May 14th, 2014

I “Should Have” – What I Learned In 6 Days Not Working on a Caribbean Beach

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We all have “should haves.”  Any time we want something we repeatedly tell ourselves ways that we “should have” done better. I am recently home from 6 days in the Caribbean and I “should have” practiced more ballet.  In this post I’m going to explore some of the intentional and unintentional positive consequences of taking time off, and how unrelated skills can transfer to a primary focus.

The view from my patio

The Value of Rest

Less than a day home and I am reflecting on how I might have used my time abroad better. However, I’m also examining how what I did will supplement my training. Like most who work hard in their domain I am not great at taking time off. While the idea of relaxing with a mojito on a white sandy beach might sound like fun, I spent much of my first day in Mexico fretting that I wasn’t practicing ballet or building my business. I found several different ways around this dilemma, which I’ll detail.

Why It Is Hard to Turn Off

Before going into the reasons, though, let’s look at some of why it is hard to take time off. I’ll start with a fitness metaphor. I believe (and scientific studies confirm) that training different parts of the body on different days is valuable, and that even a rest day is useful every week or so. Why then was it hardy to let go of work on the beach? I believe rest is useful in fitness, but why not then in another? As soon as I let go of my self-blame over not working I was able to ask that question without judgement and realized I derive some satisfaction from the feeling of productivity, even if that internal worry concern is just the circling of a treadmill. What this meant is that I while I can intellectually rationalize the value of rest, when it comes to resting on the beach I didn’t actually believe that. A short series of questions enabled me to apply what I believe about variation and rest days in exercise to resting on the Caribbean. Here are a couple of specific stratifies for enforcing rest:

Linger Over Meals

One thing that I started on my first day and perfected as an art form by my third is lingering over meals. I arrived at every meal with a book in hand. At first I’d eat relatively quickly and then plan for whatever I was going to do next. This quickly became an evident waste, as the meals were worth savoring and I had little else to do most days. So I began to very intentionally take a long time reading over each meal. By my third day I was able to stretch breakfast until lunchtime, with the help of a good book and a dip in the ocean.

Adopt New Activities

I don’t actually like to be idle. So instead of trying force myself to sit still all day, I also picked up several new activities.

  1. Tulum is famous for kitesurfing. I always try to practice a new movement, skill, or sport when I travel and so tired out kite boarding.
  2. Since I gave up Brazilian jiujitsu and gymnastics in favor of ballet, I haven’t been doing regular body weight exercises (push-ups, crunches, etc.) on a regular basis. I set myself  the simple goal of doing push-ups every day.
  3. I arrived in Mexico with 7 books for a 6 day trip. Ambitious, certain, as I don’t usually get through so many in a given month, but I planned ahead for a lot of reading.

Transfer

Kitesurfing is a complex sport, entailing comfort with a kite strong enough to pull a human’s body weight, even before going on a board in the water. I was just trying something new but looking back there are skills from kitesurfing that transfer to my study of ballet. Retrospective transfer is one of my favorite tools for continued improvement.

Don’t Resist Reality

In kitesurfing it is useless to fight the kite. Together the kite and wind are much more powerful than I’ll ever be. When I tried to force control I crashed the kite or was blown around. This is an extremely useful reminder because in ballet I can sometimes get away with using force but can never accomplish my highest performance without relaxation. Tomorrow, re-entering the dance studio I will take that relaxing feeling into class.

Dream Big, Start Small

The appeal of kitesurfing to the awed on-looker is when an expert leaps high off of a crashing wave, also executing turns or changes of direction. As a complete novice I began by holding a small practice kite on the beach. While I could dream about jumps in the surf it was only useful to start where I was. I’ve written before about starting small, but the temptation to try for more than we can achieve is always there. In kitesurfing, ballet, or any complex activity, we can only make progress from where we are right now.

Books

I read 5 books in 6 days. Only one was dance specific but I picked up applicable thoughts in all of them that I can transfer to my study of ballet.

Physics and the Art of Dance – This is a book about ballet written by a physicist. The applications were obvious – scientific case studies for why a small footed dancer might be able to jump better to fast music, how the axis of a dancer rotates in pirouettes, etc. More surprising was that by reading about dance I was able to visualize doing the movements described. After experiencing this by chance at first, I proceeded to intentionally visualize the movements described thereafter. From my past experience as well as the scientific literature on visualization, I expect that I’ll notice improved performance in those areas when I return to the studio.

Fluent in 3 Months – I am conversational in Spanish but have been meaning to ready this book since it came out last month. All of my notes throughout the book have to do with the application of language learning skills to movement. Benny’s down-to-Earth attitude, addressing with specific examples all of a language learner’s concerns and specific strategies for gradual growth apply just as well to improving performance in a non-language domain.

The Obstacle Is the Way – Ryan Holiday’s new book is my new go-to for anyone interested in what I call practical philosophy. In relationship to fulfillment, entrepreneurial manic-depression, or the philosophy of learning, this is the book I recommend. Ryan pulls from the Stoic philosophers and the lives of Marcus Aurelius, Amelia Earhart, Abraham Lincoln, and a dozen others to teach specific strategies for facing challenges. I found this book a useful guide in exploring my belief that I may have started ballet too late (answer: question assumptions), that I won’t have the opportunities to train with the best (answer: lessons learned from Amelia Earhart’s struggles as the first female pilot), or any of the other countless doubts faced by anyone in the midst of a big undertaking.

Since a thorough book report isn’t my goal today I’ll summarized what I’ve transferred from the other two books very briefly: From Pico Iyer’s The Open Road, about the life of the Dali Lama, I was reminded that we are all multifaceted and to never, never give up. And from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I took away that anything worth doing can be done with artistry.

Push-Ups

I went from 10 push-ups on my first day to 25 on my 6th. The process was a useful reminder of small habits that inform an overall goal. It is easy to get caught up in the specific technical challenges of ballet and forget that smalls amounts of cross-training in seemingly unrelated activities make an impact, too.

Next Time

I do still have some regret that I trained zero actual ballet on my six days away. The phrase I keep repeating to myself is “I should have.” The one thing that I will do differently next time to make training abroad easier is to build out ahead of time a specific, short regime to practice. I emphasize short because if it is long I won’t do it at all. It is unreasonable to expect that I’ll go from 100% physical practice in class with a teacher to 100% by myself on the beach in one step. Instead I’ll develop a 10 minute practice regimen with the most important 3-5 things that I am working on currently to take with me.


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