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3 Life Lessons Learned on the Golf Course

Photo by my father of me on Donegal Golf Course

Did you have a childhood skill you did with mixed feelings but persisted nevertheless?

For me, that was golf. The “Game of Life.” Except, as a teenager, life was not a game but an unwelcome burden as the world did not extend beyond my eyelids. Yet, nearly every weekend, my dad would stir me from my pubescent coma at 6:30 a.m. to meander about on, mainly, a glorified walk punctuated by mild manicured physical effort.

Like most teenagers, I wanted to do one thing and only one thing only on a Saturday: precisely what I wanted to do. Sleep. I can’t blame myself for that. My father probably knew that I didn’t want to go and was doing what most parents of teenagers want to do: enjoy their weekend and make their children live in a waking nightmare.

Still, around the third hole, my sleepy skepticism always lifted. Morning dew lingered, and a coolness persisted, giving each fairway shot a satisfying “chop!” as all thought suspended while a tiny white ball soared.

This past week, I picked up a golf club with my dad after two years and saw it and my writing with a new light.

3 Lessons learned on the golf course:

1. Cultivating worthwhile skills is not always enjoyable.

Even if I did not see it at the time, sweltering Saturdays amounted to a lot of progress and lifelong enjoyment. If I had not chopped away as a teenager, I would not be able to enjoy a casual afternoon outing with my dad. Despite not touching a golf club in two years, enough muscle maintained memory to flitter a few beautiful shots and breath a coastal breeze. An experience enabled by trying over and over and over again… with a few clubs thrown along the way.

Writing, too, remains persistently unsatisfying as long as I focus on the short-term results. It isn’t the reads, claps, likes, or other stats that cause my disappointment but the dearth between my tastes and abilities. With each stroke of the pen, club, or keyboard, I remind myself that I am writing now to build the skills to write worthwhile stories sometime soon. Maybe ten years, maybe longer. But wrestling throughout with uncertainty and finding flow.

I’m not going to suddenly produce Hemingway quality work with less than a year of dedicated writing experience. (Though if I wanted to justify a few decades of alcoholism, then pursuing writing would be among the better reasons.)

2. You have to swing the club to hit the ball.

From weather to a slight misalignment of your stance, innumerable variables shape a round of golf into a seamless series of strokes or a scavenger hunt for white specks within the spinach patch. The probability of success is not on the side of any golfer. So, why hang my mindset on outcomes?

Instead, I’m trying to relish in the uncertainty. Better to accept that I may not even know the outcome before starting a writing project. At best, I can only be surprised if my final draft reads with snarky charm and toes the line between humility and self-indulgence. (Dare to dream…)

Here is a question that I rarely confront to answer:

What is between me and my most authentic goals?

The answer is, humbly: Work — grueling effort and never knowing if the final product will amount to anything worthwhile.

Shear grinding effort stands between me and my loftiest dreams. It is so easy to self-sabotage, but essential subconscious skills are learned only through experience. Putting down the pen or closing the computer teaches with a tremendous sense of satisfaction and self-confidence. Not by reading others’ work or about techniques. (Though I’m sure the hours with my nose in science fiction built some tacit knowledge.)

None of my unfinished articles make me sleep better at night because I judge myself more harshly for my missed efforts than any criticism from a published work. It is better to settle with finished than spend weeks thinking about the unfulfilled potential of some unfinished work locked away in a folder.

3. Trust your instincts and relax.

No matter how many tips or techniques I try to hold in my head during a golf swing, they never amount to anything without a clear mind.

“When I tell you to take an aspirin, please don’t take the whole bottle. In the golf swing, a tiny change can make a huge difference. The natural inclination is to begin to overdo the tiny change that has brought success. So you exaggerate to improve even more, and soon you are lost and confused again.” — Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book

My best shots come after taking a breath, looking at the ball with my whole focus, and swinging without trying to kill it.

Is there a skill you cast aside but could revisit?

If there’s anything to take away from this post — other than golf is more than a privileged excuse to take a walk — let it be:

It is easy to let past experiences cloud our judgment of whether a skill is worth our time. Failures and missed expectations seize our focus away from the fleeting joyful moments. But memories are all we carry with us from day-to-day.

I never intended to pursue golf with a competitive spirit and no hope to start. My score is positive or negative only by the number of golf balls in my bag at the end of 18 holes. That’s fine with me.

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Colin Ward

Colin Ward

Reformed economist tackling mental health and spiritual subjects. Links to my writing: https://linktr.ee/colinkmw

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