Prior to departing Australia, I had approached an organisation which was branded as a leader in helping to combat suicide. They had a good public face and all of the statistics to match. I wanted to ground my efforts for the 9 City Bridge Run in supporting an existing organisation that was capable of delivering change. I wanted my efforts to amount to something. I was inspired to be part of their team, and with that sense of imprimatur which I received from their approval to raise funds for their newly international expansion into the domain of suicide prevention I set off to San Francisco where I would commence the running stunt at the completion of a conference I was scheduled to attend.
The concept for the 9 City Bridge Run was simple enough: I proposed to run 9 ‘sub-marathons’ in 9 cities across 5 countries. There was no particular distance specified, but I did intend to complete the journey all inside of one month. The number 9 was chosen simply because it was 2009. I intended to commence in San Francisco as the first city, then head to New York, London, Oxford, Dublin, Tokyo, Alice Springs, Canberra and finally Sydney. The plan was that I would undertake the running, and this would create some attention that hopefully would lead people to donate money to the organisation I was supported. Perhaps naively, I had agreed to pay all costs myself, and there was no offer of support or offsetting any expenses from the organisation I was assisting.
I can’t exactly remember arriving in San Francisco. I had gone purposefully to attend the second SOCAP conference, the first of which I had attended the year before in 2008. I had become part of this fledgling community, consisting of people who were bringing their ideas and dreams to the attention of others. Kevin Jones was the convenor of this conference, exemplar for sharing and collaboration.
I admit to feeling a little nervous on this occasion, not because I was attending the conference but because I was about to embark on a journey which I had no idea where it would take me. I felt completely overwhelmed by what lay ahead, and this was reflected in my preparation. The journey was much bigger than me, and even though I recognised it was a big undertaking, I still at that point had no real comprehension of the epic nature of what I was about to commence. Maybe it was my feelings of anxiety that led me to downplay what I was about to start in the days that followed. It was easier to avoid the issue than to take responsibility for my own sense of embarrassment that I was about to dive into waters far too deep for my ability. And so the stage was set for what I refer to as Backswing.
Self-censoring is an atrocious waste of our innate potential if done in avoidance of an irrational embarrassment. This is the ultimate in Not Hitting, being All Backswing. It is self-sabotage in its simplest form, responding to excruciatingly useless fears of our inadequacy. It is the worst form of excuse for taking no action.
At the conference, I spoke to many friends who in the recent years I had adopted as mentors through observing their actions. Among them were some of the world’s most respected thought leaders. They had accomplished much, and I was always struck by their humility and kindness. I was bashful when describing the activity which awaited me at the end of the conference. More than likely, none of them knew what I was preparing. I was caught in a vicious cycle of Backswing. The more I gave counsel to my fears, the more I was daunted by my own sense of inadequacy, and this led me to avoid talking about that which lay ahead, which in turn fuelled a preparedness that was destined or designed to fail. Backswing thrives on the absence or dulling of momentum. Much like releasing the spring-loaded bolt which has been wound up for impressive performance, overcoming Backswing is relatively easy if the right impediments are first removed. But first the question must be answered: “so, what’s holding you back?”
I spoke to my friend Martin who years earlier had established an innovative business that provided clean water to farmers in areas of extreme poverty through the deployment of treadle pumps. Martin was widely recognised globally as one of the leading lights among social entrepreneurs whose example had helped shape a nascent army of change makers, a vanguard that was launching an unbridled assault on injustice, poverty and waste. He was characteristic of this group, and a great listener with huge capacity for quickly analysing problems.
Martin asked what I was up to, and I mumbled something about the 9 City Bridge Run. I know it sounds astounding, but he was probably one of the first people outside of Australia that I spoke to with some sense of clarity about that endeavour, even if I was playing the role of a reluctant salesman.
I think Martin was amused at what I had to say, and responded with a hint of mischief as he asked if I was going to post information on the noticeboard inside the conference area. I remember asking him in response if he thought his would be allowed. He laughed quietly to himself and I think answered with a question: “when was permission ever the pre-requisite for taking action?”
While I did have a badly designed piece of collateral to support this initiative, I don’t think I did place anything on the noticeboard. I remember listening to what other people were doing and thinking of all the reasons why what I was doing was a dumb idea. The bottom line is that unless we have confidence in our own endeavours, there is no reason why anyone else should too. There are times in a journey when the going gets tough, and you need the support of others around you to keep you moving forward. That is completely different to forfeiting to others our responsibility for having the requisite belief in our undertakings, and hoping that they might carry us along. Backswing creeps in when we seek the licence to operate from others rather than having an unshakable belief in our own ability to achieve our goals. That unshakable belief also needs to be tempered with huge self-awareness- we neither need to be blind to what are prudent limitations.
Half-baked is different to being held back by Backswing. Half-baked is a starting point, maybe not a good one, but a place to iterate from through a series of prototypes and evolutions so as to improve to a highly refined outcome. The problem comes when self-criticism prevents actions that lead towards failure which is a necessary step towards improvement.
It was curious that at this point in time, I had never thought to ask why the organisation I was supporting hadn’t offered to provide any collateral in the form of flyers, posters or even a website or blog. I assumed naively that this was my responsibility. I did receive t-shirts from the organisation to run in. They weren’t athletic shirts, but at that point that alarm bells should have been ringing in my head.
I wanted to begin and end the first run with some sort of noteworthy manner, and thought that it might be reasonable that the representative who the organisation had recently recruited in San Francisco would want to get involved somehow. There was no interest shown from the fundraising team back in Sydney to meaningfully help, and it was left entirely up to me to management how their brand was presented.
I asked their representative in San Francisco if her would join me for a pre-run gathering, and whether he might be able to pull together some media attention.He was entirely reluctant to get involved, which I thought was weird, after all it was I who was funding the cost and I who was about to make the effort. The least they could do would be to wave the flag a little bit, surely?
After much hassling, he agreed to join me before the run. The meeting turned out to be a ridiculous pantomime with him asking me to pose for the camera which revealed the shallowness of his understanding of the task I was about to undertake or for that matter how this stunt might affect the work of his organisation.
It was during this engagement that it dawned on me that I had partnered with the wrong organisation. What could I do? Back out? Not run? If I did, what would that have said about my resolve to represent my friends who had tragically died. I was committed, and knew that I was about to foolishly embark on an journey of epic proportions.
A journey of epic proportions. It was surely going to result in a colossal folly at work but with the potential for monumental impact at best, and perhaps both simultaneously.
I felt deflated before the journey had actually begun, and decided there that my involvement would be better focused towards raising awareness as best I could rather than being focused on fundraising. This experience reinforced my cynicism of the charity model which I began to identify as broken. That in itself is a form of Backswing on an institutional level.
Drawing on my army training, I knew that the only way to resolve a difficult situation like this was to go through it. And so that was how the 9 City Bridge Run began.