A wannabe Cicero, I’ve enjoyed thinking about and trying to apply aspects of Stoicism to my life ever since reading William Irvine’s “A Guide to the Good Life” four or five years ago. The ancient philosophy’s anti-materialist emphasis on tranquility and joy resonates with me.
Irvine thoughtfully explains how to apply the ancient concepts to modern times. One stoic insight concerns internal goal setting. Irvine argues that we often succumb to negative emotions—anger, fear, grief, anxiety, and envy—because we focus too much on things outside of our control.
When a Stoic concerns himself with things over which he has some but not complete control, such as winning a tennis match, he will be very careful about the goals he sets for himself. In particular, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals. Thus is goal in playing tennis will not be to win a match (something external, over which he has only partial control) but to play to the best of his ability in the match (something internal, over which he has complete control). By choosing this goal, he will spare himself frustration or disappointment should he lose the match: Since it was not his goal to win the match, he will not have failed to attain his goal, as long as he played his best. His tranquility will not be disrupted.
This weekend, at my first triathlon competition in 10 plus months, I learned how far I have to go to apply this more Eastern, process-oriented approach to goal setting. I’ve always really enjoyed competing at Hagg Lake, a large clean body of water surrounded by dense woods 30 minutes west of Portland.
There’s another Olympic distance (1500m swim, 40k bike, 10k run) race in Portland every June that draws four times as many participants probably because it’s flat. The 11 mile road that loops Hagg Lake has one 300 meter flat stretch across the dam. Total elevation on the bike is 1,500′. The run is up and down throughout as well. It’s a course that’s perfectly suited to me. The hills are our friends.
Check out my times from my three Hagg Lake races.
Note that I forgot to race in 2010. My goals for this year were to beat my 2004, 42 year-old self course record. I thought I could drop enough time in the bike leg to make up for a slight loss of time in the swim and run. Pretty darn Stoic I thought, racing against myself. But then I wavered. I looked up some of the guys who pre-registered and I knew I was faster than them based on previous races. I thought I could win my smallish, oldster age group.
Then I raced to the best of my ability. Which, if I was any kind of student of Stoicism, would be the end of the story. But of course it’s not. I passed a few guys in my age group during the run and thought I was probably second. In the finishing chute a 33 year old, who I had been leap frogging back and forth with throughout the bike and run, sprinted past me to finish 1 second ahead of me. He was pumped. I didn’t remind him that my wave started five minutes after his and that I beat him by 4:59. Hey everybody, gather round. Watch Ron carom off the Stoic rails.
After a dip in the lake with the world’s best wife but worst race photog, I checked out the results. Damn. I got spanked by four fellow geezers and finished fifth out of fifteen in my age group. Forget that “best of my ability” bullshit, I felt like I had failed. Doubly, as an athlete and Stoic. Why dear friends did I let the computer printout alter my mindset so much? I lost touch with the fact that I’m really lucky to both have the resources and be healthy enough to compete in a beautiful natural setting. And I lost touch with just how inconsequential my triathlon performance is in the grander scheme of things that matter even a little bit in life.
In hindsight, fifth out of fifteen isn’t terrible, but after my excellent performance at Canada last year (14th out of 217), I started to get cocky. In Canada I rolled for almost eleven hours, what’s two and a half? It showed in my poor race prep. Pre-race I ran twice off the bike for a total of 7 miles. And this summer I’ve blown off as many swim workouts as I’ve completed. And my cavalier attitude culminated in me forgetting my wetsuit which explains most of the additional time in the swim.
Truthfully though, best case scenario, had I remembered my wetsuit and trained with greater focus and intensity, I could have gone four or five minutes faster, but I still would have finished third or fourth.
See that, still focusing on time and placement. I have even more work to do as a Stoic than I do as a triathlete.