Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh, Heaven is a place on Earth
They say in Heaven, love comes first
We’ll make Heaven a place on Earth
Ooh, Heaven is a place on Earth
Belinda Carlisle immortalized these lines in her eternally catchy 80’s anthem “Heaven Is A Place On Earth.” You’re welcome for this ear worm. You’ll catch yourself humming the chorus and not quite remembering the rest of the lines for the next few days after reading this. I’m starting with this line not because I’m trying to invent the next Rick Roll (how cool would it be if people start tricking one another into listening to Belinda Carlisle?) but because I feel like it captures the essence of what I’m wanting to write about today. While I’m pretty sure Carlisle was singing more about a ooey-gooey kissy-kissy romantic kind of love, these lyrics make me think of the love I experience from friends and how spending time with them really does make Heaven happen right here on earth for me.
I recently made a new friend. We’ll call him DV. We connected through a mutual love of running and have started going out for weekend long runs together. Whether it’s texting to make plans to run, chatting as we run, or reviewing recent race results, every interaction with this guy makes me want to hang out with him more. Sure, he’s an interesting guy with a unique perspective on life and he tells a dang good story, but it’s not his uniqueness or entertainment value that has me looking forward to my next interaction with him: it’s the overwhelming intensity and positivity in the affirmations he tosses my way. He’s constantly telling me about how crazy, incredible, and elite he thinks my running abilities are. Running up a steep incline, DV exclaims “You’re a freaking antelope on these hills, Ryan! Nobody can run vert as fast as you!” Descending technical singletrack, DV will later enthuse “Dude: you’re like a gazelle or a mountain goat or something… you’re so good at running!” Discussing future race goals, DV is certain and frequent in sharing his conviction that I’ll soon be on the podium of famous 100 mile races despite the fact I am currently competing only at the 25km distance.
The fact is, I’m really not a very special runner. While I might be in the top 5-10% of performers in my over the hill age group, there’s no way I’ll ever compete with what I see much younger and stronger pros doing. But this doesn’t seem to matter when I’m around DV. Something about his affirmations get me to start to believe that maybe I am and can be something special in trail running. When I listen to DV I feel faster. This usually carries over beyond the day we’re running together and into the next few weeks of training and racing.
This correlates with several studies I recently learned about by listening to the “Some Work All Play” podcast with professional athletes and elite coaches Megan and David Roche. Whether you’re into running or not, I strongly recommend giving their podcast a listen as I think you’ll find their banter and overall message to be enlightening and life-affirming. Also, they are exceptionally effective in the way they can summarize and explain science for non-scientists. In a recent episode (#88), they talked about several studies that measured the physical responses of elite athletes to various types of feedback. My basic not-a-scientist-but-smart-enough-that-I-don’t-deny-climate-change summary is that there are hormones that make us stronger and more powerful, and there are hormones that make us weaker. When viewing video of things they did well, and when receiving specific praise about their performance, the athletes’ YOU ARE MIGHTY, BEAST MODE ACTIVATED hormone levels went up by a lot. When viewing video of things they did poorly, and when receiving criticism about their performance, the YOU SUCK! SURRENDER, WORM hormone levels went up by a lot. All to say, I’m obviously being influenced by the way Khonshu talks to Poe Dameron, I mean Leto Atreides, I mean Steven Grant in Moon Knight. Also, there can be a significant and measurable increase (and decrease) in performance as a direct result of the feedback we receive, and that we give ourselves. Also, I’m not as effective at summarizing exciting science as the Roches are. You can read David Roche’s Trail Runner article for a much more effective summary: https://www.trailrunnermag.com/training/trail-tips-training/how-positive-reinforcement-may-improve-physiology-and-hormones
Thinking about the way my new friend DV makes me feel like a more talented, more powerful, more promising version of myself reminds me of another friend. I’ll call him DA.
DA isn’t a brand new friend, I’ve known him for years. Most of those years we were professional acquaintances and sometime collaborators. Over those years, I knew him as I think everybody who knows him does: as one of the very most talented, influential, effective, interesting, and encouraging people in the business. Any business.
Over the past three years, I’ve gotten to know DA on a much more intimate level as we’ve been a part of a small group of six guys that meet every week. We’ve treated this group a bit like a book club, but without the wine and sometimes without the books. Recently the focus of the group has been to discuss a podcast series that’s taken us a few years to get through. Along the way, we’ve shared laughter and worries and celebrations and woe. I know I speak for the other four guys in the group when I say that the things DA says to and about each of us can be, at times, life saving. Because of his unique combination of charisma, intelligence, and insight, affirmations from DA just hit a little bit differently. So when I consider the exercise science of our bodies’ hormonal response to affirmation, I realize that DA not only makes me feel better about myself emotionally, his words also make me more powerful physically. More possible. More like what some might say will be a heavenly version of myself.
I experience Heaven on Earth when I hang out with DA. And yet, I’m pretty sure DA doesn’t always experience such bliss himself. I worry that’s because, as freaking awesome as he is at seeing beauty in me and in others, and as damn amazing as he is at generously telling me (and others) about the beauty and promise and potential he sees, he can be equally hard on himself. His inner voice can be treacherous. I worry that his own version of Hell on Earth makes him morose about what he sees as his personal shortcomings and blinds him to what others see in him. It’s as if he is this Heavenly agent whose words cause me (and others) to experience Heaven on Earth while he is himself enduring Hell on Earth. My experience of Heaven and his experience of Hell both stem from the same place: DA’s words.
It makes me think about my own words. In what ways do I put myself through Hell because of my own self talk, because of the way I process my own trauma? In what ways do I create Hell on Earth for others when I let my trauma spill out onto them? My friends DV and DA both create Heaven on Earth for me through their words. Sometimes I even allow myself to believe their words and I’ll repeat them as a mantra, motto, or koan. I know that my friends’ words echo mightily in my ears, heart, and bloodstream. I know when I’m climbing a really steep hill I can increase my legs’ power with something as simple as a HUZZAH or HOORAH. Or maybe even a “Damn I’m good at climbing!” A moment of Heaven.
To conclude, I hope you’ll give yourself the gift of spending time listening to the Some Work All Play podcast. I hope you’ll make Heaven A Place On Earth for the people you interact with today. I hope you’ll even try it on yourself.