This post, like me, will start out strong but struggle through the middle, gasping its way to the finish

Published by Peter on

They say the older you get, the wiser you become. This is only true under certain conditions, though. Not everyone becomes wiser with age, only those who make an effort to learn from the past.

And in order to learn from your past, you

  • have to keep track of your successes and failures
  • must look back occasionally at those successes and failures
  • are able to view those successes and failures from a position of detachment

I just made that all up, of course. Because I am old. Therefore I am wise. And if I am older than you, then I am wiser than you. Deal with it. You don’t make the rules. (I do. It’s my blog.)

But the reason I made that up is because I have just observed it, in my own history.

It’s so easy to start out strong with big ideas

Creating weekly content is hard. I have TONS of ideas, but when it comes time to produce, it turns out I hate all of them. They seem so much more fun and insightful in the ideation stage than in the creation stage.

I love ideas. The beginning of a new adventure is aglow with positivity, sparkly with glitter, alive with cheering and back-slapping, and steeped in the heady ozone and sulfur of just-exploded fireworks.

I start out strong, with big goals. I can see the mountaintop from the starting line. I’m like Caractacus Potts envisioning the gleaming, magical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the dirty old junker. I get seduced by possibility, like so many of us do when starting a new project.

“You can make it go, can’t you daddy?”
“Well, we’re gonna give it a try.”

You can hear his certainty even as he works to temper the children’s expectations.

Getting to the finish line is another thing, though

I came across this photograph today. It was 1986. I was a freshman in college. My roommate Chris and I were running the Bay to Breakers, an iconic 12K race through the streets of San Francisco. It starts on the Bay side and ends in Golden Gate Park, along the Pacific Ocean.

Peter at the finish of the Bay to Breakers, in sweats and a high school track team tank top.
That’s me, crossing the finish line, in my high school track shirt.

Here’s what I remember about that race: I start out strong. I am cruising, keeping pace with far more experienced runners. I’m young and fit. This is great. I’m keeping up with them for four or five miles before I start to get tired.

And then, when I think we’re five miles into the 7 1/2 mile run, I see the first signpost.

“One mile.”

That’s not one mile to the finish. That’s one mile completed.

Shit.

Talk about feeling dejected. My earnest naïveté got me so excited that I felt like a failure after barely even starting. Could I even finish the other 6 1/2 miles?

Not only did I finish the run, I made the top 5,000 and got my name in the paper. But still I felt like a fool. I let my excitement run way ahead of my reason.

Running and writing: so different, but so similar

Like lots of people, I always wanted to write a novel. But as you’ve already learned in this post, like lots of people I’m great with ideas but can stumble in the execution.

And that was my pattern: Great idea. Write three or four chapters. Decide it’s dreck. Abandon it. Beat myself up.

Until I discovered NaNoWriMo, a gimmicky social movement where you commit to writing 50,000 words on a single story during the month of November. That’s 1,667 words a day, for 30 days in a row. Doesn’t sound so hard, does it?

Until you get to day five, when you realize you only wrote 500 words on day four, and now you have to write 2,834 words today just to keep from falling farther behind.

That’s about 10 pages of double-spaced text. In a single day. And you’re only on day five of 30.

“One mile” indeed.

But I persevered and gasped my way to the finish line that first year. And then I did it four more times.

Although none of those manuscripts will ever be published, they all helped me prove to myself I could do it, and they all taught me different things about writing, and about myself, along the way.

It’s not always a marathon, and it’s not always a sprint

I’ve noticed this pattern in myself through other projects and life phases. I get excited about an idea, do the bare minimum of planning, and jump into making it real right away.

After a short time, though, I begin to doubt myself. Success seems farther away than it felt at first. The work seems more of a grind when I’m in the middle of it. I get discouraged. I want to always see the sparklers, hear the cheering, smell the fireworks.

Don’t we all?

People love to share the meme that says, “Life is a marathon, not a sprint.” But rarely is it truly one or the other.

Of the five books I’ve published, exactly one of them was a sprint, written in a single month. The others took more than a year each. None was a marathon, either. Each was more like a series of sprints and jogs and rests, with plenty of wrong turns and backtracking.

Not unlike my career.

The wisdom that comes from hindsight

The most overused and incorrect phrase in the English language is, “No one ever told me…”

No one ever told me parenting would be so hard. No one ever told me I’d feel like a failure halfway through writing my novel. No one ever told me writing a blog post every week would be a challenge.

The truth is, everyone who’s ever done those things has told us. Over and over and over.

It’s just that we have to experience for ourselves, sometimes, to actually understand it.

What are you struggling through?

What are you in the difficult middle of right now?

Or, what did you start out strong on in the past that you wish you hadn’t abandoned?

Maybe it’s a novel or a memoir or a screenplay. Maybe it’s a fitness regimen. Maybe it’s a Master’s degree, or visiting every Major League Baseball stadium, or a serious relationship.

Whatever it is, what are the feelings you have when you think about completing it?

What’s stopping you from getting back into it and struggling through the difficult middle, gasping your way to the finish line?

If you need a cheerleader along the way, let me know. I’ve got pompoms.

In the meantime, here are some fireworks over the White House, minus the aroma of ozone and sulfur.

Fireworks on July 4th, 2012, over the White House in Washington, DC.
Sadly, yes, this is the best photo I have from that night.

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