These days, we find ourselves in a multitude of wars, literal and metaphoric. We are always fighting against something. Whether it is obesity, aging, injury or death, it seems that most of what we do is to try and stave off the avalanche of the inevitable. This battle cannot be won—and yet we fight it. But the reality is: we don’t have to.
When the majority of us lay athletes begin to exercise, we often do it to hold something at bay. Maybe it’s heart disease. Maybe it’s something else. In systems thinking, is often referred to as “Negative Vision.” We bring into our minds the image of what we don’t want to happen, and we exercise accordingly.
There are several big problems with this approach: first and foremost, we don’t have a mission in mind—something that we are driven to accomplish. For that very reason, we find whatever it is that we’re trying to outrun constantly nipping at our heels. That is a losing battle.
When hunters set the dogs on a deer, they do so in order to cause the deer to panic. The deer becomes so focused on the pack behind it that it finds itself being herded all the way up to the hunter’s sights. By trying to outrun a threat, it became much more difficult for the deer to focus on what was happening, and to see new threats (and new possibilities of threats) as they arrived.
For a similar reason, military and special forces units always have a pre-planned fallback position. If they are ambushed, it becomes paramount to have an objective, a location that they have in mind, so that they can direct their efforts to move towards safety, instead of away from the enemy. The difference is subtle but crucial: if this military unit only goes by its awareness of the enemy, it will cover much less ground, and do so reactively; each and every move will play into the hands of the enemy. On the other hand, having an objective allows the members of this team to cover distance independent of the enemy’s proximity and the enemy’s actions: the presence of an objective gives the team a much better chance of survival.
The very same goes with health and athleticism. If we only eat well or take pills to stave off sickness, we’ll always be at its door. If we only do mobility exercises when we have perceptible muscle imbalances, we’ll always be at the threshold of injury. On the other hand, if we have a vision of what we want to accomplish—of the athlete that we hope to be, or the health that we hope to have, we’ll find ourselves moving in that direction regardless of whether sickness or injury are on the horizon.
In a previous essay titled “How philosophy powers athletic achievement,” I wrote about how it is important to open our minds to as many variables as possible in order to see opportunities as they arise. By focusing on what we don’t want to achieve (and working from that), we devote much more of our attention to that one single variable. In that essay, I detailed how people were so focused on getting up the hill that they developed a tunnel vision that didn’t let them think about how to do so most efficiently. For that, their minds would need to be loose and supple, and reaching for new information at the rate of their steps.
We don’t allow our mind to engage to its fullest extent because we are pre-occupied: literally, our mental space is already occupied in dealing with the possibility of failure—a variable which we decided was important at some previous time, which has no real bearing on the possibilities of the present as they come and go. The space for the possibility of success—and the mindset that allows us to recognize the necessary opportunities—is not available at the time.
At a leadership workshop I attended at MIT, Peter Senge had us do a very interesting exercise, which has roots in many different traditions of thought around the globe. These days it is better known as a Tai Chi exercise. One half of the attendees held our arm out straight in front of us, trying to prevent the other half (our partners) from bending our arm at the elbow by force. Then we repeated the exercise, only this time imagining that our arm was an immovable, solid object, such as a tree branch or a steel pipe. Needless to say, our partners had a much more difficult time bending it the second time.
As a skeptic myself, I hypothesized that part of the reason that it was so difficult to bend it the second time is because of confabulation—an unspoken, unconscious agreement between partners that we shouldn’t be able to bend our partner’s arm the second time, leading us to apply much less force, despite our conscious efforts. I’ve repeated the exercise so that my partner doesn’t know when I’m visualizing what, and the results hold. I still urge you to try it if you have your doubts.
This dovetails nicely with another reason why “Negative Vision” doesn’t yield the best results: Instead of thinking about what we want to accomplish, we think about what we don’t want to accomplish—which may catapult us into the ironic situation of attracting the very future that we don’t want to create.
This argument is built out of more than just cute wordplay. The only way of representing what you don’t want is to spell it out and add a negative to it: I don’t want to stop running. You’re still spelling it out. When you combine that with stress and focus, and you place it in the absence of a positive vision—of what you do want to create—your mind just might end up latching on to the reality that you wat to avoid, and conspire to make that a reality.
In my opinion, that’s the broad, conceptual explanation as to why so many of our efforts often have the exact opposite effect than we intended. That’s not to say that there aren’t systemic explanations: maybe this was a “shifting the burden” system. But the advent of negative vision may answer why we create “shifting the burden” systems in the first place.
A negative vision isn’t all that bad. We certainly want to know what we want to avoid. The more important question is this: what is the driver of our actions? What gets us up out of bed? What gets us researching or planning? If the answer is what we want to avoid, then we are in serious need of a positive vision.
As I’ve written before, systems organize themselves around a specific purpose. Branching-structure systems like capillaries and tree branches have the purpose of conducting energy efficiently to and from a centralized location. Clusters of hexagonal cracks in dried lakes have the purpose of allowing the lake surface to shrink while creating the least amount of cracks. I think that the human body, as a system, organizes itself around the mind’s vision. This is why I believe that when we are driven by a negative vision, the body and mind organize themselves around the object of that. When we have a positive vision, the body and mind will do the same—only this time the results will be spectacularly different.
When we train and race under a positive vision—a vision that speaks of the efficiency and parsimony of our biomechanics, and of the integration between the various systems and subsystems of our body—we will tend towards effortlessness. In order to achieve, we must shift our paradigm, and internalize the conclusion that it is a positive vision, not a negative vision, that will move us forwards.
Because the body and mind organize around a vision, the stronger the vision, the more these systems will exhibit emergent properties: when the random mevements between molecules of gases become sufficiently reduced—when the reduction of randmoness (and increase in organization) reaches a tipping point—the gas becomes a liquid. These tipping points are also present in the organization of the body and mind; there are biomechanical examples, thermoregulatory examples, psychological examples, even neuromechanical examples.
That’s why I train this “thing” that I call coherence, which I define as “a global capability for comprehensive interaction”—that is, for each of the component parts of some system (in this case my body) to be capable enough relatively to one another for each and every one to competently take part in the behavior of the whole (in this case running), and to not freeze, be sidelined, or detract from the functioning of the whole.
Seeking out “greater power” or “greater endurance” is an unattractive endeavor when there are tipping points and emergent properties to collect as if they were stamps in an album. To be great runners, our bodies and minds must be highly organized, functioning together for the achievement of a singular goal. I choose systems thinking as the main framework for athletic development because it brings highly unorthodox—and highly effective—perspectives towards achievement. The more we work under a positive vision, the more strongly we’ll tend to conclude that we never were qualified to talk about the dimensions of our own limits, and after a while, we’ll begin to question whether the notion of “limits” (in personal and athletic development) was ever a useful idea to entertain in the first place.