I had a spry older gent as a patient, with a singular focus: “Doc, just do whatever you gotta do to get me back on the golf course.” That was his yardstick for whether a medical intervention had value. Kind of the ultimate in being goal oriented.
High intensity activity can be like that, if you’re a silver badass. It’s the lens through which hard drivers judge their health and fitness choices. If something helps you stay intense, it’s bueno. If something interferes with your ability to go hard, it’s no bueno.
So, if for example doing regular Zone 2 cardio is important, you prioritize running, cycling, and rowing to get in your weekly aerobic hours, and put aside the Netflix and TikTok.
But with age comes not only an appreciation of focusing, but also of having a broader perspective. Doing 6 hours of cardio a week may sound impressive…but doing 3 hours a week of four 45-minute sessions may be just fine. You could compete in jiu-jitsu tournaments…or count regularly attending classes as your prize. You could pursue an avocation with a laser focus, but doing so might seem…odd, if it alienated your family, increased your risk of injury, or turned you into a frustrated rage monster.
All I needed was my NordicTrack
When I was an intern, I thought I only needed ONE thing to neutralize the daily stresses of first-year medical training: just 15 minutes to myself at the end of a shift to exercise on my NordicTrack. Not too much to ask from life, right? And boy did it bend my brain if real life seemingly conspired to deny me “this one little thing.”
Every day, I realize that life is complicated. We require everything to function well — try to get by without every single one of your body parts, mental faculties, or beloved friends and family. But we often can’t have everything in life, and sometimes not even one seemingly small thing. That we have to get by nonetheless is part of life’s complexity.
There is no “just one thing” that will make everything right. And if there is, it sold out last week.
To add to the complexity, each of us is a part of other people’s lives. Like it or not, we make someone else’s life brighter, shinier, and more worth living. You are part of someone else’s “just one thing.”
So if you can’t get always get what you want or what you need…?
I suggest diversification.
Rather than going bonkers if you can’t get the one thing, have more than one thing.
Have 2 kinds of goals.
Some goals you pursue, like my patient did, because the result is the thing. You can clearly measure the value of your activities: closer = thumbs up, farther away = time to do something differently. If you do something to lose weight, drop your blood pressure, or improve your cholesterol and your numbers get better, keep doing it.
But other goals you pursue because the pursuit itself is valuable. If you’d keep at a thing even if it never led to a practical outcome, then by definition the process itself has value. Martial arts are a prime example, since most practitioners will never have to defend themselves using them, yet doing them for decades is not uncommon.
As time passes, you may get an inkling that there’s something even more profound happening. That it’s not just specific practices that have inherent value in their journeys, but that doing ANYTHING regularly is the thing. We’re getting a little Zen, here, but there are hints from Asia where one can achieve Mastery in doing martial arts, but also making a bowl of tea, arranging flowers, sweeping the yard, or any number of activities. Also from meditation, where you can meditate on a phrase, a candle flame, your breathing, or any number of things.
The value of the practice comes from returning your attention, over and over, to the whatever. Refinement happens — do anything mindfully over a few decades and you’ll get really smooth, baby, doing it — but even that may not be the point.
Moving like a badass is cool, but…
It’s not about whisking the green tea faster, or performing sword cuts with a louder swoosh. That’s like dying with the most toys as the richest man in the cemetery. You could work at being more-better, but it’d be a shame if that’s all you got out of it. Shōdan, or first-degree black belt in Japanese martial arts, means first step. Congratulations, now we can show you the Multiverse.
It’s about bringing yourself back to any kind of practice, continually. If you couldn’t practice karate, you could learn cooking, or paint Warhammer figurines, and so on.
The magic seems to come from logging your flight time. Putting in your hours, day in and day out, something deepens and develops. Because, I think, you’re spending quality time with yourself instead of Netflix, Facebook, and the 24/7 news cycle, while not getting in your own way. And good things tend to happen when you settle down without distraction or self-delusion.
Which is such a foreign concept to most of us that it is difficult to put into words.