Kill The Thing You Love

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Drink it.

I hear it takes just a little drop…

Many people worry that if they do what they love whole-heartedly, they will kill it.

It must be a slow death. No one has ever said that being handed that first paycheck for publishing their novel felt like getting shot. But perhaps they worry that turning in draft after draft of their second book, facing criticism and rejection and still having to pump out more pages would poison their love for writing. But so what if it does?

It’s likely that you’re not still dating your high school sweetheart or driving that first car you were so crazy about. You’ve gotten over a few books, movies, and albums that you could consume on repeat when you first discovered them. And I would bet you have some favorite foods you no longer order when you go out. Maybe overuse is what did them in, or it’s possible that you just moved on from them naturally.

I’ve found that for each love I manage to kill, new ones always spring up. Old passions walk out into the ocean to drown just as new ones are arriving over the horizon. Author and poet Oscar Wilde addresses the benign inevitability of this lifelong process. He writes, “Some do the deed with many tears/ And some without a sigh/ For each man kills the thing he loves/ Yet each man does not die.”

I’m sure you’ve heard others express concern for killing their love of something. The mantra goes like this: “I love photography (or dancing or cooking or coding!)– but I could never do it for a living because then it wouldn’t love it. I do it for me, but if I did it for work that would take all of the joy out of it.”

Oh, really? It appears that for some, indulging in his or her passion is less important than avoiding pain. But that just doesn’t seem balanced to me.

I can’t quite wrap my mind around the notion that work is a special category, an activity where one should spend half of their waking life doing something that he or she is willing to hate (or at best feel meh about).

Maybe they are concerned that doing something often, doing it for money, doing it under someone else’s scrutiny and advice, or doing it on a timeline will necessarily eek all the fun out of things.

I’m not convinced.

“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” Mae West

With the exception of doing something only for pay, all of those work-associated traits make you better at things. Frequent practice, constructive critique, and being accountable to a schedule are all factors that improve performance. Who wouldn’t want to improve at doing what they love, even if it’s just a hobby?

And this mentality applies to activities other than work too. It applies to every dog-lover who feels that actually having a pet would be too much hassle. It applies to every musician who practices incessantly, but refuses to play an at open mic night. It applies to all of the people who insist they train jiu jitsu “just for fun.”

So don’t get too hung up on aphorisms like everything in moderation, or worry that immersing yourself in your craft will necessarily result in poisoning it with too much of a good thing. Could it happen? Sure. But you’ll recover. And if things go well and you don’t manage to drown your affections, the positive outcome will be well worth the risk…

“Mr. Wonka: “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted.”
Charlie Bucket: “What happened?”
Mr. Wonka: “He lived happily ever after.”

photo credit: ˙Cаvin 〄 via photopin cc

Updates and Gratitude Practices

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Last week things were going pretty damn good.

Cage Sports 31 Griffith 7.19.14

Going toe to toe with Hadley Griffith.

It started out when I beat “Relentless” Hadley Griffith at CageSport 31 last Saturday. Coach called while I was on vacation in early and talked me into fighting a 5’11” seasoned pro on July 19th– meaning I would jump straight into the hardest part of our fight camp as soon as I got back to Portland.

The time flew by, and before I knew it Coach was wrapping my hands, then I was walking down the ramp at the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma, WA to climb into the cage again. That went by quickly too when I secured a win via rear naked choke at 1:52 minutes into the first round.

And my streak continued on Monday when I passed my road test and finally got licensed to drive in the state of Oregon. (More about my experience of learning to drive again is here.) Then I came in to Gracie Barra Portland for jiu jitsu practice the next day and was very surprised when Professor Fabiano Scherner promoted me to purple belt at the end of class. Almost eight years of training brought me to that point on a random Tuesday night.

Cars know to share the road when I'm on my way to practice.

Cars know to share the road now when I’m on my way to practice.

Then the Willamette Week came out with it’s Best of Portland list on Wednesday and I was featured in the “Best Moves” category for Best Beatdown. (You can read it the full text of that here.) On Thursday, I took my first steps towards becoming a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist by joining the NSCA and purchasing study materials for the CSCS certification exam. I’d hemmed and hawed about getting certified for a long time and I’m thrilled to finally be able to the plunge.

So, on the one hand, it feels like everything has been coming up roses lately. I’m excited to see how long I can make that last.

On the other hand, last week was not particularly different from many others in my life over the last few years. Actually, I’ve been feeling like I’m on a roll for quite some time since I found my bliss.

One of my day-of-competition rituals is to spend some time writing about and meditating on the things in my life that I’m thankful for. I don’t only do this before fights, but it does have particular value for me at that time. It always renews my passion for what I’m doing, puts me in a positive mindset, and makes me feel confident and supported from within. On fight night, it helps me tap into the circumstances of previous successes in such a way that future success feels imminent.

Whenever I need a little boost– and often, too, when I’m already feeling upbeat about how things are going– I put some of my gratitude for down in writing. This can take narrative form like a journal entry, or it could be a list or even a diagram if that’s how I want to organize my thoughts on that day. It can be specific or general, narrow or encyclopedic.

You don’t necessarily even need to write your thankfulness down, though studies show this is actually more effective. I find it nice to be able to refer back to later on, too.

Sometimes I write about everything that is going right in just one part of my life, such as my training:

  • how much my lifting is improving
  • how good it feels to be strong
  • how awesome my coaches are
  • how tip-top I feel about the last sparring session or fight
  • how a new technique is finally clicking
  • how helpful my teammates are
  • how easy my cardio plyos feel
  • how glad I am not to be injured

On other days I try surveying all of the areas where I am seeing success and/ or improvement using broad categories like:

  • friendships
  • health
  • physical fitness
  • finances
  • learning
  • “work”
  • opportunities for leisure
  • relationships
  • competition
  • personal development
  • creative projects

Another way to access the bliss of gratitude is to send a thank you note explaining to someone who has been positive in your life what they’ve done for you and how it makes you feel. If snail mail isn’t your jam, saying thank you in person, on the phone, or publicly via social media can have similar cognitive benefits– with the added perk that it can help strengthen your preexisting network of friends.

Thanks, gno thanks

I suppose gnomes write thank you “gnotes”…

However you choose to do it, honing in on the great things you might otherwise take for granted will help you draw on confidence and strength during moments of stress. Moreover, many people find that taking time for this process on a regular basis boosts their overall mood and brings more positivity into their lives even when they’re not consciously focusing on being thankful.

When I reviewed my own gratitude list from last weekend it was immediately obvious to me that I was already on a roll before that awesome week even started.

Take a moment today to write down some of the things you are thankful for. Then let me know: is it possible that you have also been on a roll without noticing it?

photo credit: Ernie Sapiro

photo credit: elycefeliz via photopin cc

Breathe

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Paying attention to your breath: it works in yoga and when you're getting hit in the face!

Paying attention to your breath: it works in yoga and when you’re getting hit in the face!

In combat sports we re-learn how to breathe.

Boxing coaches will teach you to breathe out with each punch. Jiu jitsu instructors will remind you to breathe steadily through the entire match. Short breaths are good for explosive movements like strikes, while deep, relaxed breathing facilitates the sustained movements of grappling.

While advice like “breathe while moving” might seem obvious or redundant, it isn’t. This is because many new combat sports practitioners simply find themselves unconsciously holding their breath. And since new athletes often don’t yet possess good cardiovascular conditioning, their level of perceived exertion skyrockets because they accidentally forget to breathe while under stress.

Usually, respiration is an automatic process regulated by that little knot of grey matter located towards the back of your skull which connects your spine to the rest of your brain. This is called the brainstem. You can think of it as your lizard brain: it controls the extremely basic, unconscious functions (such as your hear rate, breathing, sleep cycle, and ability to maintain consciousness) that all animals have and which will hopefully run on autopilot all of your life.

But respiration also has a voluntary override. This post will address the technique and benefits of learning to toggle this override.

If you’ve ever taken a yoga class you know that yoga is so much more than just stretching. A good yoga instructor will cue you to bring your awareness to your breath and draw it into your chest, abdomen, and nostrils. This is because learning to control your breathing, especially in difficult or strenuous circumstances, helps still the mind and re-focus your efforts.

Breeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaathhhhhe

In between rounds my coach and corner, Nick Gilardi, helps me regain my composure, raising his hands and saying “Breeeeeaaaathe.”

Even in less intense circumstances, bringing awareness to your breathing will teach you to notice the mind’s tendency to leap around from one thing to the next. By beginning to observe this habit in yourself you can learn to shut it off and thereby become more fully present in the moment.

While yogis and practitioners of formal meditation call this “mindfulness” or “Being,” many athletes refer to it as being in “the zone” or in a “flow state.” Though combat might seem to be about as far away as you can get from peaceful meditation, the two are not so different because being in the zone is just a form of moving meditation. With complete presence comes the ability to respond calmly and without hesitation as events occur.

As you learn to control your breath and incorporate this into your training you can begin to let go of the conscious override and let it shift back to being a mostly automatic process. (Which happens to be how many such functions work: they are conscious while you learn them, then they switch over to being unconscious once the skill is acquired.)

An added bonus to this approach is that steady breathing increases oxygen intake, which in turn improves athletic performance. This also helps regulate heart rate, improve recovery time, and bring oxygen into the blood to help muscles function. On the psychological side of things, it’s benefits include decreasing anxiety and shifting attention away from pain. This allows for more efficient allocation of mental resources, especially when learned well enough to be automatic.

It's a nice sentiment, but a strange place to put the reminder....

It’s a nice sentiment, but a strange place to put the reminder….

Practicing MMA will teach you to keep breathing when you feel the adrenaline flooding into your body, to keep breathing when you’re taking hard shots the face, to keep breathing when you’re three rounds into a fight and still not sure how you are going to seal the deal before time runs out.

Of course, learning to keep breathing under duress comes in handy in a variety of less dangerous (but no less intense) situations, such as job interviews, presentations, performances, and networking events– to name just a few. Set aside a few minutes to practice each day and you’ll likely find numerous ways to use this skill in your daily life.

photo credit: Nicholas_T via photopin cc

photo credit: Deanna Wardin @ Tattoo Boogaloo via photopin cc

A Reason to Run

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I went for a run last week. It was the first time in almost two years and one of only a handful of times I have ever tried to undertake this form of exercise. I liked that run so much that only a few hours later I was already looking for an excuse to do it again.

So I did.

That’s not normal for me. Usually, I hate running.

STREET CLOSED: just go home

This about sums it up.

I detested it so much that I was fond of claiming I had learned MMA just so I’d never have a reason to run. Before I started working out in college I literally would not have run a block to catch a bus. Several years in, I would run for the bus, if need be. But that was it.

I went out of my way to avoid running as a form of cardiovascular exercise. I cycled. I rowed. I did sled pulls. I worked the heavy bag. I used an elliptical machine. (Let’s chalk that last one up to youthful indiscretion and try to forget about it, ok?)

I absolutely flat out refused to run because it gave me side splints, made it hard to breath, and made me hyperventilate every single time. I couldn’t sustain a good pace for more than a few blocks without having to stop, red-faced and frustrated, and walk.

I loathed it.

Then running showed up on my training program.

I assured my trainer that it wasn’t going to go well. If I didn’t flat-out say, “I can’t do it,” I certainly thought it.

Just before my run, I was telling a friend (and fellow MMA fighter) about how much I was dreading it. I told him that when I run, I feel like I’m having a panic attack. He got really excited and told me that was going to be great for me.

His reasoning went that, after all, a lot of fighting is mental. So much of the game is about what it does to your head, how you handle the nerves, and how well you can function when your system is dumping adrenaline into your body like there’s no tomorrow. So, by my friend’s logic, I could use running as an opportunity to practice confronting the uniquely frantic headspace of MMA.

It was a great idea. But I didn’t get to actually try it out as intended, because when I laced up my sneakers and hit the pavements I found out that running no longer sucked.

It was straight-up fun.

It turns out that after all that time spent dreading and avoiding it, the simplest exercise possible was also enjoyable. I got home from my run feeling like I had slain a dragon.

This is pretty much how it all went down.

photo credit: Rafael Peñaloza via photopin cc

I had a similar experience with re-learning to drive. I had a license as a teenager, but I let it expire when I moved to Portland eight years ago. I waited almost a decade to try to get licensed again because I was deeply afraid of driving. I had always hated it, even back in my hometown Sitka (a tiny island town with just 19 miles of road, two stop lights, and nowhere you could go over 45 mph), and Portland’s (admittedly moderate) traffic was far more intimidating.

When I finally got behind the wheel again a few months ago, it was scary at first. But a few days’ practice had me driving on major streets, and within a month I was on the highway for the first time in my life. When I found I could pass a semi and merge back into the flow of traffic, I once again had that dragon-slayer feeling.

It was a beautiful night for a run...

Nice night for a run.

I’d been acting like a child that insists she hates broccoli, only to discover when she finally tries it that it’s pretty damn tasty.

These recent experiences not only expanded my potential modes of transit, but they also blew my notions of what’s impossible out of the water.

Now I can’t help but wonder, what other supposed impossibilities might I unknowingly be rearranging my life to avoid? Are there holes in my MMA game that I had assumed were unassailable? Are there other sports I could try, foods I might like, bigger projects to undertake?

Suddenly I wanted to dash out and scour all of the unexamined caverns of my mind. I had found a good reason to run– not away from something that scares me, but towards it.

I want more of that dragon-slayer feeling, so I’ve made peace with running. After all, there are plenty more impossible dragons I want to chase down and dispatch with.

Advice to My 16-year-old Self

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We should probably start with this, because I just want you to see what we’re dealing with:

Oh boy

Yeah, I was very pouty back in high school.

When I was 16 years old I wanted so badly to be a punk rock star. I could just see my 20-something self as a neon-haired drummer in a crazy-loud punk band. With time the dream faded and I regretfully moved on to other pursuits.

It recently occurred to me that if I had enjoyed practicing the drums as much as I now enjoy training to fight, I would have been so much better at it. And if I had stayed with it, by now I would’ve been an excellent musician.

Of course, I might never have found what I now consider to be my true passion if I hadn’t quit the drums… or if I had persisted and actually put in the time to practice, music might have become my “true passion.” This got me thinking: what would I do differently with the knowledge of hindsight and the personal growth achieved in the preceding 10 years?

I considered what advice I would give to a younger me, and it was very tempting to condescend to myself. I thought:

Brush your teeth more.

Being “goth” is just a phase.

Be nicer to your parents.

Show respect for everyone.

Pick a more useful college major. The list goes on and on.

Ultimately, there were only two categories of advice to consider, both resulting from what I’ve observed in the intervening years since my 16th birthday. The first is the advice based on the changes I have already made. And the second set of prescriptions stems from the habits my present incarnation is still working to overcome.

I want to present just one key piece from each.

Advice to my 16-year-old-self: Learn to let go of mistakes, failures, and upsets.

Get good at this one, because you’re going to have to do it a lot.

Lots of things in life aren’t going to work out for you, 16-year-old Emily. Jobs, friends, relationships, assignments, hobbies, performances, trips… many of these things will fail in some way.

You will quit jobs. You will end relationships. You’re going to move. You’re going to stay. You’re going to try really hard and still not always get what you want or think you deserve.

Some colleges you apply to will wait list you. At times, people you care about will treat you badly. You will miss deadlines. You will misspeak, and sorely regret it.

…You will quit playing the drums.

Things that seem like the be-all-end-all purpose of your life right now will end forever and you may not even notice.

Get over it. When a door closes, a window opens, right? Holding on to the past does not protect you in the future, it only robs you of enjoying the present. Holding grudges does nothing to the person who harmed you, but it will indisputably steal your joy.

Failure is utterly inevitable, so you’d better get used to moving on from it. This is especially important because failure is an opportunity to grow. So while you’re practicing letting go of mistakes, you might as well get good at learning from them too.

Advice to my 26-year-old self: Start earlier.

I cannot stress this one enough. Start now.

This applies to tasks (and timelines) both large and small. Don’t hit snooze 3+ times before waking—there is no cognitive value in sleeping an extra 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Even worse, this fails to help “train” your willpower for more important situations.

Starting nearly every paper assigned in college on the night before it was due heavily undercut your potential for success—and now finishing speeches the night before they’re due does the  same.

Don’t wait months to see a doctor, to deal with your taxes, to throw out that junk mail pile.

Don’t spend too much time procrastinating the start of your “real life.” Even if you seem to be flubbing and flailing for ages while trying to get a handle on things, you won’t regret the experience gained by at least starting that process immediately.

In the words of author Karen Lamb: “A year from now you will wish you had started today.” So take the advice I’m offering you and don’t put things off. It’s a mistake we’ve made in the past, so learn from those unpleasant outcomes, and don’t repeat it in the future.

After all, how much better would you be at MMA if you had begun training even just a bit before you started at Reed? What nuance would that skill have now if you have started earlier down the road of failing at– and perfecting– it?

It’s easy to delay beginning projects because change feels slow and tomorrow’s progress might not seem to be an obvious benefit of today’s discipline. But over time, what felt so painfully slow turns out to have flown by so maddeningly fast. Adulthood is a quiet apocalypse. It’s not an atom bomb that detonates on your 18th birthday. Rather, the changes can be ever so subtly catastrophic, like the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers those around you will morph ever so delicately, imperceptibly, until some day no one is as you once knew them.

I’m not who I used to be and someday I’ll become someone else too. Identity isn’t static, and that’s okay.

Sure, there are more mistakes to be made, and learned from. But let’s not spend the next ten years on the same tired blunders when we could be trying out new ones! Let’s not give my 36-year-old self any reason to look back and say, “I told you so.”

Let’s start today.

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(This piece was inspired by the book Advice to My 18-Year-Old Self, recently put out by Asymmetrical Press. Get yourself a copy!)