What Triathlon Taught Me about Creativity, Learning, & Achievement

With regard to athletics, swimming is my first love, although I never wanted to just be a swimmer. It was an affinity for cycling, which developed over the course of the last several years, that made me consider fusing my passion for swimming with other activities. That would create a whole separate challenge and a brand new way to test my abilities. Running and I have a somewhat tenuous relationship, but I stick with it because I love participating in triathlon. It occurred to me not long ago that my choice of sport, coupled with a rather nonlinear style of athletic training, seemed to mirror, uncannily, the way I think, learn, and create. Upon reflection, I realized that multi-sport training has given me some valuable insights into the means by which people with varied interests, aptitudes, and creative abilities can thrive, particularly in a “specialist’s” environment.

Make choices, but make them your way.

One of the greatest misconceptions about individuals with many passions is that we’re dilettantes. Frivolous. Indecisive. Childish. And that’s so not true. We just don’t specialize in the same manner as everyone else. Much like multi-sport training, I’ve found that the process of specializing, for some of us, is less a narrowing and more an expansion in particular, focused, and often multiple directions. Let me give you an example.

Years ago, I was an undergraduate psychology major. I loved, loved, loved psychology. I had a 4.0 GPA in my major, and there was no doubt in my mind I was going graduate school. I was going to become a career academic, and psychology was my field. Easy peasy. Decision made.

Then, came the process of filling out applications and asking for letters of recommendation. “What’s going to be your speciality?” My…speciality? I’d known it was inevitable, and I had been hoping against all hope that when the time came to make that decision, I would somehow just “know.” Except I didn’t.

SPECIALIZE.

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It was a cringe-inducing process. Poring over course catalogues and program descriptions revealed nothing but extensive compartmentalization. Social? Personality? Clinical? Health? Experimental? Neuroscience? Not to mention all the little boxes within those boxes. They were divided, ordered, and stacked up like a bunch of nesting dolls.  And I was terrified of having my passions chopped up in similar fashion.

I mean, what about my love of literature and art–and the way they go together? And the way all three of those fields go together? And the way they all go together with lots of other things in ways I haven’t even considered yet? Isn’t that what learning is supposed to be about? How could I possibly abandon all of that?

Doesn’t this thing come made-to-order?! 

Of course, it didn’t. Each “speciality” felt like a dark and narrow tunnel, and for me to enter, I would have had to take apart all of the interests and ideas I’d spent years thinking together, abandoning them at the door. For me, that never would have been sustainable. The moment it all started to feel too focused, or too one-dimensional (for want of a better term), for my liking, I would have tried to go dramatically and defiantly outside the box.

That doesn’t mean I was too flighty or indecisive to have chosen a direction. I could have picked one. I just would have had to customize it by mixing it extensively with other pursuits in ways that were unconventional and that, it seemed, were not available to me at the time. The moral of the story is that I learned then I would have to create whichever career path I chose to take.

We win by being just good enough.

Many pursuits, when taken alone, become less interesting over time. It is the relationship  of things to other things, or ideas to other ideas, that imbues them with possibility. And keeps them endlessly interesting. Some of us don’t win by being “the best” at a singular pursuit because we need to always hold it relation to other pursuits. We’re continually adding (and sometimes taking away) fresh layers, dimensions, or perspectives to our work. That way, it remains engaging over time, and more importantly, we can stick to it, rather than flitting off in seemingly unrelated directions. It is when we focus our energies on being just competent enough at each element involved in a problem that we find success.

Similarly, if I were a swimmer, I wouldn’t be the best. If I dedicated all of my athletic prowess to cycling, all day everyday, I still would not win the Tour de France. And I do not make a great runner. I am, however, just good enough at each discipline that I can be quite competitive when I combine the three. That is when I win.

Endurance is an attitude.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine wanting to be an expert at one thing. As soon as I feel I have reached a certain level of mastery, solved a problem, or understood a subject to my satisfaction, I am happy to be finished with it. I have gotten what I came for, and I’ll go no further. “I’ve gotten what I came for” is generally past the point of no return. Unless I can add something else to a project to rekindle my passion.

Or, unless I have no choice. Because sometimes we simply must finish things to someone else’s satisfaction. That, of course, is a matter of attitude. Once you really understand what it means to push yourself when you think your body can go no further, it becomes easier to do in all areas of life. I’ve found that there is no better way to understand the mental processes involved in self-discipline, perseverance, and confronting failure than in training the body for endurance. And that’s a practice I hope to continue cultivating for a very long time.

10 thoughts on “What Triathlon Taught Me about Creativity, Learning, & Achievement

  1. Me too, loving your writing, you’re refreshingly original. Endurance is indeed an attitude, whether its me slowly plod-jogging up a hill or getting to the end of a novel chapter!

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  2. I totally LOVE this post. You have written so eloquently what I could not have put into words myself – I too have many interests , I don’t feel the need to be ‘perfect’ in any one discipline because I do things for the enjoyment of them.
    That’s not to say I don’t try to do things as best I can because I do. I too have competed in sport and enjoyed winning but the process of getting there was about enjoyment rather than anything else.
    I enjoy many interests because my personality is not one dimensional.
    Great post – thank you for sharing those insights 😉

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    1. Thank you! 🙂 I tend to do a lot of things simply for the enjoyment of them, too, and you’re right, that doesn’t mean we don’t work really hard when we have goals! Especially when you have many interests, the process can be the hardest part!

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