I was listening to Gretchen Rubin discuss her new book on habits on a podcast. She pointed out that people tend to gravitate towards one of two general approaches towards making habit changes, which can be referred to as all-or-nothing and everything-in-moderation.
There are strong advocates in both camps, arguing either for absolute rules and no deviation whatsoever or the more laissez-faire approach of allowing for some flexibility in behavior using the 80/20 rule or another similar system.
The problem comes in when we run into a compelling argument or tactic for behavior change, whether it’s coming highly recommended from a friend, a well-regarded book, or a multitude of other sources and fixate on that tactic as the “right” solution. The reality is that there are as many tactics as there are individuals, and what works for that friend or author may be wrong for you. These aren’t new ideas, but the point that caught my attention is how we try to force habit changes using one of these two approaches when that particular approach may not actually suit our personality at all.
The funny thing is that philosophy and personality can conflict. I’m a good example. I love the idea of flexibility and adapting my behavior to the changing situation, but this rarely works well for me when it comes to creating new habits or removing old ones. If there’s any sort of bend in the rules, my willpower typically fails and I end up bending too much.
Thus, for myself, I find that I'm firmly in the all-or-nothing camp for the bulk of habits, doubly so if we're talking about food. I was vegan (full story later, promise) for two years in college and never had issues with breaking from that diet, despite constant ribbing at lunch from co-workers about all the meat I was missing out on (honestly, still not sure how I managed to pull this off for two years...I'm such a carnivore). Having an absolute commandment—“thou shalt not break this rule ever”—feels surprisingly easy for me. I just say "no, I don't eat that" and move on, with plenty of willpower to spare.
If you find it easy to set a new rule—as long as it's black and white with no wiggle room—and stick to it seemingly without effort, you're probably better suited for all-or-nothing strategies. If you feel constricted by rules without room for any deviation and can follow an 80/20 (80% adhering, 20% not) style rule without frequent lapses that edge closer to 50/50, then you're probably more of an everything-in-moderation person.
(Of course, to make this more confusing, these aren't absolutes. Odds are, there are some arenas where your typically preferred strategy just doesn't feel right for you.)
Let's look at the case of me and chocolate. If I buy chocolate and bring it back home, the odds of that bar surviving for two days are slim: I’d say one day...except I know from experience that 80%+ dark chocolate in large doses is so not a wise idea if I want to sleep at night. If I know it is in the house, it's gonna get eaten. Thus my favorite habit hack for all-or-nothing types, particularly around food, is to not keep anything in the house you are trying to avoid. Shaping the environment in your favor makes maintaining discipline far easier.
In contrast, perhaps your experience with chocolate is different; it's easy for you to savor a few pieces after dinner, and saving the remainder for the days to come doesn't require much additional willpower to achieve. In that case, having a specified daily or weekly limit, say two pieces per day or one bar per week, is likely to be more of what you need to stick to the habit.
Neither approach is absolutely right, and neither is wrong. The answer is in what works for you. If you reflect on your own experiences and past successes and failures in changing habits, I bet you can see which of these approaches works better for you in most cases.
The question is: which are you? All-or-nothing? Or everything-in-moderation? Knowing that, you can structure your habits accordingly.
I'm the type that enjoys being alone with my thoughts. Yet I still find it hard sometimes to be okay with choosing to do something alone instead of being social.
Yet there seems to be a powerful connection between time spent alone, with our own thoughts, and creativity.
An idea garnered from conversations with a friend. Both of us, from time to time, feel a pull towards a natural space—to relax, to think, to move away from the noise and distractions of daily life. But it's not so much about escaping all noise, I think, but rather about creating the space for our own noise; our inner voice or whatever you prefer to call it (intuition or otherwise).
By allowing for the time and space to mentally wander one seems to open the doors to greater creativity and discovering synergistic solutions to whatever is preoccupying your mind.
In my own case it's those times when I find a quiet space (usually in nature, if I can) or walk through the woods that I gain the greatest clarity or get those little creative insights—jotting them down in a notebook in hopes of finding a use for them later.
But, and maybe this is partly because of some stigma against intentional solitude, I find that I don't proactively create these quiet spaces. Instead they are sought once I can't not do so, because I need to de-stress to avoid feeling overwhelmed or uncertain.
Lately I have created that space more frequently and feel far better, on average, than I have in the past, despite plenty of stresses to worry about. Turns out there's a bunch of good research on the subject, so to end this (still) open-loop of thought I'll leave you with a couple of excellent articles to explore:
- This is your brain on silence.
- How to be alone.
- And one more, related more to creativity than solitude, How to waste time properly.
For most of my life, I have been shy and reserved. In any social situation I generally stayed quiet and listened to others rather than becoming involved, preferring to stay on the periphery. I felt more comfortable being the outsider.
Although that's how I acted most often (and I still do when I'm way beyond my comfort zone) it does not reflect my true nature: how I act when no one is watching. That true element of me hides away at moments when I lack confidence in myself or am paralyzed by a fear of judgment. I am always worried that by speaking or drawing attention to myself I will label myself permanently as the weird one and remain forever an outsider and outcast.
Over the past eight years or so, however, I have experienced a slow evolution in myself. I don't feel like I have to stand back and observe life anymore; I can let my authentic self - talkative, silly, serious or whatever facet of me wants to be shown - act without fear of judgment. This ability to express my true personality more often came from a gradual improvement in self-confidence. My confidence has always been strongly tied to whether I judged myself as being strong and capable. In my shallow view of masculinity and self-worth, that was the key, if not the only, measure. This was the reason my self-confidence was so nonexistent in my younger days: for all my youth I believed myself to be weak. I was certain of it. Being seen as weak is one of my greatest worries, perhaps only second to not being taken seriously. So my story of self-confidence is also the story of learning how to feel comfortable and capable at my present level.
I remember dreading that Presidential Fitness test in Middle School - the thought of having my abilities measured and compared while everyone was watching was massively uncomfortable. When the moment arose during the pull-up test that year-I knew I couldn't do a single one; I tried on my own-I was so afraid of failing in front of the rest of the boys that when my turn came I was in a full-on fight-or-flight adrenal mode. I couldn't run away, so luckily for me, the magic superhuman strength-bestowing powers of adrenaline let me eke out two pull-ups after which I hung on, desperately trying for a third before the teacher finally asked me to let go.
I was still super shy and locked away any real self-esteem up until my senior year in high school, because by then I had been practicing martial arts for some months and was starting to feel like I was at least passingly competent. The only reason I even got that far was thanks to a welcoming community where it felt safe to learn and move. Training also got me out of my shell, ever so slightly, as I needed to interact with my training partners - one of the beautiful things about martial arts: community is essential to the practice - and over time that allowed me to open up more, on a regular basis; that kind of thing had only happened when I was talking about something I was passionate before. As the years wound on I grew far more talkative than I used to be, but I was still definitely shy, and the bulk of the confidence gained in the dojo stayed in the dojo. I still didn't believe I was "good enough" yet.
A couple years later I discovered parkour and, by the nature of the art, had to practice outside. Outside of the dojo I wasn't willing to let others see me practicing, learning, struggling, and failing. For a long time I trained parkour with no one around, and if I noticed someone wandering by I would stop and do something "normal;" I didn't want to look weird and especially didn't want to answer questions about what I was doing. Over time I got not only more skillful at the movements required but also noticeably physically stronger than I had been when practicing martial arts alone. After almost a year I found a little community to train with where I didn't feel awkward or judged. Through all of this I noticed that my overall energy, confidence, and ability to take initiative went through the roof. While those feelings come and go, the same trend of improving self-confidence has continued the longer I train and the more I keep gradually pushing the boundary of my comfort zone further out. The same process is underway through new channels I would have never touched before: dance; and now a little experiment with acting and stunts for a local community film project, Film in a Year.
But none of these would have ever been possible without the preceding steps on the path. With dance in particular, I've found the need to start practicing completely alone at first, then transitioning into dancing with a small welcoming community, then dancing "in public" with no audience (that is to say outdoors, in a public space, but without anyone around), then (and I'm still working on it) towards dancing for an active audience. Of course, unless you're into performance or teaching, you can skip that last daunting step.
The important point is that self-doubt will always be there, but by continually expanding your comfort zone outwards those doubts will shrink and interfere far less with your ability to take action. Acquiring physical skills is a powerful tool for building self-confidence and there is a clear process for pushing the edge of your comfort zone further, without pushing so far that you risk paralysis. Your confidence will build as your strength and skills improve, allowing you to do so many things you thought impossible before everywhere in your life; and that confidence will come not just from appearing stronger but being stronger, in body and in spirit.
"When no one is looking and you're not trying, what shows on your face?" - Seth Godin
_The title and post are inspired by a blog post of the same title by Seth Godin, Resting Smiley Face.
More often than not I'm lost in my own thoughts or focused on the task at hand, and I display the face to match, one with focused intensity. When I was growing up my mother would frequently comment about my tendency to be intense, and with the benefits of hindsight I see it clearly. It's great, and necessary, to be focused when you need to, when you're performing at the edge of your abilities or tackling something that scares you. When that happens a face like the one below ain't so bad.
But it's not so great as a default. At minimum that face broadcasts "don't distract me right now" and quickly creates distance. At worst it may have lead, on many occasions, to people outright avoiding interacting at all. Not good.
Fortunately it's fixable.
This project, to reset my 'default face' has been an intermittent self-experiment since last November. The experiment began when I saw myself in a full-length mirror on the final day of my farm stay in Switzerland. Between the sadness of departure and other emotions I had been wrestling with I didn't look terribly inviting or easy to talk to. Maybe understandable given the circumstances, but still, it bothered me. I had already finished packing in preparation for my trek back to town, and I had time to kill waiting for my host to return so I could say farewell and thank him before venturing onward.
I took to playing around with expressions in the mirror and quickly noted how much better I looked with even a subtle smile tugging gently at the corners of my lips. I instantly appeared friendlier than moments before. Strangely enough just practicing holding the smile for a few minutes left me feeling happier as well (an effect that has been studied).
For the next month I practiced this regularly and felt, on average, better than usual, especially considering the constant flux of moods that travel creates. But like many habits, I eventually forgot to maintain it, and much of the gains from that month were lost. I believe part of the reason for losing the habit was I lacked a means for feedback. I couldn't see whether or not I was holding the expression, and had trouble feeling the subtle difference between the default and resting smiley modes.
Months later, while volunteering on a farm in Iceland, I began practicing again, this time determined to learn how to feel the difference in the expressions; the subtle adjustments of muscles around the mouth and around the eyes. Fortunately I had some days devoted to driving a tractor, tilling and preparing fields, which gave plenty of time for practice. I could set the small smile, refocus on the task of driving, then periodically check in the rear mirror to confirm I still held the smile. If I screwed up I could quickly re-adjust and repeat the process. After a day or two of practice I could consciously feel the difference between the two faces without a mirror. Now I could do a quick self-check anywhere to feel if I was reverting to the old default, and switch to the resting smiley face instead.
During this experiment I discovered a virtuous cycle. With the resting smiley as the default I felt a little happier, which lead me to put forth my silly and playful side more often, which then lead to feeling even better. My interactions are filled with more playful energy and genuine interest when I'm in this virtuous cycle.
Now whenever I'm feeling too serious or somber I can check for the resting smiley, and see a small mood boost from it. If that isn't enough, there's always the nuclear option: do something entirely silly and without purpose. My preferred methods are bobbing back and forth, dancing in place, using over-the-top facial expressions, and if it's real bad the gopher dance.
The playful energy you get can be channeled into your interactions and conversations, making them at minimum more fun, and hopefully more meaningful and memorable. The world has more than its share of somber pessimists, we could use more people who are thrumming with life and an endless curiousity.
The resting smiley face won't get you there on its own, but it's a great place to start.
Look bad? Posting the failure here hurts more than the fall itself. That's despite it being the worst fall I've had in recent memory.
Sometimes it's the middle ground that's the most dangerous of them all. If the drop after the vault was bigger then I'd have more time to fix my in-air position (it's happened before and I always landed on my feet). If it were smaller there would be minimal impact.
How did it happen? As always the worst of them always happen when I'm not 100% present in the situation and I'm not giving the obstacle the respect it's due. I had an hour between classes and was gathering photos to update and expand the e-book. To do that I was taking burst photos, 30 in 3 seconds, which gave me a small time window from pushing the button to the executing the technique. On top of rushing I was already tired and had a headache (gotta love caffeine withdrawal) when I hit record.
Amusingly enough I jumped and gave myself more than enough power to sail straight over, but I wasn't focused and undershot my foot placement on top of the rail, hooking it behind me after I had already cleared.
Not good. I had milliseconds from recognizing my mistake to hitting the ground and I couldn't be in a worse position; no forward momentum or space to roll forwards, legs taken out, and diving headfirst (with no rotation). Knowing all of that didn't matter anyway. I hit the ground before I had time to think.
In those moments of falling all you have to keep you safe is your body's subconscious training. After the impact it took me a second to process that I had fallen. Right away, as is habit, I performed a quick damage assessment, and found that I was okay. The breakfall wasn't perfect, but I came away with just some scrapes on my right hand, minor bruising on the left palm, and the tiniest scratch where my cheek grazed the ground. The perfectionist* in me thinks, "coulda been better," but it avoided face smashing and lasting injury. That's all that matters.
*The fall itself is interesting to analyze. It was a modified forward breakfall. My left hand made contact a little too early but still relaxed into the fall, avoiding serious damage. The right was closer to the correct technique (aside from the palm being up), spreading the impact from hand to elbow. Bonus points to my body for leveraging the right shoulder to further protect my face. Pulling off a forward roll into a weak forward breakfall (little space to finish the roll) would have been potentially better, but I'm being picky.
I walked away from that fall nearly unscathed and rushed off to teach class. That wouldn't have happened without specific training. Correct (safe) reactions during a fall only show up when the techniques are engrained into your subconscious mind and that will only happen after loads of practice. Before that day I had fallen plenty of times, many times intentionally and sometimes not so much, which acclimated my body to the experience of falling.
We all fall occasionally, whether during day to day activities or during training. You can't avoid it, only prepare for it. Find some soft ground to practice (grass, carpet, mats) and practice your rolls and breakfalling skills. Parkour Ukemi has some excellent resources on rolling and specific falling drills which I'll link below. Right now I don't have my own online resources on the subject, but that's risen nearer the top of the list now. I'll update this post as they're added.
Choose to land gracefully.
I say "over, under, and through" a lot when talking about obstacles. Recently I was inspired to take that same idea and turn it into a simple game.
The rules: You have three moves to connect. One must be over an obstacle, another must be through it, and the third under it. That's it for the basics.
You can do a single set of three then take a break, or try to take it further and chain multiple sets together. This game works for single obstacles and potentially even better if you have many obstacles available. Railings are ideal, but with some creativity anything can work.
As per the video you can apply additional rules to increase the challenge. Make the ground lava, limit where you can step, or do crazy things like try to move only backwards or sideways. Feel free to experiment and try different things.
Go forth and play! Share what you came up with in the comments or via email.
All you need to practice jumping is the smallest of targets. In this case the wooden edges separating the mulch from the pavement. Given the width (an inch, maybe?) landing accurately is hard. One sure case of "smaller is harder" with this sort of thing. Jumping quickly between targets, even when small, is also a guaranteed way to nuke your energy.
And a bit of bonus video of recent training that I actually remembered to record:
Spotting movement opportunities around you is a trainable skill. In parkour we call this either parkour vision or traceur vision. In Feeling Creative it was all about the benefits of developing this vision; now it's time to learn how to train it.
To improve parkour vision you have three means of learning (in order of usefulness): visualization, learning from community and video inspiration. Let's start with the most important, visualization.
It's a fancy word, but all we're talking about is imagining yourself moving. It doesn't matter whether a movement is possible for you, especially at first. Just picture yourself moving through the environment right in front of you.
Without further direction trying imagining a route might be daunting. That's okay. There's a method to improving your vision until you're flowing through your environment with nary a thought necessary.
You'll go through three basic stages as you improve your Parkour vision: experimentation, combination, and improvisation. For fun, let's look at these stages through a metaphor.
Stage 1: Experimentation
Learning movement skills is like learning a new language. You've got your nouns (obstacles) and the basic verbs you've learned (techniques) which you combine to form sentences. Stage 1, then, is simply learning to look for pairings of obstacles and techniques. You see a waist-high railing and think "I could lazy vault that," or a wall taller than your head "I'd need to wall pass (run) that." You can practice this anytime you're out, whether on foot or in a vehicle. Look at an obstacle and ask "How could I pass over/under/through that quickly?" Do this constantly.
If you're practicing every day, identifying obstacles will become second-nature quickly. However, there's another part of the skill you need to train: spotting gaps. Learning to look for gaps is more difficult, requiring a more active imagination, especially at ground level. Why is it harder? First, you have to have a sense of your jump range and the ability to perform the mental calculus necessary to gauge a jump and know whether it's physically possible for you to make. Second, you often have to learn to see what isn't obviously there. A gap doesn't need to be a yawning chasm to be a good challenge. Gaps that are millimeters high are still gaps, and if you're a beginner they are the best for testing the limits of your abilities. Painted lines, parking stops, curbs, rocks and benches are everywhere and vary in challenge from beyond easy to impossible. You don't need to venture far from the ground to find, or create, gaps.
Stage 2 - Combination
The next stage in learning a language is to begin to move from sentences to paragraphs. With our metaphor, this means stringing movements together. Now we're getting into the meat (mmm) of parkour, navigating your efficiently.
By this point you should be able to recognize obstacle/technique pairings and jumps with ease. If you do, then the simplest way to approach Stage 2 is to imagine yourself starting where you're standing (point A) and pick a spot beyond a set of obstacles (point B) and imagine how you could efficiently get from A to B. Got it? Now try it.
This method works whether you're dealing with two obstacles or twenty. If you're interested purely in the practical, escape and pursuit aspects of Parkour practice, you only need this approach to develop great parkour vision.
Stage 3 (and beyond) - Improvisation
After a ton of practice in the first two stages you'll begin to internalize the techniques and ability to see routes. Now, stop thinking and stop planning. This is Stage 3. Improvisation happens best when you let your skills flow through you, trusting your body to know what to do. It's the ultimate test for your skills, quickly revealing what you're well-practiced at, as well as what you still need work on.
To clear flaws we continue practicing, sometimes still in Stage 3, but more often returning to Stages 1 and 2 for further refinement.
Beyond that, Stage 3 practice becomes more about exploration, imposing limitations, and creating hypothetical scenarios to drive creative use of Parkour vision, but that's for another time.
Learning from community
I've trained in many spaces, often for years, thinking I had identified all the movements I could do there. I trained around the Forest Theater steps for over six months without seeing the progressive precision jump challenge (a small gap, see what I mean?) there. Then friends show up to train and jam and one of them does some new thing there and I'm proven horribly, horribly wrong. Harnessing the vision of more experienced practitioners, or just practitioners with different experiences, can point out blind spots in your own awareness.
There is no magical formula to finding those blind spots. All you need is a community to train with from time to time. If you're training on familiar ground, simply pay attention to what and how the others are practicing. Then (if it's doable for you) it's just a matter of practicing it yourself and remembering to keep an eye out for similar opportunities elsewhere down the line.
Even if you're in a new area, there are opportunities to enhance your vision through watching what others are practicing. Keep an eye out for how other traceurs/traceuses interact with different obstacles or obstacle pairings. Likewise, participating in conversations and talking through possibilities in a spot is a great way to get insight into how others visualize routes.
Watch other people, then try applying what you see to your own visualizations and physical practice.
The final, and most limited, place to improve your parkour vision is through watching videos. Good parkour videos are hard to come by, so this option should be used sparingly (or we'd be watching all the time instead of training).
Excellent parkour videos can, like learning directly from your community, reveal possibilities you hadn't ever considered for movements and creative use of space. What are you looking for in a video? The ways specific techniques are used with obstacles, novel movement combinations, unusual obstacles and many other things. You can't often copy what you see (either due to skill level, location, or safety) but if you're creative enough, you can adapt tactics and movements to your current level and locations.
Here are some recent inspirations to get you started. Start with this video from Scott Bass - it's long but well worth it. Another few I really enjoyed recently were Creativity, parkour of the weak, DüDieDinosaurier and Absolute Vulnerability.
Take the ideas you glean from your friends and community and from videos, and bring them back into your own practice of visualizing movement. Whenever you have the opportunity, take your imagined movements for a road test. The immediate feedback from your physical practice will help to nourish and tailor your visualization ability, resulting in more quick, creative, consistently realistic and personalized imaginings. Then just ride the growing wave of possibilities to practice everywhere, all the time and forever.
Keep imagining and let your creativity and vision soar.
Traceurs see the world differently.
Where some see a dead end, we see a short-cut. This mindset shift transforms obstacles into opportunities. A (seemingly) singular path-dictated by the structure of walls, railings, and other elements of the environment-can become a multitude. How? By interacting with, instead of avoiding, the environment and that begins with a trick of the imagination. Picture yourself moving over, around and through the obstacles around you.
This ability to imagine yourself flowing over obstacles and spotting opportunities for movement can be an immense boon for your creative powers, in every arena.
"Don't think! Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can't try to do things. You simply must do things." -Ray Bradbury
Thinking in words can hold back creative potential. Words simply can't convey as much detail as we can quickly get from our sensory imaginations. In the time it would take me to describe to you the gist of the route I'm imagining I could come up with ten other possibilities. In the same vein a painter can picture an entire painting in his head, a filmmaker can imagine the intricacies of a scene or a developer can see the finished product of her code.
It's tempting to think those are all innate talents, but they aren't. Creativity, like anything, is trainable and can be improved with practice. My own experience is a good example. . For most of my life I've held the unfortunate belief that I'm simply not creative. I assumed I was the rational and logical type of thinker, and 'creativity' was not in my wheelhouse at all. As a kid I didn't have any real artistic inclinations and didn't find myself spontaneously generating creative ideas, especially not of the visual sort.
The shift towards a creative mind begun after I started practicing martial arts regularly. When I wasn't at the dojo I found myself imagining scenarios while walking down the street. I would visualize exactly how my attacker(s) would behave and mentally test effective counters. Practicing those visualizations had effects beyond martial arts practice. Sometimes ideas would manifest as images (more than I'd like as memes...thanks internet), I just lacked the skills to put them on paper.
Parkour blew the door off of this whole creative thinking thing for me. As part of daily practice I had to scan for opportunities, imagining how I could jump, climb, and crawl my way around. Parkour is different in that way, as you're imagining what you can do right now in this real space, with its unique set of conditions (available obstacles, grip conditions, weather, etc.) and limitations. And it's the limitations which are, paradoxically, the key to generating more creative ideas. Creating movement under the restrictions of your environment, skillset and ability level is an excellent way to test and flex your creative muscle, with immediate feedback to boot!
"Structure and freedom are two sides of the same coin. Structure yields freedom to creatively roam." -Todd Henry, Die Empty
It wasn't long before this scanning process moved beyond the boundaries of training into my daily life. Now whenever I'm out I find myself constantly searching for movement opportunities, regardless of whether I intend to act on them. For myself, the more time spend playing movement possibilities through my mind, the more creative powers I unlocked elsewhere. Anything from ideas for posts (like this one), pictures to create and spontaneous movement ideas now manifest frequently. The missing piece now is the skillset to bring them into reality, but that too simply requires practice (like the sketch that opened this post).
Clearly the act of thinking in a different way, without words, had unlocked a creative side of my mind that I had thought, or perhaps rejected, I didn't have at all.
Take advantage of thinking with your senses to build your creative capacity. Parkour practice is a powerful tool for flexing your sensory imagination and continuously training your creative muscle. Always stay on the lookout for possibilities and imagine them, without words, to speed your creative thinking and forge new ideas.