I Think You Can’t… I Think You Can’t…The Power of Goading and Other Tricks for Persevering


This is going to be a long post… bear with it.

“The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.”

– Roger Bannister

My friend Avi likes to run triathlons. No, this is a different Avi than my cousin Avi the lawyer who also likes to run triathlons. The Avi that I’m writing about today isn’t a lawyer, he is a doctor… no, not my brother Avi the doctor, yes, my brother Avi is going to cure lung cancer, but no he’s not running any triathlons that I know about… yes, this is a different Doctor Avi… no, he’s not a pulmonologist… yes, he’s married… wait, wait, hold on, you know what? Just never mind. There’s this guy I know, okay? He likes to run triathlons.

The thing about this guy is that he has an interesting way of motivating himself when he trains for a triathlon.

When he feels like taking a break — usually about halfway through the swimming part — he has a special way to keep himself going.

He makes fun of himself.

More specifically, he calls himself derogatory names, using words that do not pass the editorial guidelines of the Meme Menagerie.

Yes, my friend Avi motivates himself by uttering unprintable insults and jeers at himself… self-directed trash talk.

Avi says things to himself like, “What’s the matter, *****? Is your **** too **** you **** **** ***** ?!?!?!”

He goads himself, daring himself to prove himself wrong… and he does it using demeaning, insulting language.

Why the dirty language? Well let’s face it, there is nothing quite as powerful as a well-placed curse word. Why is this? Why do crude monosyllabic utterances trump even (and especially) the most florid of verbiage? Scholars throughout the ages have pondered this topic, citing different ideas about sociological taboos, cultic incantations, and so forth…. but in the end (once they pulled their heads out of it), they figured out that it just boils down to pure simple visceral pleasure. By pleasurably unleashing his inner rage — Avi likes to call it his inner Les Grossman — he taps a deep well of unresolved anger and stirs it up into a powerful cocktail of self-motivation. Apparently, for Avi these taunts are effective; they are enough to get his blood flowing so that he can resist the temptation of a brief floating break and instead swim the additional quarter mile, thereby improving his training for his annual Sprint distance triathlon.

(hah, Sprint distance…. **** that **** Avi…. let me know when you get your *****-*** over to a real ************* triathlon, yeah, I’m talking Long Course, *****.)

Short Term Goading Tactics

A while ago I wrote about anger (here and here, *****es) and how it can be useful to give yourself a short-term boost in performance. However, I was less convinced of the long term efficacy of using anger on a regular basis as a performance enhancing drug. Yes, anger is a drug. Its side effects include irritability, addiction to violence and a sense of victomhood.

“I can feel your anger. It gives you focus, makes you stronger.”

– Chancellor Palpatine

Sure, there are moments where a short-term fix will do just fine… such as halfway through a 0.5 mile swim.

Now, I could make fun of Avi… after all — come on — calling yourself names?? Besides, anger is not really my thing… nor are triathlons… I’m more of a mellow 5k kinda guy… but the truth is, when the going gets tough for me during a practice run, I’ve noticed that I also play weird mental games.

In my case, the tactic sounds something like this: “Just go another 1000 yards” and then, “Okay, now just run as fast as you can for 30 more seconds,” and so on. In other words, I set my sights on a short term goal and push for it, and then continously nudge that goal forward, like an ever-receding horizon.

As with the self trash-talk approach, the ever-receding-horizon tends to be a short-term tactic… if I do it for any significant length of time, I stop believing myself. “Yeah right, just another minute… that’s what you said 5 minutes ago.”

Sometimes I use an overarching goal, for example, my current benchmark for a practice run at the gym is, “5k or 20 minutes, whichever comes later.” Then, about 15 minutes into it, I’ll make sure the 5k happens first… though strangely, I usually get to 5k just a bit after the 20 minute mark… it’s amazingly consistent actually… right around 20:22 +/- 3 seconds… the subconscious mind is a powerful force… in any case, just for fun, once I reach that point I’ll push myself to keeping going past the 5k, past the 20 minutes… and then all the way to 23.5 minutes… because, ya know, that was my time on my first 5k road race. If my overall pace was relatively slow that day, I might even go to 25 minutes, and then, well, once I’m at 25 I should just round it up to 30 minutes, right?

Yeah, it’s kinda like goading… minus the Les Grossman expletive factor.

Per Severe Aunts: Don’t Cry Uncle

According to the dictionary, the verb “persevere” means

to continue in a course of action even in the face of difficulty or with little or no indication of success.

It seems to me, then, that the trick to persevering is to undermine the definition of the word itself… in other words, to distract ourselves so we ignore the difficulty, and at the same time, create our own indications of success.

..and if all else fails, we can always put on a pair of headphones and tune into some inspiring music, to unleash the beast within…

Bringing Other People into the Picture

Managing our self-talk — our inner head game — helps us drive better performance in ourselves. Once we get (or allow) someone else joining in the conversation — a coach, a trainer, a teammate, a competitor, a crowd — the motivating power of words can become magnified.

Much as we like to think of ourselves as self-reliant performers, there’s nothing quite like hearing an encouraging voice when we’re facing an obstacle.

Unfortunately, people don’t always offer encouragement.

Which brings us to a story about little blue choo-choo train…

Long Term Goading Strategies

Once upon a time there was a little train that was tormented. This was the Little Train that Thought He Couldn’t and Didn’t, and was he was despised because of it.

This train cried for mercy but was shunned by all the other trains — even the ones that he considered his friends, the ones he thought he could be vulnerable with. He discovered that, in fact, the more he begged for help, the worse it got: That train closest to him became contemptuous of him, scorning his weakness, disparaging his intentions and ultimately, betraying their friendship and jilting him in favor of a rival train.

Stung by rejection and burning from the betrayal, the Little Train retreated into the Valley of Darkness. The forsaken train’s feelings of hurt festered, heating up his engine and building up a dark cloud of resentment and spite that billowed out of his smokestack. “I’ll show them!” he said… and so he began a journey back up out of the Valley of Death, pulling himself along slowly but surely, climbing up a nearby mountain… “They said I couldn’t… they said I couldn’t… they said I couldn’t…”

“Living well is the best revenge.”

– George Herbert

It’s not the best way to live, but unfortunately, it happens all too often that a person becomes driven, over a long period time, by the notion that they will prove another person wrong. This other person can be a “him” or a “her,” although often is a “them.”

Few realize that the “other person” is really a part of themselves.

Finding the Dark Spark Within

The desire to prove “them” all wrong (aka, They’ll Be Sorry They Weren’t Nicer to Me,” aka, I’ll Show Them) is a narrative that feeds off the primal energy of venegeance. Venegeance — one part righteous anger, one part stifled aspirations, two parts insecure pride, three parts blind fury, and add-in a dash of tenacity — is so powerful that, taken to the extreme, it can topple Maslow’s Pyramid, turning the heirarchy of needs upside down: A person filled with a sense of venegeance is willing to sacrifice everything, even their most basic comforts and safety, in the pursuit of their dark vision of self-actualization.

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy My brothers. And you will know My name is the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon thee.

– Ersatz Ezekiel

As with anger, venegeance is powerfully unstable. It tends to transform (or destroy) the person who holds onto it too closely for too long. A few weeks ago I was standing in an elevator and saw the following printed on the back of someone’s t-shirt:

Cuts heal.
Bruises fade.
Pride is forever.

The t-shirt was from a charitable organization and probably meant well… but it made me uneasy. I was glad when the person got out of the elevator.

Or how about this little ditty, after Congreve:

Vile and ingrate! It’s too late too repent
You debased my Love and now it is spent:
Distress inflicted until my heart became Gated
After years of Injustice, now your beauty has faded;
That arrogant young bride will not be mourned.
Heaven has no Rage, like a husband scorned,
Nor Hell a Fury, once the tables have turned.

The tactic of the short term goad — the Lesson of Les — provides the performer with a burst of aggressive energy… whereas the long term strategy of vengeance — the Khan Academy of Wrath — potentially creates an all-consuming fire.

Wimps and Nerds: Return of the Mac

A more garden variety of “I’ll Show Them” occurs in high school and can continue throughout adulthood. It might start out with a label: The Trouble Maker. The Space Cadet. The Weirdo. The Wimp. The Fat Kid. The Geek. The Poor Kid. The Late Bloomer. The one that the teacher said Would Never Amount to Anything. We know these folks… and have even walked in their shoes, one way or another, at some point in our lives. Okay, maybe not you, but many of us have had that feeling of being an outcast and feeling like we were in it alone. Even worse, we’ve all walked in the shoes of the guilty parties — the ones who taught others to think and feel that way.

In some cases, the person who was cast out by his or her peers becomes stronger for it, by focusing their efforts on improving themselves. Charles Atlas made millions of dollars from pimply-faced male comic book readers by tapping into this narrative. Remember those comics? “Mac” (whose name usually appears in scare quotes) is the skinny kid who gets bullied at the beach and is humiliated. In some versions, the girl he’s with then goes off with the bully. Eventually — and we don’t get to see the Rocky-esque montage — “Mac” returns to the scene, lays the smackdown on the bully and wins back the girl. Thousands of years of civilization and enlightened sociological progress are wiped away as the Rightful Alpha Male order is re-established… via mail order.

Then of course there is the “Nerd who becomes the next Bill Gates” storyline, which has grown steadily with the rise of Silicon Valley. However, we’re still a bit uncomfortable with the Successful Nerd narrative, especially if it’s a Hypercompetitive Vindictive Nerd.

We like these stories best when they morph into a variant of the Hero’s Journey, where the protagonist picks herself up from the ground and redoubles her efforts… at first, despite “them,” but eventually, for her own sake. The hollow goal of “I’ll Show Them” (which can never truly be satisfied) becomes “I Will Survive” and then “I’ve Moved On,” with maybe a smattering of gratitude and “They’ll Be Glad They Knew Me,” for those who helped along the way.

After all, the story we tell ourselves — eventually, one way or another — becomes the story of our life.

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on March 21, 2012, in Coaching, Life, Positivity, Productivity, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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