20 Mile Marching
I'm working a lot right now, which has left me to think about pacing and taking care of myself. So, this week I'm going to ponder on the term "20 Mile Marching". I talk about it all the time, and I first read about in Jim Collin's book "Great by Choice."
What is it? It's a term used to describe a way of working and thinking. In simple terms, it's about achieving consistent performance with both and upper and lower bounds. We need both the ambition to achieve and the self-control to hold back.
In the book, they describe an example of two people on an expedition across the country. One person marches 20 miles every day, rain or shine. No less (so it's a hurdle to overcome), but no more (so he doesn't overexert himself). Some days it's easy to march 20 miles, and some days it's not, but every day always only 20 miles.
In contrast, the second person begins marching on the first day and feeling excited, he marches 40 miles. Exhausted on the second day, he wakes to find that it's extremely hot outside, so he waits inside his tent for a better day to go out. He continues this behavior of overexertion on good days to make up for lost time, followed by weakened days where he doesn't march at all. But when a powerful storm hits (metaphor for a trying time in business), it nearly kills him and he is forced to wait for better weather.
By the time this second person stumbles past the half-way mark to his goal, our 20 mile marcher is nearing the end. The person who paced himself will cross the finish line by a huge margin. He had the ambition to achieve in bad times and self-control to hold back in good times. In other words, he had the strength to persevere during bad times because he hadn't spent all his resources during the good times.
It's so tempting for artists to push themselves hard to achieve their goals. We want to be good. We want to earn the respect of our peers. We want to earn enough money to feel secure. Naturally we figure that if we push ourselves to our limits, we have a better chance of achieving these worthy goals.
However, ceaseless exertion of our talents isn't going to do it. I've worked hard in my years. I've been up at the ungodly hours of the night, working and working. I'm ambitious as hell, and I obsess in a way that can lead to frustration. Of course we need to exert our talents ambitiously and obsessively, but we need to do so smartly. Wailing on a cave wall with a spoon is not the smartest way to dig.
As much as I hate it, I have finally accepted the fact that I am a not a robot. I too must heed the 20 mile march. I'm also a physical creature who actually needs to sleep at night, eat right, and stay active in physical ways. But it's hard because creating with my brain and my hands is very engaging. Why stop at 11pm to sleep? Animating this character is fun! Why spend the time to make a nutritious snack? Reading tips on cinematography is much more interesting. And why would I ever want to stop storyboarding a chase scene so I can go for a real run that will only leave me drenched in sweat and pain?
But humans need more than that, they need brain stimulation (or lack thereof) too. We need social connection with other humans (especially those we love), and time spent letting our brains rest from our work. I used to think that when I let my brain rest from my work, I was slacking off. I wasn't being dedicated, and if I liked resting, it meant I didn't like art as much as an artist should. The truth is that I love art, and I usually can't stop thinking about it. I don't doubt my conviction as an artist. So, I've found that when I free my mind to think about other things, like how a bike works or laughing at a funny puppet video, I find that my art benefits.
Daydreaming and thinking about "useless" stuff can really pay off. Of course, you can't just do that, but that goes without saying. When I do rest, I'm giving my brain a chance to make subconscious connections that I hope will lead to an epiphany. You know those "ah-ha" moments when an idea feels like it "comes" to you? That's your brain making a connection between two things that you had thought hard about individually, but not together. You can't know when a connection will happen, but you can increase the odds by developing the right environment for them. It starts by giving your brain a chance to wander. And by the way, I'm not saying anything new here. I've read books on this stuff.
So, letting myself rest with a 20 mile march regimen has helped me so much that I feel it's worth telling everyone I know about it. It's about balance. We should work hard everyday, but we must also rest well everyday. I can't tell you how many artist I've encountered who are burned out, apathetic, frustrated, and plain ol' sleepy. They need to pace themselves. And if they work at a company, the company needs to stop forcing them to not pace themselves. The big companies in the industry don't understand 20 Mile Marching, and it's hurting their teams of artists. It makes me sad.
Resisting the urge to work a lot when you have lots to do and the energy to do it is not easy and it's downright un-intuitive. So, think of it like a Chinese finger trap, you know those toys we used to play with as kids? The trick to escaping our entrapment is not to push harder against our cement walls. It's by taking a step back, planning, and making a proper vault over the obstacle in the morning...after we've got a good night's rest in us.
Work smart and rest well, my friends.