The Rule of Thirds

Alexi Pappas is one of my favorite people on the planet. Not just because she is an accomplished distance runner and role model for mid-pack bipeds like me. Not just because she relentlessly pursues big dreams like running in the Olympics, making and starring in a movie, or writing a book.

Alexi is one of my favorite people because she is open and honest about the realities of chasing big dreams.

In the clip above, she talks about how to handle the inevitable setbacks on the road to doing hard things. This is how she describes the “Rule of Thirds” through her Olympic coach:

“When you’re chasing a dream or doing anything hard, you’re meant to feel good a third of hte time, OK a third of the time, and crappy a third of a time. And if the ratio is roughly in that range, then you’re doing fine.”

When we’re doing hard things – whether that’s parenting, in the office, or training towards a physical goal – we can treat setbacks like the end of the world. Any time a particular session doesn’t go our way, it can seem like the world is crashing down around us.

But, as Alexi and her coach point out, the pursuit of anything truly meaningful in our daily lives is not meant to be a perfect, smooth path. And by overreacting to the bumps along the road, we can risk giving up on ourselves too soon and failing to achieve our goals – and I’d argue that giving up on yourself is a fate far worse than failing at one particular task or goal.

So here are a few tips to help you adapt the Rule of Thirds to your daily life, whatever your goals may be. When you feel yourself having a bad moment of parenting, a bad day at the office, or you can’t seem to hit your running splits or weightroom goals:

  1. Zoom out. Remember that whatever moment you are in is just one moment. Put things into appropriate perspective and remember that the sample size of your life is much larger than this moment.
  2. Reset. Take a few deep breaths. Pour yourself a cup of water or coffee. Put on some uplifting music. Recognize what you’re feeling, allow yourself to feel that way, and then remind yourself that the next moment – the next interaction with your kids, the next rep, the next milestone – is a new one, and it will be a better one.
  3. Recover. This one is the trickiest. Give yourself some time to do a little self-diagnostic. Did you react poorly because you’re tired? Injured? Burnt out? The Rule of Thirds is all about putting the ups and downs of chasing big dreams into appropriate perspective, but if you feel consistently crappy for much more than a third of the time, you need to recover, and for that we need help. See a doctor, a therapist, or loved ones who can help you get back on track.

It also helps to be intentional and track your progress when chasing big goals. This will help you overcome the inevitable feeling that “nothing is going right.” If you can look at a training log, a journal, or something similar in those moments, you will have visual evidence that the single data point you are currently experiencing is an outlier.

It’s OK to feel crappy. It’s OK to just feel OK. And it’s OK to feel great, too! Don’t overstress about how you’re feeling – allow yourself to feel, grow, and continue striving for great things.

You can find Alexi’s book, Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas, here.


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