The Hardest Thing

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As a product of modern culture, we’ve learned to take pride in our willingness and ability to “do hard things.” We take pride in leaning into everyday challenges – from dragging ourselves out of bed and into the gym, to sitting down at the dinner table to have that difficult conversation. We idealize life-altering acts of courage like  leaving the job we hate to pursue our dreams. 

Seeing as you have chosen to dedicate at least some portion of your own life to a pursuit in which winners and losers are often separated by thousandths of a second while operating at high speeds and utilizing some of the most advanced technology in the world, chances are that you, like me, are one of these twisted souls that derive a sick pleasure from the act of doing difficult stuff!

It doesn’t take long to look around our sport and find plenty of difficult facets of the game to lean into. It’s hard to develop the skill set, focus, and confidence necessary to react accurately – within thousandths of a second-run after run. It’s hard to train ourselves to make the proper finish line decisions, and safely execute those decisions at speeds often well in excess of 100 (in some cases in excess of 200) miles per hour in fractions of a second. It’s difficult to put forth the effort required to learn and master a new skill (however small that skill may seem to be). It requires a ton of effort and courage to implement these skills against talented opponents, and/or in a pressure situation. These are hard things. 

What if these difficult things are actually not the hardest tasks we can undertake in our pursuit for on track success at all? What if the hardest thing is actually the one that our culture doesn’t idealize, doesn’t romanticize, and at times even views as weakness? In my work with thousands of active racers, when they speak in their most honest moments – as well as in my own experience on the race track – I believe it’s possible that “the hardest” thing we encounter may actually be viewed as a “soft” task. What if the hardest thing we can do is actually believing in ourselves?  

Despite my experience working hand in hand with racers for decades, and despite my own vast experience behind the wheel, I’ve found it’s not often that we admit that. As racers, we’re capable of controlling 1,000+ horsepower behemoths, right? The last thing we need to acknowledge is a sense of vulnerability. Or is it?

There’s such a stigma around optimism and confidence – that if we work hard enough and push ourselves to the limits, that confidence and optimism just develop naturally. I can’t speak for you, but for me personally, that’s not necessarily the case. What if self-confidence isn’t such a soft thing at all? What if optimism isn’t just dancing through a field, trying to convince ourselves that life is all sugar and roses? What if optimism isn’t soft, because we acknowledge that it isn’t easy? What if believing in our talents and abilities is actually a choice that we can make? What if making that choice isn’t necessarily convenient? What if it’s often harder to choose optimism than it is to fall into the familiar belief that we just don’t have what it takes today – that it’s harder to latch onto a thread of belief than it is to choose to identify with excuses that justify our suboptimal performance? 

Within conversations inside ThisIsBracketRacing ELITE, I often ask racers what builds confidence. The answer I hear most commonly is momentum. And I think that most of us can agree that confidence is easier to come by when we’re rolling. Winning begets winning, and typically it’s easier to feel like we’ve got what it takes to win sixth round (after 5 win lights) than it is first round after failing to see a win light 3 events in a row.

What if, as a racer, we could choose whether or not to identify with our most recent performance? If our last run was positive, we could choose to feel good about ourselves and our talents. If the last run was dominated by a mistake, we could also choose to identify with the mistake. The truth is, whatever happened in the last round has ZERO bearing on what what we’re capable of this round (unless we allow it to).

What if we could make 9 consecutive “bad” runs and frame it like this: “Whew… I’m glad I got that out of my system!”? What if we chose to identify not with our recent performance, but rather with the performance that we know we’re capable of?

Unfortunately, what I hear most commonly at the race track, what I see in the racers that I work with, and what I find myself often falling victim to is essentially the reverse. We can make 9 incredible runs, followed by one bad lap: Nine stellar performances, and one single mistake. And yet, we tend to focus on the mistake. From the outside, it’s easy to look in and conclude that the single screw up isn’t representative of our ability. On the inside, it hits different. We’re taught from an early age not to focus on the positives. When we took a test in 3rd grade, how were our correct answers rewarded? They weren’t – they were expected. But with each incorrect answer, we were greeted with a big red “X” on our paper. We’re conditioned to identify with the mistakes. The thought process is that in focusing on them, we can ultimately correct them. What if, rather than dwelling on the mistake, we were able to view it is a learning opportunity – and do so briefly? What if the best method for minimizing mistakes (because it doesn’t seem reasonable to strive to eliminate them), is to take a brief period to acknowledge what happened, and think about how we can do it better next time – then forget it, move on, and focus on all the times we got it right?

The thing about our form of competition is that, more often than not, we either win or we make a mistake (of some magnitude) that prevents us from winning. And seeing as there are somewhere between 40 and 400 losers at each event compared to a single winner, it stands to reason that we’ll make mistakes far more often than we’ll win (and truth be told, often times when we do win, it will be in spite of a mistake or two despite our desire to eliminate them). What if the lesson that we should have been learning back in third grade (and revisiting regularly ever since) is something to this effect: “Just because we make a mistake doesn’t mean that we are a mistake.”? 

What if we get to choose what we want to identify with? When I’m .040 on the tree, what if I get to decide whether that’s because I’m a terrible driver, or because I’m a human being that made a mistake?

What if we could return from each round of competition and ask ourselves an honest question:

Did I do the best that I could in that situation? 

No? How can I work to do that? 

Yes? Awesome! What if, win or lose, it’s acceptable to be satisfied with that?

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