The Story Economy Blog

On the Other Side of Better, Stronger, Faster

I’ve been running the same. 4.5-mile route since I moved to this neighborhood six years ago. On the slower days, it takes me 41 - 42 minutes. On the fast days when the conditions are just right, I can do it in 38 minutes. I’ve cracked 37 minutes a few times.

But the average from year to year stays the same: about 40 minutes.

In fact, on average, I’m barely any faster than I was when I started running 18 years ago. I made the biggest gains in the first year, and then I was where I was, and despite three marathons and lots of hills and two babies, I’m still right there. If I went back and ran the routes I used to run 10 or 15 years ago, the average of my times would probably be what they were 10 or 15 years ago.

I get the principle of adaptation. So, if I do a bunch of speedwork and then do a 5K, I’ll get one of my best times.

But on average, from year to year, the numbers on paper stay about the same.

This is interesting. Because it seems like the longer you do something, the better you should be at it.

I am about to say something so ridiculous and counterintuitive to the very core of what I’m about that I can’t even believe I’m going to write it. But it’s a new year, so here goes:

You don’t always have to improve. The thing you’re doing now doesn’t always have to be better than the thing you were doing yesterday, or 10 years ago.

The Illusion of Better

In the very first yoga class I went to, the instructor said, “Don’t try hard. Never try hard.”

I didn’t go back for 10 years.

The idea of not trying hard was a completely stupid idea in my 20s, the decade where you have to lay down the hours and the effort. If you are in something to really do it, why bother if you are not going to try hard to improve?

Even in my very late 30s, I still believe this.

However, what I see now—especially when I take in the fact that my running times have barely budged in 18 years—is that there is an alternate system that runs parallel to improvement.

It’s not the opposite of trying hard. It’s just an alternate focus.

It’s the story of what it means.

So, running is how I deal with life. It’s my thing. It’s how I stay creative. It’s the space where I figure stuff out. It’s why I’m not diabetic, divorced, or an alcoholic. It means something totally different to me than it did when I started 18 years ago, when what I mostly cared about was being skinny.

The story of it has changed dramatically, even if the numbers around it haven’t.

Now, running is a pretty safe example. Its non-improvement on paper isn’t related to how I feed my family.

But writing is.

I’ve been writing professionally now for 15 years. I couldn’t possibly count the number of articles and pieces of copy I’ve written, but I know it’s in the thousands. Ten thousand, maybe.

I don’t exactly know how to measure if I’m a better writer or not. But as I reflect back on 2012—my highest grossing year ever—I think that perhaps better is beside the point.

There’s a little more money in the “invoices paid” column, but other than that, on paper, I don’t see a lot of improvement. I still do one-to-one work: I’m one girl, working client by client by client. Writing sentence by sentence by sentence (and deleting half of them). It’s totally inefficient.

And I don’t know that I have any better command of the English language than I had 10 years ago. In fact, I’ve had to abandon some ideas about what I thought good writing was altogether. I write in sentence fragments all of the time. All of the time. I use language differently now. But who’s to say if it’s better?

Oh, and I’m certainly no better at dealing with clients who are stuck in their ego or can’t focus. Last year, I had two different client situations end very painfully. Early in my career, I rarely had such pain.

I’m still a wimp in a million ways. I hate to disappoint people. I hate it when they don’t like me.

I also haven’t made any improvements in my creative process. I sit at my computer, either at my home office (where my cat drives me crazy) or a coffee shop, and I make things up. I feel the tips of my fingers on the shiny flat keys of my MacBook, and I fly.

At this point, improvement is just an illusion.

What matters, I think, is that the story of why I write is very different now. The parallel path of what it means has taken me to a place I couldn’t have foreseen in my 20s—when I had way more effort than I had meaning.

Writing is just how Igo on. It’s the difference I make in the world. It’s my web of connection. The stuff I make up is totally inseparable from the stuff that makes up my days, and I have no desire to tease it apart. I might have inefficient systems and insecurities about whether or not people like me, but I’ve never been so secure in knowing why I do what I do.

And that’s a much different place than I started.

Businesses that only speak the language of better, stronger, faster are afraid of something. They’re afraid there’s nothing more than that. So they work extra hard to make sure there is another version just around the corner, so you won’t notice.

I’m certainly not trying to trash betterment. I love that people keep making better stuff, safer stuff, cooler stuff. I mean, I’m American, after all. Not to mention the fact that I’ve been with Apple since 1994, which means that I’ve upgraded my operating system approximately 17.2 million times.

But your work and your way of seeing the world: that doesn’t always have to be upgraded. Which doesn’t mean you’re downgrading. It just means you step off the continuum altogether for a few minutes, focus inward, and study why you’re in it to begin with. You can upgrade up the hill or downgrade down the hill. But there is another choice that doesn’t exclude the other two: you can burrow straight into the hill and see what’s holding it up anyway.

Things mean more in your head than will ever be reflected on paper. I’m finally okay with that, because it means I am showing up in the world, more present than any upgraded version of myself ever could.

Happy New Year.


  • Peter Bowerman

    Posted by Peter Bowerman on 01/02/13 3:34pm

    Great piece, Judi! And I don't think it's crazy at all. This idea of always improving, always having to improve, is one of those uniquely Western (and arguably, uniquely American) ideals that is totally and utterly foreign to the lion's share of the world's population.

    It's an idea that goes completely unexamined. We never ask, "Why is it important to always be improving?" because on a superficial level, it seems like such an obvious thing, but if we did ask ourselves that, what would the answer be? It also quite effectively creates an enormous amount of anxiety and stress. But we Americans have stress-creation down to an art form...;)


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