I’m not very good at working hard. I work hard to the extent that it comes naturally to me, but it’s often hard for me to move beyond that. I noticed this in a yoga class the other day. I don’t remember what my teacher said, but I know that I started paying attention to the effort I was putting into my poses and realized that I wasn’t working hard. That seemed strange to me given I was pouring sweat and certainly challenged. But I realized that there is a difference between working hard to the extent that my natural talent and ability allow me and working hard to move beyond my natural talent and ability.
For example, I’ve been practicing yoga for years now. I taught yoga for years. I’ve worked hard on a lot of poses, and I’ve become adept at many challenging ones. However, I’ve slowly developed my ability to do yoga at a more “advanced” level over time. I once worked just as hard at triangle as I now do at handstand. I used to work just as hard at extended side angle pose as I now do at jumping from crow into chaturanga. I don’t work harder at harder poses—it’s just that the ability I’ve developed over time now allows me to do those more challenging poses. My developed capacities became my natural ones, and they continue to develop and expand over time.
When I noticed in that yoga class that I wasn’t working hard beyond my natural capacity, I started working harder. I started focusing more. I started fatiguing my muscles more. I started pressing into parts of my body more. I started paying even closer attention to my alignment. I started engaging my muscles more. I dedicated more of myself than I could naturally. It was hard. And it was rewarding.
Since then, I’ve been noticing and thinking about my habits.
In sports, I always played according to my natural talents. I never worked on my swing or my shot. I simply played and became better over time. When I reached the limits of my natural or developed-over-time talent, I quit. It was that simple.
I do the same thing as an artist. Yes, I’ve developed my skills over time, but the moment I extend beyond my natural or developed-over-time capacities, I stop. I revert back to what’s familiar and skillful.
I do it in the water. When I surf, I rely on whatever capacities I’ve built so far and almost forget that I can actually work harder. I forget that I can strive to paddle better, arch my back more, pop up faster, or be more diligent about riding a wave. Instead, I rely on my already-developed-skills and get pummeled if my talents don’t meet the demands of the wave.
I’m noticing as I’m writing that there is a gap here. And it frustrates me. It frustrated me as I tried to explain this to my husband too. Let’s see if I can capture something:
Let’s say that our natural talent and ability is water in a glass. The glass is half full. Yes, we’re optimists. The water in the glass represents my natural talent. When I first start something, my skill allows me to use 1/8 of my natural talent or 1/8 of the water. Over time, simply by playing and doing, I develop my natural talent and eventually tap into all of it. I’ve tapped into all of the water in the glass. Now there is a component of whatever it is that I’m doing that requires talent beyond the height of the water in the glass. I no longer have enough natural talent—water in the glass—to meet the demands of the situation. It is at this point that I quit. I get bored. I become resigned. I figure I’m meant for something else. I tell myself I can’t do it. It hurts. I get lazy.
What I learned in yoga the other day is that I can move beyond my natural talent; that I can move beyond the amount of water in the glass. There’s still something missing here. I keep wanting to write something cliché: with hard work, I can get better! With hard work, I can do it! Well duh, right? But that’s not quite what I’m trying to capture.
By doing things I never knew I could do, I can do things I never knew I could do.
My friend Jeff is perhaps helping me name this a bit more. He said to me, via text, that perhaps I’m stronger than I give myself credit for. I think he’s right.
I know I’m a strong person. I’ve been through a lot of shit. I’ve faced a lot of challenges. I’ve worked hard (within the realm of my natural talent, mind you). I’ve failed (a lot!). I’ve experienced a lot of muscle-building moments in my life, and I’m certainly strong.
But I’m strong only to the extent that my mind and preconceived notions allow me to be. I’m strong only to the extent that I know myself to be. I know that there is a range of strength that I can depend upon, and I don’t extend my strength beyond that range.
What I’ve learned is that I’m stronger beyond my range of strength. My range of strength is merely a notion, and one based on my relatively poor and quite harsh notion of myself. My range of talent is based on the same. My range of intelligence is based on the same. My range of generosity is based on the same. The amount of effort that I exert for any given thing is based on my relatively poor and quite harsh notion of myself.
I just remembered this time that I challenged myself to do things that I told myself I couldn’t do. For one day, I did everything that I thought (literally thought) I couldn’t do. I was in Atlanta at the time and dealing with the death of basketball. I had quit the sport in high school and hadn’t picked up a ball since. I had lots of sad memories associated with the sport, and I remained heartbroken about it. So, I thought, I should get a ball! I can’t do that, I thought. So I had to buy one. I did. I should go shoot! I thought. And so I did. I should play around the world and make 10 baskets from each point, including the three-pointer spots. Now that was really ridiculous. I can’t do that. And so I did it. It took me hours. It took lots of patience. By the end, my wrist was swollen, and my palms were bruised. I hadn’t played, after all, for years. But I did it. That was a time that I pushed myself beyond my natural or perceived talent.
So where am I going with this? Who knows? Who cares? The point for now is that I see it. I see my limitation. Because I love extending myself, I know I’ll start pushing my boundaries, expanding my expectations, and shifting my perspectives. I think I’ll start by doing two things: putting myself in situations I’m not sure I can handle and owning my strength—my physical, intellectual, emotional, and soulful strength (thank you, Jeff, for that one!).
Who knows what I’ll find! I’ll likely keep you posted.
In love and liminality,