2013-07-25

Committing To The Idea

A few days ago, I wrote about the fact that sometimes difficult physical exercise becomes easier once you've actually done it, because the psychological barrier you had in front of you has been eliminated.

I have noticed that this phenomenon also impacts the way we view the barriers confronted by other people. That can obviously be a bad thing; no one wants to be out of touch with the experiences and perspectives of other people.

But, it doesn't always have to be a bad thing. Mental adaptivity is one of the great strengths of the human species. Developing great skill or strength in one area helps us "take for granted" lesser efforts, and this has a snowballing effect on our ability to confront new challenges. Let's discuss...

What That Too Hard?
When I was still in high school, I came up with an interesting and somewhat difficult workout. The idea simply consisted of doing any number of repetitions of the following:
  • 3 minutes of running
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 crunches
Ten sets of the above consists of an approximate 30-minute workout. Add a 5-minute warm-up and cool-down to either end of it, and it's a 40-minute workout. If you need a longer workout, simply do more sets. I like "modular" workouts like these, because they are easy to remember, easy to tailor to your goals on a particular day, and offer a refreshing change from more highly regimented workout options.

Anyway, back in high school, I committed to doing twenty repetitions of the above, for an hour-long run and 200 repetitions each of push-ups and crunches. Like I say, it is an interesting and somewhat difficult workout, but always a lot of fun, whenever I do it.

A few years later, I took a volunteer gig as an assistant cross-country coach for a local high school. I brought this workout to the team, and they all really enjoyed it (I think I may have reduced the number of sets). Inspired, the more ambitious male runners asked me for more workouts. So, without thinking, I gave them one that I didn't consider much more difficult than the one they had just done.

When I spoke to them the following day, they seemed troubled. "How long does it usually take you to do that workout, Ryan?" they asked. I shrugged and said I thought it usually took me about an hour. They furrowed their brows, and one of them said, "We were here for two hours last night..."

It hadn't occurred to me at all that people who had never done a workout like that might really have to struggle through all the sets and repetitions. Having been through that workout dozens of times, for me it was a simple routine. To make matters worse, I was doing this sort of thing every day and running about 80 miles per week. They seemed like a strong group of runners, so I just gave them what I thought would be a good workout. But, for them, it was too much.

Perspective
To this day, I believe that those kids could have done that workout a lot more easily. They were all in fantastic shape, literally just two or three years behind me in terms of physicality. I reiterate that they key difference was, in my opinion, psychological. It was a matter of perspective. Training like an Olympian seems like utter torture to most of us, but do you think Olympians consider it torture? Of course not. To them, it's just "today's workout." It still hurts, it's still difficult, but once you commit to a certain expectation of difficulty, your mind adjusts.

If you find that hard to believe, consider life in the workplace. If you work in a low-stress, easy-going job with minimal deadlines and a steady 40-hour work week, the fact that many other people work as much as 70 or 80 hours per week will seem incomprehensible to you. On the other hand, if you work at one of those 70-hour-per-week positions, you likely find your job challenging and time-consuming, but not particularly so. You've made the adjustment. Work lasts well into the night for you, it just does. You might even think that people who work 8 hour shifts don't work very hard at all.

I am trying to highlight the fact that this difference in perspective cuts both ways. We are used to thinking about the situation from the less-demanding point of view, i.e. either from the perspective of the average sedentary American comparing herself to an Olympian, or from the perspective of a 9-5 day-jobber comparing himself to a Wall Street executive. 

But there are plenty of situations in which we're the "Olympians" or the "executives." This is due to the fact that everyone is particularly talented or committed to something. Those who are less committed may seem weak, or lazy, or unproductive to you. You might find yourself thinking, "Why can't John keep up with his laundry? It's just a matter of throwing in a load before you sit down to watch TV!" In doing so, what you don't see is the fact that John doesn't watch TV because he's too busy going to the gym while thinking to himself, "Why doesn't she spend more time working out? All that time she spends on insignificant things like laundry could easily be applied to her long-term health!"

Conclusion
You never really know what's going on in someone else's mind, what they may have committed themselves to, what they find interesting, how they spend their time. Empathy helps us better-understand the lives and perspectives of others, but once we have embraced certain aspects of life, it is possible to almost completely lose touch with competing perspectives.

True, it is possible to go so far in one direction that you can no longer identify with people who are not similar to you, and this is bad. But there's no reason for it to be all bad. It's possible to leverage our tendency to psychologically adapt in order accomplish great things.

This is what I mean when I use the phrase, "committing to the idea."