How does something qualify for accomplishment status? How do we know when some action of ours is truly noteworthy? How do we know when some measure of our physical fitness, professional efforts, financial situation, or intellectual enlightenment is really worthy of celebration?
What about if there is no celebration, because there are a lot of Olympians who train for years and then come home empty-handed. What if there is no visible, tangible reward singling out our actions as special, because there are a lot of talented and dedicated artists who haven’t yet inked record contracts or book deals.
And when there are awards and ceremonies, how do we know that they are well deserved? In professional settings, there is often a strong case to be made that the person receiving the award isn’t the most deserving. Workplace niceties—including plaques, promotions, raises, and little golden statues given out in Hollywood—never seem to be distributed in a vacuum. There always seem to be a few dashes of favoritism and circumstantial back-scratching added to the mix before workplace “accomplishments” are poured into their molds, baked, and finally set out on the breakroom table for consumption.
What about all of the clever fixes and quiet acts of kindness that more-often-than-not go unseen in the workplace? What about the act of simply sacrificing your time and energy at a place you don't like all that much for the sake of your family?
How do we know if we've done something special in life if there isn't thunderous applause?
It would be nice if there were adoring crowds and astute mentors always on hand to cheerlead the really big deals in our lives, but that usually isn't reality. Instead, we are left to be our own judges of merit on a daily basis. We know better than anyone when we've done something special, and it's up to us to recognize our best efforts and to keep pushing onward towards better things.
What personal accomplishments would get lifted into the rafters of your life's arena this year? One of my proudest moments involved an actitivty that I'd sworn off and left for dead over twenty years ago.
Last month, I completed the first 5k event that I’ve run since high school, and in the course of training for that event, I became a little obsessed with the idea of PR’s or personal records. Keeping track of one’s own best efforts in a given endeavor, sporting or otherwise, is really motivating, and it might just be the most accurate way to define true accomplishments in our lives.
The night before the 5k event, I was a touch nervous. When I say that I hadn’t run a 5k since my teenage years, I mean that I hadn’t run even a mile at a time since senior high school, and even back then I didn’t really enjoy any sort of distance running. As a teenager, I played basketball and could fly up and down the court endlessly, but when it came to running without the action and distraction of a game involved, I hit a mental block. I ran cross country for a season when I was seventeen years old, but I didn’t really enjoy those races, and I eventually became convinced I just wasn’t a cross country sort of guy.
Then I grew up, got married, got stressed and tired from office pressures and long commutes, got anxious because my wife got sick, got sick from medicines that were supposed to make me unanxious, got depressed by an unfulfilling career and financial struggles, got okay with being unhealthy, got frustrated with being unhealthy, got really determined, crawled through a years-long tunnel of misery and shit to quit the antianxiety medications, saved money, started writing more, quit the unfulfilling job, quit smoking, started cheerleading myself more, and finally got really determined to get really serious about fitness again, all of which led me to sign up for this 5k event at the age of thirty-eight.
Now, I won't turn down a book deal or an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay if those things come my way in the future, but I already know what some of my great accomplishments are in this life.
Back to the main event. As my wife and I cooked our pasta dinner the night before the BIG 5K, worries and negative voices waltzed around my consciousness like drunken guests who crashed my party and wouldn’t leave. For months, my wife and I had suffered through Rockyesque training montages at local parks, but what if none of that mattered because I couldn’t get enough sleep the night before the race or because I ate too much or too little the morning of the event? For weeks, I’d experienced emotional highs by consistently beating my best times for a 3.11-mile distance, but what if I came in well below those times on the race day’s official clock because of some cramp, some bladder problem, or some issue with taking a wrong turn into oncoming traffic?
What if, when push came to shove, I just wasn't a cross country sort of guy?
What if the “accomplishments” I thought I had been grabbing over the course of my training sessions faded to nothing on race day? If I couldn’t get the official accomplishment of a good time that morning, would any of my hard work really mean anything at all?
Cut to the starting line. Twitchy people in obscenely short shorts are waiting to add medals to their shelves of official accomplishments, and my wife and I are cueing up our MP3 players and smiling nervously at each other, trying to forget fears about possible injuries or meteor showers that might prevent us from reaching the finish line we’d been imagining for months.
And then we’re off, and I feel pretty good, and before I know what’s really transpired, I’m approaching the finish line. I'm excited. I think I’m on pace to set a new personal record for myself, but as I glance at my fitness watch to check my pace, there’s a problem: The distance tracker only reads about 2.97 miles.
With mere yards standing between me and what I think is a real accomplishment—an opportunity to get an impressive PR, on race day no less—the finish line doesn’t appear to signal a true 5k distance for me. Because of some problem with how race officials measured the course, or because of some anomaly with how I took the twists and turns of the streets, I wouldn’t actually be setting a personal record if I wound down as I crossed beneath the FINISH banner.
As I got closer and closer to the race’s end line, I considered how far I had traveled personally to get to that point. What had begun as a vague mission to get healthier by going for long walks and lifting a few weights had turned into a determined effort to prove I could finish a 5k. Then I’d run myself to the point of dry heaving each week as I’d trained to get better and better 5k times. Then I’d promised myself I could do it all despite race-day nerves. And now, I was one final push away from setting my personal best 5k time.
I just needed a little more room to run.
So, as I crossed the finish line marking "official accomplishment" on that crisp and sunny race day last month, I made the decision to pursue what I knew to be my actual accomplishment, and I just kept on running. As people cheered and yelled good job, I just kept on going.
Now, I don’t know for sure what the people gathered around the race’s finish line were thinking about me that day, but they might have been wondering if they needed to call an ambulance because one runner had overdone it and gone delirious. Or they might have been wondering if I was late for some court date or desperately in need of a recovery snack I’d forgotten in my car.
Maybe people were even thinking that I was some self-absorbed schmuck, like the guy at the gym who is always grabbing his leg and stretching, even during conversations, because he wants to remind people that he is there to tend to his body—that beautiful machine—first and foremost.
But I decided not to care about what people were thinking.
Putting aside concerns about public opinion regarding my decision, I ran the sidewalk surrounding the parking lot until my watch said 3.11 miles exactly. And then I saw that I'd recorded a new 5k personal best, and then I knew deep down that I was just as accomplished as the bearded gazelle in three-inch-long shorts who picked up the actual first-place hardware that day.
The truth is, life is all about personal victories, and that means that true accomplishments are subjective. Most times, we are the only ones capable of measuring the true value of our efforts, because we are the only ones who know exactly how far back the starting lines were and exactly how filled with obstacles our own particular paths to a given finish line were.
On any given day, millions of people are reaching personal milestones in their battles against debt, shyness, obesity, physical sickness, grief, addiction, or commitment issues. On any given day, someone is excited to get an entry-level position for $35,000 per year while someone else is getting upset that they were only able to save $35,000 that year. Every day, thousands of people are making the difficult decision to start taking medications for their depression and anxiety while others are making the difficult decision to quit taking them. Every day, things like getting out of bed, eating, and showering are true accomplishments for some people, while such things are never given a second thought by other people who are in good health and too busy worrying about all of the things they have to go out and accomplish that day.
Perspective is the key to keeping positive momentum going in life, and personal cheerleading is a close second.
I think that we all have a pretty good sense of what True Accomplishment means in our own lives, so we all just have to keep pursuing the things we know to be our true victories, and we have to remember to celebrate those personal records each day.
At the gym last night, I set a new 5k personal record of just under 25 minutes, and I'm celebrating that by mentioning it at the end of this blog post.
Remember to celebrate all of the really big deals in your life this week and in 2016. Happy New Year!