Keep a Roll in Reserve
Your mother told you to take care of yourself, to eat right, and to get thee to a doctor when symptoms dictate. She was right...of course. A tired or ill kayaker is a danger to him- or herself as well as to others. Few of us can play at 20 percent below peak and keep up, let alone 30 to 50 percent below peak. How many times have you seen a star athlete limp onto a field only to be outdone by an average athlete? Yes, many of us can recall a star such as Mickey Mantle or Kirk Gibson limping to the plate, hitting a game-winning homer, and then limping around the bases, or Curt Schilling, blood oozing from his surgically cobbled together ankle, pitching brilliantly to help the Red Sox overcome "The Curse." It can happen...with the right circumstances—for example, you only have to bat, so limited mobility does not matter, or a long and restorative post-season awaits, or world-class doctors have done the cobbling and literally stand by to intervene.
Imagine that you and I compete for clients around the country or around the world. You are better than I am. You are smarter and better trained. You also believe that you are the second coming of Superman. You book long trips back to back. You fly from LA to New York on the red-eye for a sales call and then to Miami for the next day.
Me? I acknowledge more of my limits. I rarely schedule key client meetings on back-to-back days in cities three or more time zones apart. I plan to do my prep on the ground so that travel time amounts to "found time." I seldom go a week without at least four cardiovascular workouts. I make sure that I'm never away from home more than eight nights a month and never more than three in any week. I sleep with my spouse more nights than not and have no fewer than seven meals a week with my family. My dog and my toddler recognize me immediately.
I am usually at the top of my game while you are usually performing 10 to 30 percent below your peak. Yes, you are smarter and better trained than I am. You are just dumber in how you leverage what you've got. We meet ten times in the marketplace, and I win at least six and probably seven or eight times. I am not better than you. I do not have to be. I just have to be better at game time.
Turbulence can kill suddenly, but perhaps its greatest danger comes from its ability to wear you down over time. Day after day of fighting rapids can deplete energy and exhaust attention. Paddlers late in the day are more likely to make foolish mistakes and to lack the strength to recover from them. Paddler Jeff Bennett described kayaking the Upper Kings River in California at a very high level as "a long stretch of Class V rapids leading into the bad stuff." Just 3 miles into their trip, they found that "our fun meters were pegged, and our energy levels were low." When they pulled out to scout the next run, within 30 minutes, "half the crew had their sleeping bags spread out and dinner on the stove."
Experienced paddlers try not to play themselves out. They always make sure they keep some energy in reserve for the unexpected—energy for that last roll you might need to make in a pinch. They realize that complete exhaustion greatly reduces your options. They control their momentum down the river so they can see what is coming. They recognize that using these reserves might mean flirting with death. Because you don't know what challenges you will face, you conserve some margin of error—and if you have consumed it, then get off the river.
In your work, you also need to build in a similar margin of safety. You need to have a sane enough pace so that you can deal with the inevitable turbulence you will encounter. Instead of just looking at your current work, ask yourself: What happens if my company announces a merger next week? What if my business unit is reorganized? What if I need to move to a new office? What if my job responsibilities are increased? What if my current job goes to India and I need to find a new one? What if a competitor's move requires a rapid response? This permanent whitewater environment could kick up any of these events. Consequently, think marathon, not sprint. Do you have the capacity to deal with these shocks if they happen to you? To the extent that you can, pace yourself to keep a bit of energy in reserve for such predictable "surprises." Find the eddies where you can get your bearings and recover. When you face pressure, as Billy Joel says, "you have to learn to pace yourself."