Stories we tell ourselves

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looking into mirrorI’ve never been a great athlete, but have always been athletic. Or at least that’s the way that I think of it.

Growing up in the 800-person farm town of Shannon, Illinois, I spent many summer afternoons playing pickup games of baseball with other boys in the town. We’d gather around one o’clock, pick teams, and play until late in the afternoon – until Phil and Ed Byers’ mother rang the dinner bell, and then we all went home. Final score? Oh, usually something like 42 to 37.

In sixth grade basketball I started out at the end of the bench. Apparently I impressed the coach more with what I did in games than in practice, so as the season went on he kept putting me in earlier and earlier, and by the end of the season I was the sixth man – the first sub in. Had the season been a few games longer, I might have actually made it to being a starter. But no worries: I had lots of playing minutes. But on the playground I was often one of the last chosen for a team.

By high school I had moved to Rockford, Illinois, an industrial city of about 150,000. We lived on the edge of the city, literally just a few blocks from corn fields, and I often cycled on hard-packed dirt country roads with my friend Bill Brown (pre-sunscreen, we got  what we called “biker’s tans” – burning or tanning on the tops of the thighs, backs of the calves, and on the back of the neck and shoulders).

Sometimes I would ride by myself. One time a car pulled up behind me and stopped. My gym teacher got out of the car and called out, “Gudema, is that you?”

I stopped. “Yes.”

“What are you doing?”

“Bike riding. I do it a lot.”

He paused, then said, “Huh, maybe I’m going to have to re-evaluate my thinking about you”, got back in the car and drove off. I guess he hadn’t considered that maybe I liked sports, I just didn’t like the way he ran gym class. (As Woody Allen said, “…and those who can’t teach, teach gym.”)

And even after I moved to Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood I played in weekly pickup co-ed softball games in the summer and basketball games in the winter. I actually became pretty good at placing my hits and hitting to the opposite field, which helped me get on base a fair amount.

I was never been even above average at any of these sports. (Well, maybe sixth grade basketball, but it was a small sample.) I just enjoyed doing them, and the comradery that came from playing and hanging out afterwards. I can probably remember just about every good play I ever made.

Ironically, by staying active, today I am above average for my age. When I ran the Newport 5k Pell Bridge Run I finished around the 35th percentile overall, even ahead of many people considerably younger than me. I’ve ridden several “centuries” (100 mile rides) on my bike. And my 15 miles per hour average speed isn’t going to set any records, but the ability to ride many miles at that pace definitely puts me above the average American.

That may have been a bit long-winded, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Now, I could dwell on all of my athletic failings. And if I did, I might convince myself not to participate, and then I’d miss out on all the enjoyment I have riding with a couple neighbors on Saturday mornings, a group of guys on Sunday mornings, my wife on vacations and occasional weekends, taking hikes, going on cross-country skiing weekends, etc. I prefer to think about the enjoyment I’ve gotten from being active, rather than how many people are better at it than I am.

Most of us have had many failures — projects that failed, deals we lost, relationships that didn’t work out – but far, far more successes. We don’t have the right to create our own reality; people who do that are called con men or delusional. But we do have the opportunity to pick and choose what we want to emphasize, and what lessons we learn.

In tech, and sales and marketing, people are told to “fail fast”. Failing to fail means you’re not pushing the edge. We have to learn from those failures and ultimately succeed, but to expect to never fail is naïve.

Michael Jordan has a commercial for Nike in which he says, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Now, Jordan could instead say, “I’ve missed the game-winning shot over two dozen times. Next time, give the ball to someone else! I can’t be trusted to make it.” He could dwell on the negative. But that wouldn’t be like Mike. As a freshman at the University of North Carolina, on a team with plenty of upperclassmen stars, he took and made the game-winning shot in the NCAA national championship game (at 1:35).

My mother lost almost her entire world in the Holocaust. Both of her parents and two of her three sisters died in the camps. The town and home she grew up in were physically destroyed. And while The Netherlands is generally considered liberal, the percentage of its Jews who were interred and killed was one of the highest in Europe because of the collusion of the Dutch police and government officials with the Nazis.

Martha Gudema smilingShe and millions like her could have come away from that bitter, broken people. But instead she put that out of her mind as much as possible; I was in my twenties before I heard her and her surviving sister talk about their wartime experiences. She started her own family, had four children, 8 grandchildren, many friends, and was known for her good spirits, laugh and optimism.  She lived to 97; today would have been her 101st birthday.

Compared to what she went through, what do I have to complain about?

There are lots of quotes and saying about this kind of optimism.

“I am an optimist because I don’t see the point of being anything else.” – Abraham Lincoln

‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ – Thomas Edison about the search for the filament for the light bulb

“Whether you think you can, or whether you think that you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford

They’re all true.

In cycling you learn that when you encounter a problem in the road like glass, loose sand, or a pothole, you need to focus on the path through it rather than looking at the obstruction; the bike goes where you’re looking. I think of this as focusing on the solution rather than the problem. That’s what I prefer to do.

And those are the stories that I choose to tell myself.

 

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