I Am A Racehorse: Identifying and Offsetting Your Working Style

Haruki Murakami, the renowned Japanese novelist once said, “I am more of a workhorse than a racehorse.” This observation seemed to have little —if anything—to do with his working style as he was referring, at the time, to the way that he runs (he is also a marathoner). But, the way that we approach our hobbies is often the way that we approach what we do to make our living. In short, our working style plays a major factor in both life and business and once we understand and accept the way that we work…the real progress can be made.

Another author whose work I enjoy was actually the one who posted the quote on her Facebook page, Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame. She was both identifying with Murakami’s running style and also applying the same school of thought to her own working style, by stating that in order to finish a new book she works on it a little each day.

This post was stuck in my brain for months. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and what’s more, I couldn’t figure out why. I realized upon reading and taking the time to digest the full post a little bit, that I am not a Murakami or a Gilbert. I am not a workhorse; I am a racehorse.

Just as Elizabeth Gilbert reached a sort of peak of self-awareness and acceptance upon reading the Murakami quote and realizing that she, like her literary hero, was a “slow-and-steady” type, I reached the same peak, on a different mountain: This is not like me. I cannot carve out my progress like a prison tunnel with a plastic spoon. To borrow a phrase from Miley Cyrus, I am a wrecking ball.

My working style may not be conducive to a lot of things; it may not be on par with some other people’s whose work I admire, but coming to understand what it was, helped me to understand why and how some patterns in my career had developed over time.

Horses as a metaphor for working styles-black-and-white-head-on

When I have a new idea, I enter a sort of  “fugue state.” I am a woman obsessed. Whatever my idea is centered around is all I see; it’s all I think and talk about. I barely eat and hardly sleep and I work on it furiously for hours and hours at a time, that can span weeks, even months, until…I stop.

It’s not a conscious thing and whatever the project was may or may not be finished, but my brain and heart are, so they just drop it. And that’s it. There is nothing I can do about it; it’s just the way that I work. It’s not ideal, it could even be considered borderline insane, but it’s the way that I am wired. I am a racehorse.

That all sounds really sexy, right? I mean, racehorses are exciting. They are sleek and fast and shiny and breathtaking. But they are also temperamental, they cannot sprint for long distances and they have famously short lifespans. As accepting as I am of myself and my working style, I envy workhorses.

The ability to parcel out a project over a long period of time and the self-control and patience that it takes to sustain the same level of dedication over that span of time is something to be admired. These are the qualities that lead to a stable, healthy and productive work/personal life.

Creativity in short bursts—a la a racehorse mentality— is best left to those who can work on creative projects for a living, and carve their own time and schedules out. Those who don’t have to operate in “real time” are the only ones that can mold a successful career around being a racehorse. It’s not exactly conducive to running a business or establishing lasting relationships, but that’s a different topic for a different day. Preferably with cocktails.

In-Article Quote_working-style-quoteI would imagine that a lot of great hairdressers also identify as racehorses and it’s something that I mean to start asking about. To the outside world, we racehorses may seem flighty or scatterbrained or sporadic, but that comes along with the territory.

Being a racehorse isn’t about not being able to focus; it’s about being hyper-focused, to the point of obsession, on one thing at a time. A lot of great artists throughout history have shared this trait and I’m sure it’s a contributing factor to a lot of substance abuse issues, but let’s not veer too far off into ancillary territories.

The fascinating and sometimes difficult thing about being a hairdresser is that you have to run a steady business with a creative mind, which can be really difficult to do if you do not fully understand how to leverage your own personal working style.

In order to sustain a business as a racehorse, you have to surround yourself with workhorses. It’s the only way that anything gets done. When I was discussing the Gilbert/Murakami Facebook post with Industrie’s graphic designer, she laughed and said, “See? While you are taking off at a million miles an hour, I just plod along behind you putting all of the pieces together.” And she’s right.

Without a tortoise to prod it along and keep it on track, a hare will never reach the finish line. 

Just because my working style has both feet firmly planted in the racehorse camp, doesn’t mean that I can’t train myself to work in a different way, some of the time. Like Gilbert and Murakami, I am also a runner. As a matter of fact, I am currently training for my second half-marathon. Tackling a big goal like running 13.1 miles and not dying somewhere along the way requires patience, dedication and lots of planning. These are not my strong suits. So, I use my hobby to train my brain to work in a different way.

running-path-horizon

Whenever I begin a run, my mind starts to race (pun most certainly intended) and it isn’t until about halfway into mile two that I can start to calm it down and get it into a groove. Running is just as much of a mental sport as it is physical and your mind can either work with you or against you along the way.

Since I know that I work best with a clearly identified goal that I can “race to the finish” on, I tell myself before each run that I am going to go a certain distance and then about halfway through, I start to “boil the frog*.” Which is to say, my inner monologue goes something like this:

“Let’s just do five today. A nice, easy five.”

“Yeah, ok. That sounds good. Five is good today.”

“Right? It’s hot out. Don’t overextend yourself. Take it easy and don’t worry about your pace. Take a couple of breaks if you need to. Maybe after mile two. It’s all good.”

“Alright, this is great. I can do this, no problem.”

Here’s the thing. I’m also really competitive. So around this time, the monologue begins to take an interesting turn…

“You know what? I’m doing good. If this is just a five, I don’t need a break. I’m fine. I got this.”

“Well, if you’re feeling really good…why don’t you see how you’re feeling at 4. Maybe we take the two-mile route back and you do a 6 today?”

“Oh yeah, no problem. What’s 1 more mile?”

“Exactly. It’s nothing.”

::Sometime around mile 5::

“Man, I could go for days, this was nothin’! I am going to do seven today I think. It’s a good day for seven. I’m feelin’ it, I’m in the groove.”

“Are you sure? Take it easy, don’t over do it. But, if you’re feeling really good at 6, why not take a quick water break and see if we can’t get you to 8?”

“Yes, 8. I can do 8. If I can do 6 then I can do 8. I need to get to 8 at some point, so why not today? I’m already out here and I have a route I can take to get back. 8 it is.”

::a tenth of the way through mile 7::

“I am going to die. This was a mistake. This was a horrible mistake. I need to stop. Sweat’s getting into my eyes, my mouth feels like a desert..my legs won’t move anymore. They just won’t.”

“Ok. You can walk the rest of the ‘less-than-a-mile’ that you have left. But, if you are thirsty….your water bottle is at the end.”

“Shit.”

….and that’s how I got to 8, the first time.

You can learn to step outside of your own working style from time to time as situations require. After all, we are not robots. We are adaptable to many different situations. All that’s required is an understanding of our working style and the willingness to try something new.

For instance, it’s possible to “boil the frog” even if you aren’t a runner. All you have to do is get started on something—don’t think about it, just start it. Once you get going, just incentivize yourself to go a little bit farther. Then tell yourself that you can probably do just a little bit more. Then once you feel like that’s a far as you can go, give yourself one final push.

There is a great line in the show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that says something along the lines of, “Just do it for ten seconds, then do it for ten seconds again. Anyone can withstand anything for 10 seconds.” If you can’t find some type of internal or external motivation (if you’re like me it’s a combination of self-competition and thirst) just do whatever onerous task that you are dreading for ten seconds at a time, over and over again, until you are done.

The point is, from my personal experience, being a racehorse doesn’t automatically doom you to long stretches of being unproductive. While I know that my best work comes from a cycle of working furiously and obsessively for long stretches of time, followed by almost complete inertia for an equal amount of time, this isn’t exactly sustainable in the real world of family and bills and responsibilities.

I have to train myself, on a daily basis, to maintain at least some level of constant momentum, in order to keep the machine running. It isn’t ideal, but it’s necessary.

working-style-Painted-horse-black-and-white

By understanding and accepting the way that we work naturally, we can stop fighting against the current. While a combination of workhorses and racehorses is really and truly ideal for a successful and invigorating work atmosphere, you can have a steady and successful business if it is completely staffed by workhorses.

It will not happen overnight; it will be a long, hard road that sometimes feels as though it isn’t moving along at all. But it doesn’t necessarily work the other way. If Industrie were all racehorses….we would be doomed. I have worked with other people like me before. It’s exhilarating at first, but when you burn out at different stages, the fallout can be devastating.

At the end of the day, the real importance is in understanding and accepting your natural working style and making adjustments where you feel they need to be. While there is a certain allure to thinking of oneself as a racehorse—spending life as a sleek, glossy thing, perpetually en route to the finish line at a speed seemingly destined for Italian cars and fast women—the quiet dignity of a workhorse is nothing to sniff at.

It is the workhorses of the world that keep the wheels turning at a pace that may be inspired by, albeit not entirely comparable to, the racehorses’.

Key Points:

  • While there are many different ways to work, they can be filtered down into two main groups: racehorses and workhorses. A well-rounded team has a few of each.
  • By understanding our natural working style—or how we are first inclined to approach a task—we can assess and make adjustments as necessary.
  • It is possible to adjust the way you work and try a different approach if you feel as though you are not making progress with your natural working style.

Quick Takeaways:

  • Identify your natural working style: are you more of a racehorse or a workhorse?
  • Do you have colleagues or friends that are in “the other camp?” Ask them to help you develop a process that can help you to offset your natural approach.
  • Practice this process with one of your hobbies. By engaging in an activity that you enjoy, it will feel less like work and minimize the stress of learning how to operate in a new way.
  • Create specific goals and assess your progress. Try giving yourself a realistic deadline to perform a task. Try it first in your natural working style and then again in the opposite. Which did you enjoy more? Which approach gave you the results you were looking for?

*“Boiling the frog” is a running term that refers to gradually increasing the pace or distance during a run. Similar to the way a frog will just jump right out of a pot of cold water if you turn the burner on full blast, a runner that you tell you are going 10 miles this morning will likely give you a  big, fat, “Hell no! I can’t run 10 miles!’ But, if you start with lukewarm water—or the promise of a 7 miler—and gradually increase, the frog won’t even know it’s being boiled, and the runner will get to 9 ½ before they even realize it. At that point, in both scenarios, it’s too late.

For more thoughts on work/life and a smattering of other topics, sign up for the Industrie Report!