Friday, June 13, 2014

The intimate embrace of failure

There's a commercial for Nike, featuring Michael Jordan, called 'Failure' in which he talks about how many shots he's missed, how many games he lost, how many times he's been trusted to make the game winning shot and missed. It's contradictory and thought provoking. Why would this guy, of all people, be talking about failure? Michael Jordan? Failure? Really?

The point is that he was not afraid to try things that he might fail at. By striving to do things that were hard and often beyond his ability; by trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and failing then maybe, one day, things would change. He embraced failure as a necessary part of the process and as the great man says 'that is why I succeed'.

This expresses the most valuable lesson I've learned so far since starting training at Paradiso Crossfit (PCF) and it's a lesson that translates to every other part of my life. It's simply this: if you can find a way to consistently and safely work at the things that you are bad at, you will inevitably improve. PCF provides an incredibly powerful environment for this simple lesson to thrive in, since the coaches and staff there continuously invite you to participate in the crazy adventure of your own physicality: your strength, speed, stamina, agility, balance, coordination, etc. Every piece of it comes up somewhere in class and each and every point of weakness and failure provides a possibility to grow.

For me, this year, the month of March was a dramatic crazy time. I'm a  biomedical data scientist and my attempts to apply for funding were all being rejected. I genuinely did not know if I was going to have a job in six months time and the consistent failure was eating into my self confidence.

This was also the time of year when the Crossfit community competes in a world-wide fitness tournament: the Crossfit Open. Anyone can enter. The organizers post one workout per week for five weeks. Everyone does the workout and must either film themselves doing it or have an affiliated judge score their effort, submitting their scores to the global website to be tallied up and compared. At PCF, one of the members is a really talented film editor called Charlie Mason who shot and spliced together awesome music videos of our community putting ourselves through this process (available at Vimeo here: 14.1, 14.2, 14.3, 14.4 and 14.5). They're beautiful. Check them out.

Now here's the deal. I'm a beginner at this stuff, but because the coaches suggested that I 'have a go', I signed up and completed each open event. I even appear at various moments in Charlie's videos. I'm the old guy at the back, who looks like he's about to die. I was ranked 68,782 in the worldwide competition and I can't say that I did particularly well in any of the events. The first (14.1) was particularly frustrating since it involved so-called 'double unders' (which is like using a jump rope, but passing the rope twice under your feet for each repetition, see here for a demo video). I couldn't do this at all. It sucked. My score was really, really low and I just hated the experience of trying and missing, trying and missing, trying and missing. Argh.

So, I resolved to fix it. Every time I went to the gym for the next month, I'd have to pay an 'exit toll' of 30 double unders to leave. I told the coaches about my plan and they held me to it, checking in and supporting me, asking me how it was going and providing great advice about technique and form. After about a month, I got the knack for it and managed to string together 30 in a row. This was enough and I decided to try working on other things after class.

Fast forward to the class we just finished tonight: I did seventy four double-unders in sixty seconds. The feeling of doing this now feels natural, comfortable, fun even. There's a sort of swirling comfort when you hit the rhythm of the rope whizzing around you and you dance in its whipping movement. This small success was a product of my earlier failure, of my coaches' request for me to give it a try, of my willingness to do something that was going to be difficult and to see how it went, and of course, the translation of all of this into regular practice to actually address the issue. To some extent, this happens in every class; in every effort expended honestly trying and failing to do something. The openings for success arise only in having an intimate, up-close-and-personal view of our failures. We need to embrace them.

Double-unders and jump ropes aside, the important ramifications of this have echoed within my career. I think that my attitude and approach at work have changed to match a Crossfit-like approach to working on my weaknesses and reassessing how much I permit other people to determine my destiny. In May, we managed to secure some funding for work that I would not have attempted to put forward had I not been afraid to fail. I can't credit PCF for every aspect of this small success, but I would say that there was an underlying moment in its inception when I said to myself 'I got this, I'll take this on' that was pure Crossfit and a direct product of my training, my coaches, my community and my gym.

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