In a garden as in life

IMG_4839I walked in my garden yesterday. I noticed some early spring buds pushing through.

A tree grows a millimetre at a time. A leaf unfolds little by little. A great gardener trims a little here, a little there. All relative to what is in front of him. He deals with reality. Takes an action then steps back and observes the effect before deciding on the next step. To do it any other way would result in a mess.

We however set lofty goals. Goals that stretch us. (remember the slogan “If a goal does not scare you then it is not worth having as a goal” or something like that). Often these goals are just out of reach, just that little bit too far. We tell ourselves that this is cool. Certainly our friends applaud us for this.

We become over committed publically and personally, (sometimes financially even) and hence we resort to shortcuts. Take running races for example. We overtrain because race day is just around the corner. We take pain killers because we are not up to the task.

Is it not better to look at what is and consider the next step, whatever that may be.

Thanks to James Clear for your inspiration here

Today I want to tell you a story.

Back in the  90’s I was actively progressing through the grades in rock climbing. I wanted to consume everything. I wanted to get better. Slowly and steadily I did by choosing partners and ventures carefully that would stretch me.

We climbed everything within our reach and we slowly expanded our horizon. The start of summer was always a period of dreaming and planning. The days were getting longer but the weather was not quite cooperating enough to do serious routes.

I remember dreaming out loud to Gareth that we could climb Ocean’s of Fear by Easter if we put our minds to it and progressed steadily through the grades for the whole summer. Each weekend building on the previous one. We would have to stick to our schedule in order to reach the goal. The learning curve would be steep but hopefully within our gradient. (or so I lead myself to believe at the time.) His response surprised me and stuck. With time I have come to understand.

I don’t remember the exact words but it went something along the lines of “I don’t want to consider each weekend working towards an end goal and not enjoy the weekend in itself” I am paraphrasing as his command of the English language is far better than mine.

Two things strike me as lessons for myself when I think back. My motivation was completely goal focussed. Whereas my partner was content in enjoying the moment for the moment. I am not saying he was lazy. Far from it. We were highly self motivated. It took me almost 20 years of exploring the vertical walls to learn that. The closest I came to truly being present was on a few meters of unclimbed rock in the Yellowwood Amphitheatre in Du Toit’s Kloof. The 200m of wall below me was known so was the short section to the top, bar the next 4m. This was the link. I was stretched physically and knew where I needed to be. The wall was overhanging and I needed all the strength in my arms to execute. I set up and knew the hold on the horizon would lead to salvation.  This was it. I committed. But in doing that move I knew that for that moment I was where I needed to be. I knew that this was here on that wall at that exact moment.

To fill the present moment is something that I work on daily.

The second lesson is to consistently think about where I am on gradient. In the case of Ocean’s it was unrealistic to follow my projected learning curve. I recently read up about David Brailsford’s Marginal Gains philosophy with Team Sky and British Cycling. The underlying thing here is to constantly know where you are so that you can make that 1% change from there. You concentrate on the now. Then the goal will present it self.

Gradient: the secret to learning

We were made to walk up stairs the other day. First one step at a time then back down. Then two steps at a time, back down. All in a long snake we walked, round and round. Some of us managed four, some had to grab onto the hand rail to manage, others gave up… I happen to have long legs so I managed 5 steps at a time, just. (I am not saying this to brag just that in this particular situation I have an advantage.)

Now I am not sure if I hurt my hip…

That there is gradient at its finest.

We all want to grow and improve (for the sake of this argument let’s call taking more steps improvement).

The thinking goes that if we are not improving then we are going backwards. Mainly because the world is growing around us so we need to do something to keep up. (Humor me for a moment here.)

Compared to whom?

We all run races, get marks at school, compare salary packages and compare cars. The problem with races is that ultimately there can only be one winner and by extension everybody else is a loser. OK marketing has sold us that you too can be a winner “in your age group” or that 50% is still a pass. But ultimately we are comparing ourselves to the dude who gets 7 A’s. (Is that even still the benchmark?)


The problem is if we try to improve purely on sporting times and positions we ultimately are forced to accept that unless we win, we lose. So winning becomes everything and inevitably we end up with a sport full of cheats from the top down.  And not many nice people left.

So what does this #winning mean to you?

At the end of last year I did a race series of 6 events. I slowly refined my strategy and technique every week. I mostly lead from the gun (or tried to) and then would get dropped in the last third. This was the fourth race. I was right on target, my target. 500m to go and I was still in the lead. It was working. I was in the zone. I was winning. Then he came past me. My parachute opened and I was done. That Friday afternoon I did the best I could and still got beaten by another athlete. I hope he heard me congratulate him as he disappeared into the distance. I never went back to toe the line. I had been in the zone very briefly but that was enough, in fact I think I had my perfect race and I was super happy with that. I did not hit my target time either but all I had was that feeling and that was enough for me.

Even if I broke the tape I would probably not have a better race so I stopped.

Few understand why I have not been back.

For me it is on to new horizons and hopefully onto new learning.

We forget to compare ourselves only to our former selves and get caught up in trying to outdo our neighbours and not improve. The problem then is that we lose ourselves in other’s agendas.

I am not immune to this and I catch myself trying to keep up with the Jones’ on a daily basis.

The real trick is to work out who I am, where I am and then plot my trajectory from there.

I encourage you to do the same!