March 21, 2020

Emptiness As Opportunity

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In 1665, Isaac Newton was a 20-something student at Cambridge when the Plague of London sent university students home early for the semester. Newton went home to his family’s manor, 60 miles north of Cambridge to continue his studies in physics.

Like many of us, Newton was new to working from home. The lack of structure and supervision were intimidating, but he threw himself into his work. He started toying around with some mathematical problems that he’d been working on at Cambridge. Those papers later laid the foundation for modern calculus.

Next, he picked up a few prisms and started messing around with them in his bedroom. He shuttered his windows and allowed but for one small, beam of light that he directed through his glass prisms. From there, he started developing his theory of optics.

While on a walk in his garden, apocryphal stories have it that Newton was bonked on the head by an apple, prompting him to establish theories of motion and gravity.

Away from the rigors and structure of class and schedules, Newton thrived. He later referred to that time working at home as his annus mirabilis, or his “year of wonders”.

As many of us scramble to readjust goals for training, work, and just, life, it’s worth reflecting on what an amazing opportunity for breakthroughs this time can be. There’s an alchemy that changes emptiness into creativity, and opportunity into growth.

Maybe you’ll use a race-free spring to dig into your biggest training block yet, capitalizing on some bonus free time and reduced recovery from racing. You can focus on training for training’s sake, apart from racing. Now that you’re not commuting too far past your own kitchen, maybe you have a little extra time to cook and focus on feeding yourself exceptionally well.

If you’re like me, a schedule that’s been cleared of races has forced to you revisit your why. What was the point of all those hours spent running in the rain, and the cold, when I could have been watching reality television shows about baking?

 Maybe you’ll remember that you started running to breathe deeply, feel the sun on your shoulders and let the wind play with your hair. Maybe remembering that is its own breakthrough.

I’ve had perfect training blocks devolve into just-okay races. I’ve also had breakthrough-wins after imperfect training. Maybe you’ll finally rest the niggle that’s been bugging you all winter and allow your body to heal. I’ve seen athletes make their biggest leaps forwards after taking a step back to focus on rest and recovery. Progress isn’t linear, and growth happens in the empty spaces.

As a writer, my best work ideas usually come to me when I’m not staring at the blinking clicker on a blank word document, begging words to jump onto the page. More time means more thinking about the things and ideas that really inspire me. Maybe they’ll become stories. Maybe not.

Maybe you’ll pick up the guitar again, or that screenplay you started. Maybe you’ll perfect your signature cocktail or get really into sock puppets. Emptiness is an opportunity to try new things or get back in touch with parts of yourself that you’d almost forgotten about, buried under the daily grind of work, studies and getting everything done.

It’s also okay for this to not be your most productive time ever. Maybe you’re working on finding balance, building new routines or just getting through the day, and that’s great. Now that we’ve got gravity figured out, you don’t owe anyone productivity if the tradeoff is happiness or your mental health. Maybe your breakthroughs will be a new quiche recipe or putting on a clean pair of pants. Those wins are worth celebrating too.

Now’s the time to reassociate with the process, whatever that looks like for you. It could be training, or writing, or laying the foundation for modern calculus. Embracing emptiness could lead to your next breakthrough, your year of wonders.

All you need to do is take a walk, and wait for that apple to fall.