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Self-Defeating Identities:

Another great story from World Championships this past September. This time, from the point of view of Daniel Staudigel. He's a deep thinker, a kind soul and we are so happy to call him ours!

A few months ago, I competed in the Adventure Race World Championships in Paraguay. We went into this race with a pretty straightforward strategy: do what we can to avoid huge errors. This particular race is known on the circuit for having difficult, technical navigation. Experienced teams have historically spent hours and hours running in circles, thinking they’re the next checkpoint is just around the next bend. It was also set to be a relatively hot race, which adds additional pressure during the “hot” parts of the day.

Unpacking the strategy a bit, it meant taking it easy during the heat of the day, eating and drinking a lot, and sleeping enough to make navigation possible. Going into Worlds, we knew how hard it was to actually stick to our plan: once the gun goes off, competitive drive sets in and it becomes difficult to not just sprint off with whomever looks like they’re navigating well, and skip sleep in order to get ahead of some team or another. We held it together unbelievably well — all our preparation and conversation paid off, and we found ourselves in a good position well into the second half of the race.

We struggled a bit to find one checkpoint. It looked different to the photos in the race booklet, and we spent a half hour poring over photos and staircases before we figured it out. Unfortunately, that was enough to let two teams pass us. This was enough to disturb our focus, and despite our paying lip service to racing our own race at the time, we started rushing a little bit. I thought I had my head together — but I dropped one of our maps soon after this checkpoint, a sure sign that all was not going well. Although we passed back one of the teams, we were still frustrated.

The next checkpoint drove the message home: I took over nav to try assuage my bruised ego. At the time, I rationalized it to be trying to shake us out of the rut it seemed like we were in. I’m pretty sure Dusty, who was navigating at the time, knew what was up. Pretty much immediately I found myself running in circles trying to find a waterfall point. Thankfully, we recognized this pattern and moved quickly to rectify it — but we still got passed by the same team we had just passed. At the bottom of the waterfall, we stopped to talk through what was going on. We all cried, and talked about what was going on.

“Identity stuff”, I remember telling Chelsey… She looked confused — I guess we hadn’t really talked about “identity stuff” before — surprising, given how much time Chelsey and I have raced together. What I saw is that we had slowly slipped from a productive identity, “we are a team that races our own race” into a self-defeating one, “we’re a fast team that navigates well”. It was a slow shift, and one very much informed by our success. Every team we passed, every place we gained, gave our collective subconscious more and more things to justification for a more self-serving identity. When things are working, these two identities are pretty difficult to tell apart for us — after all, when we’re racing our own race, we wind up being fast.

When things aren’t going well, however, a “fast team that navigates well” can easily ignore warning signs that a “team that races our own race” would spot instantly.

It’s easy to get used to self-serving identities — most people spend most of their time living in one. We’ve got many subconscious safeguards that keep us stuck in self-serving identities—our minds focus on things that align with our identities, often at the cost of important information. As you settle into a self-serving identity, your subconscious mind will hide the signs along the way. On the other hand, choosing and practicing an identity based on curiosity and excitement about being wrong will correctly focus your mind on important information.

Under the waterfall, I talked about how much I love finding out I’m lost. If I don’t reward myself, I’ll just ignore that fact that I’m lost and stay lost, thinking I know where I am. Embodying this is hard — it is totally unintuitive to celebrate finding out you’re lost (or wrong), but if you do not, you will just wait until things are really bad.

In our case, dropping a piece of mission-critical gear should have immediately told me that things were not OK. Instead, I just got frustrated, ran around a bit to look for it, and kept racing. Swept under the rug, we ran headlong into a navigation trap. Fortunately for us, as a team we have many habits we try to reinforce to catch navigation traps, and when we checked the tracker after the race, we had only lost 15 minutes to that bobble. Not bad, all things considered. Dusty took back the nav, and got our pace back on track.

We spent nearly half an hour talking and crying at the bottom of the waterfall. We knew that getting our race back on track was much more important than the time it would take to unpack what we had just experienced. Dusty and Emily had seen many solid races slip because a small error derailed the team. We talked about how important it was to keep our navigation strong, and rally as a team around executing smoothly again. We had to get back to our productive identity: curious, efficient, sensitive. Unlike previous races, we managed to do it: we pressed hard almost all the way to the finish, passing a few more teams. The second to last checkpoint we walked right by — not curious enough to explore a cavern that the checkpoint was buried in the back of. Our identity had slipped again — we were just trying to finish before nightfall. It nearly cost us, the next team rolled into the finish just 20 minutes after us.

Identity stuff, amirite?

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