We must never be too busy to take time to sharpen the saw.Stephen R. Covey
Do you remember the days when you spent hours preparing? In a recent conversation with one of my nephews (now a Freshman in high school), I was reminded of the days of intense preparation. He told me of the hours of practice in formation and with music to be ready for a series of competitions. Hours of trying, re-trying, and trying again – repeating the moves and the notes until they are completely mastered. I listened in awe and horror.
In our younger days, we often don’t think much of tedium. Children may complain of being bored but so much of our youth is spent on the tedious repetition to prepare: for school, for sports, for performances, for life. My nephew’s life is consumed with the alternating cycle of repetition of the things he enjoys like video games, his drums, and baseball, and the repetition of the things that are required like classwork and household chores. I have forgotten how much effort can be exerted in one 24 hour period.
Our youth is one long preparation, often dictated by other people, toward the eventuality of our own adulthood. We spend it between the tension of what must be done and what we want to do: our need to meet expectations and our desire to entertain ourselves. Moving on, we find ourselves in the same cycle as adults but with less and less preparation and more and more entertainment – the in between filled with the duties of life.
Of course, our particular phase of life dictates the ratios but, in general, our effort in preparation ebbs as time goes on. The hours we once spent shooting free throws or practicing for a ballet recital are replaced with hours in front of the TV. The hours we once spent studying are replaced with the hours of running to kid’s events. The hours we once spent preparing for a mini-marathon or in the early days of incompetence in that first job, are now spent with hours of food and drink.
For what do we now prepare? Sitting on a call the other day for which I had done zero preparation, I mentioned a book I was reading and one of the participants quipped, “I don’t have time to read anymore.” I get it. The living years when our children demand all, and then some, leave little room for simple pleasures like reading or thinking or preparing. She was actually prepared for the call, but likely finds herself feeling stretched on all sides – a particularly acute challenge for the working mom.
What is preparation? Google says it is the “action or process of making ready or being ready.” Ready for what? In our younger days, readiness is a perpetual process: tests, assignments, activities, social challenges, and the ever-present draw to the entertaining. When did we become ready for anything? Life itself is an ongoing preparation for the challenge, the resistance, the call, the duty, and the test of the next moment. However, we begin to lose the intentionality, or the necessity, of those early demands on our preparedness. Why?
At some point along the way, we are mostly ready for what life throws at us. We become competent in our jobs, and then stick pretty close to that comfort zone. We develop routines at home, and then tend to continue to walk on those pathways, We find things that taste good, entertain us, and distract us, and then mostly stick to the knowns of such comforts. That comfort feels, well, comfortable, and we want to stay close to it and find that it doesn’t demand much preparation – we’re pretty much ready for what it throws at us.
Cruising along, we find ourselves showing up for meetings, mostly prepared, taking calls mostly ready, answering questions with most of the answers, and generally letting the preparation of the previous 20 years carry us along just enough to manage. Mostly.
As I age and watch those I love age around me, I find myself becoming more and more sensitive to the quiet departure of so many faculties I once took for granted. It is really easy to get comfortable with the big cruise of the central part of life – that place where circumstances seem to just sweep us along. Physical efforts that were once easy become more difficult. Facts that were once at the ready, recede to a dustier part of the library. Energy that once abounded seems more elusive in the moments it might be most useful.
The reality is that life is a process of constant preparation, but for what? Every single day is a new collection of experiences, challenges, and moments that are pointing us toward what’s next. The scary thing is that much of what comes next actually stems from how we’re preparing. We are drawing our future toward us in a steady stream of actions, choices that ready us even as they propel us toward the horizon. Where are our hours going and for what are they preparing us?
Looking at my own life, I wonder: am I preparing with intention or letting the world around me set the agenda of my preparation? For what am I preparing and how much am I investing in it? The great mistake is to believe that the purpose of life is the arrival at some place of comfort where it takes so much less effort – where things finally get easier. This notion of arrival is a mirage, and all things go soft when they lose the tension that builds strength and resilience.
Today is making you ready, but for what? Flex those muscles a bit more. Push that intellect just a bit harder. Tone that will with some self-denial. Lean into the resistance a bit longer. Show up prepared and be ready with intention. We may no longer need hours to lay the foundation, learn the ropes, or fill the library, but we still need the effort that sustains as it reinforces. Will you work to stay ready in a world that deceptively whispers, “You already are”?