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Last night was another champion therapy session with my wife. Work has been soporific lately, depressing even, and after a particularly unproductive and half-awake day yesterday I drove home in a sort of alternate-universe, aware of what was happening around me but utterly detached.

Thankfully I got home without driving into the boot of another car, but while sometimes my commute has given me a chance to de-stress and detach from work so that my first moments back in the village buoy me up and every night feels like a Friday (free, ripe with possibility) yesterday I felt drugged. I’ve felt this before, and it’s frustratingly hard to avoid it bringing on an all-systems shutdown.

So I reacted the only way I know really works – exercise. My obsession with cricket (legspin specifically) has led to further work distractions but being able to spend 30 minutes doing nothing, thinking nothing, striving for nothing but physical and technical improvement is such a breath of fresh air after a workday of grudging and grinding drudge.

Is it my brain tiring me out? The constant questioning I’ve put myself through (or been unable to stem) in the past at work or at home is emotionally draining and physically exhausting, and I’ve found myself fighting the switch-off urge to just sleep, sleep, sleep and escape the need to confront why I felt depressed or blue or low or frustrated.

Doubt is exhausting and questions to which the only answer (though I fool myself I don’t know it) is to increase effort are exhausting and knowing that the reason I feel this inescapable desire to just turn off and close my eyes and fade away into oblivion is because I’m being lazy is exhausting. And once it’s gone far enough, someone echoing my own, ignored, inner-solution is so exhausting it’s ridiculous.

Exercise, no great surprise, is a reliable answer. I don’t know if it’s biological, if I need an influx of bodychemicals or to refresh my bloodoxygen or reignite the synapses I’ve had on standby all day. I think as with most of my self-packed baggage it’s principally psychosomatic, it’s all in my head, triggered by my head. But I know for sure that exerting some real, graspable, appreciable physical effort regularly shakes me up enough to reboot. To wake up.

Actually in that case a lunchtime jog could make a significant difference to my working day. Concentrating so hard on the distance of my run up, the pace of my approach, the flow of my hands in the windup, the arc of my arm – left first, sighting out the target, right follows, delivering the ball – the sensation of the ball leaving my hand and how sometimes I’m almost aware of the path of the out-of-sight ball as if it’s a detached part of my body, the breathless moments afterwards before I know if it’s a good delivery, the examining of the action of the ball through the dip, the bounce and (hoping) the turn.

It drives out my fuggy feelings because I simply cannot operate at such a high level of effort, commitment or concentration while feeling sleepy, detached or uninterested. Crucially it’s the interest that I focus on so much – if I wasn’t so driven to improve my bowling, I wouldn’t ever practice, and certainly not with such dedication and passion. But I’m not simply ‘interested’ in bowling better legspin. I’m driven to improve my technique because that will be satisfying for me.

And it’ll be satisfying for me because it ought to lead to appreciation by others, to moments in matches where I make a positive impact, where I achieve success, where I am valued. Valued me = satisfied me. I’m not interested in bowling better, I’m interested in being valued for bowling better. The effort I put into the practice leaves me satisfied because I can feel it, and I perceive it brings me closer to my goal of being valued.

Sweat is something everyone (especially yourself) can see and appreciate. Sweat symbolises effort. And if I’ve sweated over something then I care about it, so my efforts are expended positively and the more effort I feel I’ve expended, the more sweat I can literally feel on my body, the closer I feel I’ve come to my eventual success. Which begs the question – what about when you get there?

This is probably central to why I’ve had such a pattern in jobs of excelling quickly, surpassing my own expectations, then plateauing and drifting, lost and aimless, only to sink into a self-questioning cycle of feeling lazy, trying to overcome laziness and eventually feeling that I don’t care anymore so laziness is excusable.

Say I reach the heights I dream of while practicing. Say I perform well in a friendly, I’m asked to join the 2nd XI, I play and make a difference, I’m promoted to the 1st XI, my moment comes in a final and I bowl such a beautiful spell I take five wickets and my man-of-the-match performance wins us the game, the trophy, the accolade. These are fantasies now, but say I get there. What then?

A lot of the writing around England’s stellar Test cricket performance against India (and of course Australia) has picked on the coaching team’s talent for keeping the players hungry, keeping them operating at peak performance and prevent them from plateauing and losing momentum, losing form – primarily, it seems, by keeping challenges real and relevant.

England is the best Test side in the world. That’s a stunning achievement. But there are already questions and doubts about how long it can stay that way. Admirably, the England coach looks to be managing two competing tasks – celebrating the success wholeheartedly and without reservations, while already creating the structure for another, higher, objective.

To succeed you can’t just scale mountains, you need to be able to build them. I’ve always reached the summit and made my next objective to maintain that level – I’ve set my own plateau, drawn out my own unaspirational path. Just as you can’t acheive anything great without aspiring to do better, how can you go beyond great without doing the same, without recognising that however high you’ve come, you can always go higher?

I topped out in this job probably more than a few months ago, and I think I’ve been waiting for someone else to move the goalposts for me ever since then. I’ve often looked to others to inspire me, to set the height I need to reach, and though it always starts that way – what else is a new job and a new job description apart from a goal? – once I’ve got there noone else is probably equipped to push me further.

Maintaining is something that bores me. If I ever rise so high as to win trophies with the 1st XI, I will need to set new goals that aren’t simply ‘Win more trophies’ or ‘Keep winning trophies’. I’ll need to find new challenges – challenges which are real, achieveable, which have both enough fantasy and enough reality to give me the drive I need to succeed.

Now, it’s time to do that with work. I’ve got easy, lazy, but only because I’ve acheived everything anyone ever asked of me. Unless I want to start looking for another job (clue: I don’t) I’m going to have to identify some of those fantastic/real goals and build towards them. Things that aren’t merely ‘Do more good work’ or ‘Continue doing good work’ but which give me something to feel proud and excited about pursuing, like ‘Define our purpose’ or ‘Ask the difficult questions’.

Something that will make a difference. Something that will have an impact. Something that will surprise people. Something that will demand respect. Something I can be proud of, excited about and driven to succeed. Something new. Something fresh. Something different.

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About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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