to kaizen…..or not to kaizen?

IMG_2776I’ve been getting steadily re-addicted to mountain biking this year.

I had a period 10 years ago or so where I rode regularly, but this is on another level. I’m riding with a few mates a couple of times a week, exploring trails around south-east Queensland and having a great time.

We’re also putting lots of effort into learning how to ride better, faster, hit bigger jumps, rougher trails and so on.  In the grand scheme of things, we’re not that good – but we are trying!

One of the main tools in  this attempt to improve is a little phone app called Strava.  Strava uses the GPS in your phone to track where you’ve ridden, how fast, how much elevation gained and a heap more.  It automatically compares your ride performance against your previous rides on the same trails, and against other riders (who use strava) on those same trails.  Within a few moments of finishing a ride we can be looking at the data – how fast did I ride today? Was i strong on the climbs? How about that particularly difficult (we in the MTB world prefer the word ‘gnarly’!) descent?

IMG_3753We know straight away how many ‘personal records’ we achieved, and whether we have cracked into a high position on the virtual leaderboard that might feature hundreds or even thousands of other riders.

It’s a little addictive. And it’s a useful tool when we are trying hard to improve.

But it’s a little dangerous too. More than once I’ve found myself heading down a trail thinking “I really have to push it here if I want to get a personal record”.  And so instead of just enjoying the ride, and the flow of the trail, I’m looking for performance, pushing my own boundaries, maybe taking higher risks.

As we talked about this one post-ride session (for as much as the riding is fun, so are the post ride chat-fests – you know the kind of “did you see when I…? what about that trail? you were awesome up that climb…” storytelling session?) we realised that while when we’re out trying to improve, strava is a great tool, there are other days when we should turn off the devices and just enjoy the moment, not trying to find some new technique, pound down a scary descent or smash ourselves up a long, steep climb….just enjoy the moment.

The Japanese have a word, kaizen, that literally translates as ‘improvement’. Western business/leadership gurus have adopted this word and pushed it a little further to mean “continuous improvement”.

In that sense, it’s about the desire for constant improvement, striving to make every day, every transaction, every product, every client transaction better than the last. Kaizen has become a mantra in some circles, and it’s all about gaining and holding the competitive edge over a rival company by constantly improving.

And I get it too, in that context. Striving always to improve what we do and how we do it is healthy.  Looking for opportunities to innovate and improve is highly valuable for a business or an organisation.

What about in our own personal lives though?  Does this interpretation of kaizen, of the desire for continuous improvement imply a sense of dissatisfaction with our life, our relationships, our family?

For sure we all have things to work on. I can definitely be a better dad, better husband, better at my job.  And I can definitely be better at mountain biking!

But sometimes, I think maybe its healthy just to enjoy the experience. To be in the moment, rather than analysing constantly, and looking for ways to improve.

Sometimes, maybe it’s the right thing to turn strava off, to go with the flow, to enjoy the trail for what it is.

To leave the kaizen for another day…


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