Giving the Voice in our Head the Finger

A couple of weeks ago, my husband, business athlete Tim Mann, ran the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon. His official time was 1:11.15. That means, for over 13 miles, he ran at an average pace of 5 minutes and 26 seconds per mile. He came in 31st out of almost 14,000 people. As fast as this was, he didn’t hit his actual goal time. He didn’t miss it by much, but he didn’t surpass it either.Tim -- Running

And yet, when I asked him afterward if he would have done anything differently, changed anything about the way he ran the race, with zero hesitation, he said, “No.”

“Really?” I pressed. “Not a thing?”

“I ran the race I could today,” he replied matter-of-factly, and stuffed a banana into his mouth.

I didn’t get the sense it was false bravado or a hidden defensiveness either. He appeared genuinely at peace with his time (I mean, he should… that’s a pretty fast pace…but I know he is also a glutton for punishment).

As we walked around, I started paying attention to other people’s reactions after their race. It seemed as though virtually everyone was making excuses or regretting some aspect of their performance. I heard so many variations on “If I had/hadn’t,” and “It’s because I did/didn’t,” and “Next time I will/won’t…” Was no one happy with what they had achieved? It felt simultaneously deflating (and I hadn’t even run the damn thing!) and irritating.

I agree, it takes a lot to feel completely satisfied with what you are able to give during a challenge. There is always a voice in the back of our heads wondering if we could have done more. In all of my main passions — wine, cooking and music — like many, I struggle with self-doubt and an almost crippling impostor syndrome. I have walked away from every, single wine exam I have ever taken, beating myself up over the questions I probably got wrong. “With Merit” should have been “With Distinction.” Why wasn’t it? Every meal I prepare is analyzed and critiqued by my own internal Michelin inspector — even if I’m just cooking chicken nuggets for my kids. I studied piano for over a decade at the Royal Conservatory of Music and did not leave one annual piano exam not completely sick to my stomach with fear that I failed. I never did.

While I agree that self-awareness and a commitment to push harder in order to learn from one’s shortcomings are no doubt key attributes of successful people, what is it that prevents most people from ever truly experiencing the satisfaction of a job that they could accept was, in fact, well done? Should this feeling be reserved only for those who actually do come in first place? Even so, I’m not so sure the gentleman who won the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon wasn’t also thinking he could have shaved off a few more seconds from his time.

And, why was my husband able to know with complete certainty that he had indeed done all that he could? Did he actually put in more effort than others, or is there something about his mental state that allows him to fully comprehend and process his benign but mostly misplaced self-doubt into a realistic understanding of his capabilities at any given time? What is that something? Do others have it?

Perhaps it’s in our nature for good reason to be competitive with ourselves. It fosters innovation and forward advancement, not just of the individual but of generations. However, every once in a while, we all deserve to take a real look at the effort we put in and give ourselves a break. I would argue that, deep down, we know whether or not that little voice in our head is telling the truth.

I’m going to try it myself this week.

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