The Problem With "I Used To Could Do It"

When I was in college, I spent every summer, four in total, working at a camp in Central Texas. Every morning, I would wake up at 6:45 AM, hustle a pack of eight-year-olds out of their bunks, and spend the rest of the day sweating out 1/3 of my body weight in 101+ degree heat. 

And man, I loved it. It still remains a mystery to me why I loved it so much, but I'm quick to tell anyone who asks that working at camp is easily the best job I've ever had.

For my first two summers, I worked as a counselor, which meant that I was in charge of the care, safety, and dance parties of a group of eight or so girls. But the latter two summers, I worked on program staff as a challenge course facilitator. This meant that I was certified to lead small groups in high and low elements. That's right, I was the lady spotting kids as they dangled from high wires and crawled through tires, and I was also the lady who made them sit in a circle afterwards and talk about their feelings.

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While I loved facilitating, there was a side of the job that I found absolutely agonizing: watching challenge course. 

I mean, first off, it was just boring. As a facilitator, my job was to set up the objective (ex. move from one platform to another smaller platform without touching the ground because, hello, it's hot lava), but after that, I was only there to keep everyone safe. I couldn't talk or provide any expert insight. I could only observe.

And here's what I observed: lots of loud-mouthed kids with terrible ideas shouting over quieter kids with sensible ideas. This was pretty much the scene at most challenge course initiatives I ever facilitated. For the most part, until the time came to debrief, my job was simply to monitor the dysfunction.

While I saw a lot of insanity in my challenge course facilitator days, there's one memory I have in particular that really sticks with me, one that I've actually been thinking about a lot lately.

I was facilitating a group of thirteen-year-old boys, each one more awkwardly lovable than the next. They had been struggling with cohesion, so I decided to bring them to what was a classic teamwork element at camp: The H-Platform, a large wooden structure with a raised platform about five feet off the ground. The objective I set was a simple one for a group of this level: get every member of your group up to the top without touching the structure with any part of your body, except for your feet.

If you're having trouble envisioning how they were supposed to accomplish this challenge, here's the trick: the group is supposed to safely lift each member up one-by-one and set them on the platform gently. Anyone who is already on top can help pull individuals up for support. The last one up is usually a smaller, athletic kid who can be pulled up by the rest of the group.

Many groups figure this simple strategy out right away. Many more do not.

On this particular day, things started in the usual way. I gave my instructions, and the boys proceeded to try to ask me several follow-up questions while I simply stared back at them, severely, through my sunglasses (not going to lie, my challenge course persona was pretty intimidating, and I loved it). They made a few attempts to push themselves up on the platform with their forearms, clearly having not listened to my instructions. I asked them to start over, and they were puzzled.

My Challenge Course persona. Don't mess.

My Challenge Course persona. Don't mess.

A quiet kid named Garrett remarked, "We're only supposed to use our feet." And then a louder kid named Devon shouted, "WE CAN'T USE OUR ARMS, YOU IDIOTS! ONLY OUR FEET!" The group took Devon's words to heart and collectively agreed that the challenge was impossible.

But then a boy named Zach had an idea. Zach, by the way, was a small, boisterous, little guy on a mission to prove his manliness (did you notice how I used two different adjectives to describe how prepubescent this kid was? It's relevant to the story, I promise). According to Zach, he had a platform just like this one in his backyard at home. Why, the others asked. Well, because he built it. Duh. He used a circular saw and everything.

Seemed plausible.

Anyway, according to Zach, he had done this loads of times (this, being scaling a five foot platform with nothing but his feet). "Watch this," he commanded his skeptics. 

I got into my spotting stance, knowing this would certainly not be good, and I watched as this boy, whose crisply gelled hair stood roughly three inches above the platform, placed one foot on the edge of the structure and proceeded to backflip, wildly, straight into my arms. The whole thing looked like that scene in The Peanuts where Charlie Brown pitches a ball and it gets batted right back towards him, so his body spins in circles until he lands on his back, mysteriously having lost his clothes. Fortunately, Zach was still clothed throughout this whole incident, but his movements were just as chaotic. In an instant, we were both on the ground, me having broken his fall, him having no recognition of the fact that I had essentially just saved his life.

Image via Red Legs Review

Image via Red Legs Review

To this day, I still have no idea what Zach was actually attempting in this maneuver. The only thing I can think is that he mistakenly thought that he was a nine-foot giant who could simply step up onto a platform five feet off the ground. But regardless of how insane his initial idea was, it's what he said to his group immediately afterwards as he was dusting himself off that left me positively dumbfounded. 

"Well...I used to could do it," he said, shrugging. 

I used to could do it. This sentence echoed in my mind as the most ridiculous words ever spoken. On the outside, I was still a stone-faced facilitator, but on the inside, I was doubled over in laughter. Not only did I love the awkward, pre-teen phrasing of his bizarre statement ("I used to could..."), but I marveled at the sheer implausibility of it. You used to could do it? You used to be shorter!

If it's not apparent from my description of him, I should probably make it clear that I really liked Zach. He was a sweet, funny kid, but he was also just ridiculous, as were all of my favorite campers. But that day on challenge course, Zach taught me a tremendous lesson, one that I still think about all the time: a lesson in self-comparison.

We often talk about the dangers of comparing ourselves to others. We know that we should keep our eyes on our own paper and focus on who we are rather than on what someone else is doing. We know that comparison is the thief of joy and that no one is perfect and that Instagram doesn't tell the whole story and yadda yadda yadda. 

But perhaps an even greater danger exists when we compare ourselves to...ourselves. Our former selves, that is.

Look: Zach literally thought he "used to could" step up onto a five foot plank of wood, no problem. And that's just crazy. But is it any crazier than the times in life when we say things like I used to be so much more outgoing or I used to be happier or I used to be better at ____?

Honestly, just like Zach, we all kind of suck when it comes to estimating our former abilities. We always romanticize. We always exaggerate. We always glorify. So when we think back on the person we used to be, chances are we aren't even really considering the whole story.

The downfall of these flashback comparisons is that they cause us to uplift false versions of our old selves while degrading who we are now. When we long for the days gone by, we neglect just how far we've come.

I have to admit that I can get caught up in this type of toxic thinking fairly easily. Lord knows there are days that I'd love to go back to being Camp Counselor Christy. In my mind, I often look at her as the freest (not to mention thinnest) version of myself. I find myself longing for "the good old days," wishing that I could get that time back. 

But if I'm really being honest, Camp Counselor Christy wasn't all that. Girl didn't have half of what I have now. She was less skilled, less knowledgable, and far less experienced than the person I am today. She also wore Nike shorts everywhere she went and didn't enjoy the taste of coffee. What a weirdo.

So that said, if you're anything like me, if you ever struggle with past-self-comparison, learn from Zach's and my mistakes. Focus less on the things you "used to could do" and instead take stock in the person you are now. For the record, it's very possible (and actually highly likely) that you don't even have a clear picture of who you used to be. Chances are that in the past you had the same exact insecurities and fears and oddly-placed moles that you have now, but your selective memory is choosing not to remember any of that. 

The truth is you have come such a far way from whatever former version of yourself you have chosen to idealize. And there is so much value in the sheer fact that you are growing. You may never be able to step up onto a five foot platform all on your own (honestly, you likely never could before), but right now you have more knowledge, skill, experience, and strength (perhaps more mental than physical, but whatevs) than you've ever had in your entire life. Ever.

By the way, much to my surprise, the boys did eventually complete their challenge course objective that day. Someone eventually started listening to Garrett's ideas, and Zach was one of the first people to be hoisted up onto the platform. As I watched this scene unfold, I couldn't help but swell with pride. Perhaps Zach "used to could" do this on his own. I guess we'll have to take him at his word on that one. But that day on challenge course, he had an army of eight goony thirteen-year-old boys helping him up. And honestly, isn't that so much better than doing it alone? As far as I'm concerned, that's progress. 

Do you ever struggle with past-self-comparison? How do you move past it?