I thought I’d pick up one of the metaphors I used yesterday as there have been a few ideas that I’ve mulled over during the past few weeks. In my mind they are becoming very closely linked. Realising this has been a difficult journey but I’m now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
For a long time in life I’ve been one of those high achievers. From early on in school I was at or near the top of the class. Though this had its benefits, some less obvious than you might at first think, it was where the seeds of the rat race were sown. From this point on there has been an almost constant “need” to perform driving me. I hasten to add that this need is something which I now recognise had taken over my mind with unhealthy abandon. I felt I was expected to achieve to and by not achieving I was letting people down. To some extent setting your sights on a level of achievement is helpful. Throughout education it helped me get the most out of my studies. But heading into adult life the constant gnawing away began to take up precious energy. And without clear targets I set myself overly ambitious and possibly unrealistic targets. It’s no wonder I got to where I did and it’s with little surprise that I had a huge fall waiting around the corner. You just can’t go on like that.
Which brings me back to yesterday’s post and the link I made to the margins. Those of you familiar with cycling and in particular the coaching philosophy of GB and Team Sky supremo David Brailsford will be familiar with the idea of “the aggregation of marginal gains”. If not, here is what he said about it to the Team Sky website:
“It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in everything you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards. If a mechanic sticks a tyre on, and someone comes along and says it could be done better, it’s not an insult – it’s because we are always striving for improvement, for those 1% gains, in absolutely every single thing we do.”
What has this got to do with me, my problems and my outlook on life? At first glance not a lot as I’m never going to be a professional cyclist or Olympic medalist (I gave up pretensions of being Mario Cipollini in the mountains and Marco Pantani in the sprints). But even so life is for god or bad a challenge and its better to face it in a realistic way. If we take the Brailsford way then we all have room for improvement, we all have something extra to give. Yet in acknowledging this it is equally important to recognise that that extra bit has to be realistic and measured. Let’s look at it this way, in his autobiography, Bradley Wiggins explains how Brailsford and Shane Sutton told the GB pursuit team at the Olympics that there was little point in smashing world records in qualifiers when they had to do enough to qualify yet qualify as the fastest team. This is all about knowing your capacity and realising what the margin is. In my case it has been realising that changing the world isn’t about a stellar academic input, a groundbreaking social enterprise or political recognition, it is about looking around me and realising what I can do. In this respect I suppose I am the mechanic in Brailsford’s interview, but where would Tour champions be without these important yet unsung team members. Whilst I am growing to recognise this importance (and subtle) difference in viewing my contribution, I have to keep reminding myself when things don’t go as well or reach the heights I’d at first anticipated. It gives a new perspective on doing enough rather than giving you’re all – it’s not laziness rather it is knowing what to give to which tasks so there is enough energy to go around in life.
All of which brings me to the bigger picture. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t embark on my original career choice thinking I could change the world. Each opportunity to climb the pole was a chance to make a bigger name for myself in the belief I could make a difference. The fact this didn’t materialise in the way I had envisaged was a major contributory factor for my breakdown. Therefore I feel quite uneasy at the moment. Without getting overtly political, there are a lot of issues that get me angry, make me (much to MrsAB’s chagrin) shout at the radio and initially feel I should do something about. But at the same time I’ve recognised the fact that there are things you can change and things you can’t. Much as I admire those who are taking the fight to the rulers of the accepted norms, I’m increasingly recognising this is high on energy but low on outcome. And again this is where the aggregation of marginal gains comes in. Politically yes I could try and take a stand though how often does that work. Alternatively I could do one thing to make a difference, for example ride my bike to the station rather than getting a lift, refusing to buy the products of certain companies instead of blockading their shops. I’m not saying people should or shouldn’t do the alternative but for me it is where to place the energy. Equally for the architects and proponents of some of the alternatives, there is to often a pre-occupation with purity and singularity of form of their chosen alternative rather than how best to make it work. They seem to want to take over the world in the way the existing order did previously: two wrongs and all that. But here it is at the margins where change can take place. You will never please all of the people all of the time, but there are those wavering at the edges who can be convinced of your approach who might be able to convince some of the others further along the line. Sounds like you need a bit less energy doesn’t it? And whilst it might not change things over night, its a step in the right direction. We know where great leaps forward left people in the past.
So these have been my preoccupying thoughts for the last few weeks. Some might see it as giving in, others might view it as idleness, laziness or apathy. But hopefully some of you will see, as I have, the importance of knowing when and what to give and how to avoid the next burn out. At the end of the day, it all adds up and you might even achieve more than you first thought.