie, and can’t help but notice a few things.

Positive reinforcement works much better than negative reinforcement.

Catching her in the act of doing something wrong and correcting works much less well than creating a situation in which undesired behaviors are less likely to happen.

If she’s distracted, she cannot learn.

If she’s afraid or triggered in any way, she cannot learn.

Just because she did it right yesterday doesn’t mean she’ll do it right today.

Every new behavior has to be repeated, repeated, and repeated some more.

The distance between “I understand what this is and how to do this,” and “I will do this all the time” is huge. Getting her from one to the other requires extra-ordinary patience.

Things go wrong when my expectations get ahead of where we are, today.

Context matters tremendously. If I want her to demonstrate a new behavior, I have to ask her to do it in the simplest, safest context first. Only once she’s mastered the behavior in that environment can she succeed in a more challenging context.

When my expectations get ahead of where we are, we are both frustrated.

If she messes up, it’s on me.

Of course, I understand that human beings have frontal lobes, that we can practice meta cognition and that we don’t only learn by getting lots and lots and lots of little rewards for good behavior.

But we could set ourselves up for success with a bunch of lessons from Birdie.

To develop or teach a new skill, start small and in a safe environment, and allow plenty of time for practice before moving on to a more challenging environment.

Just because we got it right yesterday doesn’t mean we know how to do it today.

If we’re frustrated, it’s probably because our expectations got ahead of us.

Be patient with yourself or with the person you’re coaching.

Repeat so much that you’re a little bored, and then repeat some more.

Most of all, keep at it and treat yourself kindly. Remember that daily progress is almost undetectable, but that weekly, monthly and yearly progress (when we keep at it) will be remarkable.

Silver Linings

Birdie is a very good girl when she’s asleep.

Last Thursday and Friday, I learned, over the course of 24 hours, that schools in NY State are officially closed for the rest of the year, and that my three kids’ 7-week sleepaway summer camp (the highlight of their year) is cancelled.

Within the parameters of us being collectively lucky, safe, and relatively unaffected by this pandemic, this was a huge blow. We now have four more months of trying to keep the kids happy, healthy and cared for, while my wife and I manage our two jobs.

I have to admit, this unmoored me.

So I thought I’d make a list of the silver linings we’ve already experienced in these last two months, to remind myself of all the good things that are also going on.

Our team at 60 Decibels has pulled together, and is more connected than ever. And we’ve managed to pivot our business and launch major initiatives in 11 countries to listen to some of the most vulnerable customers, to understand the impacts of COVID-19 and social distancing, and find ways to support these customers.

My wife and I have gotten better at working together in the same house and not driving each other crazy (more specifically, me not driving her crazy).

And I think I understand a bit better all it takes to make the house run, which is allowing me to be more of an equal partner.

Each day, I see my kids when they wake up and when they go to bed.

Our family eats lunch and dinner together almost every night.

We all started playing ping pong again, and are having a blast.

Everyone has found a way to exercise more, walk more, and stay healthy.

My youngest daughter sewed her own teddy bear, named Juniper. She’s also learned how to make scrambled eggs and French toast for breakfast all by herself.

My middle daughter and I have, for the first time, started to go for runs together, something we never would have had time for before. These runs make me profoundly happy.

My two daughters learned to rollerblade. It’s their new favorite pastime, even though my older one is wearing my rollerblades, which are five sizes too big for her.

They’ve also gotten more independent and have had a slew of outdoor adventures.

And, overall, they’ve been amazing friends and companions to each other through a time when they can’t see the rest of their friends.

My teenage son and my wife have started going on long walks together, and having great talks.

Last weekend, he and I put together a shed behind the house, and, somehow, we had a blast.

We adopted a rescue dog. Her name is Birdie. It’s been a little more than a year since our 16-year old dachshunds, Stella and Blanche, passed away. Birdie has been with us for 10 days. She’s endlessly energetic, gentle and loving, needs a ton of exercise and chews and nips much too much. And we love her already.

Writing this list has helped me remind myself of all the good things that have happened in the last two months. It’s helping me remember that, despite everything, the future is bright and we will all—with a little luck and a healthy dollop of good fortune—get through this.

 

Unclenching

It was a yoga teacher who first pointed out to me that, even in a strenuous pose, there was no need to furrow my brow and clench my jaw. This is because, as it turns out, neither my jaw nor my forehead is connected to my thighs, hips, back, or hamstrings.

Of course this applies, like all things, beyond the yoga mat. Take running, which has returned as a major part of my life thanks to social distancing. I’ve logged my two longest runs ever in the last two weeks (just under 9 miles) since…what else is there to do?!

Mostly, I enjoy it, but I’m also having to unlearn the always-struggle, always-push mindset that I employed when I last ran regularly, in my teens and 20s.

I’m trying to remember to relax my face while I run. I’ve noticed that my forehead, the space between my eyebrows and my jaw are perpetually clenched when I run. This helps with absolutely nothing.

Clenching is a natural reaction to stress, but it doesn’t make sense. It provides no protection or safety. It wards off nothing.

Needless to say, stress is everywhere these days. We can trick ourselves into believing that clenching, both physical (in our jaw and forehead) and psychological (in our minds as we scroll through screen after screen of frustrating, worrying news) equates to “doing something.” We can pretend that worrying about what’s going on helps in some way.

The fact is, adding strain and suffering to something that is already strenuous is completely optional. There’s enough that’s hard already, why should we be adding more?

Here’s how to practice unclenching.

Find a spot in your body where you hold tension. For me, this is the left side of my jaw, which I often clench when awake and asleep.

Consciously unclench it. Breathe. Breathe again.

Now pay attention to other things that are clenched.

Let them relax too. Breathe. Breathe again.

Repeat as necessary.