'Don't make a fault of a virtue'

What I'm learning about running from Jerry Seinfeld and Lindsay Crouse

If you’ve ever read Dante’s Inferno, you probably remember the story.

In the book’s fifth chapter of his journey through Hell, Dante meets Francesca and Paolo, a pair of Italian nobles in the middle ages who carried on a years-long affair that tore their respective marriages apart.

Dante describes their desire for one another as so irresistible, they abandoned all else in life — their spouses, their children, their families, everything.

When my college English professor told us this story in class, he reminded us that in our time, we think of romantic love as the highest kind of love. Everything in our popular culture, from music to movies to books, reinforces that the be-all, end-all of life is to find your one and only.

But as wonderful as love is, Francesca and Paolo tell us something else, my professor said in phrase I’ll never forget:

“Don’t make a fault of a virtue.”

In other words, they took something we all know is wonderful — eros, the Greek word for passionate love — way too far.

I know how silly this will sound, but I couldn’t help but think of my old college professor and his memorable phrase when I saw this post by a New York Times journalist who also happens to be an accomplished runner:

I share this because I know how easy it is for running to become a long, hard slog. Especially when you set yourself a goal — like training for a marathon, or the 100-mile running challenge many of us are shooting for by the end of December.

If you find yourself in that place, feeling like it’s nothing more than a grind, give yourself permission to stop. At the very least, to take a break. Because running should be something that adds joy and satisfaction to your life — not take it away.

Sure, there’s a time to push yourself — to be like Louis Gossett in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” the tough drill sergeant who makes you go that extra mile, push harder than you wanted to.

There’s also a time to be gentler and kinder with yourself, something the legendary comedian Jerry Seinfeld talks about in this fantastic podcast interview with Tim Ferris from earlier this month.

On the podcast, Seinfeld tells the story of what it’s like to take questions from the audience after he does a show, something he often does when he plays smaller venues. Once, he was asked when he knows it’s time to retire a joke or a bit of extended material from his act.

His response will sound sarcastic, I know — and if you know Jerry’s humor, you’ll love this — but it gets at something important, too:

“I said, ‘so, these pieces I was doing tonight, do you think that you could think of things similar to this?’ And the guy says, ‘oh God no, not in a million years.’

And I went ‘yeah, that’s what I was thinking.’”

At this point, Jerry and Tim break down in laughter at what he said. Then, he gets to the point:

“The point of that story is, if I’m going onstage and I’m doing these bits, however long it took me to figure this stupid bit out, you know, and however many years I’ve been doing it — which I don’t even know — just be glad I’m doing that. Because it’s a good thing.

This goes to my nurturing side of the equation. If you’re going onstage and standing in front of a group of strangers and trying to make them laugh, then God bless you. I don’t give a shit what you do.

If it’s old stuff, new stuff, if you’re dirty, if you’re clean. If you’re going to stand up there by yourself and try and make me laugh, I love you. And I’m not doing to criticize anything you do beyond that.

I’m not going to criticize it — and you shouldn’t criticize yourself either... It’s always a win. If I got up there and tried to do it, I win. Even if I didn’t reach what I’m trying to reach. Even if to me, it’s a four out of 10 show, I still pat myself on the back for it. It’s still a win.”

We need to let ourselves off the hook sometimes and know that just lacing up our shoes and getting out there to run a short distance — even just a couple of miles — can be a win.

(This isn’t to say we should stop forever; as Jerry adds in the interview, he works out largely to stave off depression: “[exercise] is very balancing to the forces inside humanity that I think, they just overwhelm us. We’re overwhelmed by our own power. And you’ve gotta put that ox in the plow.”)

When you find yourself getting stuck, or falling into a rut, or just not feeling like you’re getting anywhere, that’s a sign.

Maybe you need to step off the path you’re on and take a look and see if it’s still the right path to be on, or if there’s another path that will get you where you want to go.

Listen to the whole interview, especially if you’re a fan of Seinfeld or Ferris. There’s so much worth hearing and noodling on — from what Jerry has to say about developing systems for creative output to how he gamifies his exercise routines.

Most remarkable, I think, was a note of humility Jerry struck late in the conversation — about all the workouts he does, all the discipline he puts himself through to get new material written:

“The forces that you’re attempting to corral are so much greater than you. The wave has so much more strength than you have. All you can hope to do is navigate within it. That’s the goal, to just get to that very brief, very transitory perception of mastery. [When] it seems in this moment that I am completely mastering this audience — but it’s only a moment. It’s only a moment. I couldn’t stay up there very long.”

Wise words for us all, aren’t they?

🎄 If you’re celebrating, I hope you are having a wonderful and restful holiday week — or if you’re working, you get a moment to take a break and enjoy some (very!) well-deserved time off. I hope you stay safe, happy and healthy, and ready to get back out there in the new year.

Writing to you each week has been the highlight of my year, I hope you know — and I’m looking forward to so much more with you next year.

Take care, Happy Holidays, and keep in touch!

Your friend,

— Terrell

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