“Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer, tells in one of his books how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall–and then they had no choice but to follow them. – John F. Kennedy
I’ve been thinking about JFK’s hat-wall metaphor lately. About six months ago, a friend asked me to join her team for the Tough Mudder – a 10.5-mile run through an obstacle course of mud, fire, barbed wire, ice water and electric shocks.
Being more enthusiastic than smart, I signed up with a mental image of throwing my hat over the wall. I’m not really the athletic obstacle-course-running type. I’m more of the get-preschoolers-to-brush-their-teeth, type-on-the-computer-all-day and go-out-for-ice-cream-with-my-friends type. But I had six months to get ready so why not?
I felt like I’d thrown my hat over the wall but what I’d actually told my teammates was this: “Sure, I’ll sign up. And when it’s time, if I’m not in shape, I’ll just drop out. Don’t tell anyone I’m doing it so I’m not really pressured.”
I spent the next five months working out … some … in my free time … after work and kids and laundry and eating pizza. A little. But no one knew I’d signed up so if it didn’t work out, I’d just bail. No pressure, right?
A month out – in August – a friend mentioned that she wanted to come watch the race. My immediate response? “No. No way. I don’t want more pressure.”
And suddenly it hit me – I’d thrown my hat but I’d kept a string tied to the end so I could pull it back. I didn’t need less pressure – I needed more.
I agreed to let her come watch. I told my friends. I posted about it on Facebook. A lot. I sent out links to the website – “look at this crazy dangerous thing I’m doing next month!” Suddenly, everyone was asking about it regularly. “How’s the training going?” “How far can you run now?” “Can you do pull-ups?” “Let’s see you do some push-ups!”
Pressure mounting. Can’t. Drop. Out.
The night before I left town for the race, I hosted a launch party. My friends all came to sign my running shirt, wish me luck and make jokes about electrocution and broken bones.
Now I was sure my hat was gone. I still couldn’t do a pull-up. I could only run 3 miles, not 10. I hadn’t practiced in ice water at all. My nerves were mounting and I was terrified but I had to go through with it, since the whole world was watching.
If I’d thought my hat was gone the night before, that was nothing compared to the morning of the race. I checked my messages – more than 100 emails, text messages, Facebook posts and voicemails from friends.
I lined up at the starting line. I knew the statistics on the Tough Mudder – a huge number of participants don’t finish; hypothermia, exhaustion and injuries take out a couple thousand at each race.
Not me though. Everyone I know was watching, waiting to hear from me at the finish line. My hat was gone gone gone and I HAD to get over that wall to get it back.
For 10.5 miles, soaking wet, scraped, bruised and covered in mud, I kept repeating my mantra: “Everyone’s watching. Get your hat. Everyone’s watching. Get your hat.”
And I did. I completed every obstacle and crossed the finish line with a respectable time, sent a victory picture to everyone I knew and spent the next four days in bed, too sore to move.
That was three weeks ago and since then I’ve been noticing how often we all – myself, my friends and my colleagues – start into something new with a string tied to the hat. It is rare that we throw ourselves whole-heartedly into a difficult undertaking. We test the waters before beginning a new business venture. We tentatively start into a tough project at work. We nibble the edges of a daunting assignment, not sure if it is going to work and not sure we want to commit 100 percent to something that might crash beneath us.
We don’t want the pressure and we don’t want anyone watching if we fail. But most of us are less likely to fail if we know they’re watching.
There are times to move slowly, quietly and cautiously and there are times to jump headfirst, build up the pressure and tell the entire world you’re going for it. It’s the only way to get your hat.
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