In Defense of the Ordinary to Create the Extraordinary

“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” -Gustave Flaubert

After a stellar season opening race, my second favorite professional runner, Kate Grace, posted this quote alongside two pictures: the first showed her in her warm-up, composed and polished, while the second displayed her in the race, fierce and wild.

The trouble with quotes is that they often matter to someone not because the words themselves are exceptional, but because the person reading them, living in her instant where past meets present, needs them. The quote, then, is not about its meaning, but about the moment.

I had been thinking about routines and their power for months, even years, before I read this, but because this came from a runner I admire, and because I was at the time injured and clinging to my routines­–physical therapy, sleep, journaling, etc.–Flaubert’s words hit me with almost religious sincerity. I crave simplicity and intentionality in my daily routines for the freedom it affords me everywhere else. If I spend 40 minutes of every day on PT, strengthening my micro-weaknesses with mundane, monotonous micro-exercises, then I will once again feel the bliss that is running fast, the synergistic flow of mind, legs, and lungs that can take me places beyond the ordinary.

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Thinking about routines and how it all relates to tides & waves & rocks. Mother Earth, man.

Work, to me, right now, is not where I make money (I hope I was not violent with the kids I worked with all summer), but where I seek and find purpose. Kate Grace went on to win the Olympic Trials and race the Olympic final. All I want is to run faster and stronger than I ever have before. To think and learn and write better than my previous self.

But all this is not to say that I reject spontaneity or refuse unpredictability. In fact, I welcome such unknowables like never before. When I budget my time and energy, I am liberated to discover experiences, people, books, that I otherwise would have been too distracted and disorganized to notice.

As I enter my last year of undergrad, I feel excruciatingly aware of finitudes. I know that each first is a last, and that because I will almost certainly never again live in Corvallis beyond June, I must become an expert in its intricacies and opportunities. There is almost all of McDonald Forest left to explore, non-obvious food places to try, and, of course, so many classes to take. Last weekend, I missed my last cross country season opener, but I also watched my teammate/roommate/friend race for the first time in 1.5 years, an experience perhaps even more satisfying. The most I can ask of myself is that I welcome these feelings, all sizes of good and bad, without limits.

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We should all be zen like this donkey. Just look at that focus; purely content.

A certain wildness emerges when all the particulars fall into place. At the end of each day, comforted in my prescribed and sustained efforts, I sleep prepared for something spectacular to happen tomorrow. I burden myself with responsibilities at the appropriate times in order to let my mind and spirit wander later. The philosophy of routine is one of discipline and self-regulation, but once it is established, life clarifies itself, if only a little bit.

The burden of finding a life purpose/career/calling is confusing enough without the mess of existence to complicate it. Perhaps my desire for routine is a predictable need for control of the minute in order to feign a larger influence. It is probable and logical that all of my life experiences and circumstances are randomized and meaningless, but why would I read books so feverishly if I were not always grasping for believable narratives?

I want to believe that my choices matter, that I matter, but if I spent all my time worrying about how best to achieve this, I would do nothing. So, I choose instead to buy in to my own systems, to pretend that I know what I’m doing until I have convinced myself, and I can say that I’m more at peace, if not happier, because of it. I have always established my own moral codes, rather than accepting these from ambivalent authority figures, so if I can justify my theoretical routines once, then I can perform them, indefinitely, without question.

My philosophy, like all philosophies, is flawed and limited, but without some boundaries I could never rationalize personal dogma. I want to do great things, but I need a method to my madness. Even if I do not go on to win the Olympic Trials, I know that I can and will go on to do and create the thing that I should and must, whatever the work is that will sustain me. However flimsy my premise and however distant the results, that promise is enough to ground me in routines that make me free.

The Battle Against the Comfort Zone

The comfort zone is the magical place we all know and love where we can fall into a drone of indifference knowing nothing unpleasant can touch us. The comfort zone thrives on apathy and routine because routine enables thoughts to cease and ambitions to dissolve. In this life, we know what we like and what we do not like, so things make sense. Change is unnecessary because complacency takes control.

I am terrified of the comfort zone because it is the antithesis of the meaningful life I intend to live.

It is so easy to sit back and let life pass by while making as little noise as possible. And sometimes, I fear that I will fall into this habit. Sure, I have vested interest in school and other activities that propels me forward, but this might not be enough. Stagnation can strike at any time, and when I find myself at the end of a day with no tangible evidence that I accomplished anything, I feel powerless. Anyone can tell you that the key to success is consistency and diligence, but no one will tell you how hard it is to embrace this.

These tree is cool because it's complex and unique just like you.

These tree is cool because it’s complex and unique just like you.

In theory, anyone with a healthy zest for life should be able to achieve a meaningful life effortlessly, but it’s not that simple. Because the things that matter most require you to both challenge yourself and do so with insane courage. Laying in bed all day watching Netflix might feel awesome at the time, but it’s probably not going to make you a better person. For some people, this is not an issue. These people will accept their average life and continue living this way, following the convenient path taken many times before them. They may or may not be happy or satisfied, but they will definitely be comfortable.

I could never live this way because I want more than anything to lead an extraordinary life. And this might be the hardest thing in the world. Most prominent voices in society insist that I should accept the pre-determined path laid before me and walk along it without pausing to consider the implications. These voices fear that any rogue movement will disrupt the delicate balance and structure in which modern society exists. Because when we resist the majority, we incite change, and change makes things harder. It makes us think about things usually decided for us and make choices that allow us to be heard rather than told.

Awesome hiking paths like this only exist outside the comfort zone.

Awesome hiking paths like this only exist outside the comfort zone.

Like always, running is a perfect representation of why the comfort zone sabotages excellence. Any runner knows that the only way to get better is to shatter previously concrete limits and embrace the discomfort that follows. The pain is always temporary, and it is always worth it. Runners battle this weekly, if not daily, but like a friend once told me, “as we run, we conquer.” At its core, running is a battle to defeat our lesser, former selves. But no battle was ever fought from a comfortable position.

In running and in life, I sometimes find myself inching toward mediocrity, and I must fight fearlessly to resist it. I think that the one thing that always saves me is that I care. A lot. I care that my impact on the world and on others is positive and I care that what I do matters. It is because I care that whenever I toe the edge of ambivalence I can never take the full leap. There’s something that always pulls me back and reminds me that I have dreams waiting for me where I left them. So instead of spiraling to a place where each day is not automatically miraculous in its own right, I remind myself that average is simply not an option.

This choice, to become exceptional, means that every day and every moment will present a challenge to ignore the majority and instead cultivate something valuable. This will never be easy, but it will always be important. And from my stance, the most worthwhile thing anyone can do is live an intentionally remarkable life.

“Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”

-Mary Oliver

No Trespassing: Subtle Rebellion for the Sake of Autonomy

On a recent run, I pranced through no less than three “No Trespassing” signs at the end of a dead-end country road. Desperate for dirt to escape the monotonous asphalt and charged by the early morning sunlight, I found the risk worthy, if not essential.

I knew that the dirt roads were there because I had ignored these signs many times before. In fact, in my previous escapade through the prohibited area, I returned to the normal road to find a man dressed in camouflage standing in a field holding a shotgun. I tried to stride by unnoticed, but he stopped me.

“There were three coyotes sitting up on that hill watching you,” he said.

I could not decide which unsettled me more: the man talking to me with a gun in his hand, or the image of three predators stalking me while I ran oblivious.

“The coyotes have been killing off the deer lately,” he continued. “I’m trying to get them.”

Though I despise hunting and thought the man’s attempts were likely quite illegal, I made the wise decision not to argue. Instead, I smiled politely and began to run again, wary that I had just turned my back to a gun and that, compared to a coyote, I was probably an easy target. Alas, I survived the rest of the run with no gun wounds and no trespassing violations, but I did not return to that route for a week.

This view is great, until it never changes.

This view is great, until it never changes.

When I did, I again had no qualms about the signs. Until I reached the point on the road where I could connect to another dirt road that is much less prohibited. To make that connection, I had to go past a bridge that often has construction remnants strewn about but rarely has human life present. I usually pass through that area without a problem, but this day, right before I turned the corner, I heard construction noises and voices getting closer with each step.

I darted off on a side trail, hoping it would spit me out onto the less prohibited trail that I sought. When it instead gave me a dead end, I navigated over loose rocks and scrambled up a dirt hill that did not, in fact, lead me to the trail. It took me to the area I had been avoiding all along; the area with real live people who definitely knew that there should not be a running girl emerging from the heart of their construction. So I ducked down and, in lieu of braving the rocks again, chose to bound through the knee-high grass as fast as possible because I am terrified of snakes (and I saw one on a hike the day before so clearly they were after me).

When I finally returned to that damn country road in safety, it became apparent that the lengths I took to avoid human interaction–and, likely, repercussions–were slightly ludicrous. I chose the possibility of encountering a snake or rolling an ankle over the possibility of getting in trouble with a random person I would never see again. But it also became apparent that I did all this because the ability to run on that dirt road–albeit illegally–means my own liberation.

The only thing missing here is some dirt.

The only thing missing here is a dirt trail.

Not only is it an escape from the road and a cushion for my legs, but it is a step into a path that I would guess not many brave. The “No Trespassing” rule is in place for a reason, but like many rules I find it unnecessary and intend to break it. I do not think that my running presence on a dirt road three miles outside of a small town will cause any trouble for anyone or anything, so the fact that a rusting sign can imply this irks me a bit.

I’ve never been one to thrive on excessive rules and regulations, or even societal norms for that matter. Things like school dress codes and texting games do not appear to advance civilization, so I do not prescribe to their influence. Even the obligatory greeting conversation (Person 1: “Hi, how are you?” Person 2: “Good, you?” Person 1: “Good.”) seems like a meaningless formality. These rules simply encourage people to embrace conformity and avoid intentionality in their thoughts and actions.

Even really big, really important rules are often wrong. After women could finally vote, they still could not compete in collegiate athletics or even run road races. We put way too much trust in our executives to make the right decisions and spend too little time considering their impact. I’m not advocating for anarchy here; I am simply calling for more thought about the guidelines and expectations that govern most details of our lives.

The feelings I got when I avoided that construction worker were the same I’ve had when I’ve pulled borderline all-nighters mid-season or loitered in dark parking lots until cops kindly request that we leave. Uneasy about the technical wrongness of the situation, yet thrilled that the incident will succeed without any formal consequences.

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Hay fields tend to go on forever.

There is a certain elation that accompanies getting away with something, and if it is a silly rule then this elation comes guilt-free. If you’re sneaky enough, you might even inspire others to go out and be the rule-breakers they wish to see in the world. Because civil disobedience is in.