24 Mar 2014

We get talking around a tricky bouldering problem neither of us can do. Since we're at about the same level, we take it in turns to point out other routes to try. I watch as her partner struggles with my nemesis climb, a savage slab that I'd defeated only ten minutes earlier. He's a big guy, tough-looking, and he can't quite finish it. I think: I'm a better climber than he is.

He hits the mat hard and she brings me down to earth at the same time: "This is the first time I've brought him bouldering". At three sessions a week, it's taken me months to get to this point.

But really, it's not the fast-starters that give me hesitation. It's the experienced climbers, doing amazing things, all around me.

Faced with that, it's easy to give up. I can't compete with these people; I've started too late, I don't have the focus, and at the extreme edge of the curve, I don't even have the genes. And there's a strong argument not to try. Given that there are things you have the capacity to excel at, why spend your time on any where your best hope is to be average? Why be a poor neurosurgeon if you could be a great racing driver?

The next morning, I have another intimidating experience at a yoga studio I've been visiting for the last couple of weeks. I move through the sun salutations, the easy beginning of the 'primary sequence'. I'm struggling to breathe evenly even in 'downward-facing dog', which is meant to be a resting pose. Around me, people are doing impossible things with ease. But I'm not losing hope. Giving me comfort is this thought, almost a mantra:

This will never be this hard again.

And it already isn't. My form sucks, my flexibility is terrible, I'm moving slowly, and even half an hour is enough to make my shoulders say "enough". But I'm getting through the basic poses without instruction, now, and noticing that I'm getting them less wrong than I was before. The gravity-defying athletes around me don't change that.

I've noticed that I'm already seeing benefits: moving from "terrible" to "bad" has a payoff, just as moving from "good" to "great" does. More importantly, though, there are areas you can't opt-out of. If you suck at neurosurgery you can just avoid situations where you might have to perform it. If you suck at flexibility, or core strength, or mental focus, that continues to apply whether or not you try to fix it. The race is still running, even if you've chosen to stay on the starting line.

I think the generality is this: for career skills, we're quite rightly taught, and expected, to focus on what we're good at. Deep, rather than broad, expertise is valuable. Nurture your strengths; avoid your weaknesses. But outside of the workplace, it's the other way around: diminishing returns means it's better to get a wide range of capabilities up to at least 'bad' (from 'terrible') before moving on. Rejoice in your strengths but target your weaknesses.

I finish the routine, each time, knowing that I will never be good at this. But that's okay. I can get better.