Don't Confuse Peak Performance With Ignorant Bliss... (how to be your best in the most difficult of circumstances)

scale the mountain backpack.jpg

Activism Versus Ignorant Bliss

One of the questions I asked in a seminar earlier this week called Provocative Questions for Social Change was this:

What makes something a problem?

Earlier in the evening we’d been talking about what drives us, where does purpose come from, and why everyone round the table does what we do.

One of the participants had said she thought (young) people today were more driven to solving global challenges and that they were better informed about the state of the world because of connectivity, the internet, and the spread of information.

She also shared that she thought people of previous generations had lived in a kind of ‘ignorant bliss’.

I was curious about her perspective, because I could see that, for it to be true in her mind, it must also be true that knowing more, and worrying more about the state of the world must be more productive than not worrying. That somehow more worry created more (and more constructive) action.

I wasn’t sure that was true. It certainly wasn’t how I see the world and I found myself asking,

What if that premise isn’t always (or, indeed, ever) true?

What if the extent that we worry about something, the size of the problem we face, is not at all related to how well-equipped we are to tackle the challenge or the task in front of us—no matter how large or complex it is?

We Fear Fear Itself

I’d run another event a few weeks before where we’d look at what creates the shift from good to great, and what gets in the way.

On the list of all the things that get in the way, participants came up with words like fear,  lack of confidence, avoidance of judgement, not having (or not taking) the opportunity to speak up, fear of looking like a fool, not wanting to be visible, not wanting to get it wrong, not wanting to overstep the role, not wanting to lose the job, not knowing what to do, not knowing if what we do or say will be effective, and so on.

Even if we don’t experience it as strongly as ‘fear’, the avoidance of an uncomfortable feeling, or what we think might be the fall out of ‘getting it wrong’ are all versions of the same thing—an emotional response that is unpleasant in itself and / or creates a series of falling dominoes in an imagined future.

The group from a few weeks ago had call these their ‘rocks’ and the metaphor I wanted to bring to the group this week was the imaginary backpack.

A ‘Real’ Problem…?

I knew that one of the group had been to Everest base camp, and I’d been to Annapurna base camps, both reasonably high altitude walks (although anyone who’s done the Everest trek may challenge my definition of a ‘walk’!)

On my trek, I’d had a wobble a couple of days before we got to base camp. Feeling the effects of altitude I’d struggled to sleep and woke up every minute or so because of the decreased oxygen. It scared me a little, the idea that I could stop breathing in the middle of the night, but mostly it was just annoying and unpleasant.

On the penultimate day of the upward journey, I was tired, it was a long day through a rocky landscape, hard going, we were at risk of rock falls from avalanches, the trek was long (did I say that already) and I wasn’t sure I would make it.

In my head I heard myself asking the question,

Well you can worry about it, or you can put one foot in front of the other and see how far you can get.

(I made it all the way, and the next day the final ascent to Annapurna base camp was a piece of cake.)

…Or an Imaginary Backpack?

It’s easy to see this with the Everest example—there really was a mountain and it really was tougher than a walk in the park. Of course I was feeling real physical effects, of course there were dangers and risks, and of course there was a chance I wouldn’t make it to the top—there was nothing imaginary about the mountain.

And… what we do in life, but don’t always see, is that we make our journeys harder by carrying imaginary backpacks, full of imaginary rocks that we perceive (and experience) as ‘problems’. In my case turning over ‘the problem’ in my mind was not helping; it was certainly irrelevant and it was also potentially hindering me.

No-one is saying that the work you are doing, or the nature of your life doesn’t require commitment, technical know-how and fitness for purpose—it does! I don’t want to diminish the nature of this challenge, and the ones you may face in life.

What I’d like you to consider, though, is whether what we call a ‘problem’ is something that is relevant to us getting on with the work that we do. And to see that there may be a separation, larger than we currently think, about the nature of something, and our judgement of that nature.

So We Should Think Positive?

In that moment in the Himalayas I wasn’t trying to convince myself to think positively about my situation; I wasn’t saying,

Hey Cathy! You’re all good! You got this!!

No, I was simply noticing that what was swirling around my mind was a cloud of thought, and that therefore leaving my imaginary backpack behind and taking the trek one step at a time was the best thing to do. heck, I might even enjoy it more!

The less ‘thinking’, and the more ‘being with what is’ the better.

Is That (imaginary) Backpack Helping?

I wonder whether this is what the participant in the seminar might have called ignorant bliss? That we see challenges but we don’t add meaning to them?

When I think about my dad, I see someone who had a tough upbringing, who went through some very tough times in his youth and young adulthood, saw a lot of the world, and then came home and lived his life as much in the moment as anyone I’ve ever known.

He wasn’t ‘changing the world’ in the sense we were talking about in our seminar this week; it wasn’t that he didn’t know there were terrible things happening in the world, it’s simply that his world was a little closer to home.

He was a quiet man—I’m sure we all know people like him—working on the things he felt called to do and living life from the most loving place he knew how.

However big or small we make our ‘world’, our circle of impact, I believe we can all achieve amazing things.

And I also believe our impact can be even greater when we set down that imaginary backpack and let go of the fear and worry that is weighing us down.

Being With What Is

So many of us go through a version of this; an understandable and very normal experience of worrying about the state of the world.

I wondered whether my colleague at the table was carrying that worry in her imaginary backpack—it certainly seemed so in our seminar—and how heavy its weight was to her, and how much lighter she might be if she put it down.

Of course, there are things that we do that are difficult and complex, just as there are real mountains and a real (lack of) atmospheric pressure in the Himalayas. Adding imaginary weight into our backpack won’t make the journey any easier though.

As soon as we can see that, we’re able to put them down, life suddenly gets a lot easier, and our ability to bring our full focus and talent to a challenge increases sharply.

If that’s ignorant bliss, count me in for some.

With love,