Improving on Our Worst-Case Scenario

There has been a lot of interest in and writings on “grit” over the last few years, especially in the education realm. Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit” gave the idea some legs with her research data and recommendations. However, some have found her conclusions to over-reach what the data said, and there is still another camp that believes grit is not really a good predictor of success nor can it be taught.

So what is grit and can we learn it?

In my opinion, grit is your capacity to persevere, endure, and possibly even triumph in a worst-case scenario. Can it be learned? Sure – the hard way. No six-week on-line course is going to really teach you how to stand up to and get through the emotional, physical, or mental hell that you have to face in order to survive to the other side. Most people don’t voluntarily sign up for something like that. Who voluntarily puts themselves through something they’re not entirely sure they’re going to get through without significant damage being done to them somehow?

Not many.

That’s why grit is still appreciated when we see it in action in others because most of us admire them for taking those challenges on. And who are some of these folks where we can see this in action? Our armed forces serving in operations around the world; our law enforcement officers; our first responders; those rescuing, saving, and helping in crisis; those overcoming tremendous personal issues or challenges that help blaze a trail for others to take heart and follow when their time comes, to name just a few. Gritty situations can be epic dramas that everyone sees or small private battlegrounds for you alone, but either way, it’s a scary no-man’s-land that has no guarantee of survival, much less success.   I don’t see too many people signing up for that course. That’s why we are in awe of those who do. So where does that leave the rest of us? How do we “up” our grit? Is there a way to start slowly or do you just jump and pray? Well . . . yes to both.

As a running coach, I’ve always told my athletes that one sure way to improve your performance is to improve your “crap” end – the worst-case scenario. How do you perform when EVERYTHING goes wrong? The weather is the worst, your gear falls apart, you’re sick or injured on the appointed day, you’ve just received terrible, world’s coming apart news as you step off – every bad thing AND the kitchen sink. How do you perform? What can you count on yourself producing in that context? The answer involves one part character and one part training. What – training? Yep.

Where we can’t learn it in a traditional way – classrooms, books, papers, and tests – we can learn it in small ways by putting ourselves into those situations we don’t excel at, those situations where we doubt our ability, those times when we’re a little scared of coming up short or just flat out failing. In training, we push limits, try new tactics, and simulate worst-case scenarios, practicing our response to them both physically and mentally. Courage goes hand in hand with grit, and whether we’re taking on hill repeats or learning something new, every time we push the limit of what we think we can do, take on, or master, we’re increasing our grit. No, maybe not in epic world changing ways, but each one of those hard, scary, uncomfortable challenges we voluntarily meet head on teaches us more about ourselves – what we’re capable of, what matters to us – and it gets us prepped for those truly epic moments we never see coming. But you have to jump in and try – that takes some courage and grit right there!

I’ve had my share of those moments – we all have. At the time, I wondered how I was ever going to survive in tact to reach the other side of the crisis. The truth is – I didn’t survive in tact; I changed. And THAT’S the key to grit. In the digging deep, the humbling of failure, the embarrassment of screwing up, the wonder in getting it right, the awe in triumphing in the end – somewhere in the midst of all that persevering and trying and failing and succeeding, I learn more about myself, and it changes the narrative I tell myself about myself. I learn and I change.

So when the next gritty situation raises its ugly head, I might still feel like my insides are about to fall out, but . . . they’ve fallen out before and I KNOW I can stuff ‘em back inside and succeed because I’ve done it before. Now I tell myself “I KNOW I got this” because I’ve trained myself to “get” this. I recognize the situation or the set-up when it happens so I can stay calm, activate the plan, and tell myself to push through because I’ve already done this before. I don’t go forward because I’m no longer scared; I go forward because I know what to do while it’s all falling apart AND I’m still scared. In that moment, the narrative I tell myself about myself changes my response to the situation. I’ve gone from helpless to hopeful and from surprised to resolved.

So can we learn grit? Sure. If we’re brave enough to look inside and face the biggest obstacle any of us ever really faces – ourselves – and have the courage to rewrite our own narratives about who we are and what we can do on our best – and our worst – days. That’s some true grit that even The Duke himself could appreciate.

Where’s the Next Exit?

A while back I was waxing philosophical about the “Scenic Vistas” of life and the idea of pausing, not parking. I proverbially and literally got myself back out on the road again (running and work), looking forward to the next pull off point or exit ramp that took me somewhere new.

Sounds great doesn’t it? One small problem . . .

Where the @#&*! is the next exit?! OMG!

I started my new adventure thinking this was going to be a moderate scenic drive with regular resting points between paved stretches of road, and I soon found out I was “Jeeping” it in rugged terrain without a map. When did I sign up for this?! Was there small print I forgot to read somewhere? What the heck?! How did I get here? I can’t go back, so there’s only forward but . . . what in the world do I do now?

That was September. I soon started seeing work and running merging into the same issue – where I thought I was going and where I found myself were two very different places. I’d planned for one kind of experience and found myself faced with another. Why can’t anything be easy? I asked myself. But no matter, I thought. I’ll just use my experience and lessons learned to adjust and keep going. I’ll find the road I’m looking for soon enough and all will be well, I told myself. That scenic resting point is just around the corner. You just hit a rough patch – you’ll find that path soon. Just find a way to get there – keep going!

By October I was worried and by November I was exhausted. I kept thinking that if I just worked the problems in front of me, kept moving and looking for signs that things were improving, I would get clear of this morass I had fallen into and find the “pavement” again. With no data whatsoever to base my opinion on, I kept assuming the “exit” from this mess just had to be close – I’d come so far already. I was getting tired and more than a little desperate. That exit has got to be coming into view soon, . . . right? Maybe? I’m on it, I told myself. Just gotta hang tough.

With this dubious logic, I recommitted myself in December and hoped, rather than knew, that January would be better. But I wasn’t “on it” at all. And of course that’s when the wheels came off. It started with the pinched nerve in my hip during the Ground Hog run, quickly followed by my upper back going out and seizing up (an old injury that flares when I’m stressed – should’ve been a sign right? Apparently not.) As my back stopped flaring, my right foot started aching to the point I could barely walk, let alone run. Plantar Fasciitis and loss of heel fat due to overuse led me to more KT tape, Advil, and orthopedic inserts. Really?   Oy vay. There’s a fine line between positive thinking, determination and hubris. I think I just learned that one the hard way.

I’d literally been running myself into the ground trying to find this illusive path I thought I was supposed to be on, both at work and in my running plan, and unknowingly did things that just made it worse because I couldn’t admit that maybe – maybe – I couldn’t muscle my way through this one. It was like Cinderella’s stepsisters trying to fit their feet into her shoe: they can’t. And there was my problem: I liked my plan. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the reality I’m in. I was operating off of old data. Current reality took me somewhere new all right, but it didn’t sink in on a conscious level with me. When things started going wrong, I just applied old remedies to the new ailment instead of stopping and realizing “Hey! I’m not in Kansas anymore,” so to speak. It’s ironic that the one thing that should have been my go-to for guidance – data – (and probably would have saved my poor body some pain and injury) was the one thing that never crossed my mind to consult until I had no choice. The harder I tried to make the old plan fit the new reality, the worse it got. When the data is not what I want to hear, it’s amazing how deaf I can become.

So that left me with a choice to make. To borrow a phrase from my oldest son – I could give up or give more. I’ve never been one to give up – even when it’s PAINFULLY OBVIOUS when I should – so giving more it is. But when all this finally came to a head three weeks ago, I knew I had to go forward with a helluva lot more sense than I had been up to now. So what does that really mean? And is it going to stink as much as I think it will?

The truth is I’m a lot more like Captain Kirk than Spock in this area (yes – I’m a huge Trekkie nerd). I just don’t believe in no-win scenarios. I’ve always been able to find a way through – until now. This little escapade has forced me to reconsider what “through” and “successful outcome” really means. And that’s where a little data – and a good dose of humility – comes in to give me some balance against my determination and confidence.  And then there’s another truth to accept – sometimes the data just bites. Sometimes there isn’t another option; this is it. I’m stuck on a bad bit of road for now, and I just have to make the best of it until I hit a better patch. Period. Not the answer I want at all! But there it is.  Guess I better focus on being grateful for being on any road at all, and look for sunny patches where I find them moment to moment.  The only no-win scenario is not being in the game at all, so I’ll take whatever scenario I’m given and work with it.

So where to go from here? Well . . . I’m not sure. I still don’t have that new map, and I’ve thrown my old one out the window so I guess that makes me . . . an explorer? I’m seeking out new options, new ways of thinking, and boldly going where I’ve never been before – working on enjoying the unknown – LOL!

What Do You Mean I Can’t Campout at the Scenic Pullout?

This week marks one of those milestones in our family. Our youngest son – the Math Genius Airman – turns 21. OMG! How did that happen so fast? I swear he was just born last week! I blinked and 21 years flew by. I heard it said once that the days are long but the years are fast with kids. I totally get that now. But wait – how can I be old enough to have 21 and 23-year-old sons?! I clearly remember being 21 myself, so that just can’t be right. I don’t feel that old. And what about all those great times we’ve had as they grew up? Are they over now? I don’t want it to be in the rearview mirror. Maybe I can find a way to hang out here a little longer.

That ship started sailing this past summer when we went to Nova Scotia as a family. We were running out of time to get this trip planned and booked (4 work / school schedules weren’t solid until almost a month out from departure – yikes!) and the travel agency must have thought we were millionaires with the prices they were quoting us. The guys were determined we were going to take this trip so they jumped in and put their travelling know-how to work. One researched and booked the flights, one researched and got hotel rooms, I researched places to see and things to do, and my husband got transportation arranged. And it didn’t cost us millions.  Go team! That didn’t happen when they were kids!

We started the vacation as though we were still parents and children. We quickly realized we were either being too polite (like we hadn’t just spent the last 20+ years together) or we reverted to parent – child hierarchy rather than more adult equals. We had a family meeting (like times of old), talked plainly (that was a little new), and dared to change-up the vacation plan in the middle of the vacation (that was WAY new). We called an audible, learned some things about ourselves, and had a great rest of the vacation. We did an After Action Review (we are all military after all – LOL!) and realized something:  You can keep having the same fun, even when everything is completely different.

That was a really important realization for me. Milestones have a tendency to make me sad (it’s probably the Irish in me) because they force me come to terms with the passage of time. I’m always a little leery of letting go and walking away from that idyllic spot. What if that was it? What if I never see that spot again?  Can’t I just campout here?

I’m learning that milestones are great opportunities to take a little time to savor – the achievement, the moment, the passage of time, the “scenic view” – and pause to reflect on what has come before to bring me here. It’s good to rest, celebrate, and be grateful for the chance to be here in this experience. But I have to remember – it’s a scenic pullout, not a campground. If I campout at one spot in my life, I run the risk of getting stuck there and missing out on even more great scenic pullouts down the road.   I remember one of my former Principals used to encourage us to enjoy the scenic vista for a moment, but to get back out on the road soon so we could be on our way to the next scenic vista. Pause – don’t Park! (Thanks Geri!) I’ve kept hold of that thought over the years when I’m tempted to park. I’ve got to keep moving forward.

My sons are grateful I’m learning this early in their twenties, although maybe not as quickly as they would always prefer! But as I’ve started letting some things go and figuring out how to re-imagine others, I’ve seen how that’s already started opening up new adventures, new opportunities, and new ways for us to still be a family in this new season of our lives. I’m seeing that milestones are more like water stations in the race of life, rather than finish lines. And that’s good! ‘Cause I’ve got a lot of race left in me, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the race with my team. Guess it’s time to get back out there on the road and find out what’s at the end of the next rainbow!

The Other Side of the Bridge – Did we all make it?

A personal story of self-care 

We got an unexpected day off from school Thursday, thanks to winter storm #Hunter as it moved through Kansas. I decided it was time to spend some serious quality time on the t-shirt quilt I’m making for my oldest son, my marathoning Airman. I admit – I’ve been avoiding that quilt. You see it started a long time ago, in a place that now feels far, far away . . .

My sons were young and as they began to participate in activities, they collected t-shirts along the way. As a history buff, I sensed these were artifacts that I might want to do something with to mark the memories being made, and I started saving them. I didn’t have a plan in mind when I started. I just knew I should save them now and figure it out later.

Of course I had no idea “later” would be so far down the road. I collected and planned and then I returned to the classroom when my youngest entered Kindergarten. That slowed the crafting / creative side of me down a bit because teaching and the boys’ activities kept ramping up. But the shirts kept coming and I kept saving them.

Then the Army sent my husband on a one year unaccompanied tour to South Korea and that slowed things down even more. But the shirts kept coming and I kept saving them. My husband returned and then I had the opportunity to pursue a life dream of earning my Doctorate.   And that’s where the creative side of me got off the train. I didn’t realize it at the time because I was so focused on the professional-academic-data-research side of me – all things I have an equal passion for – but the creative part of me quietly exited stage left and faded to black. Professional challenges, boys in high school, then college and I never noticed it wasn’t there anymore. But the shirts kept coming and I kept saving them.

So two years ago, when I realized I’d reached the other side of the “bridge”, I began to take stock of myself and figure out what had survived and what was missing in my life. I made the New Year’s resolution to go back – go back and search for the things I loved and had abandoned or left behind along the way. Go back and find running. Go back and find my music. Go back and find gardening. Go back and find my creative self.

I decided the best place to start was to take stock of my craft room and get it organized again. As I started going through all my things, it began to remind me of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Everything was frozen in time exactly as it had been nearly eight years ago when I stopped. Projects in different states of completion, plans for new ones waiting to get started, materials sitting there ready for me to make something with them. It was stark, abrupt, and startling. I’d completely turned my back on this, and yet I hadn’t even realized what a large part of me was missing until I stopped and looked around. I knew my resolve to go back had to start here.

As I began organizing, I realized that although I had stopped pursuing that part of my life, life had not stopped. The t-shirts had just kept coming. I started sorting all those shirts into categories that turned into themes, and the themes turned into years of memories. At first I was curious, then I was alarmed, and finally I was overwhelmed and on the verge of a panic attack. I had saved enough shirts for twelve full size quilts – TWELVE!! That’s insane! TWELVE?! OMG! I’m never going finish. Maybe I shouldn’t even start this. Why did I start this? Oh yeah – balanced life, inner joy, and self-fulfillment. Seriously? Maybe I need to do some more breathing first. This is feeling a little like the jungle again. Maybe it’s just too late to go back?

As usual, this situation (and breathing) brought me to some reflection. As much as I’d wanted to reach this new professional destination (and now I wanted to bring myself back into balance) I never realized that everything would change – including me – along the way. I also didn’t realize going back would probably involve some effort on my part – not all of it sunshine and roses – to bring it up to the present. I had a decision to make, both literal and figurative: Do I truly go back and bring those lost things out of the darkness into the sunlight on the other side, or do I just leave them where they are and move on?

Everybody has to weigh the pros and cons and decide for themselves; each choice has its own sacrifice and reward. Neither is right or wrong – just unique to you. For me, I decided that all the work that went into reaching one dream wouldn’t really have been worth it if the price were to sacrifice all the other creative ones in the end. When I took stock, I realized “we” didn’t all make it; some members of “team me” were still back there on the bridge. If this new destination were going to mean anything, I’d have to try to find as many of those lost team members as possible and bring them with me here in 2018.   So like Forrest Gump continually going back into the jungle and bringing out buddies, so I’ve decided to go back and bring all those things forward to join me where I am now. And that means tackling those quilts, one shirt at a time.

We tend to think of self-care as pampering, cozy, and comforting. But sometimes, self-care is caring enough about yourself to do the work it takes to be well and whole.   Sometimes that involves hard conversations with yourself. Sometimes it means sweat, sore muscles, a little frustration, and a bad word or two. Sometimes it’s the small voice that says, “I refuse to give up. I will start again tomorrow.” For me, it’s time to lace up and, as we say in running, go fish for the stragglers and bring them home.

Transitions – The Goat, the bridge, and the Troll

There’s been a lot of transitioning going on in my life the last 6 months, and so naturally it’s been on my mind.  And when I say “on my mind”, that can be interpreted as I’ve been playing with it, studying it, and batting it around like a cat with a mouse until there’s not much left.  Like most cats, I’m extremely curious, and this tends to take me on more than a few thought journeys as I try to puzzle out the whys and wherefores of whatever has caught my interest.  Enter transitions.

If I’m being honest, I’ve never really considered them until recently.  All I really know about them is that they’re hard.  Whether it’s the attainment of a long strived for goal or something you don’t see coming that flies out of left field and knocks you on your butt, change and the inevitable transition that goes with it is just rough.  Heaven knows there’s a lot out there on change – how to create it, manage it, survive it, lead it or sustain it – but it’s all focused on getting something to go from where it is to someplace new, whether it wants to or not.  Most don’t consider what’s supporting the effort between what was the old normal and what’s the new.  However, I stumbled upon the book Managing Transitions by William and Susan Bridges (2009). It’s a great read and I highly recommend it for those of you who really want to dig deep on this topic.  One thought that really captured my attention was their idea that transition is psychological and one of the pieces of this process is a neutral zone or “emotional wilderness” when you have an opportunity to create the thing you are trying to become, get to, etc; it’s where the magic of innovation happens.  They urge you not to rush through it but embrace it (chapter 1).

On first hearing I thought, “Embrace the messy, feel like a newbie idiot with my shoes on the wrong feet, haven’t got a clue what to do next feeling?  Are they nuts?” That sounds very Zen and I don’t know if I have it in me to be that amazing. Enter the cat.  But what if they’re right?  What would that mean?  Why does embracing this feel more than a little scary?

After spending a lot of time batting that idea around (ok – it fueled more than one morning run), I came up with this analogy.  Remember the Three Billy Goats?  What if we’re the goats and the transition is the bridge we’re using to get to the other side – the new normal.  Applying the Bridges’ idea to this analogy, we, as the goats, should take our time going across the bridge and savor the experience, taking time to try new things, embrace innovative perspectives, and take in the whole re-imagining process.  But wait a minute – wasn’t there a troll somewhere, maybe under that bridge, just waiting to jump out and eat us?!  Ah. Enter the real reason we fear change and transitions: we don’t have total control over the process.  If we’re going to embrace the transition then that means we have to accept that we might  be the thing that gets reimagined by the time we get to the other side.  We have to be brave enough to face the troll – however it appears to us – and have faith that we will make it to other side, one way or another.  Daring to think of yourself as something new and different – gulp – is more than a little scary.

So where does this leave me, and maybe you?  I’m kinda in the middle of the bridge and I’ve faced a couple of trolls so far but if I’m being honest, it’s a little exhilarating to re-imagine and “breathe into it”.  I don’t know how long the bridge is, but I think I’m going to try enjoying the view – and the trolls – a little more moving forward.  Who knows – I might just be different by the time I get to the new normal.

See ya on the bridge!

Melissa