Picture of My Father Running

How Can I Follow My Bliss If I Don’t Know Where It is?

Although he doesn’t do it much any more, my father was an awesome runner in his day. When I was 12 or 13, I watched him run a 5:22 mile; he was in his mid-forties at the time, and I don’t think he was even trying that hard. In 1990, at the age of 50, he ran the Berlin marathon in 2:50, finishing in the top 1% of men 50-54, in the top 5% of all men, and 1014 out of a total of 20,770 runners. He averaged a 6:30 mile for 26.2 freaking miles. I could not run one 6:30 mile.

What impresses me more is how easy my father made running look. Top-notch athletes always have this air about them. Watch Michael Phelps swim. Watch Nadia Comaneci rock the 1976 Olympics. For that matter, watch Mine that Bird‘s comeback in the 2009 Kentucky Derby. (First, watch the event live and notice that the commentator didn’t even realize what was happening. Then, watch the race from overhead to get a real sense of what that gorgeous horse did. Brings tears to my eyes, it’s that spectacular.)

Last year, I happened to pass by Flagstaff’s top male runner as he was finishing a loop I was just beginning. (Yeah, he was that far ahead of me.) He glanced down at me for a moment, then turned to look over his shoulder to see how far behind the next runner was. (The answer: really really far.) Then, just like that–whoosh–he was gone. He looked lovely, moving so fast but with what seemed such little effort. I felt that sense of wonder you get when you unexpectedly happen upon a deer in the wild and momentarily make eye contact before it runs away. I had been in the vicinity of a Magical and Mystical Creature.

What amazes me most about my father’s accomplishments is that he started running around the age of 40. (Incidentally, I am turning 40 in a few wee months and began racing recently–eat that, Freud!) He started running because his best friend had a heart attack and was told by his doctor to do some cardio. In support, my dad began running with him. He then suddenly discovered that he could run really far and really fast and that he really really liked it. So, he just kept on going.

We could speculate all day about why my father was able to become a competitive runner late in life after years of average fitness. Some would say genetics, that he was born to run. His name is Reiner Renner, after all. Some might say he pushed himself in training–and certainly with his philosophy of “run as far and as fast as you can every time you run,” we’d expect dramatic results. Some would say he was obsessed, and I do recall that once we had to wait for him to get back from a run so we could open our Christmas presents. None of this seemed unusual to me. Running was just What He Did.

When my father runs, he looks like he is doing exactly what he is meant to do and exactly what he wants to be doing. It is His Thing.

(This has probably started to sound like an “I-love-Brian-Piccolo-and-I-want-you-to-love-him-too” speech or like I’m trying to make up for forgetting to send a father’s day card this year, but I swear I have a bigger point, and it’s not all unicorns and rainbows. Stick with me for a moment.)

There is far better terminology for what I’m talking about than the Thing. Some refer to it as being “in the zone” or “on a roll,” others as “flow.” In sports, it’s when mind and body work together, and the cooperation is effective, effortless, and pleasurable. You know what you have to do, and you do it without thinking about it too much because you already know you can. I’ve experienced this a few times. Every once in a while during a volleyball game, I would start feeling like I could predict where every opposing spike was going to land and would get there in time to receive it. In softball, I’d feel The Thing sometimes when turning a double play, getting out of a run-down, or sliding into home.

The Thing lies at the nexus of joy and ability. It’s not the same as simply being good at something. The Thing is what you become good at specifically because you love it so much you can’t help but do it and so you become good at it along the way. I don’t think you are always naturally good at your Thing either, but you don’t mind being bad at it because you know that you’re going to get better.

Not all Things are sports-related, of course. Sometimes when I’m writing, my brain stops judging every word and idea and just lets me write; then, words zipper together into seamless little sentences. My guitar instructor years ago was clearly doing his Thing: he didn’t think chords or strings or frets. He just played. I met a mountain climber last year who knew exactly what I was talking about when I asked what his “Thing” was. He instantly replied, “Reading the rock.”

For other people, it’s knitting, cooking, putting together puzzles, assembling engines, designing websites, navigating the wilderness. I don’t believe, though, that passive acts, like watching films, reading books, listening to music, are Things, though they sometimes feel like it. I don’t know about you, but those sorts of activities always leave me feeling hungry to create rather than sated from consuming. But maybe I’m wrong. It doesn’t really matter what I think. Whatever it is, when you’re doing Your Thing, time stops, doubt dissipates, the brain lets loose the reins, and everything just works, and you knew that it would beforehand.

Some people are lucky enough to have more than one Thing. Some make damn sure they do. I like those people.

I have always thought that the meaning of life is to find a way to give your Thing(s) as much as time and space as it wants  . . . within reason, of course. We all need to pay bills. But I think that people should at least consider practical ways to make their Thing their Life. I suppose some would say that this would ruin the Thing, and maybe that’s true. I don’t know. I don’t think so, though. That’s not the nature of the Thing.

(Okay, now this probably sounds like some carpe diem, seize the day, follow your bliss kind of post. It’s not that either. I promised no unicorns and no rainbows. So here goes.)

I have nightmarish fears about my Thing.

1) Do I still have a Thing? What if my Thing is gone? What if I gave it up, lost it? My most powerful experiences of Thingness occurred during sports I don’t play anymore, and the creative Things I dabble in (writing, photography) don’t “click” as much as I’d like; I never seem able to escape the endless self-doubt, the driving need to “be good,” the desire to make other people ooh and aaah. By my definition, these feelings mean that these things are not (yet?) Things.

2) Are my Things really just things? Did I train for a triathlon because it was a meaningful accomplishment or because society has told me that it should be a meaningful accomplishment? Do I visit national parks because I love the experience or because I’ve learned that I should love it and that stamps in my Parks Passport make me An Interesting Person? Am I appropriating other people’s Things in hopes they will become mine? Am I doing everything for the photo opportunity and the Facebook post? Am I simply performing happiness? Rehearsing bliss? Do I even know what makes me happy anymore? Sometimes, I confess, I can’t always tell the difference between What I Love to Do and What I Should Love to Do.

3) What if I never discover my Thing? My dad only found his accidentally at 40, after all. What if, for example, my Thing is ballet? The chances of my ever doing ballet are zilch because I’ve already made some assumptions that I won’t like it, couldn’t do it, etc. How would I ever know if I were wrong? What if my Thing is playing the oboe or carving canoes or designing crossword puzzles? There are so many potential things that I’ll never try: what if one of them is My Thing?

4) And ohmygod what if what I think is blue is actually green but I call it blue and when you look at blue you see green but you call it blue? How would we ever know that my blue is green and that your green is blue?

I’ve gone all hysterical. Anyway, I refer you back to my title.

See? No rainbows and no unicorns.

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19 thoughts on “How Can I Follow My Bliss If I Don’t Know Where It is?

  1. I think it’s not so much “a thing” but many things. Dancing is definitely one of my things but I surely wouldn’t let anyone but you (and your blog readers) know that. I think if you have zoneness, you can get into the zone just by the sheer fact of being you, putting your body in a place and doing something–maybe even a little longer than is comfortable.

    1. That is totally true: you need to embrace discomfort to find a Thing. And definitely the more things you are willing to try, the more chances you have of finding more things.

      Now we have to go dancing!

  2. Have you ever read “Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience”? It’s a pretty thorough explication of the concept of Flow, and it really changed the way I do a lot of the things I do. I recommend it.

    One of the key arguments in “Flow” is that being in the Zone (i.e. Flow experience) generally precludes self-awareness. This leads me to a gut theory: being in the Zone could occupy our nervous systems so completely that we might not even have the surplus brainpower to grasp the fact that we are in the Zone at all. At least, not until we stop to think about it after the fact. It’s entirely possible that you’ve got your Thing, but that it is so completely your Thing that it escapes conscious awareness most of the time. This may or may not just be me rambling, though.

    And ohmygod item #4 on your list is a longstanding problem in the Philosophy of Mind with–get this–no solution.

    1. I’ve heard of Flow but not read it. Sounds like I need to add it to the reading list. But you’re absolutely right: the Thing MUST escape self-awareness. That’s completely right. Or maybe its self-consciousness. Something, anyway.

      And, yeah, I was kinda joking with #4. I got presented that philosophical problem in high school or college, and it sort of made my mind explode.

      Thanks for the recommendation, Jack.

  3. I think I know how you feel, especially when you worry about having lost your Thing. My “most powerful experiences of Thingness” were certainly all from doing theater in my late teens and early twenties, and I’m scared that I’ll never feel so intensely alive and at home again. A career in the academy (which too much privileges the critical and the analytical) doesn’t help; problematizing and dissecting Thingness probably isn’t the most likely path toward Thinglightenment.

    I wonder if you’d enjoy reading _The Inner Game of Tennis_ by W. Timothy Gallwey, if you haven’t already — your post reminded me of it at several points. It was assigned to me as summer reading before a life-changing acting class, and I still use its vocabulary for thinking about the problems of self-doubt, the need to “be good,” and so on. It’s about sports performance but also about life, providing a map for how we can use conscious tricks to let our subconscious take over and do its Thing. The book is especially helpful for problem cases: what happens when your “and you knew that it would beforehand” ceases to be true? when your confidence, or the magic formula of joy and ability, is rocked by some difficulty or disaster?

    I don’t know. I think there are definitely tricks we can use to make our experiences more Thingy, but I’m not sure there’s any certain way to get back to the pure, 100% in-the-zone feeling we remember. Midlifeyness is a big part of the problem (for me, anyway) as well; it’s harder to discover or recapture a Thing when you’re aware of your own aging.

    1. I thought you were going to talk about clowning. Surely clowning was Thingy as well, no? I love Thinlightenment! And another book to add to my list. Thanks, Jon.

      Ugh–and let’s not even TALK about midlifeyness. I lost several Things to bad knees.

      1. Here’s another book to add to your list, though I feel evil for burdening you with another one. Haruki Murakami wrote a memoir called “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”–it mixes discussions of life and creative writing with triathlons and such. Murakami also didn’t start running until later in life when he was told to get healthy. Great book, even if it’s more poetic than scientific.

        I don’t necessarily worry about the physical effects of age, though I certainly realize that I’m losing my Thingness capabilities for playing a musical instrument. The fingers and the lung capacity all go with age, especially since I’ve got arthritis coming at my genetics from all corners of the family tree.

        No, I’m more worried about brain degeneration. And sorry to bring it up, but studies show that the brain starts to lose capacity around age 45. I worry about that now at 22…

      2. You might want to withhold judgments about “the physical effects of age” until you, like, age. Just sayin’. Thanks for the book recommendation.It definitely sounds like something I should take a look at.

  4. Yes, you nailed it. I also read the book mentioned by jrmckever and got a lot out of it. It talks about how people can get that feeling of flow from their work, even on the assembly line, for example. Also read a book specifically about flow as experienced by mountain climbers; including how they climb because it so facilitates/demands a certain mindset of awareness that is not self-conscious, a becoming-one-with state. I wonder how many people ever do find their Thing. I spend so much time just trying to find my car keys.

    1. Amen, sister. I couldn’t tell you where my keys are right now. I like the idea that for some the Thing is necessary because to not be in the moment is dangerous. How does one add this element to intellectual endeavors, though? Hmm.

      1. As you said earlier, writing can produce that feeling of flow when it seems that what you wanted to say was already written and you are just its channel as it rushes out of you as you deliver a fully formed “baby” rather than a confused mess that needs mountains of editing and its diaper changed. I also think that reading can be a creative process if it creates connections that make up an idea that is itself an entity somehow. I find this sometimes when I reread something I read before and didn’t understand and suddenly it is all clear and huge and bright and the thoughts are a Thing, not just thoughts but something with an existence of its own. Like when Watson “saw” in his head the structure of DNA or when Einstein got relativity. Or maybe not! Maybe that is an entirely different process. Not sure. But it does require getting out of one’s own way to happen, which, as has been discussed here, is essential in experiencing one’s Thing.

  5. I think you can identify your “thing” by how passionate you are about it. You have to be careful like you said that your thing is not what society thinks it should be and it should really what you like and enjoy. If you wake up in the morning and no matter who you are with you would still want to devote your energies to your thing. Then you found it. I believe your “thing” changes as you age and that is ok in fact, it in many ways is a good thing. For example my friends and family will attest that my daughter who is 12 her thing is One direction right now. She can tell you all the stats on the band members and their lives. Hopefully, her thing will not be One Direction forever. I love the national parks too and whether or not other like them I love nature and would walk the trails alone if I had to. I hope now I made sense. I like your blog I just added it as a favorite.

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