Friday, January 02, 2015

Do Things

'Sometimes you just do things'. Scott Jurek is an ultramarathoner who has won many of the sports most challenging events on multiple occasions. In 'Eat & Run' he tells his story, but it could easily double as a textbook for what I am looking at in this blog. Although criticised as oversimplifying things, I always liked Malcolm Gladwell's 'Outliers' for the simple idea that it takes away the excuse of not having the talent for something. Even the talented have to put the effort in. Jurek takes it beyond talent or physical attributes. His claim is that in ultras it is something else that matters. It moves to the space of a deep inner struggle and playing fields are levelled. 'Born to Runtalks about the success of women, for example, in competing with and often dominating men at the highest level. Ann Trason was a pioneer (and also happened to win the Comrades Marathon).


What I like about Jurek's approach is how holistic it is, and how imperfect. He was learning all the way. He never stopped reading and took every opportunity to tweak. It seems fairly common click bait to 'debunk' the 10,000 hours concept popularised by Outliers. Even one of my favourites, Maria Popova, does it in 'Debunking the Myth of the 10,000 hour rule'. There are plenty of things that people can have spent 10,000 hours doing and still be awful. Think driving. Think sex. Think discussing tough issues. The point (which Gladwell made) is purposeful practise. Anders Ericsson is a leading academic on the subject and works with multiple people to understand the deliberate acquisition of expertise. The key is being conscious. While our automatic performance is very powerful, allowing us to delegate much of our activity to our elephant as soon as we are good enough. If the rider can stay awake, observe, and train the elephant, then the magic starts.

Jurek's rider is always watching. His tale looks at all the seven points of the framework I use for looking at happiness (see here). Rather than delegating anything, he delves into it. The exercise bit is obvious - he is running. He also discusses the impact of breathing properly and the effect it has on energy levels. Most ultrarunners are happy to eat whatever. Pizza, Oreos and Soda seem a staple diet. 'Despite' being an uber-athlete, Jurek's has eaten only plants since 1997, and has been vegan since 1999. 'Eat & Run' has a recipe at the end of each chapter, and he credits the way he eats as a key to his superior athletic performance and recovery. His rider watches everything that goes into his mouth, and watches the effect that it has on his body. Part of the challenge of running long distances is regularly running through a mental checklist to observe the body and ensure you are relaxed (easy, light, smooth... fast) but it is also a case of relaxing the thoughts. The final challenge, and the one that levels the playing field, is the mind. It is positive thinking. It is finding the ability to go on. To just do things.
In that 'time when everything seems hopeless, when to go on seems futile, and when a small act of kindness, another step, a sip of water, can make you realise that nothing is futile, that going on - especially when going on seems so foolish - is the most meaningful thing in the world'. - Scott Jurek 'Eat & Run'
Beyond those 5 points, 'Eat & Run' dives deep into some deeper emotional struggles. He talks of the relationship with his mother, father, loves, close friends and the community. He talks of how he processes some dark places. He talks of loss. The book is deeply moving and subtly asks some great questions.

Finally, the book is about flow. In pushing yourself to the edge of your ability, slightly beyond your comfort zone, but not over the edge - worries melt away. You are doing something amazing. You aren't even conscious of you anymore and you get a deep sense of fulfilment. Flow is the reward for a life of purposeful practise.

A wonderful book.
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