Balance Between the Ears

If you had asked me, at age 46, if I wanted the next five years of my life to duplicate the last five, my answer would have been a resounding “NO!”

At the time, like many middle-aged men and women, I was concerned about my physical health. And I felt very ineffective in managing my time and job related deadlines. In some areas of my life I had fallen into the false comfort of living the routines; subconsciously using acquired beliefs and experiences of the past in defense of the status quo. All of the choices I was making regarding nutrition, exercise, and work related stress issues were creating a negative outcome.
In the months following my 46th birthday, a series of events grabbed my attention:

  • One of my business partners was diagnosed with cancer.
  • My doctor told me my cholesterol was too high and advised medication.
  • I was overweight by 20 pounds.

My wife, Alyson, was speaking her concern and fear about my risk of heart attack or stroke. I felt lethargic and despondent with my overall health. Basically, I was feeling old and felt like life was speeding up in ways that made me nervous. Something had to change.

The old saying rings true: Change only occurs when one of two things is present: frustration or caring. I had both. I was frustrated with my lack of well being, and I cared about how my wife felt. But I was at a loss for what to do next.

Then, on a Friday morning at my dry cleaners, I saw a brochure for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program. On their calendar of events I noticed that in eight months they were sponsoring a Half Ironman triathlon – on the day of my 47th birthday. I said out loud, “Cool! That’s my birthday and wouldn’t that be a great birthday present to me?”

Just that quickly I made the decision to participate, knowing that it would be a challenge. But I recognized that only through great challenges are great things accomplished. I could envision great accomplishments through the training and completion of a half triathlon:

  • I would be in the best shape of my life
  • I would positively impact my cholesterol score
  • I would lose excess weight
  • I would actively relieve the reasons for my wife’s concerns for me
  • I would have a goal that inspired me to do things differently

As I began learning about triathlon training and developed my plan, I found myself thinking about the bigger picture of how we human beings face change, and how our beliefs and perceptions shape our life experiences and all of that influences how we live into the future. A simple formula for understanding how we create life experiences reads:

S + R = O. This means that
Stimulus (positive or negative; caused by others or originating from oneself)
Response (how we choose to respond to the stimulus)
Outcome (experience, whether brief and singular, or continuing)

Here’s a quick example from the area of financial services. If you hear or read the call for retirement planning but refuse to take action, you will most likely NOT experience the retirement outcome imagined and hope for – unless old “Aunt Martha” leaves you a bundle in her will.

Much of what we experience in life, both personally and professionally, derives from the choices we make. We choose to either ignore a problem or address it head on. We choose to try again when things go sideways or we avoid risk. In most cases, when we have a choice we can choose to learn, to consider alternatives, and to reflect on different outcomes.

In the case of my decision to train for a Half Ironman triathlon, the Stimulus I received that Friday morning was reading about the triathlon in the Team in Training brochure. My Response was to decide to train for a triathlon as a way of addressing my health concerns. And the Outcome is that my cholesterol is now in the excellent range without medication, my weight is where it should be, and last week a 30 year old acquaintance told me that I look to be in “…really good shape.” Oh, and my wife is happy with the healthier me. A bonus outcome was raising $5,000 last year for cancer research.

So, how did I do this? My decision to participate in a triathlon fund raiser was not a cognitive choice. It was a values-based choice that happened instantaneously and was grounded in my value of physical health, in wanting to reduce my wife’s anxiety about my health, and in joining the fight against the disease that took five out of my father’s nine brothers and sisters.

Now here is where the action between the ears comes into play. I remember excitedly telling my wife about my decision. I hoped and expected that she would appreciate my initiative in taking responsibility for my physical well-being. What I heard instead was the voice of reason and trepidation. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Those are the words I heard, along with the tone that wondered: Are you sure you can do this? Wouldn’t it be better if you started with a smaller event rather than jumping into a half triathlon? You’ve never been a swimmer. You’ve never been a bicyclist. And you want to swim a mile and a quarter, and then bike 56 miles, and then run 13 miles! Are you sure?

At this point I had another choice to make: Agree with Alyson’s doubts, or follow what I knew was right for me. What would I do? I did the only thing I knew to do. I remembered that thoughts are powerful and provide the jumping off point for our experiences in life. In the case of my participation with Team in Training’s triathlon, I thought about all the good aspects.

I was convinced that there would be many more positives than negatives, and that I would love the experience. Initially, I saw the glass as being half full and believed that I could overcome any obstacles along the way. I am tenacious and bold in many areas of my life, and can be very single minded in facing a challenge. But I was not prepared for the first time in my training that I ran three miles, rode my bike for sixteen miles, and then ran another three miles!

My internal conversation went something like this:”What in GOD’S name were you thinking? This is so HARD! My lungs were burning, my feet felt like bricks. My brain was yelling: “Stop! Go home!” People were passing me, saying, “Go Team!” And what did I want to do? I wanted to tell them to “SHUT UP!” I was feeling angry and disappointed that I wasn’t the athlete I thought I was.

I was recalibrating what I thought I was capable of and found this very humbling and hard. Maybe my wife was right; maybe I should start smaller. I started to ask myself what people would think if I told them I was going to change my event to a shorter distance event. Would they see me as weak and biting off more than I could chew?

Then as quickly as I decided to participate in the triathlon, I thought of my colleague Helen, who was going through chemotherapy and radiation. I realized that there are always people who have it worse than we do and people who have it better. Helen was fighting for her life and had no choice but to endure, and here I was merely fighting to finish another 500 yards of a three mile run. And I had a choice.

I had to choose how to respond to this situation. I could choose to focus on my positive beliefs about what is possible without worrying about the how. Or I could focus on the never-far-away doubts and fears associated with what is probable. I chose to focus on the positive.

I was in the enviable position of not having cancer, my pain and discomfort were not life threatening. I could quit if I wanted to and find an easier path to my goals. But for me, the positive choice was based on the values that triggered the original decision. The positive choice was strengthened by my own confessed frustrations and cares.
I kept going that miserable day and won the battle between my ears. I continued the training plan and on my 47th birthday participated in and finished my first Half Ironman triathlon! The lessons learned about choices keep resonating in the way I think about other parts of life.