Today I hit the trail at 7:00 am, in pursuit of an elusive goal: A safe, perfect, 6 mile ride on a challenging off road trail atop my mountain unicycle, to be completed in under one hour. This is a tall test, considering that it requires sizable strength and endurance as well as technical execution, negotiating hundreds of roots and rocks, crossing through water four times, and climbing/descending a modest mountain.
I’ve never achieved the goal of a “perfect ride” on this course – that is, zero falls (or as I prefer to call them “unplanned dismounts,” or UPDs). But I know it’s possible, as I’ve tackled every section perfectly, overcome every individual obstacle. But I still have yet to put it all together in one, perfect ride.
Today was not the day.
When I entered the wooded trail, I quickly realized that my challenge would be even harder than usual. Recent storms had saturated the ground, making everything muddy and slippery. My feet were sliding on the pedals, and the wheel lost traction on steeper uphill climbs. Branches and trees littered the trail. I routinely plowed through an unceasing supply of spider webs. It was tough. Everything required more effort and a different approach. I already had several UPDs by the time I was a mile in!
I had a choice. I could admit defeat, feel bad about myself, and endure the rest of the ride in frustration. Or I could redefine success based on the conditions.
The conditions you face, in life, business, or sport, change performance in two ways. Conditions change what is required, and they change what is possible.
What is required? When you adapt to conditions, you discover new options. Perhaps new skills or tools are needed, or at least a new mindset. You perform differently because of your understanding of conditions, as well as your experience.
What is possible? Sometimes what you thought was possible is no longer, considering the conditions that exist. You have to own that reality. Adjust your expectations. Redefine success. Note that sometimes conditions increase the possibilities, creating new opportunity where it didn’t before exist.
In this case, existing conditions meant that some elements of my goal had to change, while others did not. The first goal, safety, is non-negotiable. In fact, given the conditions, this was more important than ever, requiring increased attention. I was absolutely willing to sacrifice UPDs (or even anticipate/plan dismounts), in order to ensure safety.
I accomplished that goal. Zero wipe outs or injuries. Heck yeah!
My second goal (zero UPDs) was quickly exchanged for two other conscious choices: Keep moving, and keep learning.
Keep moving: When I came off the unicycle, I didn’t stop my forward progress, but continued to walk forward until remounting the cycle. My mantra, just don’t stop, was rooted in the idea that any forward progress is better than no forward progress.
When you have a setback, it doesn’t mean you have to stop. You can walk instead of run or ride. You can slow down and keep making forward progress, even if it’s not the type of progress you hoped for.
Keep learning: I recognized that this was a great opportunity to draw new lessons for future opportunities, including my choice of shoes for the conditions. I let some of the air out of my tire to get better traction on the slippery surfaces. And as for those spider webs – note to future self – keep your mouth closed.
Along my ride, I took successes where I could find them, including particularly well executed sections, long runs, lessons learned, and the ability to persevere. I also finished extremely strong, finding the energy and endurance to complete the challenging final uphill mile of the course without a mistake.
When I got back to the parking lot and looked at my watch, I was elated. Not only because I had finished, but had done so in less than 59 minutes. I had made my time, because I kept moving, even though I had essentially abandoned that goal. It wasn’t perfect. But it was successful. And it was safe.
What can you and I take from this experience to apply to other life challenges?
You may have ideals, goals, and perfect scenarios about what success looks like, or how the future will unfold: How your day will go. How your career will go. How your marriage will go. You may imagine a perfect conversation with a coworker, customer, spouse or child. That’s all it is – an ideal in your mind – UNTIL you begin taking action.
When you engage the real world conditions, with real time variables, things change. You will encounter conditions, such as:
How you recognize and respond to the conditions at hand will determine how, and perhaps, whether, you will complete your course of action. Ultimately this may mean you have to adjust your expectations, refine your approach, redefine success, and just keep moving forward. Safely.