“I am not a good listener. I have never been a good listener. I will never be a good listener.”
“I’m shy. I don’t talk much in meetings. I do better one-on-one.”
“I’m a hot head. I get aggravated. But people know that’s just me.”
I hear endless statements like this from people who have built their weaknesses into their self-identities. They tell themselves that they are bad listeners, or reluctant contributors, or table pounders and in so doing, guarantee that they will be forever.
I had a really profound personal experience last week that is causing me to reflect on how much you can accomplish if you’re willing to discard the labels that no longer serve you.
All my life, I have been unathletic. From pulling up lame in the high school track meet to throwing a baseball full force into my foot, I was the captain’s last pick in any sport. I couldn’t run, couldn’t throw, and couldn’t catch. Being unathletic was part of who I was. (I was smart and musical, and that was pretty good.)
Until one day last year.
I was speaking at a conference and sharing the stage with an astronaut, an Olympic Gold medalist, two Olympic coaches and a few other uber high performing types. I’m not sure why, but at some point that day I decided that I wasn’t going to be unathletic anymore. I stole a word from one of the presenters and adopted #fierce as my new mantra.
I flew home, called a gym, got a personal trainer and started to reshape who I was. I got on a treadmill for the first time. I started lifting weights. I wore spandex in public.
So when I got an email this spring asking who wanted to join the Knightsbridge team in the Ride to Conquer Cancer, I signed up. I signed up to ride 223km (about 140 miles) in two days. When I signed up, I didn’t have a road bike. The longest ride I had ever done in my life was 5 miles. I had 4 weekends available to train.
Last weekend, I rode all 223km under my own power. I toughed it out up the hills, even when others dismounted and walked. I stuck it out through the 65km of pouring rain on the second day. Sure, I crossed the finish line a full hour after my colleagues had finished their celebratory beers and headed for home, but I crossed the finish line.
But of all that I have taken away from such an amazing experience, here’s the one that I keep thinking about. In the last few kilometers, supporters lined the streets with their hand-painted signs and cowbells. As they honked and yelled and cheered, tears started to stream down my face. They weren’t tears of exhaustion, they were tears of joy and pride. In those last few kilometers, I realized that for 43 years, I have been the one with the hand-painted sign and the cowbell. And now I was the one on the bike. My self-image was wrong. An unathletic person can’t ride 223km. Clearly that label doesn’t fit anymore.
A week later, I’m still getting used to my new self-image. Still reconciling what it means to be able to live without the weight I’ve always felt from being the unathletic one surrounded by friends who are so fit. I’m not yet sure where it will take me, but I’m excited to find out. It feels great. I’m proud of myself, really proud of myself.
Who do you want to be?
Recently, I watched that self-proclaimed bad listener choose to listen well. It came about as naturally for him as climbing on a bike did for me, but that didn’t matter. He knew it would be difficult and he made the kind of effort required to really throw himself into listening. And his demonstration that he could listen intently and hear openly had just as profound an impact on him and his team as my ride did for me.
You have that exact same choice. You can decide right now that you are ready to shed the labels you don’t want anymore. You can be a networker, you can be a public speaker, you can be courageous, you just have to decide that you are and then do the things that those people do. Keep doing them and slowly do more and more difficult ones. You won’t believe it at first, but like me, at some point you’ll have so much evidence that contradicts your old label that it just won’t make sense anymore.
I urge you to try this. I wish for you the same feeling of pride and accomplishment that I felt crossing the finish line. You deserve to feel the exhilaration of a weight lifted as the one thing you’ve never really liked about yourself becomes outdated.
Please share your quest in the comments, I’d love to know what labels you’re doing away with.