May 27, 2014

The mental game

This tax season was harder than the last, and at first glance, it really shouldn't have been. I worked about the same number of hours, had a shorter commute, and I was a bit less clueless about what I was doing. Sure there were a few hiccups this season like one of our staff leaving in the middle of March, and my truck getting sidelined for the last couple of weeks, but overall it should have been a bit more manageable the second time around. In retrospect, there were a few factors that made the difference.

Like any other challenge, a lot of it is mental. I went into the season sort of excited to see how I would have improved after a year behind the desk. I had learned quite a bit from classes I had taken, but much of it was just figuring it out on the fly. Through repeated exposure, things made more sense, and files didn't seem as daunting.

I had made it through the crush of April 15th, then survived the more final deadlines of September and October. This time I would know better of what I was up against, and I figured it would be a bit easier to handle. However, there is a flip side to the benefit of experience. It is less scary because you have been there before, and there are fewer unknowns the second time around, but those same disappearing unknowns can make the challenge more daunting. You know how hard it will be, and fear is sort of replaced with dread.

It is similar to running marathons. That first one is a mass of breaking through barriers into worlds unknown. The strange realization of finding hours to dedicate to training that you didn't seem to have previously. Little by little, sometimes literally step by step, expanding what your body and spirit can do. Discovering strength you didn't know you had, pushing through fatigue, discouragement, or just the temptation to stay in bed this Saturday instead of heading out for three hours of running in the rain. Little victories along the way that culminate in the brilliant joy and relief of crossing the finish line.

The second time is much different.

Having been through it once before, you know how difficult the road is going to be. The long hours, the hard work, and all the things great and small you sacrifice to make it happen. Instead of breaking new ground each time you head out the door, the gains come in small increments, sometimes too minute to notice. You have made it to the finish line once before, but you know that doesn't mean finishing is a given this time. Most of the fear is gone, but so is that nervous energy that heightened every sense. That first time, no one could fault you for reaching beyond your grasp. If you don't finish the second time, it feels more like a failure.

In music, there is that added pressure on your second album. Since you managed to beat all the odds to break through the first time, it shouldn't be that difficult to do it again now that you have made a name for yourself. But once again, what was fresh and new in the first go 'round can be a tougher sell on second pass. The breakthroughs give way to a series of tweaks and adjustments, crucial but less dramatic. So many fail that the phrase "Sophomore Slump" was coined

Now that I have gone done the rabbit hole of metaphor, I suppose I stalled in a similar way after my first book came out (well, only book so far). There was that unknown excitement and fear that propelled me along the first time around. Failure was almost certain, so what was there to lose? Now that I have actually finished something, there is that demand (from me) to do better on the second one. Doubt and second-guessing are somehow ironically stronger after success. Heightened expectations, even if they are just your own, can do you in.

Oh the games we play.

May 13, 2014

The edge of comfort

It is bike to work month, and if you can believe it, the weather is wonderful.

I am trying to bike in as much as I can over the next couple of months, both to give my aching truck a rest (back in the shop on Thursday), as well as to shake off that lingering freshman 15 I packed on in the last three weeks of tax season. Add in bonuses like fresh air and escaping traffic and it is hard to pass up.

Well, of course like every morning, I am much more lazy than when I was making plans the night before. Evening Sean is always more ambitious than morning Sean. Biking to work takes a bit of extra planning as well. I haven't mastered the art of getting a neatly pressed shirt to the office without stashing it there the night before, and I have to resort to a baby wipes shower to freshen up after the ride in. Still, once I get my foot out the door, there are rarely any regrets.

Today the weather was near perfect. There was not enough chill in the air to warrant taking an extra layer of clothing I would regret within a mile, and the forecast was for mid-70s by the afternoon. I am pretty blessed by the route I can take to the office. The Sammamish Trail winds along the Slew for a couple of miles before connecting with the 520 trail that parallels the freeway. At just over 7 miles each way, I spend less than a mile needing to share the road with any cars.

The route is a bit hilly, with a long climb out of the Redmond valley just two miles in. I should take it easy, both to savor the time, and to reduce the need for the pseudo-shower when I get to work. When I am riding with someone else, I can spin easier and chat, but on my own I seem to always push harder. I am certainly not going all out, but definitely pressing.

As I spun past the Scotch Broom blooming at the side of the road, the annual scent tickling my memory and allergies like nothing else can, a phrase I read somewhere recently popped into my head. It was discussing running specifically, but training in general. In order to improve, you have to push past what you could do before, and walk that line between strength and strain. The phrase they used was something like, "getting comfortable with being uncomfortable."

I am not particularly gifted athletically. While I train pretty regularly, a good percentage of folks I ride and run near work much harder at it. They probably eat a little (lot) better and don't choose brewing beer as a hobby. What lets me keep pace, and maybe even crest the hill just in front of them on occasion, is being willing to go into the red more often.

Now, I have definitely gone over the line a few times. After the stair climb in November, it felt like I was breathing glass and my stomach was flipping for a good hour. At the end of the hike back from Delta Lake, my body shook and brain swam as I held on to the truck bumper for stability. These are more the exceptions than the norm, though, and I can generally walk along that edge without falling off a cliff.

As I pedaled up the next hill, my legs continuing to burn, I wondered why I can't seem to do this in other areas of my life. I am not good at venturing outside my comfort zone very often. I do not engage strangers in meaningful conversation. I avoid situations where confrontation lurks. I am not good at selling myself or much of anything else, and you can forget me ever standing up in front of a crowd.

As I crested the last hill, having survived one more time, bending without breaking, I thought I needed to take this lesson to heart. My older brother, having not acted a day in his life, has been in two plays recently - and he's pretty good. My office mate, a confessed shy person, constantly impresses me with the way she can convince, lead and teach.

She sent me an article the other day about marketing strategies for introverts. There were several lessons, but the one that stuck in my mind is that you can see it as playing a part. Your role, should you chose to accept it, is to take on the persona of someone who is confident. Sort of a fake it until you make it, but eventually it becomes a skill and a strength. To get there, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, but eventually that hill in front of you seems like it might be fun to climb.