How do you know what you are capable of? I’m wondering about specific skills – like running or lifting weights, or other specific tactical skills. If you are trying something brand new for the first time – how do you know your starting point? Take for example, running. If someone asked you “How far can you run in 10 minutes without stopping?” — How would you know how to guesstimate your answer? Would you guess how far you used to run 10 years ago? Would you ask how far your coworker or neighbor ran in 10 minutes and base your answer off of that? Would you ask how far the fastest person ran? Or perhaps you’d ask about the slowest person. This is what psychologists and economists call anchoring. Your starting reference point is the anchor that you start with, that you compare things against. Economists LOVE to conduct experiments where they manipulate your anchors in order to change your behavior.
What I’m really curious about is this — what is your default frame of reference when something is new to you? On what anchor do you base your estimate of your own capabilities? Are you aggressive or conservative? Ambitious or cautious? Do you start out with high expectations or low expectations for yourself?
If you understand these things about yourself, you will better be able to understand how to motivate yourself to take action. By knowing this, you can better structure your life and tasks in order to accomplish your goals. If you know you are competitive, you can set up situations to compete. If you are easily intimated, you can allow yourself to practice in private. If you need to build confidence, you can schedule lessons with a trainer to learn a new skill. If you have very little fear, you can go sign up for a 10k race and just run it. No matter your personality type and your approach, knowing your personality type will help you manage your own strengths and limitations in a constructive way. In other words, you can use yourself to help yourself. But first you have to know yourself.
I have to confess that I am a competitive person. I really really don’t like this about myself and I wish this quality of myself was different. But this competition thing keeps showing up, in several different areas of my life. My starting anchor tends to be “Whatever the other person accomplished.” Whatever she did, I can do better. Or longer. Or faster. Even when I started learning to golf for the first time last year, I immediately wanted to golf as well as my family and friends. My anchor was how well other people golfed. Whatever their score was, I thought that should be my score. Golf doesn’t work that way however, much to my continuous frustration.
This morning, I was traveling for work and visited a CrossFit gym in Houston. This was a brand new gym I was unfamiliar with, and I got lost on the Houston freeways two times trying to find it. But I found it, and after I arrived I saw there were 20 people who showed up for the 6:00 AM class. Yes, I was intimidated, since everyone else knew each other and I was used to much smaller classes. No matter though – the class immediately began and soon we were all throwing heavy weighted balls high against the wall. After 50 throws of the weighted ball, we ran around the block and then stretched and then did the main workout: 4 rounds of the rowing machine (500 meters) + 10 pushups, as fast as possible. After 15 minutes I was hot and sweaty and tired and ready to fall over. I thought the class was over, but no such luck. After a three minute rest, then came the informal competition: handstands against the wall. There were 10 people in my group, and once we were all doing handstands against the wall, the clock started. The challenge was to hold your handstand longer than everyone else.
Now if you had asked me before class how long I could do a handstand, I would have had NO IDEA. I really had no possible frame of reference, I had no anchor. I had never tried to do an endurance handstand before. As soon as we started, I kicked my feet up to the wall and waited. Almost immediately, a couple people had fallen over. Within 20 seconds, another couple people were down. Then another few people were down. By the one minute mark, there were only 2 of us left. Me and another woman in a green shirt. She was about 10 yards away from me, but I could turn my head sideways to see her. And if you had asked me at that point, how long I could hold a handstand, here’s how I would have answered: “I have no idea how long I can do a handstand, but I guarantee you it’s at least 3 seconds longer than she can do.” With only one other woman left, there was NO WAY I was going to fall over first. I was just that stubborn. Even though my arms and shoulders were in major pain and I could no longer feel my hands, I was not going to give in, I was not going to get beat. After another ten seconds, I was in agony. I wanted to come down, but I refused. I saw all the guys standing around watching us, and there were only the two of us left. I wondered if it was possible for my arms to simply collapse on their own.
Finally, the woman in green fell over. Immediately, the trainer came over to me, to encourage me to keep going. But I was done. Within about five seconds of the other woman quitting I came down. I had no more reason to stay up and I was in pain, so I came down. My stubbornness only lasted as long as there was someone else to beat. As soon as I was the only one left, I had no reason to keep on enduring the pain. As soon as I outlasted the competition, I could quit.
Now I know with 100% certainty – I need other people to motivate me. I need other people to challenge me. I need to train with people who are faster and stronger than me. I will push myself more when surrounded by others, than I will when I’m alone. I may not like this fact about myself, but this is the truth. And by knowing the truth about myself, I can use this truth to organize my training in order to get stronger.
No more working out alone in my garage gym. No more solitary runs or bike rides. If I really want to get fitter, I need to train with people who are faster than me. I might not be able to hang with them all the time, and I might be the one who falls over first, but by training with stronger people, I can put my stubborn nature to good use. Even the things I don’t like about myself can be used for positive benefit.