Let’s Get It Wrong

What if we never made mistakes in our running?

If we never overtrained. Never found ourselves on a long run, miles from nowhere, struggling in limp-home mode. Never took a wrong turn, never ate the wrong fuels, never consumed too little fluid, never went out too fast?

Wouldn’t that be cool? Well – maybe.

While taking precautions is good, being too careful can deprive us of valuable lessons. We can learn a lot by going out on the edge occasionally.

One of my favorite blogs, Lateral Action, gives advice on creativity for artists, writers, and business people.

In today’s post, “Fear of Getting It Wrong,” Mark McGuinness offers six suggestions that artists  – and runners – can follow to stay fearlessly creative:

1. Write with Your Body. Is there a runner alive who hasn’t come home bursting with creative ideas? Those ideas come when we turn off the nitpicking mind, enjoy the flow of energy, and open ourselves to receive ideas.

2. Stop Worrying. When the micro-managing mind takes over, it’s harder to hear the whispers of the body’s wisdom.

3. Start getting things wrong. We can sometimes get a fresh perspective by going out on a limb. Try blasting through a planned easy run. Add some hard tempo at the end of your 2½-hour long run. Try doing 30-mile run/walks with no fuels at all, just water and electrolytes. I’ve made all of those mistakes, and learned priceless lessons in the process.

4. Stick Two Fingers Up at the Critics. Beginning runners often accept other people’s ideas and opinions uncritically. But no one can tell you how to train. The best coaches know this. Arthur Lydiard and Bill Bowerman preached principles; they rarely gave detailed advice. They knew that, as Lydiard put it, “a runner’s conditions change” and our training needs to be adjusted daily.

5. Get Good Feedback. If you don’t have a coach or mentor, you can get excellent feedback from books, especially those penned by the sport’s wise elders. For my money, that means legends like Lydiard and Bowerman. (For what it’s worth, my current favorite book is Keith Livingstone’s comprehensive Lydiard guide, Healthy Intelligent Training.)

6. Grant Yourself Poetic Licence. McGuinness quotes the poet e.e. cummings:

and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

Give yourself “poetic license” to scrap your plan and do what’s most appropriate on the day. If you do the right thing – slow down, go home early, run harder – you may find that your grateful body rewards you with a surprising amount of joy.

Training isn’t linear. It isn’t a point-to-point race on an endless concrete straightaway. It’s a gnarly, twisting forest trail. It’s good to keep an eye on the ground and react appropriately.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” I find that this simple principle applies equally well in my work as a writer, my training as a runner, and my 40-year meditation practice.

In a recent article, I mentioned Seymour Papert, an MIT professor who co-invented the LOGO programming language for children. Papert believes that one of the most valuable lessons kids can learn from computers is “a debugging approach to life.” Professional programmers make as many as 100 mistakes per 1000 lines of code they write. Mistakes are an accepted part of the process. Papert believes that life is like that – it’s silly to fear that we won’t always get it right the first time; far better to plunge ahead with enthusiasm and make adjustments along the way.

As a writer, I’m comfortable pouring crap into my first drafts. I’m not the least bit discouraged when the initial draft reads like garbage, because I know that buried somewhere in the awful mess is the germ of a good idea, which will shine forth as I remove the heaping mound of stinking ordure in which it’s hidden.

In the early 1970s, when I worked as editor of a bicycling magazine, I would tell new writers not to worry about the quality of their writing, because we didn’t care if they scrawled their articles on a brown paper bag with a crayon. What we were after was their good ideas.

As a meditator, I learned how hard it is to convince the mind to slow down. But I discovered that I could speed the process if I didn’t work with my mind directly, but found that place in my heart where I could experience positive feelings like joy and love.

When we love something, we easily become focused on it. I found that it didn’t matter if my mind wandered, as long as my heart was in the right place. With the heart as my compass, I could quickly correct my course and come back to where I wanted to be.

I recall one meditation vividly. I had done something that I wasn’t entirely proud of, and I told God, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to accept me as I am.” And I was very surprised to hear a brisk motherly voice that said: “I am not concerned with your faults; I am concerned only with your continual improvement.”

When I started running, I discovered that the “debugging approach” was the way to go. It took me many years, and thousands of miles, to begin to understand what good training was, how it felt, and how to do it consistently. I made tons of mistakes, including some real howlers – but I gradually learned, with unmistakable clarity, what was right.

Mistakes are unavoidable. A good way to live with them is to be somewhat childlike – build your sand castles without being too worried about the results. Enjoy the process, then tear down the castle with a hearty laugh and start over, having found a better way.

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