In March of 2012 I did something reckless. I decided to register for a triathlon in September, six months later.
It was reckless because I was not an athlete at the time. I didn’t know how to swim. I hadn’t ridden a bike since I was 10 years old. So, I got to work. And six months later, I did what seemed unattainable — I completed my first triathlon.
Over those six months I trained my body how to swim, cycle, run, and how to transition between the three sports. I was in the best shape of my life.
My confidence and self-esteem were through the roof. I had done the impossible! But something felt like it was missing.
A year later, I decided to take up writing. I joined Medium and got to work, writing about what I learned in 2013 in a piece called Growing Up is Knowledge. In 2014 I published something new every week, laser-focused on hitting my goal of 52 pieces that year. I was honing my craft; becoming a better writer.
By the end of the year, I had done it, bookending the year with another reflection piece. It felt amazing to accomplish something so unthinkable. Prior to that point, I did not consider myself a “writer.”
Yet, once again, deep down, I still felt a void. Something was missing.
I had trained my body. I had trained a craft. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had neglected to train the one thing that determines how we experience life.
I had not trained my mind.
There are three things we can train: body, craft and mind.
Tonight, I’m going to talk about the one that doesn’t get much attention — training the mind.
Every thing we experience — the light waves bouncing off your screen into your eyes, ambient sound waves entering your ears, your thoughts, emotions, memories, habits, bodily sensations, are filtered through or emerge from your mind.
If we want to improve or change our lives, we need to train our minds. If we want to shift our relationship with ourselves or others, we need to train our minds. If we want healthier habits, we need to train our minds. If we want to better manage ourselves, our emotions, get less yanked around by the voice in our head, we need to train our minds.
Jerry Colonna is an executive coach who works with big-name CEOs. He recently released his first book, Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up. In it, he writes:
Our lives are twenty-four frames per second, with each frame a set piece of feeling, belief, obsession about the past, and anxiety about the future. Neither good nor bad, these frames form us. They become the stories we tell ourselves again and again to make sense of who we’re becoming, who we’ve been, and who we want to be.
Slowing down the movie of our lives, seeing the frames and how they are constructed, reveals a different way to live, a way to break old patterns, to see experiences anew…
Training our minds means training our attention. Our attention is our most valuable resource because where we place it— moment to moment, frame-by-frame — ultimately creates our day-to-day experience.
Let’s talk about training attention.
Training a craft requires deliberate practice — a term coined by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. Deliberate practice takes time, effort, and repetition. My year of writing was like this. Anyone who’s learned a new language or how to play a musical instrument, has likely had to use these three ingredients — time, effort and repetition.
Training the body also requires deliberate practice. Going to the gym once won’t get you fit. When I taught myself how to swim, I went to the pool five or six times a week, for months.
Training our attention is no different.
There are many different aspects of the mind we can train through attention. We can, despite common belief, actually train ourselves to be happier more often. We can train ourselves to be kinder, or more compassionate. We can train ourselves to be more curious and open-minded; open to new possibilities. We can train new habits.
This requires slowing down to notice what we pay attention to, then choosing to place our attention elsewhere — to a place that better serves us — over and over again. It’s doing the grueling work of slowing down — which can be hard in our fast-paced lives — and looking at those frames. Looking inward to see what’s preventing us from being who we want to be.
Last fall I found my dream house — a rental — that had almost everything I was looking for (no parking or laundry, but I was willing to compromise…).
It’s a little guest house with a small yard and plenty of space for entertaining, which I love to do. When I moved in, I was ecstatic. It felt unreal.
Anyone who’s ever gotten something they wanted — a new job, a new car, a partner — knows that positive emotions habituate. We get used to what we have — sometimes even taking it for granted.
I used to enter the gate into my home with a sense of wonder and awe — this is my home. My place. But within a month or two, I’d enter through that same gate with my mind churning — stressed about what I didn’t get done that day at work, thinking about the next task, or ruminating over something that wasn’t going “right” in my life. All the things our minds are really great at doing.
A few months ago, I noticed this. I caught myself. And so, I started to train myself to pause when entering the property, using the front gate as a cue. I slow down my pace and focus on sights and sensations. Looking around at the yard, at the house, the smell of freshly cut grass and jasmine — with a sense of curiosity and wonder. Pausing just for a moment or two to take it all in. Whoah! How freaking cool! This is my (rental) home.
And now, more often, as I put my key into the front door lock and walk inside, I feel happier. I feel a sense of gratitude. I’m beginning to focus more on the good. Taking in these moments, over-and-over, wires our minds to notice the good more often. And over time, that means becoming a happier person — all driven by internal factors, not external ones.
One final example — about noticing the stories we tell ourselves.
When I was eight years old, I was diagnosed with OCD. At the time, I thought that something was wrong with me. That I was different. That I didn’t fit in. I withdrew, becoming an easy target for bullies.
By high school I recovered. On the surface, I was fine — even flourishing by my senior year. And since then I’ve had a great run, moving to Los Angeles, building a life here. Looking back, doing a lot of slowing down and looking inward, I realized that I had a core belief, made of stories born when I was eight years old, that I held onto, that drove my behavior every single day. A core belief that I didn’t matter. That I wasn’t worthy of belonging.
Simon Sinek, one of my favorite authors, offers an online workshop where you can dig into yourself and your past to find your “why” — your north star, or the thing that drives you that you can use to inspire others. I did the workshop a number of years ago and was disappointed by the results. I even tried to get a refund. My “why,” it turned out, was to “prove something to myself and others.”
And so, most of what I have achieved in my life — things I’m very much proud of — deep down, was for this reason. Trying to matter.
It works, right? It’s definitely a tool that has contributed to my success. And many of us do it — using our own stories. But it’s an exhausting way to live — and rarely does it result in any lasting satisfaction. No matter how much we achieve, it’s never enough to fill that void. No number of promotions or salary increases will feel like enough (believe me).
So now, I’m noticing the story more often. And I’m creating a new narrative — one based in truth. That I do what I do because I love it, and myself. It’s a much more fulfilling way to live — though still very much a work in progress.
We can choose to let our lives happen to us. To let our minds get shaped by chance, by things outside our control, by things that happened to us when we were young. Or by the evolutionarily-advantageous tendency we all have to ruminate, think about ourselves, our worries, to focus on the negative.
Or, we can be intentional.
We can train our minds to serve us, to become the people we want to be.
To live the lives we want to lead.