Once, as a Peace Corps volunteer, I went for a run along train tracks in the countryside of Naivasha, Kenya. I’d been running the same route for weeks, exiting the training center and following the tracks for approximately 2.5 miles before intersecting with a road which led back to the center. Headphones in. Head down. Vision approximately 6-10 feet ahead of me. I was a man with a mission. A somewhat unconscious, single-minded cardiovascular mission. One day, with all of the narrowly-focused determination that would soon lead me to run my first marathon at approximately 2 miles altitude in a Kenyan game park, I started the daily grind. After approximately 1 mile, I nearly ran directly into a zebra’s hindquarters. I slowed, looked up, one zebra became 2 became 20 became…I can’t recall the precise number, but I’d run directly into a group of them. (What’s the name for a group of zebras? Thanks for asking. Are you ready? I don’t think you are. There are actually two. Two amazing and awesome names. It’s…a zeal of zebras. Or…a dazzle of zebras. How freaking cool is that?!) Peaceful, tranquil, not spooked…thank the universe. All dazzle and no zeal. I walked among them, drinking in every moment of the experience, and, once well past, completed my run. I’d nearly missed all of those zebras. Worse yet, I nearly ran into one, perhaps spooking them all and creating a stampede. Do zebras stampede? I don’t know, and for that I’m eternally grateful.
Why do I tell you that story? Up until that very point in Kenya…and for a handful of years leading up to my time as a Peace Corps volunteer…I had missed nearly everything surrounding me. That’s kind of what our brains do, though. Right? Acclimation. That which is astounding becomes mundane, and eventually everything fades into the background of, “been there, seen it, done that.” After my first dazzling encounter with a zeal of zebras, and perhaps for several years resonating out, when I showed up somewhere, I paid better attention. The entire Peace Corps – Kenya adventure fortified that, really. When novelty is smacking you in the face nearly every day, it’s hard for the brain to make commonplace that which is utterly uncommon.
However, there were two previous experiences, both occurring during my time as a University student, which set me up for this critical lesson in mindfulness. Neither of them stuck particularly well when they happened, from a functional perspective, but they stayed in the flip files of my memory…and the zebra experience, as you’ll soon enough see, connected directly to them.
That’s the thing about radical present-beingness, it requires vigilance and practice…and the muscles of mindfulness atrophy quickly when we fall out of practice and our brains default to whatever foggy modality in which it existed previous to the clearing of consciousness.
II. Over 90% is Showing Up
During my Junior year as an undergraduate, I applied to be a resident assistant (RA). Ed, the resident director of the building where I would spend the lion’s share of a semester admitting locked out residents (i.e. people who lost or forgot their identification at the bar and needed official vouching by the on-duty RA), asking athletes to keep the noise down, and occasionally chasing down the scent of cannabis (…the sweet, sweet scent of cannabis…), selected me. At some point early in our training he explained to me, during a one-on-one meeting, that well over 90% of what I’d be required to do over the course of the year required, quite simply, that I show up. The lock-outs, the noise requests, the resident dropping by to ask a question or hang…the bulk of my job…simply required that I be there when I was supposed to be there. He told me, “Not everyone can be trusted for even that task.” However, Ed explained, and I’m paraphrasing here, “The real reason I chose you, and why I chose the other RAs, is because of that final 5 – 10%. There’s going to come a time this year where you need to make a critical decision, where you need to really be there for someone in a crisis, where you show your mettle as a mature, capable, caring, counselor. Or, perhaps there’s a situation in which you save someone’s life. That’s…why I hired you.” It blew me away, it made me feel good about myself, and it helped me to take the position seriously. From that point forward, no matter what the endeavor, I affixed that same philosophy. 90%+ is being there. 5% – 10% is having the maturity, skill, confidence, and knowledge to do the REAL job, when the real job decides to present itself.
III. The Tale of Horses and Zebras
Several years later, in graduate school, and approximately two years before my run-in with a dazzling zeal of striped horses, an administrator would relate a very similar message in the form of an analogy. He called it, I think, the tale of horses and zebras. Do you know about the horses and zebras? Sitting in a room with aspiring Speech/Language Pathologists, Occupational and Physical Therapists, and Nutritionists, he related the following.
Many years ago, a man was hired to count horses. This task, although repetitive and monotonous, was an extremely important job for the larger system in which the horse-counter would be integrated. The horse counter initially took the job very seriously. Arrived a few minutes early each day, clocked in, greeting everyone along the way, took the position in the horse counter spot, and went about counting horses.
(clipclop-ClipClop-CLIPCLOP) One (clipcop-ClipClop-CLIPCLOP) Two (And so on and so on and so on)
After several weeks on the job, the initial shine having worn from the surface of his enthusiasm, the counter’s attention began to drift. After several months, he began arriving a few minutes late, hurrying, head down, to the horse counting station. And one day, he turned to look at something…and realized, “Wait. I can hear the horses going by.” By this point, he’d taken to using a manual counter (…you know, one of those metallic clickers…), and so the man began doing any number of things other than actually watching and counting. Simply by the passing quadrupedal shoe echoes did he complete the only task for which he was hired. And so it came that on one particular day, a zebra clip-clopped by…and, of course, the now counter-Counter clicked the metallic button and went about whatever business was not the business of horse counting.
Here the administrator explained, and again I’m paraphrasing, “You will see many similar patients. You will find shortcuts as, perhaps, your enthusiasm wanes, but you must remember,” and here he spoke primarily of the task of differential diagnosis, “You cannot miss the zebras.”
There’s that lesson again. The one from Ed. (The one I’d relearn, literally, in two years.)
When that final phrase, “You cannot miss the zebras,” hit my ears, it rung like a trampoline-sized gong.
IV. Don’t Miss the Zebras
I’ve moved through the cycle of remembering and forgetting that lesson through my entire life. The Kenyan zebras helped it to stick for a bit longer than previous years. But still, it faded. Additional people and experiences have helped me since. I will forget again. And remember. Hopefully, the remembering will outweigh the forgetting.
First and foremost, show up. Wherever you are, be there. Wherever you need to be, go there. This is a critical lesson in mindfulness, in being present…in any interaction, endeavor, or relationship. Show up.
And then, don’t miss the zebras. There will be times when your experience, your motivation, your attention, your personality, your training, and your intuition…
I want to pause there.
I believe that, if you do “show up” consistently, pay attention, learn and integrate lessons, bring passion and energy to whatever you do, look in the mirror at least as much as you stare out of windows (…though I’ve found that self-reflection is perhaps the most critical endeavor in which a person can engage, and other-reflection the most emotionally debilitating… so maybe spend more time with the mirrors…); if you do all that, your intuition will guide you exceptionally well. And then, you won’t miss the zebras.
Because there will be times when your intuition, and all that informs it, communicates to you, “There’s something different here, something to be explored, examined, unpacked. Perhaps there’s something wrong. Something amazing. Something inconceivable, previously imperceptible. But nonetheless, dig around a bit.”
That’s the zebra.
You know what else the zebra stands for? In an all-encompassing manner? Life. The really, really important stuff we miss when we’re caught up in everything but where, and with whom, and how we are. Life. Sometimes, even actual zebras.
Don’t miss the zebras.
P.S. In case you haven’t been paying attention, Trump is a zebra.