This is a marathon, not a sprint
on practice, patience and delayed gratification
I started this newsletter this year, when I had no idea what my year was going to look like. I set off with great ambition, perhaps unrealistically, and due to many factors and life events, I’ve struggled to find my rhythm and sustain the output I wanted. As the year progressed, I was too overwhelmed to write at all. Thanks for still being here, and for your support - especially those who have supported me as a paid subscriber, it means the world to me, as a lot thought and care goes into the writing I do.
I wanted to note that my plan is to have a sort of re-launch next year, likely with 2 instalments a month, which feels more sustainable for me in my current pace of life. I am also going to move to a fully free model, because whilst I believe that the model of subscription does democratise the way we write online, I don’t feel comfortable with the model of monthly subscriptions when this is something I do in addition to my full time job - and therefore sometimes have to pause because that is what keeps a roof over my head. I hope that makes sense.
Lots of love,
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The icon for this piece of writing is the painting by Etel Adnan, Sans titre.
My Mum, who is a primary school teacher, told me a story recently about something that happened at work. She was cutting something out, for a display, and the kids were so impressed with her precision. They asked her: how did you get so good at it, Mrs Atkinson? Her answer was that she’d had a lot of practice. A humble and zen-like answer if there ever was one. It is also worth noting that she is incredibly good at things that require precision and care. She’s brilliant at origami, an excellent gift wrapper and has gorgeous handwriting. So, while the childlike wonder could be reduced in this instance to being purely the naivety of youth, I’d clarify that her practice in this case translated to a refinement of a skill, not simply competence.
She then told me about another child, a little younger, who needed some help rubbing out some mistakes they’d made on their page. They were so small, and young, that rubbing out a large part of the page was challenging. As my Mum rubbed out the page for them, they gasped: how did you get so good at that? Possibly the sweetest thing you’ve heard this week. My mum, in her retelling, took pause and realised that from this child’s perspective, this simple act to her was also a sort of skill, and reflected that her ability, too, was the result of a lot of practice. There seems to me a profound truth present within this, so easy to forget. That everything, not just that which might be defined as a skill or that which we find challenging, is learned. It becomes second nature only through practice, repetition and the habitual doing. Children, in their wholesome awe-eyed inexperience, can serve as excellent reminders of this. Their perspective lacks judgement and is led by curiosity. We can learn so much from this way of thinking or looking at the world.
It feels to me that this principle is an important thing to reflect on, in a world and culture that is driven by and also encourages us to expect instant gratification. This can dissuade us from trying something new and leave us in a tired prism of the things we already know and already can do. It is seldom that we start something new and find it easy or find ourselves good at it. There are two points here - should you stop, give up, simply because you are not good at something? Does this imply we should only enjoy that which we are good at? We have to remember that those who excel didn’t get there randomly. Their expertise is usually a consequence of showing up continuously, consistently and probably not perfectly. They had to practice and learn over and over. It’s also worth considering: does greatness always need to be the goal? We all suffer under capitalism, and there can seem a pointlessness to spend time doing something that may not make you money one day. It encourages a sense of urgency within us! Why take the time to practice if there is no end prize? If I am not brilliant, what’s the point?
This way of thinking, of course, misses the point almost entirely. What about the skills that new hobbies or ways of spending time might help us cultivate - like patience, perseverance, humility, mindfulness? What about pleasure, for pleasure’s sake? I believe there is a way of being curious in this world, and trying to keep learning, and focusing on the longer term gratification that comes with practice, that can help us resist the culture which encourages endless optimisation and productivity, which provides us with no real meaning and can leave us burned out.
Depressing though it may be, we are stuck with capitalism for now, so finding small ways to resist (albeit subtly) can be empowering. I’ve noticed, that many of my friends, at the stage in life we are in (ranging from late twenties to early thirties mainly) feel drawn towards hobbies, or wanting to find new ones. Perhaps this has something to do with the exhaustion and lack of fulfilment adult life can bring you: drained by work and commuting, never having enough time to see the people you love or time for yourself. A hobby (in this case, a loose term which you might define as a new way to or a way you like to spend time) can be an opportunity to connect with others, connect with yourself, and disconnect from the rat race. The endless to do lists, credit card bills, notifications and bombardment of advertisements and content. This, I believe has a deep value to us. When we build it into our lives, its benefits multiply, although they are not always immediate.
I’ve been thinking about long term gratification a lot recently, as I am starting to bear the fruits of my labour of some consistent practice. I made some food the other day, and I’m willing to embrace the braggish nature of what I’m about to reveal, but I was shook - it was delicious. The combination of textures and flavours felt exciting, fresh, rich and had depth. Cooking for myself is something I’ve spent a lot of time doing since I cut gluten out of my diet (I’m intolerant), shortly followed by also removing meat and dairy (the intersection of my delicate tummy and ethics about the environment). It’s been about 7 years of this, and it isn’t to say my food hasn’t tasted good until now! It’s more that in the moment of tasting my food, I felt shocked but quickly remembered - in no small part thanks to the childlike wonder at how my Mum got good at cutting out shapes - that this was the result of a lot of practice. Of lessons learned from too much salt, not enough seasoning, too much chilli, bad ratio of tofu to rice, of lacking a diversity of texture. These mistakes were all part of the process of getting to the point where I am now: a chef, ready to launch my new Instagram series cooking with Dave! I joke, but I truly am in my Husband era. I cook, I clean, I descale my coffee machine. (Perhaps more on this another day; but the domesticity that often comes with age so often gets flattened into an eye roll ‘Tell me you’re in your 30s’ bla bla bla. Although I think of it more about finding and taking pleasure in looking after my space and my things, because they have more meaning to me in adulthood. Not me splitting hairs again because of my rigorous curiosity!!!)
At the beginning of this year, I wrote on a post it note that I put on the wall next to my bed - THIS IS A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT. A sentiment that I stand by, but often found myself scoffing at in the moments that I felt stuck, depressed, uninspired. I spent a lot of time looking at those words because of where I placed them, and I’ve found myself at the end of this year feeling a sense of calm, a sense of focus and purpose, and contentment. I don’t think this is entirely coincidental. I think that the reading those words was helping me even when I felt deflated. The reminder that this wasn’t meant to be a sprint, and instead, is part of a longer race encouraged me to KEEP GOING. My instinct is to keep going with the marathon metaphor but I think I risk it becoming convoluted so I’ll trust you catch my drift at this point.
I am not sure if there is some easy to digest logic or moral to this story, that could be summed up in a tagline. I hope the lessons within it maybe crack you open in an unexpected way, where a little light might get in. Maybe it encourages you to find a new way of spending some of your precious time. Maybe it helps you remember how far you have come. How many things you do each day unthinkingly that are the culmination of lots of practice, lots of resilience, lots of continued showing up. Maybe it’s the seed that you plant for the start of your next (metaphorical, or physical!) marathon. I have every faith that if you start from where you are, before you know it, you will be surprised at your mileage.
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