Monday, April 17, 2017

"The Art of The Hard Part”

"The Art of The Hard Part”
by David Cain

"I was always moved by a particular line in "The Godfather": “Mister Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately.” The line stuck out to me because it was so clearly the opposite of my natural tendencies. I always tried to move away from unpleasant realities. When I started to worry about money, for example, I avoided looking at my bank balance. When one of my friends was mad at me, I would avoid talking to them.

This is an almost perfectly terrible life strategy. Virtually every personal victory I’ve had amounted to doing exactly the opposite - finally confronting some reality, or some experience, that I had historically avoided. Monsters grow in the dark, so if you like your monsters small and manageable, you probably want to go and meet them at your earliest convenience.

The story arc of my adult life has essentially been a long process of learning and accepting that fact. A few weeks ago my friend Hélène taught me something that brought this principle to a new level of clarity. Her suggestion not only destroyed a specific problem I was having, but also seems to be a master key to all sorts of long-standing problems in other areas of my life. 

I sought her help because she is, among other things, a strength coach, and I had been having a psychological problem with a very physical task - the barbell squat. Some of you are familiar with this exercise. With a barbell resting across your back, possibly weighing a few hundred pounds, you brace your whole body, squat down, and stand up. Repeat. The movement is extremely demanding physically, but the real difficulty is psychological. If you’ve ever done heavy squats, you know they have a way of defeating you before you even arrive at the rack. It’s a daunting thing to get under a heavy bar, unrack it, and voluntarily squat down with it, especially when you’re pushing your limits at it.

The intimidating nature of the squat makes it a prime candidate for excuse-making and avoidance behaviors. There’s a running joke in the fitness world about skipping leg day—if you don’t feel perfect, if anything about the day seems off, if the stars aren’t all in the right houses of the Zodiac, you’ll convince yourself to do legs another day.

Being a master excuse-maker, I had taken to aborting or shortening my squat sessions a good two-thirds of the time. It got to the point where I was really only doing it on a token basis, squatting just often enough to convince myself I still do it.

Coming Out of The Hole: Like so many difficult things, the squat has only one truly hard part. It’s when you’re at the bottom and you’re beginning to move back upwards. This position is known, ominously, as “the hole”. Being in the hole is a convergence of several almost-unbearable feelings: you’re holding your breath, you’re bearing a tremendous weight on your back, and you’re immobile and vulnerable. You’re about to see if your body will be able to bring you back to the surface, and you fear it won’t be able to.

The hole is a scary place to be, and you don’t want to be there for long. It feels like forbidden territory that you need to escape immediately. The impulse is to get out of it, and when you’re there for even an instant too long, the mind wants to panic. The normal strategy is to really psych yourself up for the squat, dip down and blast your way out of the hole because it’s just so unsettling to be there. The whole time I was avoiding squats, I was really just avoiding that intense, taxing moment in the hole. The rest of it was relatively easy.

Hélène gave me the silver bullet to hole anxiety, and many analogous types of trepidation. She had me practice a different form of the movement, once a week: use a lighter weight, then squat down and stay in the hole, braced and holding my breath, for a very slow five-count - an eternity - before coming up. These are called “pause squats”. This was a very strange feeling, actually inhabiting a place you normally feel compelled to escape immediately. It felt like discovering I could live underwater. It turned a forbidden, hostile, panic-inducing place into a somewhat familiar one, even one where I could find some measure of comfort and confidence.

Having this sense of patience and familiarity in the hole feels like having a secret weapon. I’m advancing my squat every week now. More importantly, it no longer feels like something I need to either avoid or confront. It’s just something I can do when it’s time to do it.

Everything Has a Second Act: In movies, the Second Act is typically where the main characters are at their lowest point. The villain has the upper hand, the heroes are constrained or beaten down. To bounce back, they must respond with a moment of growth: find some sort of inner strength, make a hard choice, or reframe their view of things. By Act III, they’ve hit their stride, and while it’s not quite over, it’s clear that they’re going to make it.

My working hypothesis now is that everything that is persistently difficult in our lives has its “hole”, its second act, the part you hate and want to blast through or avoid altogether. The key to overcoming this persistent difficulty is to locate this difficult moment, and let yourself spend time there. A bit of familiarity with that moment is all you need to do to transform a long-term trouble into something routine and doable.

The math makes it clear why this works - if you can go from spending, in a given week, ten panicked seconds in the hole to spending two patient minutes there, the task transforms. It loses its ability to defeat you psychologically, because you no longer treat it like a monster.

Since this breakthrough with the squat, I’m noticing my to-do list thinning out. My attitude is more relaxed and more confident. There seem to be fewer reasons to delay on things, and my projects don’t seem so fraught and risky anymore. Whatever the task, if there’s no hard part, good. If there is one, I want to get there. I want to meet the monster instead of thinking about where it’s going to appear. If I need practice with a particular hard part, I’ll find an appropriate “pause squat” practice - spending more time where I’m uncomfortable, just with a lighter load.

I’m already doing this with things I have historically dreaded - cleaning much more frequently but for shorter periods, ledgering my receipts daily instead of monthly, handling more communications via phone instead of avoiding calls. The lifelong psychological blocks I’ve had with these parts of life are fading as I willingly enter the hole more often. Any hard parts, any tough second acts, don’t seem like downsides or costs anymore, because I know that they’re the most valuable places to be. Any time spent there just makes another kind of long-running trouble into a new kind of ease.”

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