The Quiet Strengthening of Willpower

Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog

– Haruki Murakami

Experience that counts

If you were to ask me: ‘How long have you been running?’ My reply would be: ‘I first started running four years ago. Since then I’ve run three races, two 5ks and one 10k, both for Cancer Research, raising around £1500 in total.’ If you were to ask me how much experience I have in running, my reply would be: ‘One month.’

That’s because I consider elapsed time and actual experience in doing something to be two different things. The figure of one month is the actual amount of learning and training I actually did if I were to condense all the time and effort spread over the four years.

Take for instance someone who says they’ve got over twenty years of experience in software delivery. What I would want to know is if it’s twenty years of concentrated learning and experience or if it’s the same year repeated twenty times. It’s important to distinguish between the two because they differ tremendously in value.

Running for your life

Since I’m aiming to run this year’s Cancer Research 10k in 55 minutes or less (a new personal best), I’ve decided to take things more seriously. I’ve been asking fellow runners for advice, reading runner magazines and have even undergone gait analysis (this involves running on a treadmill in a sports shop in full view of passersby looking bemused while sipping their lattés).

And, thanks to my newfound surge of seriousness, I stumble on Murakmi’s novel about his experience as a runner and writer.

What I talk about when I talk about running

In his novel about writing, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami identifies the top three qualities of a novelist (which, conveniently, also applies to a runner or anyone with a goal) as:

  1. Talent
  2. Focus
  3. Endurance

Shooting Stars

The top quality has to be be talent. You’ve got to have a bit of this to succeed. Murakami acknowledges that talent is more of a prerequisite than a talent. That’s a brutal fact. Talent is a slippery thing. Firstly, you can’t control the amount of talent you’re endowed with. Secondly, assuming you’ve got some, it comes and goes as it wishes, instead of being summonable like willpower (and willpower itself can only be honed through practice and discipline).

Focus, focus, focus!

Murakami describes focus as ‘the ability to concentrate all your limited powers on whatever’s critical at the moment’. Without focus, it’s impossible to achieve anything of value. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The good news is that focus can compensate for erratice or even a lack of talent.

Hasten slowly, steady does it

Murakami compares endurance with breathing, ‘If concentration is the process of just holding your breath, endurance is the art of slowly, quietly breathing at the same time you’re storing air in your lungs’.

You get what you put in

The really good news is that unlike talent, both focus and endurance are disciplines and therefore can be acquired and improved with lots of practice. Apply a regular stimulus to step up your training level, then rinse and repeat. Last but not least, remember to be patient. It’s with this regime that Murakami guarantees results in our endeavours.

As usual, I get a second opinion. ‘How do you get so fit?’ I ask Brad, the gym instructor. ‘Two things. Diet and a lot of effort’. Sounds simple. And it’s anything but easy.

2 Responses to “The Quiet Strengthening of Willpower”

  1. Luc Reid writes:

    I’m much in agreement with a lot of this post, like the importance of focus and effort. But about talent: actually, there’s a very good book out (Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin) that delves into the research over the past couple of decades about talent, and as difficult as it is for anyone who was raised in America to swallow, it isn’t inborn: not for running, or chess, or music, or painting, or pretty much anything else. Except for the requirement of a certain minimum level of intelligence, the rest of talent is all about getting in good practice, exactly as you describe when you say “What I would want to know is if it’s twenty years of concentrated learning and experience or if it’s the same year repeated twenty times.” If you’re pushing yourself every one of those twenty years, you get twenty years of practice and come out with substantially more apparent “talent” than someone who’s been doing it for twenty years and coasting. I won’t go on at length here about this, although I tackle it somewhat better on my blog:

  2. portiatung writes:

    Hi Luc,

    Many thanks for sharing your thoughts on talent in relation to hardwork and practice. It’s great encouragement for those with a goal who work hard!

    – Portia

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