Back in college, I used to do this crazy thing every year called Dance Marathon. Here’s the premise: Dance for 3o hours with 800 other students on campus as part of a massive fundraising drive.
“It’s for the kids,” we’d say. But let’s be real, it was also for all of us. And it was essentially one giant party, complete with costumes and themes and all of your best friends.
That said, dancing for 30 hours is no easy feat. And dancing wasn’t just lightly encouraged for the duration of those 30 hours; it was required.
So, the student-run volunteers staffers had extreme measures that they would take to ensure people kept dancing.
They’d scour the baggage room and the bathrooms, looking for people sleeping in the stalls. They’d introduce special acts of student groups, speakers, and synchronized dancing to keep our attention high. And, perhaps most important, they’d wander the floors of the dance hall itself, adding energy and enthusiasm to pockets of people whose energy started to fade.
Hour 20 was the worst. Just consider this for a minute: You’ve already been dancing for twenty hours straight. It’s the middle of the night, you’ve got finals just around the corner, and you still have 10 more hours to go. You might ask yourself, “Is this what insanity feels like?”
For most people, hour 20 is a massive downgrade in dancing performance and overall energy. You’ll see people lightly sway back and forth, passing a shuffle-step off as a dance move. You’ll notice them getting a little quieter in conversation. You can imagine some of them are really starting to regret their life and their choices.
Hour 20 is the easiest hour to give up. It’s the one where it’s easiest to give in to those little voices of self-doubt, to start questioning everything around you and wonder if you’ll actually make it all the way to the end. Hour 20 is where you start to whisper to yourself things like, “Maybe I can just sneak out a little bit early.”
But hour 20 of a 30-hour marathon is where things get real. You’ve stripped all the fun away, and now you’re just doing the raw thing that you said you wanted to do, that you told everyone you wanted to do, and you’re square in the middle. There’s no validation in hour 20. The promise land of finishing is still hours away. From where you’re standing, it’s almost unimaginable to think you’ll ever get there.
That’s why I think hour 20 is the most interesting part of a 30-hour marathon.
There’s an “Hour 20” in any long-term project.
Maybe it’s the part where you’re just stuck in the middle, cranking it out. Maybe it’s the part where you’ve hit a wall and nothing seems to be working. Maybe your “Hour 20” is the point before the pivot, when everyone around you is just walking around the office with some unspoken sense of dread, knowing that change needs to happen, but not quite figuring out what it is yet.
It’s easy to be excited at the beginning of something new. It’s easy to be excited in the end, when you can tell it’s all going to work out. But to stay excited in the middle? Now, that‘s hard.
The toughest part about the metaphorical “Hour 20” in the real world is that you don’t have a giant clock telling you where you’re at in the cycle. It’s hard to say how long you’ve already been dancing or how much longer you might have to go. That, in itself, is demoralizing.
But with enough rounds through “the hype curve,” you might start to pick up on some patterns and figure out your own natural tendencies. And this will help get through those low points with greater ease and agility the next time around.
You might start to notice where you see your own motivation dwindle, and you might start to pay attention to how you react and behave when it does. You might also start to notice how other people around you respond to those “Hour 20” moments. Do they perk up to pick up people around them who are drifting? Do they fall off and give up completely on the task at hand? Or do they revert to a lower energy mode at stay the course, waiting for the big final push in the end?
You might ask yourself: Who am I, to this group of people? What’s my role to play in “Hour 20”? And am I doing my part?
Back in school, I’d look to Hour 20 as my cue to put everything out on the floor. I’d morph into “rally mode,” infecting anyone around me with erratic energy and enthusiasm to keep going. My best friends and I would hop on top of speakers, we’d run interference to boost the morale of people around us, and we’d pester people to pick up their dancing game and remind us why they came out at all.
It was exhausting. By Hour 27, I’d be dead to the world. But by that point, the groundswell of energy around me would be so great that it wouldn’t even matter. The end was in sight. And everyone else would rise to the challenge to get us across the finish.
There’s probably an interesting story to tell about the role you play on a team based on where your energy comes out in the process.
All I know is, Hour 30 means nothing to me if I wasn’t there for Hour 20. So if you happen to be stuck there right now, with 10 more hours to go, keep on dancing. You got this.
Also published on Medium.