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Running and the process

Last week, I ran my third marathon. Because there wasn’t an organized marathon in D.C., I stationed my friends around the National Mall to give me water, and put a bunch of gatorades in my car. It was not ceremonious in any sense–but it was 26.2 miles.

When I run, one of my biggest flaws is that I focus way too much on how I’ll feel at the end. For example, I’ll be at mile 5 out of 20 of a long run, and the scene on loop in my head is how I’ll feel when I cross the finish line. Sometimes, I picture myself somewhere else entirely, imagining that I’m cresting Heartbreak Hill in Boston.

On one hand, this is harmless. After all, long distance running is hard! Of course I’ll picture the euphoria when I’m done or how impressed everyone will be with my Strava post. However, when I catch myself single-mindedly focusing on the end, though, it makes me wonder “why am I doing this in the first place if the only thing I can picture is it being over?”

I spend a lot of time in my life waiting for things to end, like classes, lines at the grocery store, and yes, sometimes long runs. Even though I do this, I know it’s flawed–when I get to the end of my life, I know I would do anything to experience even the most banal Trader Joe’s line. It’s all worth appreciating and enjoying.

I catch myself with the same flawed reasoning when I do magic. Last summer, I did a show I had worked on for months. It wasn’t bad, but it certainly didn’t live up to my expectations. My thought at the time, though, was “thank god I enjoyed the process.” More specifically, if I had spent every day in rehearsal thinking only about walking on stage or getting applause, it would have been a rude awakening when the show didn’t go as planned. Instead, I looked forward to every day of rehearsal. So when the show didn’t go well, I went back to rehearsal the next day to fix what went wrong. The main event is just an outgrowth of the process.

It’s taken me a long time to understand that exclusively focusing on the end is completely pointless. Haruki Murakami, a novelist and runner, says that “just because there’s an end doesn’t mean existence has meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker.” This is true in marathons (26.2 is about as arbitrary as it gets), magic shows, and pretty much every other creative project. If we don’t enjoy and find meaning in the process, we will not enjoy the end result.

So, let’s look at why we focus on the end before finding some ways to solve the problem.

There are two reasons we focus on the end of a difficult project (I’ll use magic shows and marathons here because they are what I have the most experience with). First, the end means the absence of suffering. If a project is hard, the end is the moment of relief. If it’s a marathon, my training is over. If it’s a magic show, I can stop stressing about ticket sales and I get to show people what I’ve been working so hard on.

Second, the end is often euphoric. Crossing the finish line of a marathon while thousands of people cheer you on is an incredible feeling. Getting applause at the end of a show is nice too. The thing about euphoria, though, is that it is completely conditional on all the work that came before.

Thinking about this helps me frame what I’m actually looking forward to. It might be some applause, sure. But it’s applause as a result of completing something hard, like a marathon or a magic show. My energy should be on the hard task. If I’m not focused on giving a great performance during a show, guess what? The audience has nothing to applaud for.

There are no cheers or euphoria, though, when you just completed your 16-mile training run or when you finish rehearsal. Sometimes, at the end of any kind of practice session, you just feel tired and grumpy. There’s nothing wrong with that, we all have bad days. We must understand, though, that enjoying the process is the only way to enjoy the actual event. There’s a few reasons for this.

First, when we’re talking about appreciating the end, what we’re really talking about is gratitude. And gratitude is a practice–you don’t suddenly learn how to appreciate things. Instituting a simple gratitude practice, like writing down 1-3 things you’re thankful for at the end of each day, is an easy habit to start; it will make you more aware during the day of what to be grateful for. I know because I’ve done this every day for five years. It comes down to the simple fact that if we don’t learn gratitude in the hard moments, we won’t be able to celebrate the big ones. We’ll just be focused on what’s next instead of enjoying right now.

Second, enjoying the process, and the struggles that come with it, prepares you to ace the actual thing. I’ve had more bad runs than I can count. But each bad run is a gift, because I can basically guarantee that the bad thing that happened won’t happen on race day. One time my headphones died because I ran in 11 degree weather. Great, I thought–because my marathon is in March, I’ll be that much more thankful for my music when it's 50 degrees. Likewise, I’ve messed up in rehearsal thousands of times. But it’s the same logic as running–I’m thankful every single time. Literally. When I open an incorrect prediction in rehearsal, I’m so grateful! It’s way better to mess up in front of one person instead of a paying audience of 300.

The reality is that we will face adversity, even during the “main event.” For example, I’ve had technology break the day of the show. Last summer, my friend Scotty Wiese and I had to rewrite an entire routine two days before a show. And one time, we had two routines ready to go, one for if our prop arrived hours before the show, and one for if the prop did not make it on time. Struggling during the process teaches you that you can adapt to anything. And struggling in practice, in process, calms me down when I’m actually running the marathon. When I’ve failed enough times, nothing bad can really happen.

Finally, sometimes the process is better than the end result. For example, during my marathon, the weather was gorgeous. Most of the run was spent enjoying blue skies, watching planes land at the airport, looking at rowers on the Potomac River, and running past every monument in D.C. The finish line, meanwhile, was under a nondescript bridge. One moment, I was running, and the next moment, I wasn’t. I stood behind two pedestrians who had no idea I just finished a marathon, and I walked to my car and drove home. It was as banal as it gets.

Had I not enjoyed the process, then what would it have all been for? So I can pump my fist alone under a bridge? That’s not worth nearly four hours of running and hundreds of miles of training.

It’s the same thing when I do magic. I’ve had shows not go as planned, and I’ve felt sad and disappointed. But the more I focus on enjoying the process, the better it gets. Because I see those shows as inevitable parts of the process of growing and learning.

Focusing on the end is pointless because the process is the only thing that gets me there. By enjoying the little wins now, I learn to appreciate the big wins later.

Thanks for reading! By the way, if you're in D.C., make sure to grab tickets to my LAST SHOW at GW, Everything I Don't Know, on April 23rd. See you there!

Also, Scotty Wiese (mentioned above) is performing at Red Rocks on April 9th, the first ever magic show at this historic venue. If you're in Colorado, do yourself a favor and go to the show!


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