Until just a few years ago, I always thought of myself as just a not-very-good sleeper who could perform at a high level without a lot of zzz’s.
As a kid, my natural state was “pretty wound up,” some combination of anxiety, energy, and ambition, that became most obvious after the lights went out and the tossing and turning began.
In college, I chose a major (computer science) that I was wholly unprepared for and surrounded me with hyper-competitive geeks whose pale and sickly countenance as a result of long nights pouring over code was a badge of honor. I figured if I can’t out-think them, I’ll need to out-work them and sleep became the obvious sacrifice.
My first job in a high-tech manufacturing plant that ran around the clock was followed by nearly two decades bouncing around management consulting and startup gigs that never hid the fact that the proverbial (and often mythical) gold at the end of the rainbow was going to come out of your hide. Who needs sleep when there’s another PowerPoint slide with a 2x2 matrix to be made?
In my mid-40’s, a fascination with how far and fast I could push my body in the midst of age’s encroaching limitations led me to ultra-distance cycling and a window into the world of exercise-induced hallucinations. But it was in this environment, where the effects of sleep deprivation impairments couldn’t be ignored (crashes have a way of focusing the mind), that I began to challenge my core assumption about my relationship with sleep.
And, after some focused research and self-experimentation, I concluded that a conscious investment in consistently getting “enough” high quality sleep is the ultimate enabler of all human superpowers.
Want to come up with an idea that will put a dent in the universe? Sleep.
Want to be more resilient and calmer in the face of adversity and uncertainty? Sleep.
Want to recover faster from a tough workout and crush your next race? Sleep and sleep.
Almost all of my coaching clients have led with some version of the line, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.,” an ethos that I can certainly identify with. But none have failed to realize significant benefits from giving sleep a higher priority in their lives, oftentimes from just a few tweaks in their routine and environment.
Although the mechanisms of sleep still hold mysteries left to be discovered, it’s clear that sleep is essential—go without it for too long, and your brain basically starts to fall apart.
Headaches can begin as soon as 24 hours after missing sleep. 72 hours in, memory is impaired and temporal and spatial distortions start to occur. After 96 hours without sleep, cognition is markedly impaired. After 144 hours, hallucinations ensue and there is a considerable loss of attention and manual dexterity. (1)
How do we know all of this? The innate human tendency to explore the limits of what’s possible. Randy Gardner, a 17-year-old high school student who stayed awake for 264 hours (11 days) in 1965 for a science fair, is often cited as the record holder. Others have gone longer than Gardner's 11 days, though they may fall into sleep-like restful states. Others suffer from Fatal Familial Insomnia, which—after months without sleep—leads to brain deterioration and death. (2)
It’s admittedly hard to defect from society’s cult of productivity that seems to act like an invisible force on our psyche and well-being. But, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the English poet, literary critic, philosopher and theologian who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England wrote years ago, "Oh sleep! It is a gentle thing, beloved from pole to pole".
Here are three things to think about, check out, or do to convince yourself that you deserve long goodnights this week and beyond:
1). For a better understanding of sleep cycles and the stages of sleep, check out this article from Whoop, a company that helps athletes, CEOs, and regular folks like us track our sleep and other physiological data (full disclosure: I’m a satisfied customer and not compensated for the plug.). If you like infographics, try this one on for size…
2). If you’re still skeptical that a lack of sleep is harmful to human health and performance, here are a number of articles, infographics, and a short video that, collectively, should leave you with no doubt:
- Here's A Horrifying Picture Of What Sleep Loss Will Do To You
- So What If You Don’t Sleep Enough?
- Why Six Hours Of Sleep Is As Bad As None At All
- Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep and professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley narrates this video on the effects of sleep deprivation
- These Are All The Ways Lack Of Sleep Makes You Terrible At Work
3). How much sleep should you get and what should you do you get a better night’s sleep? Here are a few places to start trying to figure it out:
- Check out the results of a big study attempting to establish how much sleep is optimal (note that too much sleep can be just as detrimental as too little!). Spoiler alert—it’s 7-8 hours a night: https://www.inc.com/bill-murphy-jr/its-official-a-massive-sleep-study-of-44000-people-shows-exact-amount-of-sleep-you-need-each-night.html
- How To Sleep: A Physician’s Guide To Sleep In A Stressful Age
- How To Sleep Better
- The 10 Simple Sleep Tips Guide To Better Sleep Tonight; pair with Dr. Breus’ book, The Power of When, which highlights the importance of knowing your chronotype and using it to optimize your 24-hour day. I can personally vouch for its effectiveness and many of my coaching clients have realized significant benefits as well. Find your chronotype here: https://thepowerofwhenquiz.com/
- The Trick Soldiers Use to Fall Asleep in Minutes in Even the Most Uncomfortable Situations
- OK, if you must...How to Pull an All-Nighter: Tips from the Special Forces
- Last month, pro cyclist Ted King set a new course record in winning the 1,000-mile Arkansas High Country Race with a time of 4 days, 20 hours and 51 minutes. In order to accomplish this feat, he spent 17-20 hours per day on the bike, and only slept for a total of 17 hours. Here’s an article that provides quantified strain, sleep, and recovery results from his epic ride.
In early January 2010, I went to Jupiter, Florida to ride in my first U.S. qualifier for Paris-Brest-Paris. The 200K distance was a challenging yet doable ask after a snowy east coast off-season. I reckoned that some southern sun and significantly higher temperatures would provide a temporary reprieve from the winter blues that always seem to grip me like a vice and not let go until the first green shoots of spring.
The day before the ride was t-shirt and shorts weather — bright sun, blue skies, and a radiating heat. But the weather report for the next day was predicting significantly less hospitable conditions with a dropping temperature and the likelihood of rain. I had prepared for the worst, and multiple layers, a raincoat, and neoprene booties seemed more than sufficient to protect myself from the elements.
But Mother Nature throws nasty curve balls.
When I opened my hotel curtains to face the day, it looked like a scene from a disaster movie. Sheets of rain were pelting the windows, which were shaking with gale force winds. There was a dark river of clouds, puffed with moisture, extending to the horizon. And a small group of my fellow riders was already huddled together under the veranda looking resigned to a day of relentless discomfort.
Within minutes, we all looked like drowned rats. Spray from the rear tires of the bikes ahead was hitting me right in the face. The temperature had dropped overnight and was now barely above 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4–5 degrees Celsius). And, within the first few miles, the zipper on my raincoat broke, exposing the entire front of my body to the elements.
By the midway checkpoint at a local park, I was shivering uncontrollably and my hands were as white as a ghost, a wrinkled, water-logged mess. Volunteers manning the check-in process generously loaned me a down vest and a pair of rubber garden gloves, and I joined a crowd in the rest room seeking relief from a hard warmer blowing at a whisper.
I started out again after twenty minutes feeling only incrementally better making me even more resigned to many more hours of suffering.
The good news is that I made it to the finish line, feeling more alarmed by my condition than relief that the event was over. My hands were so useless that I couldn’t hold the key card for my room and had to ask one of the hotel staff to open the door. A long, steamy shower and few hours of room temperature sufficiently warmed my core but it took weeks to fully regain most of the feeling and dexterity in my hands. On cold, wet days, I can still feel the effects of that ride in my hands and can appreciate only long after the fact the hard lessons learned on that difficult day.
Which brings me to the penultimate post on the five things that we need just to survive — regulating a stable body temperature.
Without the ability to keep a fairly constant temperature (~ 98.7 degrees Fahrenheit), a person runs the risk of hypothermia or heat stroke. If the core temperature drops to 91.4 degrees, a body will go unconscious. At 86.0 degrees, the body loses the ability to control internal temperature. At 82.4 degrees, there is complete muscle failure.
On the other end of the spectrum, a temperature of 107.6 degrees results in a breakdown of the central nervous system. At slightly over 111 degrees, the brain overheats and causes death.
More practically, a person exposed to the elements increases their water loss. Cold temperatures and high winds can strip away valuable moisture as quickly as high temperatures can cause sweat related loss. Extreme temperature fluctuations can cause hallucinations and illogical behavior, which can cause a person to fail to take the proper steps to stay on the trail, keep their bike on the road, or even stay alive. This is why selecting the appropriate clothing is so important since it helps to moderate body temperature as well as provide shelter from wind and rain.
Here are three things to think about, check out, or do to get and stay in the (temperature) zone this week:1). Check out this article to learn more about how to train your body to better adjust to extreme temperatures for better performance:
2). For those of us continuing to battle the elements this winter, especially on the bike, here’s a super useful clothing guide:
3). If you want to really learn how to survive in a variety of conditions, you might want to consider signing up for an outdoor survival class. I shared a cramped 2-man tent with my buddy and big peak mountain climber Mike Schiller (check out In Search of Lost Mojo, Episode #3 here: https://timzak.com/islm-3-schiller/) for a week in 2012 at the Tom Brown, Jr. Tracker School (https://www.trackerschool.com/default.aspx) where we learned a ton (and scratched the surface) about staying alive in challenging conditions. If that sounds a little extreme, here are six survival schools that sound a little more comfortable but no less interesting: https://www.outsideonline.com/…/six-survival-schools-dont-r…
Happy New Year and welcome to the first edition of Squaring the Curve for 2018! My holiday season, along with practically everyone else’s (or so we’re led to believe), was predictably hectic and further complicated by a variety of family illnesses both large and small including a particularly close call from the Grim Reaper for Rosie the family mutt (who has thankfully recovered).
Hence the long overdue continuation of a series of posts on the five things that we need just to survive — oxygen, water, food, stable body temperature, and sleep — on the assumption that if we can’t at least get the basic blocking and tackling right then diving headlong into the addicting world of “improvement porn” (“The ONLY 3 things you need to do to produce a LIFETIME of [fill in the blank goodness]!”) is like turning down the complimentary breath mint after a 10-course meal because you’re trying to cut back.
No matter the size or shape, your body is unquestionably a wondrous machine, constantly performing amazing feats of daring do.
Messages from the human brain travel along nerves at up to 200 miles an hour. For an adult human, taking just one step uses up to 200 muscles. A human skeleton renews itself completely every 10 years. Every hour, humans shed about 600,000 particles of skin or about 1.5 pounds every year so, by the time a person is 70 years old, they will have lost about 105 pounds of skin.
So if our bodies are like an organic Ferrari shouldn’t we be paying attention to what fuel we’re sticking in the tank?
We all know what would happen to our rides if we never bothered to stop for gas/diesel/petrol/electrons. What would happen if we just stopped eating? Here’s one simpleton’s explanation:
During energy abstinence, the body first exhausts the contents of our what’s in our digestive tract along with glycogen reserves stored in liver cells to provide required glucose for the brain. Then, after about 2–3 days, the liver begins to synthesize fatty acids called ketones from fat stores for the brain to use as fuel and cut its requirement for glucose. This ketone stage can last for up to two weeks. Once the fat reserves are used up, the body will begin breaking down its last remaining fuel source, muscles, which eventually get transformed into glucose as well. This fuel source can last for about a week. Then you die (although usually not from complete energy source depletion but a related cause like cardiac arrest, organ failure, or infection).
How long will it take? At the age of 74 and already slight of build, Mahatma Gandhi, the famous nonviolent campaigner for India’s independence, survived 21 days of total starvation while only allowing himself sips of water. A 1997 article in the British Medical Journal cites well-documented studies reporting survivals of hunger strikers for up to 40 days. A less scientifically documented but still notable hunger strike was undertaken by an Irish political prisoner, Terence MacSwiney, whose 74-day strike ended with his death in 1920.
So food is, at its core, just fuel for the body. Without going down the predictable rabbit hole of advocating a specific “diet” where do we go from here?
Well, start with these three things to think about, check out, or do to top up your fuel intake and make it a little cleaner this week (and beyond):
1). Rather than latch on to some trendy diet or, heaven forbid, the eating recommendations of your favorite celebrity a better approach might be to think more about some basic “rules” of good eating. This article, providing a few proposed by food author Michael Pollan, is good start start:
2). Advances in technology including more affordable genetic testing, better data mining techniques, and the compounding power of smart phones are, not surprisingly, beginning to chip away at optimizing individual nutrition. This article from Fast Company provides a good overview of the quest for the perfect diet and perhaps a harbinger of things to come for all of us:
3). With all of the conflicting advice for athletes on “how to eat”, it’s seems almost impossible to sort out fact from fiction. This is particularly true for masters athletes and other 50+ high performers who are pushing the edge while offsetting inevitable declines. These articles from Outside Online do a great job of providing simple advice on what to eat after a certain kind of workout and the best performance foods for every activity:
When it comes to getting the most out of your training, eating the right foods after a workout is almost as important…www.outsideonline.com
Water is a vital component of survival, performance, and long-term well-being. How long can we go without water? Basically, we need to find a source within about three days (depending on activity level and environment) or we’re in big trouble.
We intuitively know that water must be important (think about the last time you were truly parched and how desperately your body signaled its distress) but we probably don’t know just how much.
Our bones are over 20% water and blood is over 80%. It composes 75% of the brain, 70% of muscles, and over 70% of lungs. In fact, nearly 60% of an average person’s weight is water.
It’s critical for digestion (through saliva and food conversion). It allows the body’s cells to grow, reproduce and survive, and it lubricates joints. It’s needed by the brain to manufacture hormones and neurotransmitters. And it helps to deliver oxygen all over the body.
Staying fully hydrated is even more important as we get older when our ability to detect thirst gets worse.
From a performance perspective, a mere 1% loss of body mass due to fluid loss is considered “dehydrated”, and a modest 2% loss results in a 20% decrease in physical performance levels in temperate climates and up to a 40% decrease in hot temperatures.
Here are three thing to think about, check out, or do to make sure you’re getting enough water this week (and beyond):
1). How much water do you need every day? Check out this chart of water requirements relative to body weight: https://www.bronsonhealth.com/app/files/public/5131/water-chart---8-oz.jpg.
I like to carry a container full of water with me all day to stay “topped up”…here’s my new personal favorite (putting a little bright orange in my life!):
2). A great article from Outside Magazine called The New Rules of Hydration starts with “There’s a ton of misinformation about how much to hydrate and when, but the basics are actually pretty simple. Here’s what you need to know.” Find it here: https://www.outsideonline.com/2148776/new-rules-hydration
3). So what if you’re a masters athlete or high performing 50+’er who’s done everything else right and wants to eek out that little extra? Check out this article on the special hydration needs of masters athletes: https://www.nastar.com/news/drink-hydration-critical-aging-athletes
In last week’s post, I presented five things that we need just to survive — oxygen, water, food, stable body temperature, and sleep — and proposed that we should consider fulfilling our basic needs of these requirements before moving on to more sophisticated ways to enhance and optimize performance at any age.
Let’s start with oxygen. The current world record for static apnea, or holding your breath in water without moving, is 11 minutes and 35 seconds, set by Stéphane Mifsud in 2009. If a breath of pure oxygen is allowed before the attempt then the record nearly doubles to 22 minutes and 22 seconds, set by Tom Sietas in 2012.
We can hold our breath longer underwater than in air because of a mysterious function known as the mammalian diving response. It allows us to more easily subdue the reflex that forces us to breathe — and to drown. [Science Alert, June 10, 2016]
But for us ordinary humans, three minutes without oxygen is about our limit. And “fresh air” makes a huge difference in a variety of physical and mental functions, and our fundamental ability to perform in the short term and be healthy in the long term.
So what can we do to, as the author Edward Abbey said, “…breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air.”? Here are three thing to think about, check out, or do to improve and even optimize your oxygen intake this week:
1). What’s the air quality in your area? Find out at this Environmental Protection Agency site, Airnow: https://www.airnow.gov/
2). There are a ton of ways to improve the quality of the air you breathe, even if you live in an urban area or any other environment where it’s subpar. Working on even one improvement this week can make a big difference.
Let’s start with an article focused on those suffering from COPD and other breathing deficiencies to get the basics right: http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20368815,00.html#fresh-healthy-air-0
Here’s a two-part article that lists 28 actions (some will undoubtedly work better than others given your specific situation) that you could consider to potentially improve the uptake of oxygen in your system:
3). So what if you’re a masters athlete or high performing 50+’er who’s done everything else right and wants to eek out that little extra? Check out this article on the daily breathing routine that a variety of athletes, achievers, and adventurers are trying with amazing results, and the website for the method’s “inventor”, the incomparable Wim Hof. I’ve incorporated some of the basic principles already but I’ll be going “full Wim” in the weeks ahead just to see what happens.
No matter how old I get, I hope I never stop trying to “get better”. But the other day, while checking out some complex new discovery claiming to improve brain function, I thought to myself, “What’s the use of complicated approaches to getting marginally better at something if you’re not getting the basics right first? Am I doing enough to establish a good foundation for future growth?”.
As Thoreau wrote in Walden, his masterpiece on simple, thoughtful living:
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
Here are three things to think about, check out, or do to get your basics right this week:
1). To answer my own question about getting the basics right, I decided to start with “first principles”, a term often used in the sciences meaning “the fundamental concepts or assumptions on which a theory, system, or method is based”.
If we think of humans as (undoubtedly complex) systems then first principles might start with understanding the bare essentials that we need to survive and considering whether we’re optimizing along those few dimensions.
Here’s a great overview of our basic survival needs; without these five, we’re dead — oxygen, water, food, body temperature within a certain range, and sleep: http://www.brighthub.com/environment/science-environmental/articles/123273.aspx
So what can you do right now that improves your access to just one of these five essentials (e.g., What did you eat for breakfast this morning? Could any of it qualify as “clean fuel”?)?
2). Here are two great articles that build on survival basics to have a longer healthspan and become a better athlete:
3). So much of “improvement porn” focuses on finding shortcuts to success. While I’m all in favor of the Pareto Principle (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle), it’s important to remember that not only does improvement at anything (including aging) require practice, but just the repetition required to get better at anything can be a source of joy in its own right.
Here’s a thoughtful piece on aging and practice (Better Aging Through Practice, Practice, Practice, NY Times):
Bonus!: Earlier this week, I released Episode #6 of my podcast show, In Search of Lost Mojo. My guest was the 95-year-old father of the rechargeable lithium ion battery, Dr. John Goodenough who, with collaborators more than half his age, continues to work in his lab at the University of Texas, Austin on the next big battery breakthrough.
This episode made me consider the essence of genius and at what age are geniuses most productive (Dr. Goodenough made his battery discovery in his late 50's). Here’s an article from National Geographic Magazine (What Makes a Genius?) addressing that very question:
And here’s a link to the episode: https://timzak.com/islm-6-dr-john-goodenough-in-the-presence-of-genius/
"So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains. And we never even know we have the key." (The Eagles, Already Gone)
I co-teach a class in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon every fall where, to facilitate the formation of project teams, we ask students to reflect on a variety of questions. One of those questions focuses on fear and distinguishing between healthy fears and the kind of "barrier fears" that stem from personal insecurities. Every year, the responses display an amazing level of self-reflection, honesty, and humility. But they also show a remarkable consistency about their fears and the grip that they often have on their lives.
Admittedly, some fears serve an important purpose ("Look out for that snake!"). But many, like the fear of regret, embarrassment, disappointing others (friends, family, parents,...), and especially failure often put the brakes on our ability to make any real progress towards the hopes, dreams, and goals that really matter to us.
Physiologically, fear is literally in our heads: "an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat." [Google Dictionary]
In reality, with an estimated 34GB of information getting processed by each of us every day (the latest iPhone could hold about a week's worth; https://www.tech21century.com/the-human-brain-is-loaded-daily-with-34-gb-of-information/), how often do we stop to truly calculate the odds of downside risk and examine how our brain is processing fear and other emotions? If you're like me, not nearly often enough...
The stoic philosopher Epicurus believed that a happy and tranquil life was directly connected to "ataraxia", the freedom from fear. Here are three things to think about, check out, or do to be less fearful this week:
1). From Cus D’Amato, the legendary American boxing manager and trainer who handled the careers of Mike Tyson, Floyd Patterson, and José Torres, all of whom became members of the International Boxing Hall of Fame:
"You must understand fear so you can manipulate it. Fear is like fire. You can make it work for you: it can warm you in the winter, cook your food when you’re hungry, give you light when you are in the dark, and produce energy. Let it go out of control and it can hurt you, even kill you… Fear is a friend of exceptional people.”
One of the best things we can do to overcome our fears is to understand them better (Ralph Waldo Emerson said that "fear always springs from ignorance."). Maybe a shortcut is to actually understand fear itself better. Here's a great description of what fear does to our bodies and more: http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/emotions/fear.htm
2). Here are two articles that describe how to overcome fears, even under the most extreme conditions:
3). I just finished reading Michael Lewis' latest great effort, The Undoing Project, which profiles the work of legendary Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Four decades ago, the pair wrote a series of breakthrough papers showing how the human mind systematically makes mistakes when forced to make judgments in uncertain situations (like whether a fear is reasonable or not).
In 2011, I qualified for Paris-Brest-Paris, a 1200 km (~720 mile)-in-less-than-90-hours cycling sufferfest. It was first run in 1891 and some say it was the precursor to the famed Tour de France. In fact, the winner of the 1901 PBP race, Maurice Garin, subsequently went on to win the inaugural Tour de France in 1903 (read more about the fascinating history of PBP here: https://rusa.org/pbphistory.html).
As I waited with my group at the starting line, after years of training, personal sacrifice (which I often unceremoniously shared my poor wife and family), and the special kind of pain that accompanies single day qualifying rides of nearly 300 miles (~500 km), I felt tantalizingly close to achieving an audacious goal at one of the meccas of my sport. I had ceaselessly researched and honed my strategies for sleep, nutrition, gear, bike performance, and riding the course itself. I was ready.
Until I wasn't.
My favorite quote comes from the former heavyweight champion of the world and baddest man on the planet Mike Tyson who said:
"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face."
My first punch came before my group even left the starting line. We were delayed for a couple of hours past the expected start time and left to bake in the late summer sun. Not knowing how long the delay might last and the implications of stepping out of my assigned group to find some shade or water, I stayed rooted to my spot and (somewhat) patiently waited.
By the time we left, the sun was setting and the temperature was dropping fast. With a pent up energy generated by the wait and the anxiety of the ride itself, I went out fast, attacking hills and pacing with strong riders in the flats, hoping to "bank" some time for the long and unpredictable journey ahead.
By the first checkpoint in the middle of an unanticipatedly cold night, I was a sweaty mess, already shaking uncontrollably and throwing up from consuming too many gels overnight to maintain a faster-than-usual pace. I had (un)fortunately been in similar situations in a number of qualifying rides before and I used every trick in my arsenal to recover including some that, out of desperation deep into the next day, I made up along the way. In retrospect, there was probably more that I could have done but none of that matter when I staggered into another checkpoint many hours and not enough miles later, barely conscious but knowing intuitively that, in my condition, I couldn't reach the next checkpoint by the required time limit.
With barely enough energy to punch the numbers into the phone, I called my wife to tell her it was over for me, a dream extinguished in little more than 24 hours. If I wasn't so delusional, I might have cried. All that was left was to pick up the pieces and experience the very real pain of failure--embarrassment, disillusionment, and disbelief with an occasional sprinkling of self-loathing. The fault was all mine. Luckily, my family and friends provided enough support and perspective to check the downward spiral although the very real sense of loss will stick with me forever.
Fortunately, this very public, visceral failure didn't stop me from trying new things with a very real chance of not working out. Although these attempts are probably not nearly as audacious as the journey to PBP, I can take solace in the fact that I haven't quite given up yet, which is easy to do as we get older and the accumulated failures of the past can weigh heavily on our hearts and minds.
But, as Teddy Roosevelt (living the "strenuous life" who went hard all the way to the end) said:
“Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory, nor defeat.”
As I ponder my next challenge and the question of how far out there I'm willing to go, I'm also drawn to this quote by Winston Churchill (who was dealing with some way bigger issues than I am):
"Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”
Here are three things to think about, check out, or do to deal better with failure this week:
1). “People usually fail when they are on the verge of success. So give as much care to the end as to the beginning. Then there will be no failure.” (Lao Tzu, from the Tao Te Ching)
Think about one area of your life, a project, an ambition that isn't going the way you want it to, something that looks, smells, and tastes like failure. Have you truly done everything you can to stem the tide? Are you still giving the care that you gave at the beginning? Could you actually be on the verge of success? What's one thing you could do right now that you haven't tried before that could allow you to slip over that imperceptible dividing line between failure and success?
2). This article from Wired Magazine takes a look at the study and neuroscience of failure with some helpful ways to learn from it: https://www.wired.com/2009/12/fail_accept_defeat/
3). Check out this video from Outside Magazine about ultrarunner Jim Walmsley whose recent "failure" at the famed Western States 100 was the inspiration for this post: https://www.outsideonline.com/2236911/jim-walmsleys-race-western-states
In 2016 at Western States Walmsley, in his first-ever 100 miler and with a seemingly insurmountable lead, took a wrong turn with seven miles to go and was found by photographers lying on 105-degree highway pavement. He "zombie-walked" to the finish and ended up in 20th place.
What's so notable and admirable about Walmsley is his penchant for risk, attitude towards failure, and gratitude for his tight-knit crew among many other aspects of his attempt so captivatingly captured in the video.
Like most people my age, particularly those who have been physically active for a long time, I've had LOTS of injuries over the years--severely sprained ankles, calf muscle tear, torn ligaments in both knees, bad back, fractured ribs, partially dislocated shoulders, busted fingers, torn trapezius muscle, broken nose...and probably some other stuff long forgotten (hmmm, maybe a concussion?). Every morning welcomes me with at least a little reminder of a "life well lived", even on my best day.
Earlier this week, I "re-tweaked" an injury sustained a couple of weeks ago during a workout. As much as we dislike getting hurt, it's almost worse to have taken the time to "get better" and then end up right back at square one. It feels like time wasted and it fills us with an uncertainty about the future, the possibility of having to give up aspects of who we think we are, the identity that we portray to the world, and activities that bring us joy and reward.
Of course pain--an unpleasant feeling that is conveyed to the brain by sensory neurons--can be more than just physical. One definition of pain is "an unpleasant sensory AND emotional experience that is associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in such terms.”(1) A key feature of this definition, the authors go on to say, is that “pain is always subjective.” It's not to say that the pain that we feel, in all of its forms, isn't real but that its effect on us depends on how we interpret, accept, and deal with it.
As Haruki Murakami, the author of What I Talk about When I Talk About Running says:
"Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you're running and you think, ‘Man, this hurts, I can’t take it anymore.' The ‘hurt’ part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself.”
Pain has rewarded me this week. I've discovered that, while it can evoke memories of times we'd certainly like to forget, pain can also open the door to remembering long forgotten victories, moments of true brotherhood, and times when our bodies and minds were in perfect harmony. Maybe pain can be useful because it acts as a signal to stop or move on or adjust, a guide to keep us in a wide "swim lane" appropriate to our age, fitness, and capabilities. And that makes it worth paying attention to.
(1) Developed by a taxonomy task force of the International Association for the Study of Pain
Here are three things to think about, check out, or do to manage, accept, and eliminate pain this week:
1). From the legendary author and theologian C.S. Lewis:
"Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world." (C.S. Lewis)
What pain insists on being attended to today? Examine the effect that it's having on your life. What's one thing you could do right now that would change how you deal with it for the better?
2). Here are some useful things that you can do to manage your tolerance for physical pain:
3). Check out this story from Outside Magazine about alpinist and National Geographic photographer Cory Richards who continues his quest to manage pain of all kinds:
The article mentions a technique called Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, "a form of therapy that at its most basic involves following a finger or sound from side to side while discussing a traumatic memory. Doing so helps the nervous system integrate the event and make sense of it, proponents say, so it stops haunting the patient."
This was the first time that I've heard of EMDR so I can't vouch for its efficacy and, hopefully, your kind of pain doesn't require that kind of intervention. But if you want to learn more, here's a useful link: http://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/
The notion of "stress" was coined in 1936 by a world-renowned scientist, Dr. Hans Selye (1907-1982), who discovered and described the General Adaptation Syndrome, a response of the body to demands placed upon it. The Syndrome details how stress induces hormonal autonomic responses and, over time, these hormonal changes can lead to ulcers, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, arthritis, kidney disease, and allergic reactions.
This is normally where our interpretation of stress, that it's uniformly bad for us, begins and ends. But, as Selye was quick to point out, "Complete freedom from stress is death." Our bodies are constantly under stress (or "strain" as Selye in retrospect probably would have preferred), fighting viruses, infection, and a host of other external stimuli. It's also necessary for physical development--every time we push ourselves a little in the gym and feel it the next day, our bodies are recovering and growing stronger. Like so many other things, stress can be a force for good or evil. It all depends on how we consciously recognize and manage it.
For more on Selye and the origin of stress, check out this reflection from a former colleague: https://www.stress.org/about/hans-selye-birth-of-stress/
Here are three things to think about, check out, or do to get the most out of your stress this week:
1). On stress, from the last of the great Roman emperors and noted Stoic, Marcus Aurelius:
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
What's stressing you out right now? Take a minute to examine the source. Is your level of stress proportional to the threat? What are three things you could do that would take your stress level down even a notch or two?
2). One thing that I do every morning to assess my stress level is measure the variability of my heart rate. It used to require some fancy equipment but now, like almost everything else, all you need is your smartphone and a great app. The one that I use is from HRV4Training that, in addition to being super accurate, supports research in HRV and performance.
[Update (11/13/20): I've switched to a device from Whoop that measures a variety of physiological measures of performance and recovery including HRV]
3). I just finished a new book called Peak Performance by former McKinsey consultant (as an alum, I'm putting in a shameless plug here) Brad Stulberg and running coach Steve Magness. It includes a variety of ways to "get better" including the concept of "periodization" which has been used by world class athletes for years to use stress productively. It's starting to find its way into boardrooms, classrooms, and lots of other places where high performance over time, without burnout, is a must.
From the "there's not that much new under the sun" files, I first encountered this idea in a book from the '90's called Toughness Training for Life by noted athletic coach Dr. James Loehr. His ideas and their development evolved through various iterations to become the Johnson and Johnson Human Performance Institute (https://www.jjhpi.com/).
The dictionary tells us that mastery is a comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment. But that definition fails to get at the heart of true mastery, the kind we admire in our favorite athletes, movie stars, and rock legends. They have that special something else in the moment, an almost unnatural and seamless connection to an unseen and, for us mere mortals, seemingly unreachable force.
Earlier this week, I had the great pleasure of interviewing not only a Masters athlete but someone who is closer to claiming "mastery" over his sport than anyone else in the world at any age. But what was missing in our conversation were tales of his natural gifts or special qualities. Instead, he only talked about hard work, failure, flexibility, perseverance, optimism, and a commitment to enjoying the journey of discovering the outer limits of his potential.
It reminded me of a quote from Michelangelo:
"If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all."
We're led to believe like never before that the path to mastery is paved with hacks and listicles, supplements and shortcuts of all kinds. Sure, maybe we're getting incrementally smarter about increasing productivity or getting more out of our workouts. But mastery, true mastery, is about embracing the often long, hard, frustrating, lonely journey just because...we love it and can't imagine our lives without it.
And, in reality, we see signs of mastery all the time. In the grandparent at the playground who knows just what to say after a skinned knee. Or the cook at our favorite diner whose consistency and effortlessness has been honed over a gazillion short orders. Or just someone walking down the street who, through trial and error, has mastered an almost impossibly complex physiological task. We even see it in the mirror, if we look hard enough.
Here are three things to think about, check out, or do to get on the path to mastery this week:
1). From Virginia Johnson, former prima ballerina and artistic director of the Dance Theater of Harlem:
"Mastery is when you are in a moment that should be total hell and you are having a ball.”
Think about a time when you had a moment like that. What were you doing at the time and what led up it? Is the knowledge or skill you displayed something that others could appreciate? What would it take to teach them enough to get a taste for the first tentative steps down the path to mastery?
2). Check out this video (with 32+ million views!) of old movie dance scenes mashed up with a great song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1F0lBnsnkE
Lots of mastery on display in all different styles... which one is your favorite and why? I personally can't get enough of Fred Astaire...
3). I just finished a book called, not surprisingly, Mastery by the late George Leonard who was not only an editor at Look Magazine and Esquire, but a black belt in aikido and one of the pioneers of modern day efforts to optimize human performance. This compact book was written in 1991 and shows how, as much as we think this moment in history is unique, so many things don't change at all.
Parenthetically, this book is one of the favorites of the late Terry Laughlin, the father of the Total Immersion swimming method (more on my amazing progress from sinker to (sort of) swimmer some other day but, if you want to become a better swimmer at any age, my advice is to check him out now). Suffice it to say, quite an endorsement.
Leonard not only outlines the master's journey, keys, and tools to get on and stay on the path but provides one of the best definitions of mastery:
"The mysterious process during which what is at first difficult becomes progressively easier and more pleasurable through practice."
Two milestones from this week caused me to reflect on the many things that I'm grateful for (or should be): I celebrated my 26th wedding anniversary and I completed a synopsis of the last five years of my professional life as part of the reappointment process for my job as a university professor.
If I include our dating time, I've now known my wife for more than half of my life, a period that wouldn't have been nearly as fun, exciting, productive, or sane as if I would have been going it alone or with anyone else. For those of you who don't believe in divine intervention have I got a story for you...
And, professionally, I get to spend my days in an intellectually stimulating environment, with lots of flexibility, surrounded by the next generation of doers and leaders, all of which keeps me "not old". I'll leave it to my colleagues to decide if my actions warrant reappointment but, no matter what, I'll always want to seek out environments that surround me with "goodness".
Here are three things to think about, check out, or do to exercise your gratitude muscle this week:
1). Here are a couple of quotes about gratitude:
"Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
(Cicero (106-43 BCE), Roman politician and lawyer)
"Gratitude is the sign of noble souls."
(Aesop (620-564 BCE), Greek fable maker)
According to a 2013 UN report almost 800 million people in the world don't have access to clean water. Drink a glass of water today and give thanks.
2). Gratitude can improve your health and performance (so why not ratchet it up a notch?):
3). Speaking of Cicero, one his most notable works is called De Senectute which, for you non-Latin scholars, means On Old Age. It was written in 44 BC on the subject of aging and death and provides an optimistic reflection on getting older. Benjamin Franklin published the first translation in North America and it was a favorite of former U.S. President John Adams.
You can get printed and digital copies from Amazon but I found a publicly available translation here:
Cicero starts his argument against the four reasons why old age makes people unhappy in Section 15. Enjoy!
Discipline is not a superpower endowed to a chosen few. It's available to all of us, even if we can only access it in tiny doses at first. Like a solid investment, discipline grows if you're consistent with contributions and results in outsized payouts in the long term.
Here are three things to think about, check out, or do to get more discipline and influence others to do the same this week:
1). Former Navy Seal and best-selling author of Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink, says that "Discipline = Freedom". Suhara Koun Osho, in the quote below, appears to claim that discipline also equals a truly happy and fulfilling life:
“The fortunate person learns that true happiness in life can only be achieved through constant dedication to disciplined habit in daily living. Only when a person is able to willingly undertake a pattern of living in which he deprives himself of all excesses can he find a content and balanced life, and his function on earth be said to be fulfilled.”
(Suhara Koun Osho (1918-2014), former senior priest at Engaku-ji, the Zen Buddist temple in Kamakura, Japan where shotokan karate founder Gichin Funakoshi is interred)
Think of a time in your life when you had discipline, even in a small way or for just a short time. What was the outcome? How did it make you feel? Is there someone in your life that would benefit from hearing your story?
2). Want a more contemporary view of the value of discipline? He's an article by Dave Berke, a former Top Gun fighter pilot who's now at Willink's leadership consulting and training firm, Echelon Front:
3). Want to take an even deeper dive on how to overcome the trials and tribulations of life?
I just finished The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday, a relatively short and easy read that draws on historical examples and the timeless principles of Stoic philosophy to suggest how to build discipline and resilience. It's increasingly become required reading in sports locker rooms, corporate board rooms, and other places where a little toughness and some perspective goes a long way.
Here are three things to think about, check out, or do to get a better brain this week:
1). What can you do this week to inject some nonsense into your life?
"I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, It's a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do. And that enables you to laugh at life's realities."
(Theodor Seuss Geisel, American author, political cartoonist, poet, animator, book publisher, and artist who wrote under the pen name Dr. Seuss, 1904-1991. He must have been on to something--Dr. Seuss is the ninth-best-selling fiction author of all time (estimated 500 million copies of work sold))
2). You can literally make your brain younger with exercise: https://www.outsideonline.com/2186146/your-brain-exercise
3). What have you wanted to learn about that you've been putting off? Learning new things is one of the things that research indicates may support a healthy brain at any age.
For example, I lived in Adelaide, South Australia, arguably the Napa Valley of Australia, from 2010-2013 and got hooked on the art and science of wine making. I just finished a book called Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker (get it here or check out www.biancabosker.com) that rekindled my curiosity in the grape.
It opened the door to learning more about geography, language, history, science, and more, and motivated me to take out a few books on wine from my local library. I may never become a sommelier (although I reserve the right to try some day!) but that shouldn't stop me from taking a little deeper dive into a subject with endless possibilities for future learning. And best of all, at least until I start trying to discern a Chablis from a Chardonnay, it hasn't cost me a nickel!
Here are three things to think about or do to "get happier" (even if just a little bit), this week:
1). What is your "mighty purpose" (there is no age limit to having one)?
"This is the true joy in life: The being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. The being a force of nature rather than … complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy."
(George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, 1856-1950)
2). Can "things" make you happier? Yes, but not always and they don't have to be expensive...
Think about one material possession that simply makes you happier ever time you use it (examples for me are Pilot G2 Gel pens and my cheap, yet indestructible, Casio G-Shock watch). Is there one thing (costing less than $100) that you would use almost every day that would add pleasure or joy?