“Hit the ball over my head,” I told her, “and make it land right behind me.”
Her eyes popped out of her head as if to say “You want me to do WHAT?”
She was a national team player from her country, having problems landing a ball softly without rolling it too far away from the hole. She’d tried believing in the shot, visualizing it, letting go, whatever you want to call it. What she hadn’t done yet was feel the shot, to let her hands just do the work.
So I stood ten feet in front of her, between her and the hole, and told her we weren’t leaving until she hit the ball over my head and landed it near the hole. We weren’t leaving until she felt what she needed to feel.
The most important lesson no one ever taught me, the lesson most people are never taught, is feel. What it is, how to use it, why it matters, and what to do with it. No one can teach it to us. We dress it up as emotion or tie it to neurochemicals as we try to explain it. We bury it and hide it as “feelings.” We do everything we can to avoid it because we’re scared of it. Yet it drives everything we do. What we feel can either reveal who we are or expose what we’ve become.
The best line I’ve ever heard is that feel is like peeing in your pants. Everyone else can see it, but only you can feel it. Sure, other people can empathize with us, they can identify with us, but they can’t be us because they can’t feel exactly what we feel, or if they do there is no way of knowing that. What we feel and how we feel is beyond personal. It is intimate.
She squirmed over the ball, twitching, moving, uncomfortable and scared of hurting me. I smiled. I knew that if she could do this, she would learn what she needed to learn or at least experience what she needed to.
She sculled the first ball and I ducked as it whizzed by my head and into the creek. She covered her nervous laugh with her hand over her mouth. The next ball was too soft and gently landed in my hand.
Her coach had told me that she wasn’t laying the club flat enough on the ground to hit this shot. Why? Because she was using the club the way she’d been taught and practiced. She just couldn’t bring herself to lay it any flatter. She couldn’t feel it. I took the club and laid it flat, then put it back in her hands.
Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is how I view feel–an advanced human/natural technology that makes us capable of what seems like magic performed without understanding. We don’t need to know how it works, just that it can and does if we let it and learn how to use it. And the best way to do that is use it. Trial and error. Success defined only by the desire to try again.
Something fell into place. I could feel it and see it in her. She stopped squirming and set herself like all of a sudden she knew what needed doing. And she just did it. She hit the ball high over my head and it landed softly behind me, then rolled within a foot of the cup. A huge smile, almost a giggle. Magic.
We stayed and she hit a bunch more balls, no longer trying to hit the shot, but to make it do exactly what she wanted it to do. Softer, higher, closer to the hole. No technical or mechanical thoughts, just doing what she felt until it matched what she wanted the ball to do.
I moved closer and closer to her, within 5 feet. Now she was making magic. Not a magician’s trick based on deception, but a natural technology working the way it was designed to work. That was what I wanted her to learn.
The first time I met her, we’d talked about why she played golf. She told me the story of how growing up on a farm, she was often alone, and had to find ways to play by herself. She’d found her dad’s putter and was hitting balls with no particular goal other than to see what she could do with it. All of sudden, she hit the ball into the air and through a glass window. The ball rolled right in front of her dad sitting in his easy chair and stopped at his feet.
That led to her own set of clubs, lessons, and competitions, the technical and technological development of her “game.” Eventually it led to a college scholarship in the States.
As we headed back to the clubhouse, we reached the ninth tee. I asked her to play the hole on the way in. The wind was whipping and she wasn’t physically warmed up, but she smiled and said “Great!” Then she birdied the hole.
About a month later, I walked out in front of her again and stood with my hands behind my back. She smiled and knew exactly what to do and started hitting balls. She’d gotten so good at it that we made a game of it, making the ball land close enough that I could catch it behind my back.
We’d talked a few times since that first day, but not in person and not much about golf, but it was clear to me that she had learned the lesson she needed to learn by herself, a lesson I could not teach her because she had to experience it herself. She had to do the work and figure out how to find the feel so she could trust it. She’d rediscovered the magic of feel, a human, natural technology that at its best is indistinguishable from magic when we let it do it’s work. In her own words, “It’s pretty cool!”
She’d learned what the high level performers I’ve met and worked with knew about feel. She’d remembered what she’d forgotten.
That feel is a gift that deserves and demands our wonder and awe, that allows us to do things we never knew we could do if we would just hold onto it.
That feel is a skill worth improving if we’ll just take the risk.
That feel tells us what matters if we listen to it.
That feel tells us how to do those things that matter if we pay attention to it.
That feel tells us when we do well even if our eyes are closed.
That feel moves us if we will simply follow it.
That feel is our responsibility because it impacts how we perform and because no one else can feel what we feel.
The biggest mistake I see people make in their lives and their training is the failure to feel what they do. Students who learn by rote, athletes who learn only through repetition, musicians who play the same tired riffs over and over again, businesspeople who measure success only by money. Mechanical, not magical. 10,000 hours of practice without meaning only gets you so far. As one medical student said to me “Goals are all that are left when you lose sight of your dreams.”
David Brooks said that great achievers had a hunger to be what they are– not the best, not the most famous, but to be what they are. That day, at that moment, I reintroduced her to who she was. I know because of what she’d told me weeks earlier when I asked her why she played golf in the first place–making that ball rise into the air with a putter back on the farm. She’d made the ball do what she wanted.
The reason we were talking, though, was that she’d gotten away from that, that she found herself getting mad when she hit a bad shot– which led to more bad shots. I asked her why she got mad.
“Because I hit a bad shot. I made a mistake,” she said. “Of course I am going to be mad, because I care.”
Her feelings were getting in the way of the feel of the ball.
Feelings are the meaning we attach to what we might gain or lose, painted over our true experiences like emotional graffiti on the subways of our minds, often by someone else. Feelings are about judgment– what did I do wrong?
Feel is the ability to find and make meaning in the action of what we do. To feel and do what matters. Feel is about accountability– how do I do it better?
Every good performer who got stuck told me the same thing– they let what others thought become more meaningful than the feel of what they loved doing. What they would get if they performed well more valuable than feeling what they did. The confidence of getting somewhere more important than the trust of doing the thing to get there. What they stood to lose more compelling than the magic they might make.
Feelings get in the way when they no longer align with what we feel, when we chase what we want more than we protect what we love.
She’s been playing well recently. I asked her why.
“I figured out what matters,” she told me recently. Her magic is back.
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