Design Thinking Trump (s) Big Data. Kardashian.

Or "Why the number of films Nicholas Cage stars in annually apparently predicts pool drownings."

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Why: I wanted to write a buzz-worthy post and began to wonder if the title and search terms of an article were more important than the content itself. Do others share my technology-induced ADD? Do all of us need the counsel of ADD leadership coach and psychologist Phil Bossiere?

That said, the making the premise work: Big Data is coming. More and more we will be able to see the correlations between even larger and more disperse sets of data and further unravel the onion-like layers of psychology, science, society, technology and the subtle perturbations of the quantum physics underlying it all. They say "the data doesn't lie"... but it all depends on whether you are asking it the right question. This is where Design Thinking DOES trump Big Data. The core of design thinking always is to ensure "are we asking the right question?" Or as the adage goes,

You can have all the right answers, but it doesn't matter if you are asking the wrong question

Correlation Doesn't Prove Causality: everyone who takes stats 101 learns this phrase, yet history is plagued with an embarrassing pattern of human confirmation bias and erroneous attribution of causality to correlation. Here are a few examples from this excellent article:

  • Hormone replacement therapy was correlated with reduced instance of cardiac disease... until a more important correlation with higher socioeconomic status upended the claim.
  • Crime reduction in the 90's in NYC was attributed to police efforts following the "broken windows theory" and widely credited to those actions and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Tipping Point... until a better correlation emerged from a potential reduction in birth-rate to low-income mothers driven by Roe v. Wade as popularized by Levit and Dubner in Freakonomics... Except as it turns out the birth rate of at-risk children may have actually increased after Roe v. Wade, so.. what is it?

Other similar claims that were ultimately disproven as nonsense:

  • Eating breakfast = weight loss
  • Eating dinner together as a family = less teen drug use
  • Vaccinations = autism and other issues

Other, funnier spurious correlations: As it turns out given enough data and the ability to process it (e.g. "Big Data") spurious correlations can emerge from all directions. A couple of my favorites:

  • The number of people annually drowning in a pool correlates nearly precisely with the number of films Nicholas Cage appears in.
  • The age of Miss America correlates with annual murders via "steam and hot vapors" (how does one do this? No idea.)
  • The divorce rate in Maine correlates precisely to the consumption of margarine

Asking the right question (and the null hypothesis.) Design thinking constantly anchors to empathy and reframing the question: correlation errors are often driven by confirmation bias - a "belief" that the answer has been found. True statisticians know that you can never "prove" causality from correlation, but they can disprove that things are uncorrelated - a double negative that if inaccurately simplified suggests you can prove causality from correlation.

A terrible question and one of the most embarrassing errors in science: "Does eating fat and in particular saturated fat cause obesity and heart disease?" This question and the corresponding correlation/causality errors over the last 45 years may have killed more Americans than smoking and car accidents combined. Was there a correlation between eating fat and obesity: apparently yes. Was is possible that a lower fat, (and likely higher plant based) diet also correlated with a more health conscious, high income group of people who exercised more with access to better medical care than those who ate a higher portion of fat in their diets? Probably. So the null hypothesis could not be proven (at the time) that eating fat does not NOT cause obesity. The inverse of the null hypothesis was then very logical (if completely flawed):

If you eat fat, you get fat.

Seemingly every doctor and nutritionist in the world with the exception of the much-maligned Robert Atkins jumped on the bandwagon and the US and the world in its wake shifted to a low-fat (and hence high carb) diet in the 70's in accordance with this data and logic.

The Big Fat Lie: unfortunately the correlation that eating fat causes obesity and the corresponding advice to shift to a low fat high carb diet has almost certainly had catastrophic outcomes. The obesity rate in the US was steady at 15% until 1980, and since then has climbed to nearly 40% - close to triple! Lest I also confuse correlation with causality lets get back to our original question and reframe it better: "do our bodies process all foods and calories the same?" and "Which foods lead us to storing fat and which foods lead to burning fat." Better questions that can lead to chemistry vs. correlation.

Chemistry and causality vs. correlation and causality. Data correlations are, as mentioned, slippery slopes to causality, but when you speak physics or chemistry, you CAN prove causality. In physics we have Newton's third law "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." In chemistry and biology there are similar laws including conservation of mass, equilibrium etc. So in testing we can examine what chemicals and hormones are released in the body when consuming certain types of foods, we can then chemically and biologically ascertain which of those food/chemical combinations cause our bodies to burn or store fat, and then we can announce findings with a much greater level of confidence.

And the chemistry says?

Eating fat causes us to burn fat, eating carbohydrates causes us to store fat.

Whoah! how did we have it exactly wrong for so very long?? So basically everything we have been told for 30 years by the "experts" is wrong?? Here we are lambasting McDonalds, when it is really Coke and General Mills that are to blame. I, for one, get angry every time I think about this. For two decades I avoided fats, ate boatloads of bread and pasta, and "carbo-loaded" before every single competition, screwing up all kinds of balances including insulin, causing inflammation and soreness, and taking on probably 5 lbs of extra water weight to carry around the track. Now that I'm low carb, I can see it dramatically any time I go off the wagon: shaky nerves, creaky joints, and an immediate weight gain of 5 lbs. of water. I can speak to this from personal experience, but slowly and quietly the world's experts have eschewed their prior guidance: here are three great books: Eat Fat, Get Thin In Defense of Food It starts with Food

For God's sake, I ate Margarine instead of butter for 25 years! At that time dietary guidelines had butter as Charles Manson and coconut oil was the devil. Now along with millions of other bullet-proof coffee aficionados I put a tablespoon of both coconut oil and butter into my coffee every morning. Just 3 years ago I switched to a high fat low carb diet and within 3 weeks I lost 20 lbs and looked 10 years younger. Eating eggs and butter every day, my cholesterol has dropped significantly and my weight and body fat have stabilized at very healthy levels.

Conclusion: Design Thinking (and asking the right questions) needs to guide Big Data Correlations. We are all human beings and subject to all sorts of biases driven by complex psychological schemes and evolutionary holdouts and shortcuts. The emergence of Big Data and its limitless possibilities for potentially spurious correlations will most likely lead to a host of new rabbit trails and red herrings. Who knows what new wrong questions we might ask and what new unintended consequences may result. I, for one, am glad we no longer have saccharine in our diet sodas, but the reality is, saccharine is slightly less carcinogenic than green beans. Oops. Oh well, bring on the butter!

What kinds of questions are we going to get wrong with the advent of big data ?

PS: I assume somewhere in this article I too attributed correlation to causality, an egregious hypocritical fractal. Apologies in advance - please point it out kindly.

 

 

 

A Moment of Flow

The Physics of Flow

We were on our second exploration of the backcountry of James Peak when it happened. For a brief interval I entered the “flow state” in a primordial and unprecedented moment of ecstastis. Like my occasional lucid dreams I flew high and free… but this time in real life.

We plummeted down the first run of untracked powder, wilting snow-covered pines contrasting with the reflected blues and shimmering whites of the sky and clouds above. Due to the uncontrolled backcountry area we were entering, I was primed to be aware of the snowpack, wind, temperature and exposure. I was highly observant to the sensations sent through the divining rod of my knees from the hidden reserves of blue water below.

I was in Utah for “Flow and Snow” a unique small-group experience led by Flow-masters, authors and practitioners Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler. Along for the ride and carving turns ahead and behind the group were pro skiers Langely McNeal, Julian Carr and Lyndsey Dyer.

I’m not much for skiing with others – I like to ski fast and hard and I am impatient, but the cast and crew were all experts and even though there was some waiting, I enjoyed the camaraderie. My backcountry buddy was JP Scanlon and on the first trip down James Peak he went first and I followed his line a bit to the left.  We were in and amongst scattered pines in untracked powder sheltered by shadows and it was light and billowy, easy to ski and required little in the way of skill. It was bliss and joy, we whooped and hollered… but due to the lack of challenge, it wasn’t flow - until I drifted to the left and entered the strange mix of snow at the crest of the ridge. Speed increased swiftly in the few turns I made in the stiffer, shallower cover but I also noticed an ability to set my hips and carve as well. I ran out of hill before I fully explored and vowed to return on the next run.

On our second pass JP exploded out into the lead leaving white contrails in his wake as he rocketed through the pines, whooping with joy. I was a bad ski-buddy and instead of following I traversed a bit to find the special snow-pack on the ridge from the last run. I tested the layers with my pole. It was unusual – very soft and light on top due to wind-blown cover, but with a steady transition to ever tighter, heavier and denser snow below – I could only push my pole 24 inches down before it became impenetrable.

I pondered for a moment: we had just been taught a lesson on snowpack layers and fracturing, but I found another, older lesson in materials science suddenly in my head like a déjà vu. In my freshman year of university a materials science professor, trying to recruit more students into the then-unpopular degree, held an exhibition at the physics tank. He shared a number of fascinating demonstrations of how materials act in unusual ways based on environment, temperature and other exogenous factors. In one of his first examples he put 3 rectangular chunks of ice perhaps 2 feet by 1 feet and 2 inches thick onto pairs of bricks holding them above the table. Then he recruited three volunteers. The first volunteer was given a ball-pein hammer to tap the first piece of clear ice. Immediately it cracked and fell into a half dozen pieces. “You see,” he explained, “this piece of ice is all the same temperature, so the cracks from the hammer propagate easily and hence the ice is highly fragile.”

The second piece of ice had some frost and whitening on the bottom, but was shiny on top, wet as if melting. “This piece of ice was just frozen from the bottom up. The bottom is 0 degrees, and top is 32 degrees.” He gave the next volunteer a regular hammer and the student took a whack. Nothing happened except for a few ice chips. Harder and harder the student swung and eventually the ice sagged, buckling in the middle, partially breaking. “You see, with different ice temperatures as a gradient throughout, the cracks do not propagate easily, and hence the ice is difficult to crack.”

He paused and brought out a hidden sledgehammer for the 3rd and final student and last block of ice. This piece of ice looked a bit like lasagna – a series of white layers were visible along the edge. He explained. “this block of ice has several layers of single-sheet newspaper frozen into it… Go ahead and take a swing,” he said to the student. The boy heaved the sledgehammer cautiously, but the ice didn’t wince. “Go ahead – take a full swing.” The student obliged and with a dramatic windup the hammer rose up high and swung full force into the ice… Which quivered, but held. After a few repeated swings, the ice eventually buckled in the middle, but remained in one piece.

“Fissure propagation,” explained the professor, “Is wildly different depending on the temperatures, inclusions and purity of the material.”

I looked at the snow again. 3 day old powder, repeatedly wind-blown, heated by the sun, cooled by the night and then layered again with fresh blown snow. Not only was I safe due to being on a ridge, I was safe due to the steady gradations of the snow from soft and light on the surface to solid and dense 18 to 24 inches down. This was “Flow Snow,” time to put it to the test.

I pointed my tips downhill and gained speed waiting for the right moment. As I reached a critical velocity, perhaps 30mph, far faster than typical powder skiing, I performed a move reserved for slalom and groomed runs – I set my hips into the turn, leaned hard and carved a turn.

My skis submarined for a moment, peeling through layers of substrate with help from the g-forces and then changed vectors smoothly as the denser snow below provided and equal-and-opposite reaction to the action of the shaped skis as they bit hard. I absorbed the g-forces as they compressed me low to my skis at the center of the arc and then began pushing back in syncopated slow motion, massive hydraulic thrust pushing core and quads into the snow. My horizontal trajectory swiftly reversed as I completed the turn where there was a corresponding and unexpected release from the vertical: time stopped as my tips suddenly exploded out of the snow-pack and I launched high into the air.

The feeling was nearly identical to a giant leap on a trampoline – the explosive forces generated by the hard carve, combined with the upward release from the snow catapulted me skyward… I shot into the sun, still leaning left at >50  degrees.

With fear and focus I immediately I entered the flow state… somehow I would have to reverse my tilt, in-air, to land at least vertically or preferably to begin a lean to the right. Fortunately the tail end of the arc had introduced some rotational energy into my mass and even as I reached apex of my unintended flight, my boots and skis rotated smoothly underneath me and I landed easily with a slight lean to the right, ready to begin the next cut.

I was now carrying even greater speed and in the flow state a sense of invincibility. I let the skis momentarily plane and then let the tips drop to submarine under the soft layers. As the snow began to give back I rotated hard to the right, hips leaning way down, skimming the surface of the powder as the dense snow at 24 inches gave back and I entered the compression of 3 G’s, even 4 G’s, traveling 35 mph and carving an arc with a radius of 15 meters or so. I leaned hard, compressed, reversed, released and then allowed the tips to explode back up out of the snow pack.

This time I flew on the wings of eagles, arcing high into the air with serious hang-time. During the release I again found my body rotating to prepare for the next landing from the boomerang of the resilient snow. At this speed, with hang times in excess of a full second, my tracks had 50 foot gaps between the turns*. *(a 3 meter leap and return to earth takes about .78 seconds, which at 35 mph or 51ft/sec = 40 linear feet. However, my vector was not flat – hence I probably landed at least another 15 feet down the slope before landing) 

I pushed it a little harder each turn until I sensed some give in the snow. Then, for the next 15 seconds I executed a series of perfectly carved turns at the limits of the conditions until I ran out of ridge, flying high with each turn. I was, in those moments, either weightless, heavy, or rotating. Oddly, I was reading the book “Stealing Fire” and just after I wrote the above, I read the following paragraph, “’Weightlessness, weightedness and rotation are the nectar of gravity games,’” explains professional climber and film-maker Jimmy Chin. ‘They provide easy access to flow and that’s what keeps us coming back for more.”’

The ridge ran out and then back amongst the trees my speed quickly diminished as the ability to set edges evaporated and instead I bulldozed some beautifully billowy turns exploding into the valley where my fellow Flow-and-Snowers waited. I was speechless. In my head I was rewinding. I was remembering… thin-slicing the 3rd turn, the slow motion rotation in-air transitions from the explosive exit surrounded by my own detritus to the frantic moment where I had over-rotated and was flying completely sideways above the snow pack. In detached bemusement I remembered throwing down my right foot first to stabilize my landing, then returning to earth with perfect aplomb already 30 degrees into the next lean.

I was I a deep reverie as we made the traverse down James Peak. I hadn’t just skied… I had flown like an eagle, banked like fighter pilot. It was, in the lexicon of “Stealing Fire” “ecstasis”. In my own terms it was 20 seconds worth a year…

I have tried, on several occasions to describe these moments verbally, but failed to capture the essence. Hopefully I have come closer here.

Postscript: The ice for Short track speedskating uses these same materials science principles – the best ice is as follows: 1.75” thick. 17 degrees at the bottom, 32 degrees at the top, with a steady gradient interrupted by thin slices of resurfacings along the way and a surface air temperature of 52 degrees and a humidity of 15% to keep it slick, shiny and provide some bite. This ice allows a short track speed skater to enter a 25 meter corner at 31mph and 2 seconds later exit that same corner at 31mph going the exact opposite direction. V2/r gives the math for the g-force calculation, and concludes that a short track speedskater hits 2.7 g’s in the corner – effectively tripling their body weight. The space shuttle takes off at 3 g’s. So breaking it all down, a 170lb short track speedskater at that speed is doing the equivalent of a 500lb, one legged squat from deeper than 90 degrees, while leaning over at 68 degrees all while balancing on an 18” long, 1mm wide blade, on ice, heading directly at a wall.

Skiers have the benefit of longer blades and two legs.. The turns I was making on James Peak carved a shorter arc at a slightly higher speed, creating even greater g-forces – potentially in excess of 4 g’s and creating potential energy released as kinetic energy and the subsequent flight. A refrigerated hill and “with a snow-zamboni” could potentially recreate these conditions…

 

 

Why the 10,000 Hour Rule is Both True, and Nonsense at the Same Time

What is the "10,000 Hour Rule?" If you are a reader of leadership literature over the last decade then you almost certainly have come across the proposition that "Talent is Overrated" (Geoff Colvin) and that excellence in just about any field comes down to simply hours of practice as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. Here's an excerpt from his famous book Outliers:

“Exhibit A in the talent argument is a study done in the early 1990s by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and two colleagues at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music. With the help of the Academy’s professors, they divided the school’s violinists into three groups. In the first group were the stars, the students with the potential to become world-class soloists. In the second group were those judged to be merely ‘good.’ In the third were students who intended to be music teachers in the public school system. All of the violinists were then asked the same question: over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?

Everyone from all three groups started playing at roughly the same age, around five years old. In those first few years, everyone practiced roughly the same amount, about two or three hours a week. But when the students were around the age of eight, real differences started to emerge. The students who would end up the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, until by the age of twenty they were practicing — that is, purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better — well over thirty hours a week. In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.”

The Error: What vs. Why, Correlation vs. Causality. The data looks pretty convincing - the facts are straight "more practice = better performance." But like all correlations attempting to prove causality, there is the risk of unidentified factors - also correlated - that actually drive the results. In this case I think the error is in the question itself (first law of Design Thinking: "are we asking the right question?"). Sure we have the "what leads to great results?" question, and the clear answer is "diligent practice." But I think a better question is "why do great performers practice more than their peers?" And I think the answer to this, potentially more important question, circles back to strengths, talent, and "flow."

What is "Flow" and how is it related to talent? If you have missed the waterfall of books and articles on "Flow" (sorry) just pick up Steven Kotler's book "The Rise of Superman". "Flow" or "The Zone" or "The Peak Performance State" describes those moments of high concentration where time simultaneously stops and speeds up and we deliver our very best performances. Building off Csikszentmihaly's work, Kotler examines the neurobiology of these "altered states" and finds two interesting things: 1) The Flow state is dependent on mastery of the task at hand (native or developed talent) and the Flow state produces the worlds most desired (and addictive) set of chemicals: dopamine, norepinephrine, anandamide, endorphis and serotonin.

"For example, when you snort cocaine. All the drug does is cause the brain to release copious amounts of the neurochemical dopamine. Well, dopamine is released in flow. So are norepinephrine (speed), anandamide (marijuana), endorphins (heroin) and serotonin (ecstasy). You actually couldn’t produce this cocktail with drugs. Trying to take all those drugs at once and you’re going to end up drooling or dead. But the brain does it naturally." 

Peak Performers are addicted! Back to our central question, "WHY do great performers practice more than their peers?" I think the answer is clear: they enter into the flow state more than their peers, become more addicted to the results of the activity, and hence they voluntarily practice more than everyone else. (Sometimes the additional practice is driven from an outside force as well: emotionally manipulative parents and coaches can also drive the 10,000 hours - that's a whole other article.) From Csikszentmihaly:

"In many ways, one might say the whole effort of mankind throughout the millennia of history has been to capture these fleeting moments of fulfillment and make them part of everyday existence."

Whoah! The whole effort of mankind??? Possibly confirmation bias on Csikszentmihaly's part, but given the $11 Trillion (Kotler) spent annually in the global economy on legal and illegal ways to produce these chemicals in our bodies, perhaps not as grand a statement as it seems.

Putting it together: top performers practice more than anyone else. Most top performers are driven to practice more than others because they are chasing flow. The chicken or egg question is which came first - the practice or the flow state? There is good evidence that willpower is both limited and fairly evenly distributed - e.g. that the super-disciplined athlete or performer is a myth. Given this fact, I would argue that without some initial "beginner's flow" (or "talent") most individuals will not have the desire nor willpower to pursue the practice necessary to master the 10,000 rule.

In Conclusion: Identifying natural talents or strengths allows for "beginner's flow." The struggle / reward cycle of the flow state, once initiated, leads to practice. Practice leads to mastery which leads to even more flow moments. Talent is NOT over-rated (but it is not enough.) Flow is under-rated. It is time to discover our strengths and talents and spend more time in flow.

This leads me to my favorite question - and conversation starter:

What are you best at???
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How to Prepare for a TED Talk

How Do You Memorize All That? I'm often asked how I prepare for my talks - particularly for the rapid-fire, time-limited venues like the two TEDx talks and Chicago Ideas Week talk I have given.

If I Had More Time I'd Write You a Shorter Speech: Other than having a great story, useful data and a simple 1 - 2 - 3 framework, the other essential element for a great TED talk is to know your material inside and out, especially key concise phrasing required to deliver a complex topic in 18 minutes. This takes practice - but how to master 18 minutes of new material? Here's how I learn to memorize the outline of a talk and key phrases...

One Proven Approach: (That may, or may not work for you.) I follow the steps below for any new speech:

1) I write out the talk completely long-hand just the way I would say it (~10-12 single spaced typed pages for a 15 minute talk) along with movements, gestures and things to highlight. For an example click here to view my blog post on this topic.

2) Distill it to an outline with the key points and certain specific phrases to memorize

3) Start practicing using the outline - out loud (usually in the car as that’s a good place to be private) and timing myself. The first pass of my Chicago Ideas Week Talk was 34 minutes - I had to compress it to 18!

4) After practicing a few times using the notes, distill the outline to short 2 - 8 word bullets, (approximately 2 pages long) practice again and again until I don't need the notes. I memorized more than 80% of my Ideas Week talk word-for-word to the tight scripted phrasing to finish it on time while covering the topic thoroughly. This meant I practiced it ~30 times end-to-end.

5) Print the bullets on 4 X 6 cue cards - usually 4-6 of them. Staple, keep in my pocket for the talk as a backup and then don't ever use them : ) Talk pretty, bow to the applause.

In Conclusion: This process works as it forces you to A) outline your story and tighten your language B) learn key words and triggers to practice with C) allow you to show up confident in your material.

7 Minutes That Can Teach You How to Slow Down Time: A Time Manifesto

A two year labor of love, my passion project, The Art of Really Living Time Manifesto video is finally complete. See video link below.

I’m a bit in mourning as the bi-monthly sessions I’d been doing with my friend / video editor / former DJ Michael Ziener have come to a close after two years. It was an apprenticeship to the world of audio, imagery, tempo and rhetoric. For me it was a bi-weekly catharsis where I could wave my four-dimensional baton and Michael would put a stitch-in-time to weave it all together. His DJ roots come through as every sound, every word is on beat and on cue - to the final 3 drumbeats where the mother kisses the baby's feet. To Really Living!

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The Art of Really Living Manifesto Pt. 1: How Long Did Summers Last as a Kid?

Two years ago October I came home from work, picked up a pencil, and started writing a poem. This was notable because a) I don’t write poetry, b) I type almost everything and c) when I don't type I use a pen, not a pencil. Regardless, 15 minutes later and I had completed a draft of a poem that represented my deepest thinking and emotions about time.

Shortly thereafter I started meeting weekly with friend and video editor Michael Ziener to bring the poem to life. More than two years later this passion project is finally complete and today we are releasing the first of eleven stanzas of the video - if you like it please share with your friends and family. We will release the entire “Art of Really Living Manifesto” a On November 21st, 2016.

Endless Summers and Dirty Knees... a Guest Post by Katelina Coyle

Sometimes I just want to have fun. This sentiment is not the musings of a very young child. I just want endless summers, dirty knees, and adventures at night where we let our minds run wild in the dark.

Sometimes I catch myself growing up. Sometimes I notice how things have changed without warning. Sometimes I look out the window to the children playing outside and wonder when that stopped being me… and sometimes I forget that was ever me.

Sometimes I just want to have fun, yet always when I do, I can’t. I won’t. Maybe it’s my age, or that I’m too tall now, maybe I’m afraid I’ll look stupid or something of that sort. This, then is the price of growing up… and maybe, the price of being afraid.

Sometimes I just want to have fun,  and sooner or later I’ll be too busy to even consider. And when the reality of the disenchanting teenage world sinks in, I let it. But what if I can’t turn back? I’ve been captured by the not-so-kindness of my youth and age, but wonder if I’m lost forever. There is still so much I want to do!

I want endless summers, dirty knees and adventures at night where minds run free. 

A Year in a Moment: Running with the Bulls in Pamplona

“I can't stand it to think my life is going so fast and I'm not really living it."

"Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters."

Robert Cohn and Jake Barnes in chapter 2 of "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway

Pamplona, Navarre, Espana, July 9, 2016

“Running with the bulls.” A centuries old tradition embedded in an even older celebration – the festival of San Fermin – now nearly 700 years old and counting. We’ve all seen the images: muscular charging bulls with massive sharp horns parting a red and white sea of young men sprinting in terror down narrow cobblestone streets. Inevitably, the media highlight reel ends with a trainwreck of sprawling bodies, trampling, and the occasional life-threatening goring.

Each year the festival of San Fermin draws nearly 1,000,000 visitors to the small tranquil village of Pamplona in the Basque region of Northwest Spain.  The central spectacle of the festival is the “encierro,” or running of the bulls, which takes place each morning at 8 a.m. for a week. Six bulls and six steers arrive in the early morning to a corral at the base of a hill in town. Then, they run uphill approximately 850m to the “plaza del toros” (bullring). The run takes somewhere between 3 and 5 minutes, but no individual person runs with them the entire route – the bulls run too fast, so you must stake out a position for a short sprint. Each of the six bulls face nearly certain death later in the day in the “corrida” or bullfights that take place in the afternoon. Essentially each of these bulls, bred to be aggressive, mean and fast, are running away from life toward their inevitable death at the hands of a matador who risks his own life to take theirs. Cruel? Inhumane? Yes. Dramatic? Romantic? Yes. Is the inevitable death of an animal at the sword of a matador worse than the plight of the average farm cow bred for slaughter via the food industry? I don’t think so: at least each of these bulls has a fighting chance at survival and a pre-corrida life where they eat, drink, rut and fight as opposed to standing in a pen full of dung, chewing their cud.

I’ve been drawn to the running of the bulls ever since I first saw it as a teenager. The thrumming of the hooves as the dust rises, the chanting of the crowds, the anticipation of the appearance of the flanks and horns in a high-speed chase, the danger, the exhilaration, and the long-standing traditional rituals involved have always evoked a romantic notion of risk taking, fear, physical prowess and courage. Not to mention the visual spectacle of an event where hundreds of thousands throughout a picturesque village all care enough for tradition to wear the exact same garb – women, babies, children, the elderly, locals and tourists alike. Also, deep down I have always believed that I possessed the requisite skills to navigate such an event safely and with aplomb - the parallels to bike racing and short track speedskating are striking: a high speed chase on a narrow slippery course with tight corners that requires speed, agility, balance, the ability to read the patterns of movements of the bulls and avoid hundreds of people trying to kill me. This was something I had essentially been doing my whole life. I was not afraid. Finally, I wanted to create a new life chapter – literally in this case – by documenting the experience through the lens of “chronoception” or perceptual time. I wanted to test my own horological hypothesis: to prove that the combination of the thrill, the beauty, the physical and emotional intensity, and danger-induced “flow state” would stop time and turn seconds into hours, even months in memory.

"Because flow de-activates large parts of the neocortex, a number of these areas are offline - thus distorting our ability to compute time."  David Eagleman

The morning of the run we made our way to our starting point, threading through throngs of revelers. One fact became quickly clear as we traversed the streets - almost none of the actual festival participants actually join the encierro due to the real and perceived peril. Everyone we had spoken to the night before seemed amazed I would actually run. But, in all reality there have been relatively few significant serious incidents over the years, and the actual danger of death may be less than a regular city commute to work. That said, the nature of the danger is real and visceral: six 1200+ lb bulls bred to kill with razor sharp horns and another six giant 1500+ lb steers stampeding full tilt down a narrow lane filled with more than a thousand intoxicated people sprinting forward while looking backward, zigzagging haphazardly to the left and right - one mis-step and those horns easily part flesh and bone - this, and the added threat that the horns often carry a form of bacteria that cause the wounds to suppurate and quickly become life threatening.  I looked around me as I entered the course and wondered – the drunk chubby young men, the gaunt older men, some wide eyed young women as well – I wondered how were they going to survive. Only later did I realize most “runners” just line the course and get the hell out of the way. Few actually run WITH the bulls.  But I had grander plans. I wanted to live “all the way up.”  

The encierro and subsequent corrida (bullfight), the associated danger, fear, ugly brutality and elegant artistry underpin arguably one of the greatest books by one of the greatest authors of the 20th century. Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” encapsulates, romanticizes and relates the elements of the festival of San Fermin in a way that has enchanted generations. The prose also covers a very real element of the festival – the role of wine, beer and other forms of alcohol in the proceedings. San Fermin is a drinking event that puts Summerfest, Octoberfest and any other similar festival to shame for its bacchanalian extravagance. Like all the other elements of the festival it has its shades of romantic elegance and brutal ugliness. Picturesque mid-afternoon picnics with families on white linen with chilled local wines and short siestas under the trees as children play on centuries old walls eventually morph into throngs of 20-somethings from around the world swilling Kalimotxo - 32 ounce plastic cups of cheap wine mixed with Coca Cola available for about $1. The town fills throughout the day and somewhere near sunset most of those over 35 and under 18 leave. Then the garbage piles up, the noise and crowds expand and without proper sanitation rivulets of urine begin to run through the streets and fill the nooks in the plaza cobbles.

Navigating late at night the evening before to scout out the course through the throngs with my great friend, neuroscientist and local inhabitant, John Wesseling, I was amazed to ascertain he had never actually attended the festival despite living in walking distance from town for more than a decade. “Too much mayhem – we always leave town once San Fermin starts.” He said. He served as my guide through the increasingly crowded streets, and as we rounded yet another corner of a plaza where every patch of grass was crowded with young people from around the world staggering like zombies, vomiting or passed out, I began to understand his point of view. Perhaps it was the proximity to death’s hand hanging heavy in the air. Entire plazas looked and smelled like a garbage filled port-o-potties. The streets had become so crowded with inebriated people that it became a game of drunk people “bumper-cars” just to exit the city center. By 1:30 a.m. it was nearly impossible to move and we couldn’t wait to leave, but the 20 minutes it had taken to get to Plaza Castillo earlier in the evening now took more than an hour to navigate, ping-ponging aggressively through the throng on the way out. My whites were now stained with splashes of wine and Kalimotxo. I was “official.” After the bus ride and the walk to John’s house we finally made it home at 3:00 a.m., exactly as Hemingway would have had it. 

Wakeup was 6:00 a.m. In order to arrive to the course in time to stake a position in the encierro, we were told we should be there by 6:30 a.m. for the 8:00 a.m. start. Such little sleep was daunting in and of itself, but for me it was compounded by the fact that I had only arrived in the country one day prior, and it had been a packed agenda - we had hiked for hours in the morning on the beaches and cliffs of the gorgeous home village of John’s wife Isabel – Zumaia, then drove to San Sebastian and walked for hours through the lovely old town and its cobblestone streets while carrying all our bags, and then traveled by bus to Pamplona where John and I immediately went for a intense bike ride at 8:00 p.m. into the mountains – 2.5 hours of hard riding including a 7km climb to the top of a mountain. We had returned from the ride at 10:30 p.m. in the darkening gloaming of dusk, and had only then headed into town for the pandemonium described above. Needless to say I was exhausted.  

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During our visit to Zumaia the day prior, John’s extended family ganged up on me at lunch. There were eight of them. All around the table they one-by-one told me in broken English or translated Spanish that I shouldn’t run… but afterward quickly asked if I was going to anyway – all with a strange twinkle in their eyes. I knew that deep down they wanted me to run. I declared I was running. There were murmurs. A mixture of worry and pride floated around the table. Then John’s 13 year old daughter, Alba, looked me straight in the eyes and ranted with a serious face in Spanish for a full minute. I didn’t follow. Isabel translated “You should not run. Don’t run. Please do not run. It is too dangerous. People get hurt. Last year there were five gorings, several were American…. Then there was a long pause… “But…, but” and her face changed to a smile, “but if you do run, you must wear something of a different color so I can see you on TV! – I watch every morning and I want to find you!”

After the initial inquisition, I was ushered over to sit next to Miguel, John’s brother-in-law and an aficionado of the encierro for years who knew the ins-and-outs of the course and its dangers. He pulled out his phone and loaded a map of the encierro and then expostulated on elements of the route. As he spoke he would slap the back of his hand into his palm as he laid out a series firm guidelines for the run.

First - You should be sober – is too dangerous if you are drunk… also is illegal now as of a recent law.” (OK, “check.)

Second, is not so much you must outrun the bulls – you cannot – instead you must outrun the other drunk crazy men and not get pushed into the bulls' horns. Please, John, avoid the horns… hooves too” (OK I’m pretty fast -  “check”)

Third, there are three sections to the run, you must absolutely avoid the first section of the course– the uphill is steep, all the young men are drunk and the bulls are angry and their are no barriers to jump over and there are two sharp corners – this portion is 250m long.” (OK, “check.”)

Fourth, you also want to avoid the middle part of the course this is 400 meters long and lined with stone walls – also there are too many people and not enough barriers to jump over if you get into trouble – this part is very dangerous. So don’t run this portion.” (OK, “check”)

Fifth, you must avoid the last part of the run – the last 200 meters and the final corners and tunnel are dangerous and people fall down and the bulls run over them.” (Um…???) 

“So, in conclusion… John… my advice to you is you should not run any part of the encierro… any other questions?”

We all had a laugh at this point as his advice was translated and I again affirmed my intention to run. Eventually we settled on the notion that I would run the final section and then into the bullring. “It is the only place that it will be possible to get a picture of you – the barriers will be lined w/ spectators starting 5:00 a.m., and the balconies rent for $1000 for 5 minutes for the encierro. Your friend John can show you the way and where to line up.”

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Three hours after dropping into a dead sleep the morning of my run, my alarm went off at 6:00 a.m., and John knocked on the door shortly thereafter. I stumbled about mumbling to myself “sleep when you are dead, sleep when you are dead” and clumsily dressed in the traditional garb of San Fermin purchased the evening before. I donned the wine stained white pants, white shirt, red sash and red bandana and then a pair of running shoes. Sadly I had failed to find an identifiable piece of clothing for Alba to find me; so in generic garb I followed John quickly through the streets to catch the bus to town to fight our way through the throngs to join the encierro – the running of the bulls in Pamplona. It was a Saturday – perhaps the busiest day of the 8 day event.

At about 6:45, John and I found the spot where I would run. There were two layers of heavy wooden barriers, and I had to climb through on all fours to enter the course. John wished me luck, told me he would be in the stadium, and that we would meet afterward at “Hemingways,” a bar just outside the “plaza de toros.” I moved out into the cobbles and throngs, and I was now fully awake and alive. I muscled through to the final barrier blocking the final 150 meters to the bullring by 7:00 a.m. Perfect position.

There I met two English speakers: Bill from Ireland who was clearly drunk, and Greg from the UK who was sober but easily 6’7” tall. We talked strategy. We agreed we would wait for the bulls to arrive and then run with them into the stadium – it sounded simple.

Then we waited. I wasn't nervous. I "got this," I thought. Then at 7:30 a.m., the police formed a cordon and kicked all of us out – aggressively shoving all of us outside the barrier and off the course. "Too many people" they said.

I had flown 4000 miles for this, and I wasn't accepting no. Greg and Bill felt the same way, so we ran full tilt down the hill trying each barrier – each time thwarted by the EMS and police who waved us away. Finally we reached the set of barriers right at the base of the hill, right at the very start, right by the corral itself. As we arrived, a fight broke out in the street and the police and emergency workers were briefly distracted. I threw myself to the ground and belly crawled through the legs of a policeman inside the first barrier and then across the wood of the second barrier to enter the surging throng. Bill and Greg followed suit and then we were in!

We had to move – now! We knew we didn't want to be at the bottom of the hill at the most dangerous place - no barricades to climb, fresh and angry bulls, and mostly drunk young men. We had regained the course at 7:48 a.m., and needed to push through the throngs of more than 1000 people if were to regain our original position. This is where my inebriated friend Bill’s aggressiveness combined with Greg’s height became the perfect combination -  Bill unrelentingly forcing his way through the throng yelling ahead and waving saying “We are coming Melissa!!” as though we were joining an imaginary friend, and Greg shouting directions based on the vantage point his height provided. Eventually we were able to shove our way through the throngs to regain our former positions 175m from the bullring. We arrived right at 7:59 a.m. and slapped high fives. One minute later, the fireworks went off – the bulls had left the corral.

In that instant everything went to hell – everyone panicked and started pushing and running pell-mell, some jumping over the barriers and others falling and running over each other. It was complete hysteria based on nothing. There were no bulls and wouldn’t be anytime soon. I knew from Miguel that it would take about 90 seconds to 2 minutes for the bulls to arrive, yet everyone was already running toward the bullring looking over their shoulders in sheer terror. Over and over again people slammed into me sprinting forward while looking backward, bruising me all over while I barely maintained my grip on the barricade. After the first wave, Bill and Greg were gone but there was a small group of us still in place. I left the protection of the barrier to join them in the street: all of us jumping up and down in place like Masai warriors trying to see the bulls coming over the crest of the hill. Then there was a second surge of runners and my adrenaline started flowing. Surely I thought, this must be it. I dropped from the barrier and thought about running, but again I could see no bulls, so once again I waited and for the first time I felt some trepidation. I was on the inside of a corner . . . if the bulls came tight, I could be caught in the horns and die . . .. Fifteen people have died over the last 40 years or so, and about 300 are injured each year.

But I was there to run WITH the bulls not in front of the bulls, so I waited. By now mostly everyone around me had run off, and for a few seconds I was almost alone except for a trickle of frightened runners threading single file in the center of the lane sprinting towards the stadium.

I breathed deep, slowed my heart rate, and focused my attention. It was exactly like the last lap of a bike race . . . then I saw them. The massive toros and larger steers mixed together galloping full speed up the hill with their heavy ponderous gait, the bulls with their heads down and massive wide sharp horns ready to pierce anything in their path and the massive steers mixed in, unstoppable. There was a small cadre of runners just ahead and beside the bulls and a massive sea of white following in their wake.

In the moment I began "thin-slicing" time. I could see the lumbering propulsion of shiny hooves striking cobbles, massive muscular flanks glistening and quavering in the light, murderous eyes behind the needle sharp points of horns tilted to give death’s blow. I was no longer myself - I was unraveling of my awareness into the events unfolding in front of me. This was my time - to stop time. 

Time slows down. Self vanishes. Action and Awareness merge. Welcome to Flow.  -Steve Kotler

They headed right at me, right towards my barricade. All sound stopped and I grabbed the barrier, preparing to launch myself over the heavy wood and steel crossbars. Arms and hands stretched my shirt and grasped my arms attempting to pull me over. I fought them off and could see the mouths of the watching crowd moving in unison – they were chanting something. Then the herd was upon me: at first steers running 3 abreast, and then 2 bulls passing just behind them, their lethal horns clearing my soft abdomen by about 2.5 feet. The steers’ horns were taller than my head.

There was a small space, a gap, after the second bull and in slow motion I dropped, bent and sprang into  a sprint, running parallel to another steer and just ahead of two other bulls as I reached full speed. Sound and motion returned and now I was in the tail end of the “peleton de toros” preparing for the final sprint into the ring. I could see the hooves flashing, the rapid gait of the gallop, the ominous flanks of the steer just to my right and a bedlam emerging of runners from the widening sidelines attempting to join the herd. My spidey senses tingled - bad things were about to happen . . . .

We crested the hill. To the left and right larger remnants of the throng ahead that had stopped to wait were either attempting to run or jumping the barriers, or falling down on the stones. The steers up front were still running 3 abreast, and as the lane narrowed towards the plaza del toros the animals formed a gigantic snowplow: there was no room for the runners ahead, and so the detritus piled up like a bloody snowbank, white bodies punctuated with their red sashes layering and stacking to the left and right as the bulls and steers momentum continued unabated. As we headed down the cobbles, I was still running full tilt, un-afraid, seeing and predicting everything with precision– it was both fast and slow. Now we were about to enter the tunnel itself and ahead 100 men in a complete panic were scattering in front of 11 bulls and steers running 2 and 3 abreast at 15mph in a 15 foot wide tunnel with narrowing barriers to each side. There was perhaps 5 feet of open space in the middle. The steers attempted to shuffle and reposition to thread the needle and slowed as did the bulls behind them. I knew the runners behind could not see what was happening and arms out I fought off the onslaught from the rear.  As we slowed I felt the flotsam and jetsam of the river of humans behind me buffeting my outstretched arms, my heels kicking backward into shins, my elbows striking faces. In that moment I realized that in order to survive I would have to actually accelerate into the madness in front of me if I was not to become one of the trampled. The crescendo started – a combination of the cartwheeling of dozens of men falling to the left and right, stacking, screaming; the bulls and steers driving up and over the bodies, heavy sharp hooves on ribs, faces, groins, a pileup becoming 3 deep, 4 deep, 7 deep, 8 deep. Only a narrow lane of visible pavement remained as the first steers cleared the tunnel and scrambled into the bullring itself.

Once again time stopped: I could feel the press of flesh behind me, I could see every movement of the bodies in front of me – the peleton of runners all crashing, hands high and then fingers twitching as they were tripping, falling, being trampled by steers and toros and men, the few remaining runners still vertical like me scrambling up a lattice work of white limbs. I had no choice – in slow motion I placed my feet on body parts and ran across a jumble of men like so many fleshy stones. I climbed up and to the right to avoid the impaling horns of the bulls behind me and ran over top of a writhing sea of humanity and down the other side. I was 15 feet behind the last bull when I broke into the light of the bullring . . . . 

"There's this sense that sometimes time slows down and sometimes time speeds up, and sometimes when we are in the zone and lose track of time, or when we are doing an activity that elicits an adrenaline rush, time slows down. There's time dilation - altered states of consciousness..." -Jason Silva, Shot of Awe

I once raced a bike race in Downers Grove, IL, where in the final corner every single rider in front of and around me crashed in a huge pileup except me. In a weird denouement I coasted down the finish stretch to the roar of the crowd alone bewildered, bemused and eventually triumphant.

Entering the bullring was a déjà vu of that race. No one behind me survived the pileup, and I entered to the massive roar of 20,000 people just behind the bulls and steers. I ran full tilt into the middle of the stadium and then slowed and stopped, arms in the air as the handlers billeted the bulls and steers into the corral. Perhaps 300 other runners had made it into the ring and I was one of the last. I was euphoric. In a gladiator-like moment I turned and just kept my hands up enjoying the noise, the atmosphere, the joy of being “really alive.”

And then, after a moment, oddly… I realized I was nearly alone. Most of the other runners all had swirled away and dissipated to the edges of the arena. At first I felt proud . . . I thought it was “my moment,” but then the noise of the crowd changed its tenor. It went from excitement to . . . something else. Even as I circled in my moment in the sun I felt the change and noticed the ant-like unison movements of the other runners spiraling sideways and heading to and over the barriers.

What I didn’t know was that there was a huge monitor in the stadium showing the bulls, the course and the happenings before and behind me. What I also didn’t know is that there was a “Curioso”… an extremely rare situation that has happened only once before in the last 100 years of the encierro. A Curioso is a situation where one of the bulls bred to run, fight and kill, stops and decides to abandon the steers, peers and encierro, and instead explore other options rather than run to the ring to its eventual death. This Curioso browsed around chasing runners mid-course for about 30 seconds - going after a few runners with aggression - before resuming its journey. Everyone was watching the monitor realizing there was one more bull. I didn’t know he was out there. 

Behind me the doors to the tunnel had opened to let him in. Without the calming presence of the steers and with all the goading from the crowd, he was now pissed. He charged bucking into the arena, black glistening hide, wide sharp horns, and one particularly available target… the stupid Chicago boy in the center of the arena with his hands still held high.

When the voices changed, when the volume grew there was another artifact that helped me realize my danger – suddenly there was a thrumming and rhythm of hands at the barriers in front of me – virtually every person at ground level had their arms out – begging me and other remaining runners to be lifted over. For a moment I had no idea what was happening

All of this happened in less than ½ of a second, but suddenly I saw the bull out of the corner of my eye. He had plunged into the stadium and was near the side chasing a few lingering runners, but then he saw me in the center, directly en route to the safety of the corral. He started his charge, and the crowd roared in fear, and I sprinted full tilt to the wall. He was turning right when I last looked and I knew I had perhaps 2 seconds to make the barriers. I ran slightly to right so that I could use my speed to get up and over the wall versus run directly into the barriers and as I came into proximity of the 5 foot red painted concrete wall, a dozen hands grabbed me roughly and pulled me up and over, literally throwing me onto my back into the space between. I flipped as I fell and landed on top of another runner, who had ducked to avoid my body. My back cracked as I draped heavily across his frame and then I fell off him to the concrete below. I had had the wind knocked out of me but I was safe and alive . . . SO alive. The noise of the throng resumed and I stood up and joined in the cheers as the Curioso left the ring.

Here's the thing. This entire experience was less than a minute long… but it seemed like hours, even days… and has grown with each passing day. I had planned and designed for this moment for a long time in hopes of creating an “event horizon moment.” And so with the plans and a lot of serendipity I had experienced a perfect layering of beauty, danger, uniqueness, physical and emotional intensity and “flow” in such a way to create a memory worth a year.

Celebrating on my barrier after the running of the bulls

Celebrating on my barrier after the running of the bulls

After the run: the tunnel to the plaza del toros - home of the human trainwreck

After the run: the tunnel to the plaza del toros - home of the human trainwreck

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Epilogue: As it turns out it wasn’t over. After the Curioso was corralled the next section of the festivities began. The crowd roared and all the runners re-entered the ring and the sense of community, excitement and pride of having lived, thrived and survived was contagious - there were hugs all around from sweaty young men half my age. We had done it! I found Greg and Bill. We took a few pictures with Bill’s phone camera. Greg had dropped his in the run. I had not brought my phone based on other’s advice. We laughed and talked about our experience and then suddenly the crowd roared. It wasn’t over yet – entering the ring was a “vaquilla,” one of the  young, fast angry and horned heifers released for the continued amusement of the crowd. We all ran like hell and as I ran backward keeping my eyes on the young animal, I watched as it found its very first victim who was was none other than 6’7” Greg who was lifted like a floppy toy, thrown in the air and then gored repeatedly and ruthlessly on the ground. I ran to him terrified as others distracted the vaquilla and it galloped away and the crowd was screaming.

He sat up and I couldn’t see any blood. “Are . . .are you OK???” I asked as he got up and we scrambled away to the side. “I . . . I don’t know?” He said as he pulled up his shirt and we found some bruises forming on his back and ribs, but no punctures, no broken bones – he was fine. We laughed. I said, “Dude! You were the first person thrown by a bull in the arena! You’re famous!” He laughed and then we turned again towards the same horned menace who had made its way back towards us as runners jumped the barriers.

The vaquillas were still upwards of 800 lbs and mean as hell but what we could now could see is that their sharp horns had been capped to prevent the possibility of a goring. This is why Greg was safe and this also made the runners far braver. So began an “amateur hour” bullfight as brave, crazy, or drunk young men attempted to make toreador passes with these young heifers to touch their horns, slap their flanks.

Each vaquilla came out for about 5 minutes and I was determined to at least touch one, but they were fast and mean and despite the capped horns I watched each one lift and throw and trample and bury their capped horns into a dozen young men. This was unlike the running – I didn’t know the patterns and couldn’t predict the random sideways movements and though I came close a few times I never did touch one. I stayed safe.

The other thing, unannounced, that happened over this next hour is that near the end of each vaquilla run, they would loose one of the real toros into the ring with a handler. Still mean as hell and huge with uncapped sharp horns, the sea of humanity parted like ripples in a pond and the ring cleared in seconds. The bull would make one round, make a few half hearted charges to anyone too close and then be escorted out. I followed the crowd during these moments and had a hand and foot on the barrier ready to jump. After the six vaquillas and six parades of the main toros it was all over. The crowd and runners cheered, and we all began to file out through the tunnel. I made my to Hemingway’s bar, found John, had a glass of wine at 9:00 a.m. in honor of the festival, and then returned to his apartment to sleep. It took me a long time to wind down, the sun was hot in the room and the Spanish hills beckoned with other adventures, but eventually exhaustion ruled, and I was able to fall into a deep sleep.

In the afternoon we prepared to go back into to town. I started putting on shorts and a t-shirt but then stopped. I retrieved the dirty white uniform of San Fermin from the floor and put it on - the wine- and dirt-stained white pants and shirt. I tied the sash around my waist and bandanna around my neck, and returned to town, just another anonymous member of the throng, but uniquely stained inside and out with new colors of life, death, and really living. 

An Event Horizon Story of Really Living – Owen’s Golden Birthday

Today we have a guest post from friend, business partner and Really Living “Chronoceptor,” Monica Goebel. Monica leveraged all three pillars to design what will hopefully, in memory, turn into an “Event Horizon” with her son. She leveraged her strengths of planning and logistics and her resiliency from multiple arduous trips down to Central and South America, to create an intense and memorable moment of uniqueness, beauty, and intensity – enjoy!

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Our son, Owen, turned 11 on May 11th this year. I wanted to give him a gift that would create a long-lasting memory, a time-expanding experience, an “event horizon” as we call them at The Art of Really Living.  

Like most kids, Owen wanted to know what his present would be before the big day arrived. Here are some of the clues I shared:

·         It has six syllables

·         It starts with C

·         You cannot use it in your room

·         It has 3 Os

·         It has three words

·         It looks like this  _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _   _ _ _   _ _ _ _

·         You need at least four things, but it is better with seven

·         You will fly in the air at least two times

·         You might get wet

·         It ends with a P

·         You might get cold

·         You might get sunburned

·         It involves two moms and two boys

·         It has two “I”s

·         It is an activity

·         The last word rhymes with drip

·         You will skip school

What was it? A Colorado Ski Trip with Owen, me, my friend Cyndie, and her son Tim (one of Owen’s best buddies). 

So how did this come about?  During April, I was in Whistler, B.C., supporting John Coyle who was presenting Time 2.0: The Art of Really Living Manifesto, to the Acetech CEO group.  John did an amazing job – and everyone in the audience was talking about how to plan “event horizon moments” with your loved ones. What is an event horizon? In short, any event, moment in time, or epiphany that leaves a significant and lasting impression – creating a “dent” in your perceptive memory and expanding your sense of time in the temporal past. That afternoon, my husband Gary texted me a message that Owen was complaining about the injustice of the world because it was snowing at our home in Lake Geneva, WI, and he could not ski, but I was away and could.

I had a crazy idea, and sent Gary the following email: 

I want to give Owen an event horizon birthday gift when he turns 11 on the 11th. Pick him up from School on the 10th. Drive to MKE. fly to Denver. Drive to A-Basin. Ski all day on the 11th. Fly home from Denver that night. Cost -- flights $144 x 2, lift ticket $49 x2, hotel $75, car rental $65, ski rental for Owen $20. Total cost around $500.You could take him or I could take him. Waddya think?

Gary’s response:

DO IT!!!!!!!!! How cool is that?  You are the best.

[props to Gary – he is the best for encouraging me to go!]

 So, after school on Tuesday the 10th, we packed up our skis, boots and helmets (the seven things mentioned in the clues) and flew from MKE to DEN on Southwest Airlines. An on-time, non-eventful flight. The boys played with Rubik’s cubes and the moms chatted and read books. After landing, however, we had a few little snags: 1) It took forever for the EZ Rental shuttle to pick us up (the Hertz bus went by 4 times while we waited for EZ to arrive); 2) Our rental car, a Jeep Patriot, was pretty beat up, with substantial scrapes on the passenger side door, and dirty inside (but I just noted that on the rental form, rather than delay things further); 3) there was dense fog on the way to our hotel on the west side of Denverl; and 4) we tried to find a fast food restaurant to grab a quick bite, and had no luck - everything seemed to be closed, other than bars.

Boarding our flight

Boarding our flight

We ordered from Dominos when we got to the hotel. Our room at the Quality Inn was well worn, to say the least (iron burn on the bathroom counter, broken lock, and chipped tile floors), but we were too tired to care. The pizza arrived quickly, we chowed down, and crashed a little after midnight. The next morning, we had hotel waffles, hot coffee, and were on the road by about 7:30.  Expecting warm sloppy spring conditions, the boys dressed in swim trunks over long johns. The drive up to Arapahoe Basin was beautiful. A sunny, clear day, with the sun at our backs. The Jeep was awful – even though it had an automatic transmission, I had to keep shifting gears on the ascents – we were above 11,000 feet crossing one pass.

We got to the ski resort shortly before the lifts opened. It was colder than we expected for spring skiing, so we put on all our layers, and headed to the lift line (if you can call 6 people waiting a “line”).  Our first run was great – we started on a nice, wide, corduroy-groomed green cruiser, and then branched off onto a narrow, shady, bumpy chute.  On the chute, the conditions were rough – moguls, big chunks of broken up ice, and hard snow. We made it thru without injury and cruised the rest of the way down. Tim and Cyndie (first ever trip to CO) were a little unnerved, but after readjusting Tim’s boots, we headed up for more. Our next few runs were great. Bright blue skies, hardly any wind, and the snow on the sunny groomed runs was perfect. Ten inches of fresh snow had fallen in the 3 days before we arrived. 

At one point, I stopped near a few trees, in the middle of a run, to wait for everyone to catch up. A guy up the hill yelled “coming thru.” I had no idea what he meant, as there was no one else around and I standing by some trees. He yelled again. “Coming thru, COMING THRU, , Ff&*k! COMING THRU!!” then rode almost over the back of my skis and went over a little jump hidden in the clump of trees. I had no idea it was there and felt bad for being in his way. A moment later Owen skied up, ran directly into a pile of deep snow on the side of the jump, and hit so hard he flew out of his skis and landed with his head buried in powder. He came up laughing and we helped dig out his skis and headed down.

Nice, soft, deep snow.

Nice, soft, deep snow.

Later, as we were getting on the lift, Tim somehow stood in the wrong spot, the chair hit him, and he slid into the rest of us and knocked us off the platform (a nearly 3 foot drop). The lift operator was a jerk. He offered no help, and just told us to climb back on -- not easy at all given that the chair was practically up to Owen’s shoulders – you cannot just climb up on a swinging chair while wearing your heavy boots and skis.  Cyndie was a trooper, and helped me pick up the boys, then managed to scoot herself up, and heaved on my arm while I struggled to jump.  All the while we were trying to get on, the liftie just stood there watching with a sour face. [I would be remiss if I failed to give a shout out to my friends at Alpine Valley (where I am on the ski patrol) – I have seen the AV lift operators sprint to catch kids who are about to fall off a chair, and pick up the ones who do fall and put them back on the lift – all with a smile on their face and an encouraging word.] To add insult to injury, a lady waiting for the next chair decided that she would lecture us the whole time about how to get on a lift, telling Tim over and over that if he wasn’t moving fast enough to get on the chair, he should wait for the next one, that way he wouldn’t “hold up the line” (of about 10 people), and betting that he “wouldn’t make that mistake again.“ Tim was in tears by the time we got moving. Cyndie’s back was killing her from boosting the rest of us up. Nonetheless, she thanked the “line lady” for her “concern and advice.”  What a bitch.

All on board, no thanks to the liftie and the line lady.

All on board, no thanks to the liftie and the line lady.

We had lunch at the midway lodge, sitting outside in the sunshine, and then did some more runs – playing in glades of trees and soft curvy trails.

Oh yummm. Sweet potato fries.

Oh yummm. Sweet potato fries.

At 1:30, we took a break. Cyndie bought a huge brownie, and we all sang Happy Birthday to Owen.

We went out and played a bit more. At around 3:00, I was waiting by the lift when Owen skied over, sat down on the back of his skis, and then laid down flat on his back. He said “I think I’m done.” I wanted to keep going – the lifts were open until 4:00. So I asked, “One more run?” He stared up at the sky, pondered a moment, and said, “Nope. I. Am. Done.”  Cyndie and Tim went up again, but I decided to stay with Owen. I always have to remind myself that a good time to quit is right after I have completed a good run – which I had. End on a high note, even if I might have a bit left in me. While Owen was taking off his boots, he told me his stomach wasn’t feeling good. He did not want anything to drink or eat, and his head hurt. Owen is not a whiner, so I knew he was feeling crappy, and assumed that he might have a bit of altitude sickness.

 

While we were packing our skis, boots, poles and suitcases back into the lovely Jeep, Cyndie and I discovered that a seat belt was missing in the back seat – the boys failed to mention that small problem the night before.  We also encountered a drunk guy who was sitting on a lawn chair in the parking lot. First he was mellow, and playing Sheryl Crow super loud, but then he started to go bezerk. He was shouting F this, F that, and seemed to have a problem with car manufacturers, ski hill operators, and some unknown individuals.

By the time we were ready to leave, Owen was so queasy, we started talking about where he would puke if we were driving and could not pull over. The choices were (not): 1) his helmet; 2) his coat; 3) my purse.  I went over to ski patrol to ask for a bag (we keep them for ice at Alpine). They generously shared some special puke bags, with a hard plastic circular top to hold up around your mouth.  We got on our way, and Owen was silent, with occasional groans. About a half hour later, he puked. Thanks to the handy bag, we measured it at 26 ozs. Gross!! Luckily, we were near an exit to dispose of it and get Owen some Ramen noodles.

We made it to the airport and after we boarded the plane and I thought I would sleep like a log, but instead, Owen and I got the giggles – planning to ask the flight attendant for some hot water so we could “boil his noodles.” Obviously, being tired made this funnier than it was. But somehow, “boiling the noodles” of a boy wearing a ski helmet and swim trunks is super funny late at night.

This oufit + ski helmet + exhausted + noodles + plane = big giggles

This oufit + ski helmet + exhausted + noodles + plane = big giggles

Cyndie was not having as much fun as we were. Timmy was grumpy and the flight attendant was ridiculously rude. When the passenger in front of her rang the call button and asked for water, the attendant asked him in a condescending way “is this an emergency?” Later, when Cyndie was enjoying her beverage, the attendant wanted to pick up her cup before she was done.  We were not near landing, and there was no problem with turbulence, but this attendant wanted to clean up the plane, and she wanted to do it immediately. She went so far as to insist that the pilot had instructed her that Cyndie must give up the cup.  Unreal.

We collected our luggage, loaded up the van and headed home. When we were back in Lake Geneva dropping Cyndie off, we discovered that Timmy’s backpack was missing. She later learned that he had left it near baggage claim (not on the carousel), which required that the airline call the sheriff with bomb sniffing dogs to inspect the suspicious package that included school books, an ipod, a ski helmet, and assorted odds and ends that a 5th grade boy carries with him. Happily, a friend who was near the airport picked it up and delivered it to them the next day.

When I got home around 1:30 a.m. and I went to bed and slept till 9:00.  Owen – what a trooper – got up at 6:45 to make it to school.  His only problem was a mild case of sun-and-wind-burned nose and chin.  What a wonderful birthday bash!!!

So, was this an Event Horizon? I think yes. It will leave a significant and lasting impression – creating a “dent” in our perceptive memories and expanding our sense of time in the temporal past. Let’s consider some of the elements that usually come together to create this type of experience.

·         Uniqueness – An extra special whirlwind birthday gift; skiing in MAY!, first time to ski in Colorado for Cyndie and Tim. 

·         Physical risk – High altitude, very little sleep, skiing in trees and bowls, falling off the lift, scary guy “coming thru,” bezerk guy in the parking lot, driving thru the mountains in a crappy rental car.

·         Physically Intense – Owen skied so hard he just laid down and said “I Am. Done.” 

·         Emotionally intense – We had a couple weeks to get excited about the trip, and we had some hardships and adventures along the way. John always says that if you want to expand time, design fear and suffering into your vacations. I didn’t plan for puking, a bad rental car or rude service, but it made things memorable.

·         Beauty – Rocky Mountains, snow and sunshine.

·         With someone you love – moms and sons and best friends

We had it all going on.  And why were we able to pull it off? The mission of The Art of Really Living is to help people create strengths-based, resilient lives so that they can design time-expanding event horizon experiences.  First, I was motivated to create an event horizon for Owen.  Second, we were all strong enough to do it. I was strong and confident enough to make a decision, make a plan, and make it happen – despite the risks – potential bad weather, being tired from travel and late night driving, the craziness of a one-day trip to Colorado. Third, we were resilient. We experienced physical and mental challenges, but we absorbed them, learned from them, and grew from them.  We will remember this day for a long time. We will remember moments from this day as if they lasted for hours, not minutes. And we will have smiles on our faces when we think about Owen’s Golden Birthday.  Thank you to Cyndie and Timmy for coming along on the ride, and Happy Birthday, Owen! 

What can you do to create an Event Horizon for someone you love? 

How to Live 16 in '16: Top 5 tips for expanding time through Really Living Pt. 3

Tip #3: Develop Greater Resiliency

IDEA IN BRIEF: (Reading time 7 - 10 minutes) 

Core to creating time expanding "event horizon" moments that create indelible memories is that they are necessarily intense: they are nearly always stressful. So an essential element to creating more of these moments is the ability to handle stress - a high level of resiliency. Most people think of resiliency as the ability to "bounce back" after a difficult or stressful event. This is, however, like suggesting that the opposite of a negative is "neutral." No, the opposite of negative isn't neutral, it is positive, and, as Nicholas Taleb characterizes so aptly in his book, the opposite of fragile is NOT just "strong". The opposite of fragile is what he calls "antifragile" or what I will call "resilient." Antifragility and resilience are the property that results from not just bouncing back from stress, but from becoming stronger in the process. The rest of this post is dedicated to how to become more resilient and to perform better and thrive under even greater stress.  

---------------------

The Yerkes Dodson Curve: Stress and Performance. 

In 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson articulated the relationship between stress and performance: notably, that peak performance was not a by-product of low stress, rather that peak performance came at a certain "optimal" level of stress and then trailed off above that level. 

This curve suggests and reinforces the idea that we must find balance - a concept now infused into the modern psyche. "Work-life balance," "finding balance," "reducing stress," and "managing stress" are now common buzz words throughout the working world. At first blush it makes intuitive and rational sense:

The philosophy of Art of Really Living, however, is different. We use a "design thinking" approach to challenge life's SOP's (Standard Operating Procedures). We believe that the central question of "how do I reduce stress to find balance?" is fundamentally the wrong question, because, it makes the flawed assumption that this curve is fixed. Based largely on the work of my friend and mentor Dr. Daniel Friedland we can understand that the curve is not fixed. Knowing this, we explore a better question, and one more apt for the modern world: "How can I perform better under even MORE stress?" Let's face it - this world is not getting less complex or slowing down. 

"It will never be this slow again."

A daunting quote, but most certainly true. Accepting this, we can see that the better answer is to shift our stress response curve up and to the right - to perform better under even more stress. 

When you think about it - this is EXACTLY what athletes have been doing for millenia: learning to shift their stress and performance curve up and to the right. In fact the curve looks an awful lot like a bicep. The stress in this metaphor is the strain on the bicep. The performance is the maximal weight the muscle is capable of carrying. So... how do athletes shift their curve and increase their performance / stress ratio? They intentionally take on more stress, and (and here's the key) then they recover. Episodic stress and recovery is the key to athletic performance. But here's where the modern "corporate athlete" often gets it wrong. In office spaces around the world, workers are doing the moral equivalent of 15 hours of dumbbell curls with no rest and little sleep and then wondering why their biceps are not growing. 

The key to developing resiliency (and breakthrough performance) is the same: episodic stress, followed by recovery. 

So, how to apply this new model of increased performance under stress to our busy lives? Here are 3 simple steps (that are not-so-simple to implement.)

1. REDUCE

2. RECOVER

3. RAISE/REFRAME

I'll cover each of these in brief: 

1. REDUCE: Reduce current stress levels to allow for recovery. Many people I know are already to the far right on their stress / recovery curve and not in a position to intentionally take on more stress. So the first step is to reduce stress to allow for recovery - to regain initial balance. This is an intuitive step that many try in an episodic way, but it tends to form a vicious cycle of pulling back and out of things, recovering, recommitting, becoming overstressed and then pulling back again. A particularly terrible by-product of this cycle is being perceived as lacking integrity or as lacking follow through. Last minute cancellations, failure, over-promising and under-delivering are the hallmarks of this step by itself. Nonetheless it can be an essential first step in developing greater resiliency - here are 3 great ways to reduce stress:

a) "Race your strengths." Spend more time in your area of strengths - in "flow," "the zone," the peak performance state. Research shows that spending more time in this state significantly increases willpower. 

b) "Design around your weaknesses." Stop doing things that you are not good at. Not good at making project plans? Make it a stretch assignment for a detail oriented go getter. Not a great driver? Join a carpool. Not great at your current job? Identify a better role and then lobby to move into it - or quit and find a more suitable job. 

c) Delegate tasks that deplete you. Don't like doing taxes? Hire an accountant. Bored and overwhelmed by too many meetings? Quit the council, the PTA, the homeowners committee. Send a delegate to company meetings. Stop doing certain chores - hire someone to mow the lawn or clean the house. Money can't buy you love, but it can buy you time...

2. RECOVER: According to my friend Dr. Ari Levy, stress in modern life isn't necessarily up, but our ability to recover from it has drastically decreased. He makes a really good point: 100 years ago you could die at work from heavy machinery, or die on the way to work through exposure. Your children would often die at childbirth or later from the flu, typhoid, tuberculosis or even a snowstorm. If your crops didn't come in you could starve, if you ran out of firewood you froze. Fast forward 100 years and we are dying from... failure to answer an email quickly enough on our smartphones. But here's the thing... we actually are dying from email... We are bathing in cortisol - the stress hormone -  24 hours a day, 7 days a week which causes inflammation and wreaks all sorts of havoc, not the least of which is heart attacks, cancer and other killers. Dr. Ari had me play a guessing game to identify the top 3 ways to recover from stress. I guessed sleep, meditation and red wine. I was wrong on all three accounts. Here, from science are the actual top 3 in reverse order:

3) Low intensity exercise:  I should have guessed this one. As an athlete, "rest days" were not spent in bed - no instead we went for a very easy bike ride, a very slow jog, or just went out on the ice without ever breaking a sweat. The Tour de France riders don't take their rest days off - they do "recovery rides" for 2 to 3 hours. Physical activity is a great stress reducer. Go for that walk. 

2) Social intimacy: Being around people you care about and that care about you, conversations and candor are major stress reducers. Most work situations have a competitive and hierarchical element the prevent true social intimacy, so friends, family, romance - these are the second greatest way to recover from stress, and replace cortisol with serotonin and dopamine. Feeling stressed out and want to hide out in your room or office? That is a mal-adaptive response: you are much better spending time with your friends watching a game, playing cards or just talking. Make that phone call.

1) Physical intimacy: including all forms of touch. I didn't see this one coming, but according to research this is the number one way to recover from stress. Replace cortisol with oxytocin, "the love hormone" through simple touches (I suspect pets might also play a role), handholding, cuddling, hugs and of course, private time with the one you love: this is the straightest path to recovery from too much stress. Horrible day at work? Think that coming home and immediately firing up the laptop to put out fires is the best way to handle it? Wrong. Counter-intuitively you are better off taking a break and spending a quiet romantic evening with your significant other. Time to light the candles. 

Back to Dr. Ari's point about our inability to recover being the culprit for current stress levels? Consider the lifestyles of today vs. 100 years ago vis a vis these 3 mechanisms. 3) Exercise: 100 years ago we walked everywhere, most jobs had an element of manual labor and we were constantly active. Today the average office worker is completely sedentary nearly the entire day sitting a a desk with a computer screen. 2) and 1) Social and physical intimacy: 100 years ago more often than not we lived in multi-generational homes, and our work (farming, craftsmanship etc.) was more often a family affair. Homes were small, children slept 3 to a bed, and constant touch and interaction was the norm, not the exception. Consider today: for a single professional, most of the day, and night, are spent isolated and alone, and most social interaction - even dating - has become virtual in nature. Recovery is the key to resilience, yet many of us have lost touch with our most adaptive recovery mechanisms.

3. RAISE/REFRAME: Once you have regained balance and implemented stress recovery mechanisms back into your life, it is time for the real resiliency step: to intentionally take on MORE stress - in an episodic fashion - in order to recover even stronger. Raising stress is surprisingly easy: take on any new challenge that you can grow from. Go back to school for an advanced degree, switch jobs, vie for a promotion, take on a stretch assignment, have another child - options to take on growth oriented stress are virtually unlimited. But here's the real magic: all of those things can feel overwhelming, but perhaps the greatest resiliency tool is what my friend Dr. Daniel Friedland calls "reappraisal" or "reframing." We can learn to reframe stressful challenges to make them into a game or an experiment, where the outcomes, uncertain though they may be, do not directly link to our self image or self confidence. Mindfulness practice is a particularly helpful tool for reframing. Consider, for a moment, the Greek myth of Sisyphus: the king damned by the gods for all eternity to roll an immense rock up a hill only to have it roll right back down again. Sounds horrendous... but with a little reframing:

"Sisyphus learns to bowl"

Sisyphus' challenge was not all that different than bowling or the highlander games when you think about it. When we are able to reframe stressful challenges as a game or experiment we can begin to appreciate the process as much as the end result, reducing cataclysmic stress in the process. Sisyphus could have started to challenge himself, "how quickly can I get to the top? How heavy a rock can I move? How many times can I do it in one day? How strong can I get?" "Who is the strongest strongman on the planet?" 

Perhaps the greatest story of reframing and resiliency comes from Victor Frankyl, author of "Man's Search for Meaning." A Holocaust survivor, Frankyl lost his mother, brother and wife to the Nazi concentration camps and experienced stress and privation well beyond what most of us will ever experience. But he was able to reframe his experience by choosing to view the suffering as an opportunity to serve others AND still find meaning. 

"I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved."

Here is a man who has lost everything. On the brink of starvation, freezing, tortured, his mother, brother, wife dead, his life's work left behind and in ashes and he is able to find bliss. It certainly makes the risk of getting fired or missing a deadline seem paltry. I will end with Frankyl's most famous quote, one that sums up the ultimate reward of resiliency: freedom. 

“Between stimulus and response
there is space,

and in that space, is our power to choose our response.

In our response lies our
growth and our freedom.”

Interview: Entrepreneur on Fire with John Lee Dumas and John K. Coyle

John and I discuss the role of strengths in breakthrough performance, why it matters, and "horology" - my fascination with time. 

Chronoception: The Role of "Flow" in Time Dilation

Steven Kotler is the author of "The Rise of Superman" an amazing book chronicling the essential role of the "flow" state for advances in human performance. He and I spoke at length last week about his work and the role of the "flow" state in time dilation. Take a listen to a few of the world's top athletes describe the impact of flow on time perception or "chronoception".

https://youtu.be/sgDfYzG6Uyg

How to Live 16 in '16: Top 5 tips for expanding time through Really Living Pt. 2c

Tip #3: But does focusing on strengths pay off? (Yes!)

Most people are familiar the idea of "playing to your strengths" as a guideline for a more successful life. However, we are so inculcated from birth to fix our weaknesses, that it becomes instinctual - particularly under pressure - to resort to this mode. Despite rationally acknowledging the notion of focusing on natural talents, most people fail to make the kinds of changes in their lives to truly live in, and through, their native strengths. There are some obvious reasons for this though. Challenge 1) in order to design and live a life designed for your strengths, you not only have to know what they are. But, challenge 2) you also have to know what your weaknesses are and quit or delegate doing those things. Finally challenge 3), the incentives and benefits for living a life immersed in your strengths are not clear enough for most people to make the changes required. 

Let's explore each of these challenges in order: 

Challenge 1: Know (and accept) the specific nature of your strengths. (2 posts ago)

Challenge 2: Knowing (and accepting) your weaknesses  - then quitting or delegating them. (last post) 

Challenge 3: But does investing in strengths really pay off? Are the incentives and benefits for living a life immersed in your strengths worth the risks and sacrifices? If you have ever quit something too early and regretted it later, then you can be certain that you'll naturally be driven to not let that happen again. Sadly, most of these kinds of regrets are legacies of childhood and teenage years where discipline and follow-through were not fully developed. For most people these same examples of regret are rare as adults. It is a sad fact that what most people regret in life is the things they didn't do...

Is it worth it to quit or delegate away weakness focused activities? Yes. Consider this, recent studies have proven that willpower is both a) a deplete-able resource and b) fairly consistently distributed across people of all walks. This whole notion of super-achievers having unlimited discipline and willpower is a pure myth. Instead, most highly successful people share two traits: 1) they have systems, routines, and rewards in place that remove as much of the discipline and willpower required for them to achieve their goals as possible and 2) they spend a higher percentage of their day pursuing their strengths - activities that recharge their willpower reserves.  

People always assume that as an Olympic athlete, I was a disciplined machine. But the reality is that it requires relatively little willpower to train hard while on the Olympic team. First, you have a program with set times and set activities that are NOT optional. Second, you have coaches yelling and exhorting you to work harder should you show up late or fail to put in your best effort. Third you are surrounded by high caliber, inspiring and competitive people. Fourth, and most important, you are doing something you are uniquely talented at (following a strength). Sure, lots of days that become long miserable slogs, but there are also those days it is pure joy to be able to skate 30mph hour and push 3G’s, flying around the corners like a jet fighter.  

I have been on a slow progressive journey to design a life for my strengths that has met with many unforeseen twists and turns. My first job after retiring from sport was a-now-laughable-position as a PMO (program manager) for a massive technology conversion - Y2K at Goldman Sachs. Laughable because that position could scarcely been more mis-aligned with my native talents. I hated that entire year, was completely exhausted every day and just showing up for work was a major effort. I'd say I was using perhaps 10% of my strengths and mostly spent time trying to fix my weaknesses. I then moved on to designing new business models and trading systems for Enron. I was very good at the initial design work, but had to work very hard at all the details required for implementation / launch - a mix of perhaps 50/50 strengths vs. weakness focus.

After Enron I quit consulting to join my favorite client U.S. Cellular where over time I took the reins of a massive innovation effort. My strengths / weakness ratio tipped up to 75% during that project and I worked crazy hours - not because I had to, but because I wanted to. For years I was jazzed to come to work every day. Then the innovation project was over, and I left to work for an innovation consulting firm. Sadly what the firm really needed (and wanted from me) was more of a program management role and I stepped back to 40% strengths / 60% weaknesses. Two years after that I asked the CEO to design a new role for me leading a new practice of innovation leadership development and moved back to a 70%/30% split of my strengths and weaknesses. Shortly thereafter I did my first paid keynote speech, and loved it, and it was very well received. Three people in the audience hired me, and then three more, and I suddenly realized I have found what I love most. 

Now I've left consulting and I'm doing full time speaking and workshops and spend 90% of my day living in my strengths and experiencing flow regularly. I have probably worked as many or more hours over the last months than ever: I didn't even take weekends off and worked late most nights, but it required no willpower because it was what I wanted to be doing. Over the last eight months I've never been happier, more fulfilled, or healthier AND I will likely earn more financially this year than I have. Because I'm using virtually no willpower to do my work, my risk aversion has gone way down, my resilience way up, and I've been willing to take the kinds of risks I previously would not have considered - including reciting an 88 line poem for the mayor of Chicago, writing a book, performing in a music / dance / poetry rant collaboration, perhaps even co-writing the lyrics for an album with the amazing and talented musician Anthony Snape. AND, more importantly, I’ve significantly slowed down my perception of time passing…

2015, for me, lasted about 15 years or longer in terms of my perception. The summer was far far longer than any I remember as a child, and 2016 is off to a similar pace – high speed in the present with travel, new people and new relationships, but expansive in memory as I continue to push myself to live in my strengths, take bigger and bigger risks, and create those event horizon moments of “really living.”

One of my favorite questions is, “what are you best at?” Do you know the answer? Do your friends, co-workers, and children know? If not, then how can you (or they) design a life to perform at your best, experience the joy of flow every day, and slow down time?

It is time: time to race your strengths and design around your weaknesses. To “really living.”  - JKC

PS: I just published a coffee table book of the Art of Really Living Manifesto: See it here at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1530709253 and buy it here on Createspace  https://www.createspace.com/6148570 and get a 25% off discount - code: SFM6BEU7

 

 

How to Live 16 in '16: Top 5 tips for expanding time through Really Living Pt. 2b

Tip #2: Design your life to "Race Your Strengths" – Part 2 of 3 

IDEA IN BRIEF:

Most people are familiar the idea of "playing to your strengths" as a guideline for a more successful life. However, we are so inculcated from birth to fix our weaknesses, that it becomes instinctual - particularly under pressure - to resort to this mode. Despite rationally acknowledging the notion of focusing on natural talents, most people fail to make the kinds of changes in their lives to truly live in, and through, their native strengths. There are some obvious reasons for this: Challenge 1) in order to design and live a life designed for your strengths, you not only have to know what they are. But, Challenge 2) you also have to know what your weaknesses are and quit or delegate doing those things. Finally Challenge 3), the incentives and benefits for living a life immersed in your strengths are not clear enough for most people to make the changes required. 

 Let's explore each of these challenges in order: 

Challenge 1: Know (and accept) the specific nature of your strengths (last post)

Challenge 2: Know (and accept) your weaknesses  - then quit or delegate themI believe that most driven, successful people are facing down a collective adult neurosis. This neurosis is the erroneous continuation of important programming received as children that becomes limiting to adults: the unwillingness to quit. To paraphrase Scott Adams (author of Dilbert) persistence is awesome, until it is stupidAdmitting and accepting weaknesses, and then actually quitting those activities is anathema to our beliefs, our pride, and our culture. We are wired to tough it out, to never quit, never give in. There exists a special kind of vertigo to stand at the precipice of failure and let go and accept. But, in order to spread your wings and fly you first have to become airborne.

I believe that this unwillingness to admit weaknesses and refusal to quit trying to overcome insurmountable obstacles leads many men and women to lead "lives of quiet desperation," as Thoreau so elegantly described. 

I've written at length about "how to know when to quit" and the two year rule, but even if one rationally grasps the concept, we are hardwired to never give up, so, what to do? 

What to do: ascertain areas in your life that are sucking your willpower or appear to have plateaued. Then quit one at a time… (a small one at first.) Often we pursue things because, "we should." Obviously the "biggest quitter" would be a career (or a relationship). But smaller things might be time-consuming hobbies, activities, projects, committees etc. I think the story of Warren Buffett is a great example of a "should" that he quit. Warren, through his amazing investing skills had become one of the richest men in the world, but until recently, he had not done much in the way of "giving back" in terms of philanthropy and charitable work. In an interview on (CNN) Warren finally admitted his weakness and then in a brilliant move, gave his money to Bill and Melinda Gates to give away.  

“What can be more logical, in whatever you want done, than finding someone better equipped than you are to do it? Who wouldn't select Tiger Woods to take his place in a high-stakes golf game? That's how I feel about this decision about my money.” – Warren Buffet on giving his money to the Gates Foundation

When I first heard this story I started thinking if there were any "should's" I could quit. Suddenly it dawned on me. At the time I was the head coach for a local speed skating club, not because I was good at it or liked it (I was not and did not) but because "I should." The sport had given me so much and so many had volunteered their time for me,that I "should" want to be a coach and give back… Except I wasn't great at it and didn't like it. So I broke it down… I DID like skating with the kids, teaching them technique and relays… what I didn't like was writing a program each week, doing drills and most of all, all the yelling required to get 35 kids to line up and do the program. Quickly I discussed this with the club president and we agreed I would step down as the head coach and instead become an assistant technical coach and focus on what I liked and did best: skating with the kids and providing technical advice. The relief I felt was palpable - I didn't even realize how much guilt I was carrying for not "loving" being a coach… because "I should."

What "should's" can you quit/delegate? Here's a few I've quit and a few more to consider: I've quit: mowing the lawn, shoveling, driving to the airport (Thanks to Uber), driving to the city (Uber/train), my consulting job, and 2 significant long term relationships that had become toxic. Think about it - what can you quit that will allow you to spend more time living in your strengths. The PTA? A school or work or charitable committee? yard work, housecleaning? Snow shoveling, owning (and maintaining) a car? Owning and maintaining a second home – or even a first home? Magazine subscriptions, cable TV, social media accounts… what time-sucking “should’s” can YOU quit?

I'm not suggesting abdicating responsibility or shirking your duties or not having discipline, but what I am suggesting is that you make a purposeful investment of your social energy and willpower as they are depletable resources. If participating in the homeowners association or PTA or coaching little league is leaving you with less energy for your spouse or career or your kids, that may be a poor investment of time. 

  COMING NEXT: Challenge 3 - Does investing in strengths really pay off? 

How to Live 16 in '16: Top 5 tips for expanding time through Really Living - Pt. 2

 

Tip #2: Design your life to "Race Your Strengths" - part 1

IDEA IN BRIEF:

Most people are familiar the idea of "playing to your strengths" as a guideline for a more successful life. However, we are so inculcated from birth to fix our weaknesses, that it becomes instinctual - particularly under pressure - to resort to this mode. Despite rationally acknowledging the notion of focusing on natural talents, most people fail to make the kinds of changes in their lives to truly live in, and through, their native strengths. There are some obvious reasons for this: Challenge 1) in order to design and live a life designed for your strengths, you not only have to know what they are. But, Challenge 2) you also have to know what your weaknesses are and quit or delegate doing those things. Finally Challenge 3), the incentives and benefits for living a life immersed in your strengths are not clear enough for most people to make the changes required. 

"IF YOU ARE OVER 25 AND STILL TRYING TO FIX YOUR WEAKNESSES, THAT SHIP HAS SAILED!" 

Let's explore each of these challenges in order: 

Challenge 1: Know (and accept) the specific nature of your strengthsI believe that most people wander through life stumbling into the first thing in which they have some interest or initial talent, and fail to discover the true artist, physicist, poet, mathematician, athlete or musician within. What a great loss to humanity! Our strengths, as it turns out, tend to be very specific. Let me share two strengths as an example: consider the talents of a) an athlete and b) a business person. In my case, I was described as "fast" in the first case, and the second as "a good communicator." 

Sure, I was "fast" as a child and I was pretty competitive in most sports at a young age. However, most sporting activities for young kids are of a very short duration, and as I got older, I began to notice that I was only "fast" in short events and I was pretty useless at any sport requiring hand-eye coordination. For example, in eighth grade I managed to play an entire season of basketball without scoring a point, and in high school I eventually quit the cross country running team after 2 years of suffering and mediocre performances. I was mystified at the time, but now it is clear - I'm not fast at everything - I'm only fast in short events. I am a sprinter.*

*One sad side note here is that many true endurance athletes may end up quitting sports before they have a chance to shine. Because they are naturally slower in the short-spurt gym events like basketball, baseball, soccer and track, these slow twitch athletes may conclude they are "bad at sports" before they've had a chance to run the mile, a 5K or participate in a triathlon. If your young child is "bad at sports" consider the possibility that they may be unstoppable endurance machines when it comes to longer events.

By high school I had the realization that I was sprinter and switched from cross country to track and field to run the 100m, 200m and long jump. However, even there I eventually determined that I was only regionally competitive, but, when it came to sports requiring intense bursts of power against resistance, I could compete at a national, even world class level. By my twenties I finally honed in on the specific nature my strengths starting from the initial generic label of "fast."

Here's the breakdown:

"Fast" -> as a sprinter -> against resistance - > in events requiring short bursts of immense power - > followed by short rests - > while balancing - > and traveling at high speeds - > in a pack of people trying to kill me 

That's a pretty specific strength. If I had stayed with the broad brush of "fast," I would most likely never have achieved any success in sports. In fact there are only a two sports that require the above unique combination: short track speed skating, and cycling - the two sports in which I have competed at the world championships. I'm pretty terrible at most other sports.

 

Now, using the same process, lets analyze the "good communicator" strength. This is another very generic description leading to a series of questions: A good communicator to whom? About what? Best with large groups? Medium sized groups? Small groups? Best with one-way "keynotes" or facilitating two way dialog? Best at taking complex information and making it simple? Or best at taking simple things and expressing the innate complexity? Best at storytelling? Or better at sharing data and analysis? Best with highly motivated groups of individuals? Or best at motivating people that need inspiration? Best one on one? More of a coach? More of a challenger? More of a listener? If you have been painted with the broad brush of "communicator" and you don't know the answers to these questions, then you cannot leverage your superpower to achieve breakthrough performance. 

Sadly I was in my forties before I truly figured out my career superstrength - I am a:

"Good communicator" -> to large audiences -> taking complex topics and simplifying them through metaphors - > and expressing them via storytelling -> to high achievers - >  seeking innovative ways to improve their lives.  

I only discovered this less than two years ago, when, on January 28, 2014, I gave my first paid keynote. Now, this is my full time job. I live in my strengths more than 90% of my day now.  

What to do: ascertain the highly specific nature of your strengths and design them into your life. How? Take tests and assessments. Ask others. Look at your weaknesses and identify their inverse - sometimes the best way to identify a hidden or latent strength is to look at the antonym of a weakness. As an athlete my weakness is low aerobic capability, low endurance, high production of lactic acid. This is a result of type 2b fast twitch muscles that fatigue quickly. The inverse is also my superpower - to generate massive power for short intervals, process the lactic acid produced and recover quickly. In business there are a number of great assessments - cognitive, personality, and conative. Take them, study them, find the patterns of "flow" in your life and thread them together. Here's a partial list of assessments with links: 

  • Kolbe (conative - measures drive) http://www.kolbe.com/
  • Myers Briggs (personality) http://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/
  • Strengthsfinder (personality/cognative)  http://strengths.gallup.com/default.aspx
  • ZTPI (temporal perspective - personality) http://www.thetimeparadox.com/zimbardo-time-perspective-inventory/
  • DISC (personality) http://discpersonalitytesting.com/free-disc-test/
  • LSI (personality - leadership) http://www.human-synergistics.com.au/Solutions/DevelopingIndividuals/LifeStylesInventoryIndividual.aspx
  • Enneagram (personality) https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/guide-to-all-riso-hudson-tests/
  • Authentic happiness (personality - happiness - multiple free tests) https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/testcenter
  • Insights Discovery (personality - work preferences) https://evaluator.insights.com/

 

COMING NEXT:  Challenge 2: Knowing (and accepting) your weaknesses  - then quitting or delegating them

 

 

How to Live 16 in '16: Top 5 tips for expanding time through Really Living

How to Live 16 in '16: Top 5 tips for expanding time through Really Living

Tip #1: Choose the red pill - accept that time is NOT linear, and invest it wisely

"Remember… all I'm offering is the truth, nothing more…"

With these lines from the movie, "The Matrix", Morpheus offers Neo the opportunity to fundamentally invert his world view by seeing his existence through a completely different lens. In so doing, Neo loses the comfort of the false but predictable conventions he grew up with, while gaining the ability to warp the fabric of the universe to do his bidding.

So too, modern neuroscience has lifted the veil on a nearly universally held fallacy; that time, as we experience it, is linear (blue pill).  Instead we now know that the way our brains process time is dependent on the activities and the emotional and environmental cues around us. If you can accept that our actions and environment governs our experience with time and that the way we actually experience time is not at all linear, then please take the red pill. The red pill (Tip #1) offers this truth: "The value of an increment of time is not related to its duration."

The value of an increment of time is not related to its duration.

Let's break this down. In a linear / chronological temporal construct, the value of an increment of time is directly proportional to its duration - hence "quality time," "time management," and all kinds of methodologies to "track your time" in a futile effort to maximize it.

But… but if you can accept that the value of your time is not related to its duration, then you can fundamentally change your relationship with time, and learn how to maximize it by investing in it more wisely. Accepting this means we need a new way to measure time other than our watches: we have the time value of money, but where is the construct for the investment value of time? I'd like to propose a new currency for time: the memory value of time.

The simple matrix above plots linear time on the Y axis (from high to low) and the investment (memory) value of time on the x axis (from low to high).  The greatest returns and best investments are in creating or experiencing those magical "event horizon" moments that make indelible imprints on our memory, often in a short span of linear time. And yet, we've known this all along… "make it count", "create memories", or Abraham Lincoln's  quote, "it's not the years left in your life that count, it's the life in your years." We've known intuitively all along that certain minutes and moments mattered more than others, but for some reason we keep trying to force fit them into the one dimensional matrix of linear time.

Let's look at each of these areas of temporal investment:

Quadrant 1: high investment, low return. We want to minimize this quadrant, but the reality is that all of us have time sucking activities we must do - even billionaires have to deal with taxes, commutes and management. To the extent you can design your life to live fully in your strengths, this quadrant can be minimized, but this may be impossible for some people. For the full-time toll booth collector, this is their job, and yes you could argue, get a new one, but if that means going back to school to get a degree over long years of missed family time, perhaps we should just consider this quadrant "investment time" - it exists to fuel the two right hand quadrants. A tollbooth collector working 50 hours a week still has 118 hours left to invest heavily in high return activities leveraging their strengths or designing event horizon moments.

Quadrant 2: low investment, low return. This is the "filler time" and some of it should be minimized, but I also believe this quadrant offers amazing opportunities to expand time. These are small mundane activities and routines that we can constantly challenge - the same commute, the same restaurants, the same conversations, the same friends, the same place on vacation - all of these offer the opportunity to morph into a meaningful memory. Perhaps not an event horizon moment except on rare occasions but certainly the opportunity replace repetition and routine for meaning and memory. Recently I had a conversation with Lila, the 15 year old daughter of a great friend. After being exposed to the red pill, she exclaimed, "So wait! We are all just living the routine, waiting to die!!" She then proposed to her brother "let's walk to school tomorrow - see things differently." So, rather than being driven  4 miles to school as they have done every day for years, they planned to  to experience it differently. I find this to be a beautifully simple way to modify quadrant 2  to create value.

Quadrant 3: high investment, high return. For people lucky enough to have a career aligned with their strengths, this is a quadrant in which you will naturally spend most of your linear time. I believe that strong relationships are also a form of "strengths" - natural or developed "talents" for other people, leading to experiences of flow and a greater possibility of "event horizon moments" when together. For me, over the last 15 years, I have slowly morphed my career from spending 95% of my time on weaknesses (being a PMO consultant at Goldman Sachs for Y2K) to a 50/50 split with my strengths (marketing) to spending 75% of my time on my strengths (innovation consultant) to 95% strengths (self employed, being paid to travel, speak, and write). When I'm not working, I'm with my daughter or great friends, or traveling - or all 3. I think the only quadrant 1 activity I have left is doing email, expenses, and sleeping.

Fallacy #1: "we must be constantly be creating meaningful moments 24/7." This is probably the most consistent mis-interpration of the Art of Really Living. No-one can or should be constantly be creating event horizon moments.

Quadrant 4: low investment, high return (event horizon moments) These moments are the “Apple Inc.” of time investment - massive returns from small investments of linear time. I've written about these at length - My Feb 17, 2015 post has a summary of the 5 key elements:

http://www.johnkcoyle.com/taorlblog/2015/02/17/everyone-dies-not-everyone-really-lives 

Here's the thing about event horizon moments that is often misunderstood - the goal is not to have these twice a day every day. Almost always, truly intense time-expanding [or clock-stopping] moments rest on the shoulders of investment time, and are found or created in unique circumstances derived from time invested in "really living." For me, my goal is that for each chronological year, I will design or experience 10 moments that are so intense they are worth an entire year of linear time to me. In 2015 I had 17 of these. But the stress associated with these kinds of moments is often considerable… and not all of them are good, so depending on your resiliency, 10 − 15 feels like a reasonable goal.  By investing almost all my linear time into quadrants 3 & 4 I feel I have already lived, perceptually, about 4 lifetimes already. The possibility of living the equivalent of 400 to 500 more years and creating indelible memories along the way is a pretty amazing outcome.

In conclusion: you have a choice. Continue to believe the fallacy of linear time and try to track and manage it, all the while watching it accelerate, or choose to accept this new construct and instead invest your time for the value of the memories it brings.  What do you choose, and what are you going to do about it?

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

15 in '15: How I lived 15 years in 2015

15 in '15: How I lived 15 years in 2015 

At the heart of the Art of Really Living is the goal of expanding "experiential time." Our mission is teach people how to slow, stop and reverse the perceived acceleration of time and live summers longer than those we experienced when we were kids. But… does it really work?

It does. I can easily say that 2015 was the longest year of my life, that the summer felt far longer than those I remember from childhood, and when I add it all up, January of 2015 feels like it was approximately 15 years ago given the breadth and depth of experiences I had and the number of "event horizon" moments of really living. 2015 was filled with a host of  new friends, new relationships, new experiences, epiphanies and moments of euphoric joy. 

2015 was also filled with fear, anxiety, doubt, the end of some significant relationships and moments of desperate sadness, failure and fear. Never in my life have I had such and incredible breadth and depth of experiences and never have I had my resiliency as a human being tested to my limits. Not even training for the Olympics pushed me as hard as the events of this year. One new tool I used to help manage the emotional pendulum was the daily practice of mindfulness starting July 8th after I left my job. 

Over the coming days I'll be sharing  How to Live 16 in '16: Top 5 tips for expanding time through Really Living but for now I'll share a list of my top "event horizon" moments of really living in 2015 and a couple of the stories behind them. What meaningful memories of "Really Living" did you create or experience in 2015? 

A Poor July: 

I did my first paid speech January 28th of 2014 thanks to my client and friend Nicole Lorey at Transamerica. After my first speech, 3 of the attendees hired me, and then 3 more etc. By the end of the year, 20 keynotes later, and with a second well-received TEDx talk under my belt, I realized I could potentially go out on my own. So I gave 6 months notice to ramp up the new business and ramp down on the consulting, and on July 8th, 2015 I became an entrepreneur. For the first time since entering the working world I no longer had a paycheck. But, I had 3 paying keynotes planned for July... until all three canceled.

The feeling was one of vertigo - like the floor had dropped out below me and doubts began to flood my brain. "I can't really do this..." "I'm not good enough." "No one is really going to hire me." "It is never going to work." But we kept at it, adding a "pay half up front" clause to our contracts and we have slowly built a following and a strong pipeline. 

Universal Studios in the Rain:

I've written before that my daughter and I don't do a lot of talking - we do a lot of doing. I know she hears me talk about the Art of Really Living to others, but it is not something we generally talk about together. That said, she is a creative advisor occasionally on the production of the manifesto video.

In August I was fortunate to have a client fly Katelina and I to Orlando for a speech and provide us passes to the theme parks. We flew out of Midway on Southwest arriving to the airport 90 minutes early (early for me!) and were dismayed to be stuck in a 2+ hour line because the computers were down. Our flight departed without us so instead of arriving late morning we arrived late afternoon. Universal Studios was open until 9pm so as we pulled into the parking lot at 5pm we figured we would still have a decent amount of time to explore and experience the rides. 

Just as we were walking up, the heavens opened up and a major thunderstorm exploded over the park. By the time we were buying our tickets there was 2 inches of standing water in the lanes and thousands of people in parkas lining the sides of the street under the awnings filing neatly and quickly out of the park. 

I asked Kat if she wanted a parka. She said, "Parkas are for wusses!" and then ran pell mell into the maelstrom, both of us immediately soaked to the bone.

We had the streets to ourselves and sprinted splashing and laughing through the empty lanes to find the Harry Potter ride at the back of the park. As we passed the tallest coaster, lightning struck it and the noise was incredible. I started to slow but Kat didn't break stride, and as the next lightning strike lit her in a chiaroscuro outline, she shouted over her shoulder, "Papa! THIS... is really living!" (Mic drop, my job is done here...)

 

TBT: People I Owe - Mike Walden

People I owe: Mike Walden

What do a tennis school in Siberia, a soccer club in Brazil, a music camp in upstate New York, and a baseball club in Curacao all have in common with a bicycling club from Detroit?

They are all “chicken-wire Harvards,” a term coined by Daniel Coyle in his great book “The Talent Code”. That is, each of these remote destinations has a number of things in common: they tend to be underfunded, they have programs with a relentless focus on the fundamentals of a sport or activity, and at their helm they have or have had iconic coaches who “say a lot in a little,” and “repeat a little a lot.”

They also produce champions. Lots of them. So many that, when plotted on map in red, they become a “talent bloom” – a rose against the white of the page. In fact, one small, yet famous tennis club in Siberia, called Spartak, which has only one indoor court, achieved eight year-end top 20 women’s rankings for professional tennis players for 3 years running (as of 2007.) During the same period, the entire United States only had 7. As it happens there is also a little cycling club in Detroit with even more striking results.

Statistically speaking, it is impossible to conceive that there was more talent concentrated in the environs of Spartak in 2007, or around the Dorais velodrome in Detroit in 1980 than the entire United States. In fact the preponderance of talent from these locales belies their demographics – the argument can, and should be made that these coaches and environments created talent. But how?

Detroit, 1978. The Wolverine Sports Club was one of many of its ilk – typical in many ways. Underfunded, provided for primarily by largesse from Mike Walden’s bike shop in Hazel Park, the club also supported its activity through fund raiser “bike-a-thons” (also a Walden invention.) The Wolverine Sports Club (WSC) ran a regular series of practices – Tuesdays at the run-down Dorais Velodrome in Detroit, Wednesdays were the iconic “Wednesday night ride” from the Royal Oak Library complete with fans in lawn chairs who blocked traffic for the huge peleton, and Thursdays featuring practice races in Waterford on a 2.2 mile race car track. Weekends were for racing, because “racing is the best training,” or so we were told.

To an 8, 10, 12, even 18 year old kid, it all became so normal. I remember my first visit to the Dorais velodrome. Names were inscribed in the cement along the homestretch – Fred Cappy, Mike Walden, Clair Young, Jim Smith. These etchings were meaningless to me and hidden each year under more and more graffiti. Today the track has fallen into disrepair.

 

One of my first nights at the Dorais velodrome was in the fall, with a low turnout and leaves skittering across the cracked banked surface. Walden was mostly occupied shouting at two female racers who were preparing for a big competition somewhere. I was clueless and didn’t care. That is until, after a series of timed flying 200m events by the two women, Walden suddenly focused his shouting at me. “What about you? Let’s go: 200m as fast as you can go! Pedal circles and finish at the line!”

The two muscular women quickly shared some strategy – line up high on the track on the first corner and then dive for the blue line (marking the 200m mark) and then stay as low as possible on the “pole lane” or black line to the finish.

Moments later, exhausted but exhilarated by the speed, Walden barked out a time (“13.8!”) and turned to other riders. The two women, Sue Novara and Sheila Young, slowed to pass along compliments, “wow – you’re a fast little thing.” Little did I know that both were rivals and world champions in this exact event – the match sprint on the velodrome.  I was surrounded by greatness. I was lucky. It only takes a quick spin through Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” to realize that one of the core elements of the Wolverine Sport Club and my own success was simply the environment: we all got an early start on the requisite 10 years/10,000 hours of deliberate practice that greatness requires.

Another great book, that might have have featured Walden as its poster child is by Geoff Colvin’s “Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.” The thesis? “Greatness doesn’t come from DNA but from practice and perseverance honed over decades – and not just plain old hard work, like your grandmother might have advocated, but a very specific kind of work.”

“The key is how you practice, how you analyze the results of your progress and learn from your mistakes, that enables you to achieve greatness.” Deliberate practice, as practiced by Mozart, Bill Gates, Tiger Woods, Sheila Young and Frankie Andreu, is an unrelenting focus on the potentially mind-numbing basics of a sport or activity. In fact, at the tennis camp in Spartak, Siberia referenced earlier, kids spent an inordinate amount of time swinging rackets at the air before they were even allowed to hit balls, and then they were not allowed to enter a tournament until they had 3 years of practice under their belts.

Daniel Coyle then describes the unique characteristics of the coaches who create the right environment for focus on deliberate practice. In one chapter he details the key elements of a master coach, by documenting the actions of a certain famous athletic coach. This coach’s “teaching utterances or comments were short, punctuated, and numerous. “There were no lectures, no extended harangues…. “He rarely spoke longer than twenty seconds. “What made this coach great, “wasn’t praise, wasn’t denunciation, and certainly wasn’t pep talks. “His skill resided in the Gatling-gun rattle of targeted information he fired at his players.”

This, not that. Here, not there. “His words and gestures served as short, sharp impulses that showed his players the correct way to do something. “He was seeing and fixing errors. “He was honing circuits.”

For those that knew him, this sounds exactly like Mike Walden. But this case study was of basketball’s John Wooden. The circuits Daniel refers to are the biological occurrences of “myelination” – the wrapping of neural circuits that become “talent” through repetition, coaching, and deliberate practice.

The hubris of youth suggests the following: “everything good that I have – I’ve earned.” And then the corollary “Everything I don’t have? Not my fault – I wasn’t born with that talent (or I’ve been thwarted by outside forces.”)

With time, maturity and a series of books by acclaimed authors I’ve been forced to realize that virtually all my athletic accomplishments and perhaps even all of my achievements in general – even in academics – boil down a couple simple facts: 1) I had the right parents (a subject for another day), and 2) I was born, raised, and trained at the right place at the right time: Detroit, 1980, WSC… with Walden.

Take away Dorais, Walden, Waterford, and the repeated refrains of “pedal circles,” “win it at the line,” and “race your strengths, train your weaknesses,” and humbly, it is clear that my entire life’s journey would be on a different trajectory. Gone would have been a bid for the Olympics, gone the silver medal, gone the singular element that encouraged some strong undergraduate (and graduate) schools to accept a student with SAT’s and GMAT’s that were at best “average” for these institutions.

My relationship with Mike Walden was not one I would have described as friendly: I came to practice, and he yelled at me. During practice, he yelled at me. Sometimes, after practice, he yelled at me. This was the same for most of the team, though I sometimes I felt singled out. Dorais velodrome was the worst – in the oval you were always within shouting distance. The bumpy track in the inner city was fraught with danger – bumps, graffiti, random kids throwing rocks, and the worst of all, crosswinds. Week after week, year after year, Walden demanded that riders should have only a 4 – 8 inch distance between the tires of other riders in high speed pacelines against crosswinds, over uncertain pavement, and variable speeds – all on racing bikes without brakes or gears. “Follow the wheel” meant be right on the wheel in front of you. If you let a few more inches stretch out as the peleton accordioned down the homestretch, then Walden’s penetrating voice was right there, “close the gap Coyle! Get on the wheel!”

Between each activity, Walden was not shy on letting anyone and everyone know how bad they had failed. “Alcala – you’re a disaster – can’t ride a straight line.” “Andreu – you pick it up every single time you hit the front.” “Paellela – you’re herky-jerky – ride smoothly, quit riding up on everyone.” I was afraid – everyone was afraid – to get it wrong, and you modified each and every pedal stroke to pedal circles, keep an even distance, accelerate smoothly, and drop down after pull at the front. I didn’t know it then, but this extraordinary focus on pedaling fundamentals every Tuesday for nearly 10 years allowed a 30+ year racing career featuring 3000+ races, with almost no crashes (<10), and not one injury serious enough to prevent racing the next day. It also gave my limited strengths a path for success: to move swiftly and safely through the peleton in preparation for the sprint in a manner that may be my primary defining strength as a cyclist. Mike always said, “race your strengths,” here’s a video of that put into action. 

Walden was not one to shower complements. In 1980 at 11 years old, racing as a Wolverine, I won the national championships at the Balboa Park Velodrome in San Diego, California. In the process I also met Eric Heiden who I would “pro-fro” with (live with for a week as a prospective freshman/frosh at Stanford 6 years later.) My relationship with Walden had only slightly warmed over the years, nonetheless I was fully expecting some warm words after my victory against some difficult odds against the likes of Jamie Carney. Immediately after the awards ceremony, still wearing my stars-and-stripes jersey, Walden sought me out and came up extending his hand. I was beaming and expecting (finally) some recognition. Instead I heard, “Don’t get cocky – it’s just a race. “There are a lot more important ones in your future.” He turned on his heel and stomped away. 30 years later and I can still feel the flush of heat to my cheeks as I describe that moment.

podium-1980.jpg

By the time I was in my late teens, I was winning races left and right. At 15, like Frankie Andreu, I was solicited by the almighty 7-11 team, and raced for them over the next couple of years. I continued attending Walden practices and continued to fear his penetrating bark. I had decided that he must clearly hate me until an odd morning one summer many years later after he had passed away.

Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 3.45.11 PM.png

I had been invited to a club ride that was leaving from Walden’s house in Berkley one Saturday morning (we still met there even though Mike had passed away). I rolled into the driveway a little early and no one was there, so Harriet Walden, Mike’s widow invited me into the comfortable, but humble home. I was struck by how normal it seemed. For nearly a decade Mike had been an enigma to me, someone ‘other than human’ who only pushed and prodded, who only repeated the same damn things again and again, “pedal circles! “Finish at the line! “Race your strengths!” It was odd to think of him having the normal accoutrements of modern life. Harriet was very accommodating and seemed to know all about me. As I waited for the other riders to arrive, she said something to me that shocked me then, and still cuts me to the core now, “You know, Mike was very fond of you…” She paused, waiting for her words to sink in. “He spoke very highly of you.” I was stunned.

I didn’t know. But I know now. I should have known then. How could I not know? What kind of courage does it take to push someone to become all they can be and never even ask for any acknowledgment in return?  

A few years ago Richard Noiret made a movie, “Chasing the Wind” about Walden and the Wolverine Sports Club. I believe this is the tip of the iceberg. How did a club in a random suburb of Detroit produce 5 Olympians, 10 World Champions, 300 National medalists, and more than 25% of the nation’s national champion cyclists for two decades?

I’m a coach myself now, both for an incredible team at work, and as the head coach for the Franklin Park speedskating club. It’s odd: I’m relatively terrible at coaching speedskating despite a life dedicated to practicing the sport – it feels like total mayhem. Yet, every Tuesday night, more than one of the kids will say to me, “thanks Coach John!” as they leave the ice, despite all my yelling and it gives he a huge thrill. During all my formative years, it never, ever occurred to me to thank my coach – Affholter, Young, Walden – and it never occurred to me that they weren’t paid for all that time, effort and shouting.

Theron Walden (Mike) died February 12, 1996. I never even new his real name. I was probably busy with something I thought was important. I missed the funeral. It came to me later that I had never really known the man, and worse, that never, in my life had I ever said, the simple words I write now, 15 ½ years later. Thank you, Mike.

I owe you more than you could possibly imagine, but it is only now that I realize it. Thank you Mike – for your (tough) love, and your legacy that I’m attempting, clumsily, to pass on.

—————————————-

 

PS: In order to pass on Mike’s legacy I feel I must pass on the below verbatim. It concerns a sophisticated understanding of strengths vs. weaknesses that is best described in the incredible book, “Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham. As usual, an incredible amount of science belies the couple sharp barks that only become clear with time and repetition. This is another great legacy of Mike’s: repetition is the key to coaching. Think carefully about the conundrum posed by the below and what it suggests for your life’s path regarding your strengths, passions, and weaknesses:

Race your strengths, train your weaknesses.
Racing is the best training.
Race your strengths, train your weaknesses.

Racing is the best training.

References:

  • “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell

 http://www.amazon.com/Outliers-Story-Success-Malcolm-Gladwell/dp/0316017930/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1318566226&sr=8-1

  • “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle

 http://www.amazon.com/Talent-Code-Greatness-Born-Grown/dp/055380684X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1318566246&sr=1-1

  • “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin

 http://www.amazon.com/Talent-Overrated-World-Class-Performers-EverybodyElse/dp/1591842948/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1318566269&sr=1-1

  • “Now Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham

 http://www.amazon.com/Discover-Your-Strengths-Marcus-Buckingham/dp/0743201140/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1321302063&sr=8-1

National Championship results, 10 years:  1972 – 1981, Road & Track (Virtually all the MI racers were club members or trained with Mike)

1972 –  Road – Milwaukee, WI, Aug. 5-6

SENIOR WOMEN

1.        Debbie Bradley, IA, 28mi in 1:19:10

2.        Jeanne Omelenchuk, MI

3.        Eileen Brennan, MI

 

 1973 Track – Northbrook, IL, Aug. 1-4

SENIOR MEN 10 MILE  –

1.        Roger Young, MI

SENIOR MEN’S MATCH SPRINT : final for 1st and 2nd: Roger Young. Ml beat Jack Disney, CA, 2,0

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT: final for 1st and 2nd: Sheila Young, Ml, beat Sue Novara, Ml, 2,0

MIDGET BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Jeff Bradley, IA, 21

2.        James Gesquiere, MI, 10

 

1974 Road – Pontiac, MI, July 27-28

JUNIOR MEN

1.  David Mayer-Oakes, TX

2. Pat Nielsen, MI

3. Tom Schuler, MI

 

1974 Track – Northbrook, IL, July 31-Aug. 3

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT – Final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara, MI, beat Sheila Young, MI, 2.0

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.      Connie Paraskevin, MI, 21

MIDGET BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.         Kevin Johnson, MI, 14

2.          Troy Stetina, IN, 8

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Jacque Bradley, IA, 21

2.         Debbie Zbikowski, MI, 9

 

1975 Road – Louisville, KY, Aug. 14-15

SENIOR MEN

1.        Wayne Stetina, IN, 114mi in 4:35:53.22

2.        Dave Boll, CA

3.        Tom Schuler, MI

 

1976 – Track – Northbrook, IL, Aug. 3-4

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT- Final for 1st and 2nd: Sheila Young, MI, beat Sue Novara, MI, 2,1

JUNIOR WOMEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Jane Brennan, MI, 17

INTERMEDIATE BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Jeff Bradley, LA, 17

2.        James Gesquiere, MI, 15

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Connie Paraskevin, MI, 19

2.        Nancy Merlo, MI, 12

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Kirstie Walz, NJ, 19

2.        Susan Schaugg, MI, 15

3.        Anne Obermeyer, MI, 8

4.        Lisa Parkes, MI, 5

 

1977 – Road, Seattle, WA, July 26-Aug. 6

SENIOR WOMEN – 1.        Connie Carpenter, WI, 38.24mi in 1:38:31

JUNIOR MEN

1.        Greg LeMond, NV, 71.5mi in 3:10:40

 

2.        Jeff Bradley IA

JUNIOR WOMEN

1.        Beth Heiden, WI, 31.5mi in 1:24:28

MIDGET BOYS

1.        Grant Foster, CA, 11.25mi in 31:27

2.        Greg Foster, CA

3.        Jimmy Georgler, CA

4.        Glen Driver, CA

5.        Frankie Andreu, MI

MIDGET GIRLS

1.        Sue Schaugg, MI, 9mi in 27:50

2.        Lisa Parkes , MI

3.        Ann Marie Obermayer , MI

 

1977 – Track– Marymoor Velodrome, Redmond, WA, Aug. 2-6

JUNIOR WOMEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Connie Paraskevin, MI, 15

2.        Dana Scruggs, IN, 10

3.        Nancy Merlo, MI, 8

4.        Rena Walls, MI, 7

5.        Jane Brennan, MI, 7

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Susan Schaugg, MI, 14

2.        Lisa Parks, MI, 12

 

1978 Road Milwaukee, WI, July 26-30

JUNIOR MEN

1.        Jeff Bradley, IA. 7Omi in 2:50:48

2.        Greg LeMond, NV

JUNIOR WOMEN

1.        Sherry Nelsen, MO, 24mi in 1:03:51

2.        Tracy McConachie, IL

3.        Nancy Merlo, MI

4.        Karen Schaugg, MI

5.        Louise Olson, MI

VETERAN WOMEN

1.        Jeanne Omelenchuck, MI 15mi in 40:26

MIDGET GIRLS

1.        Elise Lobdell, IN

2.        Tyra Goodman, MI

3.        Beth Burger, PA

4.        Karn Radford, CA

5.        Celeste Andreu, MI

 

1978 – Track – Kenosha, WI, Aug. 1-5

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT – final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara-Reber, MI, beat Jackie Disney, CA, 2,0

SENIOR WOMEN POINTS RACE

1.        Mary Jane Reoch, PA

2.        Cary Peterson, WA

3.        Sue Novara-Reber, MI

JUNIOR MEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Eric Baltes, WI, 13 pts

2.        James Gesquiere, MI, 12

3.        Jeff Bradley, IA, 8

JUNIOR WOMEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Connie Paraskevin, MI, 17

2.        Sherry Nelsen, MO, 15

 

3.        Tracy McConachie, IL, 7

4.        Nancy Merlo, MI, 6

5.        Rena Walls, MI, 3

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Beth Burger, PA, 19

2.        Elise Lobdell, IN, 11

3.        Tyra Goodman, MI, 7

4.        Karn Radford, CA, 7

5.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 7

 

1979– Road – Milwaukee, WI, Aug. 1-5

SENIOR WOMEN

1.        Connie Carpenter, CA. 39.6mi in 1:44:16

2.        Beth Heiden, WI

JUNIOR MEN

1.        Greg LeMond, NV, 70.4mi in 2:55:08

VETERAN WOMEN

1.        Jean Omelenchuk, MI, 15mi in 43:30

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS

1.        Sarah Docter, WI, 15mi in 38:02

2.        Sue Schaugg, MI

3.        Abby Eldridge, CO

4.        Lisa Parkes, MI

5.        Laura Merlo, MI

MIDGET GIRLS

1.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 9mi in 27:09

2.        Elizabeth Keyser, CA

3.        Melanie Parkes, MI

1979 – Track – Northbrook, IL, Aug. 7-12

SENIOR MEN POINTS RACE

1.        Gus Pipenhagen, IL, 18 pts

2.        Roger Young, MI, 18

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT  Final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara-Reber, MI, beat Jackie Disney, CA, 2,0

JUNIOR WOMEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Rebecca Twigg, WA, 16

2.        Connie Paraskevin, MI, 13

JUNIOR MEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Mark Whitehead, CA, 15 pts

2.        Jeff Bradley, IA, 13

3.        Peter Kron, IL, 7

4.        James Gesquiere, MI, 6

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Brenda Hetlet, WI, 17

2.        Susan Schaugg, MI, 10

3.        Laura Merlo, MI, 10

4.        Lisa Parkes, MI, 7

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Susan Clayton, IA, 17

2.        Jennifer Gesquiere, MI, 15

3.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 13

4.        Elizabeth Keyser, CA, 4

5.        Melanie Parkes, MI, 3

1980 – Road – Bisbee, Az, Aug. 13-17

SENIOR WOMEN

1.        Beth Heiden, WI, 35mi in 1:43:56

JUNIOR WOMEN

1.        Sarah Docter, WI, 28mi in 1:25:58

2.        Rebecca Twigg, WA

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS

1.        Dedra Chamberlin, CA, l7mi in 57:52

2.        Lisa Lobdell, IN

3.        Mary Farnsworth, CA

4.        Lisa Parkes, MI

5.        Susan Schaugg, MI

MIDGET BOYS

1.        John Chang, MI, 7mi in 24:29.54

2.        Steve MacGregor, WI

3.        Hector Jacome, CA

4.        John Coyle, MI

5.        Jamie Carney, NJ

MIDGET GIRLS

1.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 7mi in 39:59

2.        Lisa Andreu, MI

 

1980 – Track – San Diego, CA, Aug. 20-23

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT -Final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara-Reber, MI, beat Pam Deem, PA, 2,0

INTERMEDIATE BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Tim Volker, IA, 19

2.        Brad Hetlet, WI, 11

3.        Bobby Livingston, GA, 10

4.        Joe Chang, WI, 4

5.        Frankie Andreu, MI, 4

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Susan Schaugg, MI, 14

2.        Dedra Chamberlin, CA, 9

3.        Amy Saling, NJ, 7

4.        Mary Krippendorf, WI, 7

5.        Lisa Parkes, MI, 6

MIDGET BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        John Coyle, MI, 19

2.        Jamie Carney, NJ, 11

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Celeste Andrau, MI, 17

2.        Jennie Gesquiere, MI, 15

 

1981 Bear Mountain, NY, Aug. 3-9

INTERMEDIATE BOYS

1.        Gordon Holterman, VA, 33mi in 1:33:47

2.        David Farmer, PA

3.        Frankie Andreu, MI

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS

1.        Elizabeth Keyser, CA, 23.4mi in 1:15:15

2.        Bozena Zalewski, NJ

3.        Celeste Andreu, MI

MIDGET GIRLS

1.        Lisa Andreu, MI, 11.7mi in 38:17

2.        Joella Harrison, AZ

3.        Gina Novara, M

 

1981 Track – Trexlertown, PA, Aug. 11-16

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT –  Final for lat and 2nd: Sheila Young-Ochowicz, WI, beat Connie Paraskevin, MI, 2,0

Final for 3rd and 4th: Sue Navara-Reber, MI, beat Betsy Davis, NJ, 2,0

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Rene Duprel, WA, 19

2.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 15

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Jenny Gesquiere, MI, 21

2.        Gina Novara, MI, 15

3.        Alicia Andreu, MI, 9

 

This list only represents cycling nationals – note the rising tide of MI athletes on the national stage.

 What is missing is the world and Olympic results for cycling and the same results for speedskating. Champions like Gold, Silver and Bronze Olympic medalist Sheila Young, World Champion Roger Young, World Champion and Olympic medalists Connie Paraskevan, World Champion Sue Novara, 9 Times Tour de France Rider and Olympic 4th place finisher Frankie Andreu – and on and on the list is a Who’s Who of American cyclists and speedskaters.