Start Gates

Ski racing is a sport that is done individually. Competitors make their way through a course one at a time. They stand in a start gate prior to being released onto the race track. Each athlete will have a few moments of solitude before their run. Depending on the athlete it can be either an incredibly lonely or illuminating place to be. They are on the cusp of competing by themselves. Athletes are exposed and vulnerable. The coach’s work now stops. The athlete alone will apply their efforts to the environment. In these moments before their race begins, ski racers realize the reality of where they are. Ski racers must learn to embrace the phrase “if it is to be, it is up to me.” No one will carry them through the course to the finish line. They are 100% responsible for themselves from here on in. Standing alone in a start gate an athlete may feel the anxiety amp as they get closer to their solo shot.

The energy of a start area is palpable. The feeling for participants is similar to that of any of us when having to undertake a personal performance of some kind. Whether it be acting, giving a speech, or a different sport, when we’re about to do something where we will be performing alone, we naturally become nervous. Some learn to love this feeling. Some accept it as the price to pay to make progress. It is human to feel the anxiety and nervousness. Feelings of fear physiologically are the same as feelings of excitement.

Better performers are able to frame these feelings within the context of being right where they want to be. They interpret the butterflies in the stomach, the dry mouth, and sweaty palms as excitement over trepidation. Some people seem to naturally gravitate to these areas. They relish the feeling of putting themselves in this vulnerable position. Those that do come to terms with these feelings continue to seek out this type of environment. They are continually exploring the sport and other activities like it. Others aren’t so comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Those, over time, naturally self-select out of these environments and find their place somewhere else. It seems those that are willing to accept and even embrace these contexts have optimism. Optimism in both their ability to act as well as in what the future holds. Those that don’t have doubts. Doubts about themselves and the future.

In the past when coaching kids in ski racing, the start area was always a fun place to be. Helping kids understand and positively interpret their physical reactions in order to help their performances was rewarding. Besides helping them see the similarities between fear and excitement, it was useful to introduce them to the idea that as they get older they will have less and less of these kinds of experiences. When we’re young, everything is new. Everything has the opportunity to spur feelings of nervousness and excitement. As we age, we tend to get comfortable. We have our routines and tendencies and stay away or are exposed less to new experiences. Perhaps we’ll find that we look back fondly on some of these excitement inducing experiences and wish to find those feelings again?

On a separate Zoom meeting a little while back, I was chatting with a client before the balance of attendees arrived. We talked through our obligatory COVID conversation and she mentioned the general malaise and mental fatigue being seen amongst herself and colleagues. She observed that one of the continuing costs of lockdowns is that we all have less to look forward to. We can’t go to plays, musicals, concerts, sports events. We can’t take holidays, have a party, or find ways to connect as in the past. The limitations to things that we used to always have to excite, engage, and motivate us loom large. I hadn’t thought too much about this, but there’s some truth to it. If we’re focused on the things we can’t have or access, we’re bound to be moribund.

That single comment sprinkled in amongst the small talk before our meeting stuck with me. French author/philosopher Albert Camus wrote a story called “The Plague.” This Financial Post article quotes Camus’ work where Camus writes, “Rieux and his friends now discovered how tired they were….Dr Rieux noticed it when he observed the steady growth of a strange indifference in himself and in his friends.” Camus seems to be capturing the exact experience my client offered in that we’re tired. We’re tired of negative news. We’re tired of feeling bad. We’re tired of thinking about what we can’t do, who we can’t see, what we’re missing out on. Some mavens of misery have even concocted an index to measure this. Turns out Canada isn’t faring so well. There’s a lingering, deepening, mental fatigue that seems to be seeping in. Carmichael’s article suggests that 20% of Canadians have been diagnosed with depression in 2020. This represents both the highest level ever recorded and a depressingly high level to consider. One in five people are depressed, clinically. Ouch. Who knows how many more feel out of sorts on a lower level?

Reflecting on my client’s comment, it was like I was having a Shawshank Redemption flashback. In the line of the movie, Tim Robbins’ character offers, “You can get busy living or get busy dying.” In a online article titled “Land of the Free”,  the author writes, “Once upon a time, we used to fear our enemies. Then we feared our government. Now we’re afraid of ourselves. What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

Well, maybe it was time to choose a bit more living? Days later, I saw a LinkedIn post from someone I know hosting an outdoor course. It’s something I had in the back burner of my mind off and on for years. It was something I wanted to do but just came up with excuses for why it wasn’t a priority. Truthfully, it was because it scared me. I contacted the poster and signed up for the session. One of my sons and I signed up to learn how to paraglide.

You may recall the original Toy Story where Andy receives to his delight a new toy, Buzz Lightyear. As Buzz is introduced to the rest of the toys, Buzz struts his stuff to the awe and amazement of all the other toys but for one. As Buzz buzzes around Andy’s room other toys react in incredulity. “He’s flying” they say. The former top dog toy, Woody, grumpily retorts, “That’s not flying, it’s falling with style.” Well, falling with style is what I hoped to achieve with paragliding. The course took place over a couple of weekends. It offered a balance of indoor sessions and outdoor introduction. From clumsily floundering with gear on the ground we were quickly elevated to our first flights. The early “flights” were mini “launches” from a 40 metre high practice hill. After a couple of weekends we graduated as beginner “pilots” able to navigate our way on the beginner slope independently.

Signing up was invigorating. Anticipating the experience combined both excitement and fear. Both my son and I now had something to look forward to sharing together. Participating in paragliding even as a complete beginner was more than a small step outside my comfort zone. Taking this leap is a big jump outside the Groundhog Day like grind we’ve been working through over the past year.

If the weight of the routine of the past year is wearing on you, it’s time to find something that will offer a bit of excitement. This is as true for us in business as it is for us personally. We’re more likely to have given up new projects than we are to have started things in 2020. We’re more likely to have stepped back from investments and sought to preserve things as they are. The fear we have been fed has led to us doing less to lean into improving ourselves and our businesses, not more.

Find something to which to look forward. Whether it be fun or a little scary. Whether it be now, six months from now, or later in the future. What are you excited about? Turning on the news won’t help you find this. The news seems designed to keep us paralyzed with fear. We’re all acting like we’re scared. We’re more likely to be retrenching, holed up at home than we are to be testing ourselves or stretching into new situations. We’re hoarding resources. We’re not investing our energies in something new. With lockdowns leaving us largely at home, many opportunities for spending our discretionary resources have disappeared. A CIBC report released in fall of 2020 noted that Canadians were sitting on top of $90 billion in cash. This represented by far the most savings Canadians have ever had. Businesses, too, were sitting on large cash reserves. The report noted that the savings rate in 2020 went up almost nine times from 3.6% to over 28%. Sitting on piles of cash may sound like a nice problem, but there are consequences to hoarding resources based on fear. We, our businesses, and infrastructure don’t just stagnate but deteriorate without ongoing investments. Our productivity stalls. Our economy fails to grow. Opportunities disappear. Our ability to innovate evaporates. We become less. There are consequences to collapsing. Some economists suggest these “savings” indicate a consumer just waiting to be set free to spend. Others consider these savings being done out of fear. Because of economic uncertainty, because of job prospects dwindling, because of fear, we must stockpile anything into savings. These resources aren’t necessarily waiting to be set free. One’s optimism about their place in the world must be reinforced before one gets excited about spending their limited resources.

Embracing an adventure is an expression of optimism. Optimism in ourselves and the future. This is a fundamental driver of the decision to engage. One of the perils of the pandemic is that the only thing that’s clear is fear. We’re thinking small and hiding behind our toilet paper walls. We’ve got to step out and stand tall by doing something that demonstrates that life’s a ball. John Mark Comer writes in The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, “what you give your attention to is the person you become.” If we allow ourselves to be consumed by the negative noise of news or stuck in social media we become manipulated or miserable. We need to work towards directing our attention to something aspirational.

Maybe you aren’t interested in fear driven excitement experiences. Fair enough. Nonetheless, you may be keen on finding something towards which to look forward? If so, consider the exercise of planning a trip. Granted the headaches associated with any out of country travel should it even be permitted are onerous. You’re faced with obstacles on the way out of Canada and increasing numbers of obligations to meet on the way back as well. Taking the trip may be out of the question, but there’s nothing stopping you from thinking and planning your dream holiday. An often quoted research study undertaken in the Netherlands offers support for the benefits of planning holidays. The number of articles citing it in general media is quite large suggesting we’re all interested in thinking about holidays. The study found that the act of planning a vacation provided boosts to people’s mood levels. Their happiness lifted during planning and anticipating a vacation. The effects lasted about eight weeks. What made this study so interesting is that the mood lift experienced by those planning and anticipating lasts longer than the mood lift experienced by those actually taking their holidays.

Whatever the approach, the suggestion is to orchestrate some kind of optimism for ourselves. Stem the stifling effect of stress. We’re less fun to be around when we’re worried. Our negative energy is contagious. Stop the spread of dread and find something fun to focus upon. Allocate your attention to something uplifting. Make use of the time. You will be more pleasant to be around. You’ll find yourself coming up with more creative ideas to apply to other aspects of your life. Your approach to business will improve. You may find yourself coming up with new ways to look at business “challenges”. All of a sudden the challenges may start to look like opportunities.

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” —Winston Churchill

Your approach may even transfer to others. It’s a great question to be asking colleagues when you get together. Consider abandoning the small talk related to how we’re managing through our strange world. Instead, ask about what others are looking forward to. If they have something, encourage them and draw inspiration from their suggestions. If they don’t offer some ideas of your own. Let them know what you’re thinking about that is getting you excited about looking forward to something. In what aspect of your business can you consider investing in order to reinforce optimism for its future? In what area of your own life will you invest to evidence optimism for your own future? Find something towards which to look forward that will tickle you with positive tension for a change.