Tuesday, November 23, 2010

It's Not about Results

When I was a middle school teacher, I always told my students that it wasn't about the grades. It wasn't about any score, or any comparison; it wasn't about making the team; it wasn't about winning something. Instead, it is always, always about the work you put into it, and the way you keep facing the challenges that show up on your doorstep.

That's it.

I was pretty good at giving the above message in bold ways. Using stories and examples, I could make it funny. I could make it poignant. I could make it look and feel and walk and talk like truth.

But I didn't realize until a few nights ago how I still needed to learn to believe it myself. And it's thanks to my wife and her breaking through a core belief I hadn't changed.

It had been one of those long days where the sky hangs heavy, telling you, Hey, man, don't even try to come out, because as soon as you do, I am going to POUR on you. I'm not just talking drizzle; I am talking about sheets of water.

So we made the best of indoor time, doing puzzles, pretending to be joint Bobs the Builder, running back and forth between the washing machine (in our kitchen) and the front door (at the front door part of the house), banging on buckets, making trucks talk, and trading tickles.

But by the end of the day, I was wiped. Exhausted.

When I get tired, my mind usually races with failures--things I have worked really hard at, but which haven't come to fruition. It's like being overtired triggers something inside me that says, Ah, but Luke! If you could only work a little harder, you would have had success in this area!

This particular night, it happened to be the voice of condemnation over my writing.
My writing had come pretty darn close a couple of times.
And every time, I would hold my head up high, say, Getting there...getting there...and keep trying. Meanwhile, I kept telling myself what I had heard hundreds of writers say you must do as you wait for a book to make the rounds with editors: keep writing.

So, what did I do?

I kept writing.

I wrote ferociously. I wrote every story that popped into my head (which was a lot, I found, when you have an overactive imagination and some solid writing time while your son is napping).

But when the passes continued to come, I started to feel like I did when I was I was in high school, playing basketball.

Well, perhaps it's a misnomer to say, playing basketball.

The truth is, I didn't do much playing during the games. I made my high school basketball team--which was a steep challenge. We had a big school, and there were a lot of strong players, and our team won the state championship a couple of times.

I made the team, and worked hard under our demanding but wise coach (whose day job was a prison guard). In the off seasons, I worked four or five hours a day practicing drills, running miles dribbling two basketballs, sprinting suicides, shooting hundreds of free throws, completing shooting drills that were complete with sit-ups and push-ups mixed in between shots.

In short: I worked my butt off, ate zero bad food, and turned the spotlights on above our garage to do night drills when it got too dark to see.

But no matter how hard I worked, I didn't ever play much in the games. It was like this was this mental block, making me afraid on the court, causing me to hesitate, to doubt I could make the same shots that I made thousands of times in my own driveway every day.

Throughout my entire high school basketball-playing journey, I probably played less than the minutes of a full game. (Which was 32 in our league--eight-minute quarters)

Afterwards, I looked back at that experience, and dealt with what happened by telling myself things like, Well, I learned a lot from it and I worked really hard, and I became very physically fit and healthy, right?

And I kind of thought that it was over and done with. Old news. Moved on.

But it was only in talking with Jennifer a few nights ago, as I began to bemoan my lack of getting a contract for Atticus & Me that she asked me about my high school basketball experience. Even though it was years ago, the first thing that popped out of my mouth was this: "It was an utter failure."

Jen: An utter failure?! Do you really think that?

Me: Well, I know I learned a lot and all that...but, really, my goal was to play--and I never accomplished that. So, yeah, it was a failure, essentially.

Jen: (She gives me this knowing look--but kind of sprinkled with confusion, and doesn't say anything. But her not-saying-anything-look says the following to me in very clear words: whoa, buddy, you are way off here, and I'm going to give you a minute to really let how off you are sink in...think about what you just said...and think about what is really true, deep down.)

Me: Wasn't it? A failure, I mean...


Me: Why not?

Jen: Because you worked at it. Every day you were out there busting your butt, when most other high school kids wouldn't have been able to do half of what you did--the way you worked, the discipline you learned. It was never about making shots in the game--it was always about the person you were learning to become.

Me: (Okay, I'll be honest: tears.)

Jen: Achievements are like tiny dots on a long line. The line is journey you take--the way you work at something, the way you live--and achievements and results are just single points. Do you really think that your life is all about the dots, and not about the lines?

Me: Well, when you put it that way...

Jen: (The look says: Now, you're finally starting to get it.)

And the truth is, I am. Starting to get it, I mean.

It's what I always told my students, and REALLY wanted them to believe and make a part of their lives--in the deep kind of way that core beliefs become a part of all of our lives. But even though I knew what to say to my students, I hadn't yet destroyed my own false belief.

I wasn't a failure because I didn't play much basketball in high school.

And as a writer, I am not a failure because Atticus & Me hasn't yet garnered a publishing contract.

Instead, I am finally learning to live out what I have often preached--and that, thanks to my wife, who challenged me to face the lies I had been telling myself. I am finally learning that it isn't about those tiny dots on the long lines of our lives that count. It's isn't about the results.

Instead, it's about something much more beautiful. It's about the way we draw those lines, the directions we send them towards, and the way they intersect other lines along the path they take.