External validators

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The percentage of the population that will complete a marathon during their lifetime has dramatically increased. At the same time the average marathon time has also dramatically increased. On the one hand this is great. More people are getting out of the house and participating in a group activity to increase fitness. In a day and age when poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle are rampant, getting people involved in an activity to counteract that is often difficult. Physical exercise, is a critical component of both physical health as well as mental health. Marathons provide goals for people to strive towards and a sense of accomplishment once they reach them. In many ways the increased number of people finishing marathons, even at a slower rate, is fantastic.

On the other hand this is also troubling. One likely reason for the increase in average marathon times is that people are entering races with less preparation than in previous decades. This is unfortunate as there seems to be a move towards treating the marathon as a bucket list item rather than a culmination of adequate and meticulous training. I had a professor who used to call examinations “celebrations of learning”. In many ways I think that in school, in running, and in life, this is a much healthier attitude to have. Today, in schools as well as in marathons there are large numbers of people who desire the external validation of a diploma, an award, or medal, rather than the internal validation of knowing they learned something or became stronger through the process of diligent planning and execution. While the external validations can be helpful measures of our progress or how our efforts compare to those around us, the internal validation, the internal compass, is far more important to long term success and development as a human being. Any idiot can fill a shelf with awards, degrees, medals, and ribbons. However the real rewards are in watching all the hours in practice, all the hours of work, all the hours of study come together into a thing of excellence. Diligently pursuing meaningful skills day after day is the way to excellence. The external validators are merely artificial finish lines and illusory goal lines.  Do things that matter.

Finding your hill

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Often lack of purpose and direction is mistaken for lack of will and drive.  The two of these could not be more different. Will and drive are the means to get to a prespecified end. It is the blood, sweat, and tears that it takes to achieve a goal. Purpose and direction, on the other hand, are what defines that end and marks the goal. It is the line marking the finish or the syllabus at the beginning of a term. To have purpose and direction does not mean that one will also have the will and drive to reach the end. And to have will and drive does not mean that progress in a productive direction is being made. One must have both in order to succeed. The ability to look ahead and set a course must also be coupled with an unyielding will and a ruthless grit. Without one, progress halts. Purpose without the drive presents itself as one listlessly bobbing in the current, looking at the nearby island and wishing they were already wading ashore. Drive without purpose results in a similar lack of progress but presents itself as a wild thrashing in the waves without a pause to chart the course to shore.  

I would guess that most people struggle, not with drive as some would suppose, but with finding a purpose. While older generations look at the younger generations and criticize their drive, I wonder if instead, the issue lies within finding a purpose. As humans, endless striving is in our nature. We are constantly pursuing more. We are constantly looking for the next thing. However, we are also constantly searching for purpose and a meaning to our existence. Anyone will work tirelessly when a great vision is cast, a compelling mission is presented, or a worthy opponent presents itself. The threat of fascism in World War II united nations and compelled individuals to work without selfishness for a greater purpose. The problem is never people are not willing to sacrifice, but that they need to see the greater vision they are working towards. Great leaders (NOT great humans), are able to cast this vision and provide a unifying purpose and direction. Hitler rose to power with such abilities. As did Mao. To counter these great leaders (and great human beings) united their people under an even more compelling purpose. Churchill lead his nation from the edge of destruction to the freedom of Europe. Roosevelt rallied the industrial and military might of the United States and used the fight in Europe to also fight the economic war at home.

They say the first thing you should do when you know you are lost is to stop walking. Stop. Think. Orient yourself and establish a course. The same is true in life. There are too many hills to take them all. Pick the strategic ones. The ones that will improve the world and improve yourself. Don’t run up every hill, don’t spread yourself too thin. Find your purpose, and the drive will find itself.

A focus on food

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I am unclear why two things we love, eating and entertainment, have become so linked. Sit down to eat a snack or a meal by yourself and most people find themselves checking their phone, reading a newspaper, or watching TV. I am certainly no exception. But, as research and personal experience both demonstrate, our brains are wired so that actual multitasking, in this case, fully enjoying both food and the entertainment, is impossible. Yet we do this All. The. Time. It is easy for us to demolish large quantities of food without appreciating or even acknowledging it when we are focused on something else. We do this at the movie theatres where huge bins of popcorn and giant cups of soda are consumed on autopilot while we focus on the plot unfolding on the screen in front of us. We used to visit a man who hated to eat and listen to the radio at the same time because he found that he would get enraptured with the radio and the next thing he would know, the food would be gone without any enjoyment by him. Multitasking food and entertainment steals enjoyment both from our food and the entertainment and for no significant gain.

Try this sometime. Sit down in a quiet room and eat. Enjoy the meal. Consider how it tastes and how it takes away the feelings of hunger. Even in a quiet room focusing on the food and not on the to do list in your head is an issue. Don’t talk with other people or surf the internet. Don’t think about your favorite book, movie, or TV show. Don’t think about other people who would like the food. Don’t make plans for the rest of the day. Focus on the food and the act of eating. Then focus on the entertainment.

Your attention is one of the most valuable assets you have, spend it wisely.

When the best has come… and gone

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The best is yet to come. A cheery proclamation about the future or a silent hope for things to come. Whether on greeting cards, in graduation caps, or lyrics in a song, the statement expresses the sentiment that warmer, sunnier things are on the horizon.

But what about when the best is behind us? When all we can see, to put it morbidly, is a slow slide into the abyss? For everything, there will be the day when we hit our peak, when we ran our fastest mile, wrote our best piece, or put together our most beautiful art. If striving is the base state of being a human, where does this leave us when the best has come… and gone? As cheerful as springtime with the promise of good weather and good times can make us, so the slow darkening of days, falling of leaves, and cold weather can also cast the dampening gloom. And this decline is not simply one for old age, but a continuing cycle of declines throughout life. The best gymnasts and football players often hit their primes in their teens or twenties. Triathletes or runners often in their thirties. Your best cholesterol levels and healthiest weights were probably as children. The most productive career years for many come early in their careers.

The response to this inevitable decline can be diverse. One option is, in the words of the poet, to rage against the dying of the light. We can become bitter, sad, and mournful. Slightly better, we can take the stoic option and endure. On the other hand, we can find new things to pursue that we can still improve at. We can contentedly reflect on the glory days. We can live vicariously through others. We can make the joy of the activity the object instead of the outcome. Even if it isn’t our fastest mile perhaps it can be the most fun. It becomes healthy for our goals and values to change. Status symbols, prizes, and awards give way to quality time, personal bests, and brand new pursuits. Like a good hike up a mountain, the path up is enjoyable for the challenge, the struggle to catch your breath, and the burning in your legs. The brief pause at the top is memorable and well worth the climb. On the way down you can breathe easily and talk while viewing your surroundings. The journey then is defined by transitions. From ascent to descent, and from trail to trail. Certain aspects of each portion of the journey are far better but there is a valuable and enjoyable component unique to each.

Be purposeful. Be flexible. Journey well.

On the wrong side of history

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There have been several mentions in popular media and news outlets referring to the actions of several current people being on the wrong side of history. They might be right. They could also be wrong. It is important to remember that history will judge the actions of today based on the values of tomorrow. It is very easy to look down upon those who owned slaves in America or supported the Nazis in Germany. It is easy to say that we would have acted differently than the people of that era. It is easy to say that we would run into a burning building or give the last of our food to help someone else. It is an entirely different thing to actually act in such a manner. The generations to come are a fickle audience, with the benefit of hindsight and the presumption that they have learned from our mistakes. Those who have stood out as heroes in bygone eras have done so by acting practically in the present, with provisions for coming generations, and a keen internal compass allowing them to weather the barrage of the criticism and hardship in the present.

The opposite of the strong internal compass is the self-esteem crowdsourcing the current atmosphere of social media has created. This method exposes us to the buffets of the judgments of others and the swirling currents of popular opinion. Encouraging generations of exemplary human beings requires a resistance to popular opinion in deference to the internal compass. Crowdsourcing our self-esteem prevents the formation of this internal compass during the formative years and replaces it instead with a superficial morality and character that are based, not on hard-won beliefs and values, but on the positive and negative feedback of acquaintances who may or may not actually care. At the end of the day, at the end of your life, being on the right side of your social bubble, or even history, is far less important than being at peace that you are sailing in line with your compass.