[Edit- this post was based on the idea that our society routinely limits our potential by setting up roadblocks. Sometimes those roadblocks are institutional in nature. Sometimes the roadblocks come from other people. I use a comment on another post by Rob Youngren as an example of the latter, but it wasn't meant to seriously diminish my 'ultramarathon book' idea. I unfairly characterize Rob's comment for the purposes of making a point as I'm using it as a proxy for a societal tendency. If you read the rest of our exchange in the linked post, you'll see it wasn't as inflammatory as it is characterized here. Rob was simply making a tongue-in-cheek comment and I apologize to Rob for removing it from that context. I have nothing but respect for his accomplishments as an ultrarunner and value his contribution to our community here at BRU.]
Our society has an inferiority complex. We let other people dictate our actions. We compulsively feel the need for external validation before we do anything of significance.
How does this work?
We have an idea. We tell others about the idea. They tell us how stupid the idea is, why it won’t work, or we’re not qualified in some way.
So we scrap the idea.
A few days ago, I posted about my decision to start a book about ultrarunning (the project can be found here). The decision sparked conversation in the comments section, including a comment by Rob Youngren. For those that don’t know Rob, he’s an accomplished ultrarunner with tons of experience. He’s run Barkley, Badwater, and finished Hardrock multiple times. In short, he’s an ultra stud.
His comment was simple- you’re an inexperienced back of the pack ultrarunner… you have no business writing a book about ultras.
He’s right! Well, at least the first part is right. Relative to many ultrarunners, I am inexperienced. And slow. I’ve never won a race. Hell, I don’t know if I’ve ever even placed in the first half of all finishers. I just DNFed a 50k… after six miles. I’m so slow, I usually get lapped by the sun. I can go on. Not only am I a sub-par runner, I’m also a mediocre writer. I barely passed my ONE writing class in college, and managed to test out of the rest with a lot of BS. I have about as much writing ‘cred as a seventh grader.
Does that mean I shouldn’t write a book?
In the six or seven years I’ve been running ultras, I’ve done two things that are absolutely invaluable: I trained despite having an incredibly busy life and I obsessively read and experimented with a million different ideas. In short, I found as many shortcuts as I could possibly find to get to the point where I could finish a 100 miler.
Is that unique? Not really. Lots of people do it. In fact, all ultrarunners I know have busy professional lives… even the elites. Many have multiple kids and busy personal lives, too.
As far as the writing bit- there’s always a back door. I managed to get a contract from a pretty big publisher for The Barefoot Running Book despite my obvious shortcomings as a writer. How? I accepted that I was an idiot and looked for alternative solutions. Instead of sending out thousands of query letters trying to secure an agent or publisher, I did research and learned how to self-publish the book. I didn’t fight the gatekeepers, I ignored them completely and found my own route. Ironically, the fact that I didn’t need the gatekeepers ultimately led to them seeking me out. They needed me a lot more than I needed them. Approval is pretty easy to get when we stop begging for it.
So what would make my book unique?
People that talk about ultras don’t like to talk about shortcuts. We have a perception that there’s no substitute for hard work. We need to put in our time. We need to follow a good training plan, do lots of crosstraining, and eat a strict diet.
Outsiders look at that and get intimidated. How can they fit that into their busy lives? It looks insurmountable, so they never attempt it.
What’s the secret? Tons of people run ultras despite their busy lives. They don’t just add all that training on top of everything else. They use shortcuts. And nobody talks about it.
Enter my book idea.
The book may be a huge success. It may be a huge failure. I don’t care, it will be a fun process regardless. I’ll get an opportunity to learn, and the readership will get to share some cool ideas. It will help people and add to our collective knowledge.
After reading Rob’s comment, I could have agreed with him and scrapped the project. I could have deferred to the person with far more experience. That is after all, our socially-ingrained course of action.
As a high school teacher, I saw this training process. We would tell kids we wanted them to “think critically.” We didn’t really want that, of course. We wanted to coerce kids into believing what we taught, then convince them they arrived at that conclusion on their own. If we really wanted to let kids think critically, we’d be okay allowing them to openly criticize our teaching. I don’t recall seeing too many teachers allowing THAT in their classroom. We taught them to defer to authority or those with more knowledge. We taught them to respect the gatekeepers that tell them what they can and cannot do. We taught them they’re not worthy of original thought or ideas. We taught them to follow, not lead.
If you have something inside that has to get out, don’t let anyone stand in the way.
There’s always going to be someone that is more knowledgeable than you. There’s going to be someone faster. Or more experienced. Or prettier. Or more letters after their name. Whatever.
The key is to learn to ignore those people. Don’t let gatekeepers keep you from chasing your dreams.
Okay, here’s a challenge for the comments. Tell me about one dream you’ve had, but someone has acted as a gatekeeper by telling you it can’t be done (or you’re not good enough, smart enough, that race is too long, etc.)
[Note- If you read the rest of the exchange between Rob and I, you'll see he was half-joking about the initial comments. I was merely using that as one singular example of an expert telling us we're not worthy.]