When I was in high school, I played Squash.  It’s not just a vegetable, but a kind of racket sport most people say “like racquetball, right?” which annoys the crap out of anyone who has seriously played the game.  And I was nationally ranked in my age group in high school, so I think that qualifies.  This gave me a chance to learn a lot about competition, and the fact that at my core, I can be very competitive.  And persistent and stubborn, for that matter.

As we get older, the areas to channel this energy get to be fewer and fewer.  There’s no more after school sports.  People play less games in general.  Competition with others at work needs to be carefully harnessed and channeled.  Even the sports most adults play are largely competitions against yourself, not other people.   If you run, or swim, or even do martial arts, the majority of the competition is focused not on winning, but on mastery, or beating your own time, or whatever- it’s just not the same as it was.

This driving of competition from the external measures to more internal measures of success can be tricky.  After all, other than in an occasional blog comment, it’s rare that someone says “Great Job of writing” or “Loved the way you went to the gym without whining” or “Wow, you got all those errands done today?  Amazing.”   We get less external validation of whether the job we’re doing is good or bad, and I think it makes it a whole lot easier for us to lose our way with ourselves.

Chip and Dan Heath talk about the Curse of Knowledge in Made to Stick, and Marcus Buckingham talks about the same thing in Now, Discover Your Strengths.  When things are easy for us, we tend to take this for granted, and we assume these things are easy for everybody.  Sometimes, this means we don’t always make what we’re saying clear to other people, assuming they understand us when they might not, because we don’t all share the identical set of experience or background knowledge.  After all, we don’t always share the same employer like we used to share the same set of teachers in highschool or college- each day is a much more solitary versus group experience.  We develop different talents and insights, but we still assume everyone has the same experience or expertise of perspective that we do, when they just don’t.  As a result, we take for granted the talents we have, and think they’re not as vitally important and worth while to others as they most certainly are- not everyone is starting from the same place anymore.

This sense of taking your talents for granted has often led me to chasing the things in my life that are difficult for me, in order to create that sense of competition and stretching myself.  Sometimes it takes the form of taking on too much at once, as if juggling three, then four and then five projects, adding each one like an additional ball to a street juggler, somehow will prove I’m amazing, rather than simply crazy and overestimating my ability.  Hint: stretching your nerves and stretching your talents and skills are not always the same thing. Someone could’ve let me know this earlier.  Just Sayin’.

As I’ve taken on the task of getting in shape, I’m finding that there’s a difference between physical and mental challenge.  But the two are also permanently intertwined.  For example, in order to get through my first half marathon, there were times where sitting down for a few seemed like a rational thing to do, but I knew if I stopped moving, it would be over.  The drive to finish something I started was stronger than the pain and discomfort.  And I learned that there’s a mental toughness that’s integrated with physical toughness- there is a mental part to these events that gives you the courage to stretch and do more than you ever thought you could.

The second half marathon I did made me realize that even if I thought my training was inadequate, I would never know for sure unless I did the race and tested myself.  The push to do something, even if I could have easily decided not to, with no real world repercussions was that internalized competition.  It’s the sense of needing to know if I could do it, if I could push, if I could manage, and then set a bar which I could surpass in the future.  It was much more about living up to my personal expectations and testing them, rather than meeting external expectations.  And frankly, when I disappoint myself, its often much more significant in the long run than if I disappoint someone else.  (As my husband often reminds me, even though I am self-employed, I have a real B*tch for a boss- she neverlets meget away with anything.)

After you get out of school, there are very few areas in your life where people hand out medals and trophies for a job well done.  We’re supposed to internalize that sense of accomplishment, and be satisfied with a job well done.  That’s hard, because the markers of a job well done are more slippery than a clear first or second place in a competition.  You can always second guess your choices, what you could have done better, even when everyone seems to be pleased as punch with your performance- our internal critics sometimes are the meanest people around.

My inner critic is pretty harsh, so when I see T-shirts like “I have a skinny woman inside me, but I can usually shut up that bitch with cookies”, I always laugh.  It hits close to home.  I know I have the keys to that door, but do I want to let that other person out?  What would happen if she gets free?  Do I like her?  I don’t always know the answer to that question.  And since I am big on answers, I know I have to answer this question before I can move forward.  I think I’ll like her just fine, actually.  She’s probably not the monster I make her out to be, and maybe she deserves a chance to have her voice heard as well.

A medal at the end of a half marathon feels great.  It feels earned.  Regardless of the place I come in, I feel like I accomplished something- something that challenged my perceptions of myself, and I faced them and beat them back.  Now if I can just challenge my inner demon and critic to a really good arm wrestling match, maybe we can settle this thing once and for all and become friends.  It would be excellent to hear those words, “job well done” and not doubt it, or think I can do better, always better.    It’s feeling that sense of accomplishment inside, and owning the internal as well as the external awards that I have to work on.   I’m getting there, but it’s definitely a work in progress.