Thursday of last week, I posted this update:
#TBT to 7 weeks ago: I couldn’t walk. Today I did intervals. On my bike. Outside. For reals.
Sounds remarkable, doesn’t it? Well, I’ll let you in on a secret: it is not remarkable, not in the least. I did a million tiny, tedious, unremarkable things to progress to this point.
The concept of “marginal gains,” popularized by Dave Brailsford, posits that if you improve various aspects of your training and performance by 1%, the aggregate will result in significant gains toward your goal. The marginal gains theory makes sense, but there is one big caveat: in practice, 1% gains are very, very boring.
A 1% gain rarely constitutes a breakthrough or gush of motivation, and more often than not, a 1% gain requires great effort and focus on something extremely tedious. There are no bragging rights for going to bed early every night or for daily hip stabilization exercises with a wimpy elastic band. Nonetheless, small gains are real gains and often necessary to advance toward a goal.
Here are some examples of the terribly unremarkable, boring little things I’ve done to inch my way back to the bike:
– Bed rest; move as little as possible.
– Crutch from couch to wheelchair and back.
– X-rays show no fracture displacement from traveling home.
– Incrementally more crutch relative to wheelchair.
– Officially begin PT: stand with crutches, partially shift weight left-right; standing heel raises.
– Pool therapy: walk forward/backward; move each leg forward/back/left/right.
– Graduate from wheelchair to full-time crutches.
– Mini knee extensions (just enough to engage quads); lying hip abduction with wimpy elastic band resistance; glute bridges; low-resistance “pedaling” on the recumbent bicycle.
– Ditch one crutch; start walking very short distances sans crutches.
– X-rays show good bone callus formation.
– Light weight hamstring curls and leg press; add weight to leg extensions; 4-way contra-kicks with wimpy elastic band; more pedaling on the recumbent.
– Test some easy pedaling on my real bike on the stationary trainer. No pain – success!
– Officially crutchless.
– X-rays look good enough to try riding outdoors.
– Leg press; leg curl; leg extensions; single-leg dead lifts (no weight); 4-way contra-kicks; sideways step-ups; planks; bodyweight lunges.
As you can see, it wasn’t much of a stretch to try some efforts on the bike in week 7.
Most of us set goals not because we want to do a lot of boring things, but because those goals speak to the heart and offer an inviting path. Yet even the most exciting goals will at times demand tedium.
I love bikes. I love the exploring, the challenges, the races, the intensity. To accomplish my goals, however, I must also do boring things: for example, riding back and forth on the same stretch of road to repeat interval efforts, or worse, repeating those efforts while staring at a wall from the stationary trainer. It is important to set goals that truly capture your spirit, because no matter what, you will eventually need to do some very boring things to realize those goals.
If you really want to achieve excellence, learn to find beauty in tedium.
Invitations for aesthetic experience are everywhere, even among the most boring of boring tasks. One of my favorite authors and thinkers, Abraham Maslow, nails this concept as the ability to “transform means-activity into end-experience so that even instrumental activity is enjoyed as if it were end activity.” More recently, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi refined this idea and called it the “flow” state. Athletes call it “being in the zone.”
Let’s take one of my PT exercises as an example: steps-ups. I stand with a stair to my side, step up sideways onto the stair with one foot, then step down. It is neither complicated nor challenging. There is nothing inherently engaging about step-ups. But I can make it engaging, by consciously following the motor pathways at work: activate core, then gluteus and quadriceps, stabilize knee, combine into one fluid motion, repeat. Suddenly this boring, repetitive task captivates my full attention: to perform it well and with grace becomes an engaging challenge.
Training yourself to fully engage in necessary but otherwise boring tasks is one of the great secrets to the mastery of any discipline, or the accomplishment of any goal. The good news is that your ability to access a state of flow is a skill you can train and improve. The training is known simply as Mindfulness. Be present with your task. Can you improve? Can you do so with grace?
It is not realistic to be “present” and “mindful” all of the time. But what is realistic is to consciously choose your approach to accomplishing boring tasks in service of your goals. You can let your disinterest get the best of you, roll your eyes and slog through the motions to get the task done. Or, you can choose to engage, to be better, to perform even trivial tasks with grace.
Extraordinary gains and performances are, by definition, out of the ordinary. Paradoxically, we trivialize the very ordinary steps that lead to and enable the extraordinary. Extraordinary and ordinary: the one depends upon the other. What from the outside can appear extraordinary (e.g. riding a bike again seven weeks after breaking one’s pelvis), might in reality be simply one more step forward in a long series of very ordinary steps.
In a way, extraordinary breakthroughs can be seen as ordinary: the inevitable, logical progression of preceeding small gains — that next 1%. Likewise, seemingly trivial gains can be seen as extraordinary: each a unique opportunity to connect with and realize a better version of yourself. Seen in this light, every little boring step becomes a possibility for elevation, for enjoyment, and even for celebration.
You can choose to see challenge and beauty where before you had seen none.
You can learn to see beauty in tedium.