As I sit in my parents’ living room on the last day of 2012, I can’t help but find myself taking stock of the year that’s gone by and my hopes and dreams for the one that’s about to come.
After years spent in school, I’ve finally hit the stage of my life where the past year can seem little different from those that came before it. Have I really learned that much, developed enough new skills, and gained enough experience, that I am significantly different person now from the person I was at this time last year?
Yes and no. I’ve made some strides in some areas and taken a few steps back in others. But I have come to a realization that has made a big difference in how I approach achieving my goals: most of us are pretty mediocre at most things, and it follows that, if we want to be great at something, we need to act in a way that is different from the actions that most people take.
Hopefully that seems obvious, but it has massive implications if we think it through to its logical conclusion. It helps me to combat one of the biggest barriers to making the changes that I seek: the inertia of my activities and habits and those of the people I interact with.
Here’s a concrete example: I want to qualify for the Boston Marathon next year, which requires running 26.2 miles, or about 42 kilometers, in less than two hours and 50 minutes. Most people will never run a marathon, and fewer still will run one that fast.
Knowing that makes it much easier to question the conventional wisdom that has become ingrained in my mind. There are times when I should get up and go running, but I’m tired, or discouraged, or it’s cold or stormy outside. I find myself telling myself that a day off won’t hurt, that I’ve earned a break, even that it might be more dangerous in the rain or snow and I’d be doing myself a favour by staying home. But I’m able to step back and identify these ideas for what they are: excuses that keep so many of us from achieving our fitness goals. When race day comes, there’s no credit given for adverse circumstances, and it’s these times, when I’m feeling bad but run anyway, that could make the difference between achieving my goal and falling short. (This isn’t to say that there aren’t times that I should take a day off but don’t, but that’s a different issue!)
A related, but more broadly applicable, situation is that of food and nutrition. Many people struggle with healthy eating, and want to do better. Yet we maintain traditions and norms that do the opposite. At my workplace, a Costco truck rolls in every two weeks, filling our common areas with every type of chocolate bar, candy, and soft drink that you can imagine; during crunch time, we’re “rewarded” with cupcakes, donuts, and other treats. An evening event wouldn’t be complete without some sort of snack; at parties, we attempt to outdo each other with extravagant, calorie-rich appetizers and desserts. And restaurants are, by and large, filled with menu options that are completely out of whack with the average person’s energy needs.
In my experience, the only solution is to opt out. I can feel the effect of overeating or eating non-nourishing foods on my running training, and so I know that a lot of the common excuses (“Just try one,” “It’s Christmas/New Year’s/your birthday/someone else’s birthday/national boss day,” or just the simple presence of food, waiting to be eaten) are just that. It was hard at first, but it’s incredibly freeing to make my own, evidence-based decisions about what I’m going to eat and when. If I want a different result, I need to make different decisions.
This occurs in more subtle ways as well. For example, most dietary advice is designed for low-activity lifestyles. I ran more than 50 miles last week; at 100 calories per mile, that’s 5000 extra calories that my body needs just to replenish what I’ve lost. Beyond that, it needs protein to repair and build my muscles, carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores, and a moderate amount of fat. If you look at what athletes actually eat, it looks a lot like pretty normal food, is in quantities proportional to their activity level. When I started out, I would respond to being hungry after a run by eating a bag of carrots. In addition to turning my skin orange, it didn’t address my body’s need for energy and nutrients, and my performance suffered as a result.
I’ve spent this year, as I have the last several, focusing on my health and fitness. You may want to focus on something else, but I firmly believe that the same principle applies: if you want to get better at something, you need to act in a way that is different from the habits, conventions, and customs that you know. A way that is not normal.
Want to be more generous? Go beyond the ad-hoc, haphazard approach that most of us take. Plan your giving ahead of time. Get strategic. Identify needs that you are uniquely equipped to meet. Figure out if you need to allocate your resources differently in order to become the giving person you want to be.
Want to learn a new skill, musical instrument, or craft? Figure out how your life needs to change to make space for that goal. Figure out what has stopped you so far, and devise a plan to eliminate the biggest obstacles. Regularly assess what’s working and what isn’t, and adjust accordingly.
I’m just getting started at this myself, and I fall short of my ideals in so many areas. However, I firmly believe that the Morgan of today may struggle in a particular area, but the Morgan of tomorrow, or next week, or next year can do better. In the meantime, I’m trying my best to enjoy the process of getting there.
I was pretty involved in sports growing up: I was on a competitive swim team for a few years; I played soccer; I refereed soccer; in high school, I ran cross-country and on the track and was on the swim team. Given that, it may surprise you that I didn’t consider myself good at sports. Well, actually, if you knew me when I was growing up, it probably doesn’t surprise you at all.
I didn’t think I was good at sports because I wasn’t good at the sports that I thought mattered: the sports that the popular kids played. These were invariably the team sports, where skill won games and goodwill amongst teammates and respect against opponents. What all my sporting activities had in common was that I didn’t need to depend on others to do well in them, and others didn’t depend on me. If I screwed up, I had nobody to blame but myself, but I hadn’t really hurt anyone else, either. Even when I played soccer, I was the goalie, which required a different set of skills from the other players.
I always struggled at team sports: I could never get the proper spiral when I threw a football, rarely hit the rim with a basketball, and never quite got my volleyball serve nailed down. To me, I just “wasn’t good” at them. It never crossed my mind that my classmates’ superior skills may simply have been a result of them spending more time learning and playing than I did. While I was sitting at a computer, they were probably bouncing a ball outside or playing catch with a family member. I spent my time differently, so it isn’t really surprising that I wasn’t as good as the other kids.
I’ve never stopped wanting to be good at sports. What I’ve realized, though, is that the only way I’m going to get better is if I put the time in and learn how to play. I’m starting with hockey, and while it’s been humbling to have to spend so much time working on fundamentals, it’s been really healthy as well. It’s very different from my running, which I have a lot of natural talent for and am striving to excel. This is about starting with nothing and becoming skilled enough that I could hold my own in a pick-up game.
The good news is that I’ve got time. Hockey will keep me occupied for the next year or two, but there’s basketball, ultimate frisbee, volleyball, football, and other sports out there. I may never be amazing at any of them, but I’ll at least know how to play. And if anyone tries to make fun of me, I’ll offer to take them on a run and see how they feel after 20 miles or so. Good luck teasing me when you’ve collapsed on the ground in exhaustion.
I ran the San Francisco Marathon on Sunday. The results are posted online, so you can take a look for yourself. (Spoiler: I finished in 3:25:57.) You can also see a video of me crossing the finish line. If you look closely, you might notice that my running stride looks rather awkward. Taking a closer look at my splits, you might also notice that my pace slowed dramatically during the second half of the race.
This was my third marathon, having run the San Francisco marathon last July and the California International Marathon in Sacramento in December. The first marathon was about finishing; the second one was supposed to be about speed, but ended up being far too much about walking. I gave myself an overtraining injury about two months before race day, and by the time I recovered, I wasn’t fit enough to achieve the results I was looking for.
I started this particular marathon training cycle late, primarily because of work pressure. What was supposed to be a 16-week training cycle ended up being less than 12, and many of those early weeks weren’t as intense as they should have been. However, given the circumstances, my training went quite well, and I went into race day cautiously optimistic that I might even qualify for the Boston Marathon, which requires a time of 3:10 or better. I tapered properly, I loaded up on carbs, and I fuelled and hydrated myself appropriately before and during the race.
What caught up to me were the hills. It shouldn’t really have been a surprise that a training regiment consisting almost entirely of flat terrain isn’t the best way to prepare for one of the hilliest marathon courses in the country. I felt great during the first half, but I knew by mile 15 that the second half was going to be painful. My calf muscles started warning me that they’d had just about enough, and I had to slow down. By the end of it, I was having full-on muscle spasms; I would walk until they went away, and then resume running, attempting to moderate my stride and pace to keep my legs functioning. I barely made it across the finish line.
Just prior to the marathon, I read a book entitled Run: The mind-body method of running by feel by Matt Fitzgerald, which changed my perspective on training. Of course, by that time, it was too late to make any adjustments for my current race, but I came away with the conclusion that I was being lazy in my training. Each of my training runs was at the same speed on largely flat terrain. I did essentially no interval training, no tempo runs, and no hill training. I was building up running volume, but I just didn’t put in the type of work that I needed to do to reach my potential as a runner.
My performance at this marathon was quite good by conventional standards; I finished in the top 7% of runners at this marathon, which is something to be proud of. However, I think that I have the potential to be a sub-2:45 marathon runner if I commit to pushing myself in my training. I won’t get there this year (I’m going to aim for a 3:10 finish in Sacramento in December), but I’ll continue to strive for improvement in every race I run. The winner of this year’s San Francisco Marathon is 37. I’ve got some time.
I saw Blaine’s post about getting into fitness and decided to take the time to post my own story of how I made exercise a part of my life. It’s been almost two years now since I started getting in shape, and despite a lot of ups and downs along the way, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
One of the requirements for becoming a don (RA) at my residence was that I had to complete a basic first aid and CPR course. It was a weekend class, covering the basics of injuries and how to deal with them. Enough time has passed that I don’t recall the details, but I do remember hearing about all of the diseases associated with lack of physical activity and poor eating habits. I decided that I needed to make a change. I wasn’t overweight, but I wasn’t in good physical condition, and things weren’t moving in the right direction. I decided that I wanted to fix that. So I did what every person who wants to improve their body image does: I hit the gym.
Looking back, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I exercised too much: 6 or 7 times a week of exercise that was at a very high intensity given my fitness level. I didn’t eat the right types of food, and because I wasn’t used to exercising so much, I didn’t eat enough of it. As a result, my stomach was never satisfied and I would go through periods of eating way too much as my body tried to compensate. Looking back, it’s surprising that I was able to stick with it through the bumps in the road.
This wasn’t the first time that I tried to improve my physical fitness. I can remember using the only piece of cardio equipment my parents owned, a machine sort of like a stair climber, in an attempt to improve my track and field performance in grade 5. Over the years, I’d picked up running for a time (the longest stretch was in high school, when I was on the cross country team), but it never lasted. So what was different this time?
To put it simply, I made fitness a part of my life. I listened to my body when it said it was sore. I started paying attention to what I was eating, figuring out how different types of foods made me feel and how much food I really needed to feel satisfied. I switched up the types of exercise I was doing to add variety and make sure that I was doing things that I enjoyed. All of this happened gradually, and I’m still learning, two years later. But I get better every week.
Over time, exercising became a part of who I am. It’s no longer something that I do because I force myself, it’s something that I like to do. These days, I’ve shifted more to running: I finished my first marathon in July and am training for another one in December, trying to run it fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon. That’s my current goal, but after I’m done with marathoning, I’m also looking forward to cycling more, swimming, trying out rock climbing, and maybe even learning to skate better. Meanwhile, I’m doing some weight training to gradually strengthen my body.
To anyone else who’s looking to get into shape: In a world of quick fixes, exercise is one of those things that takes time to do right. At the grocery store, I see magazines claiming to offer a plan to drop 15 pounds in a month. Leaving the physical impossibility of that aside, these type of plans give people the false impression that, by trying hard enough for a short period of time, they can undo the damage done by years of poor eating habits and inadequate exercise. That’s just not how it works, and very few people have the willpower to do something they hate for a period of time that could stretch into years. You’ve got to make fitness a part of who you are, something that you do because you enjoy. Blaine is right: fitness is a journey, not a destination. And it’s a journey worth taking.
Sports as Escapism
As the summer comes to an end and the days get shorter, we’re entering the beginning of the season for many of the most popular North American sports. The NFL is in preseason, college football is already underway, and the NBA won’t be far behind. Of the major sports, by far my favourite is hockey: I grew up as a big fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and really enjoyed spending my Saturday nights watching Hockey Night in Canada. Now that I’m here in the Valley, I’ve begun to follow the local team. Tickets are a lot more affordable, and the team is better than the anemic Leafs of late, so there’s a lot to like about the Sharks.
Sports is an obsession in this country. ESPN charges cable and satellite distributors an average monthly fee of over $4 per subscriber, more than four times the average fee of its closest rival. Every NFL regular-season and playoff game is carried on network television. This past Saturday afternoon, no fewer than six different channels were airing college football games, and even high school games are televised with some regularly. Put simply, Americans really like watching sports.
As sports fever has grown, Americans themselves have become less fit. Obesity has steadily increased in recent decades. Fast-food restaurants offer huge portions of food high in fat, salt, and sugar, even as exercise levels are decreasing. The average American, though devoting a huge amount of time to watching athletic events, is less athletic than ever.
What’s going on here? I view it as escapism, pure and simple. Rather that going out and accomplishing things, we instead revel in the accomplishments of others. Athletes are put on a pedestal and treated like heroes, as superpeople who do things that us ordinary folk aren’t capable of. True, not everyone can be a star quarterback or a leading scorer. But I strongly believe that, if we apply ourselves to a challenge, we can accomplish more than we ever thought possible. That goes for athletic endeavors, but it also goes for the rest of life too.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m in the process of training for a marathon. Last week was a rough week: the mileage stepped up considerably, and by the end of Thursday’s run, the third in three days, I was exhausted. I felt like I’d bitten off more than I could chew. But I took Friday off, as per plan, ran my planned slow run on Saturday, and then ran my longest distance yet on Sunday at a great pace. That exhausting training from earlier in the week paid off, and I’m confident that I’m on track to meet my goal time in December. I still have a long way to go, but I’ve still made a tremendous amount of progress, more than I thought possible.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m continuing to cheer for my favourite hockey teams. But instead of viewing the players as superhuman, I view them as excellent athletes who have worked extraordinarily hard to get to where they are today. I view them as role models, as people to emulate, rather than as idols. I’m not going to make the NHL, but I can still set goals and do my best to achieve them. It’s likely that less sports would be watched on TV if more people spent time playing sports. That would probably be an improvement for everyone involved.
The Man with the Newspaper
My apartment is located quite close to a major thoroughfare in Silicon Valley, El Camino Real (translated as “the royal road”). Since I don’t have a car, I most often get around on my bicycle, but sometimes the bus is more practical. In an area with mediocre bus service, El Camino is home to the only 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week bus line in the Valley. Running as often as every 12 minutes during peak hours, route 22 is the easiest way to get from one side of the Valley to the other on public transportation. Because of its relatively significant length (25 miles, over 100 stops, and a two-hour trip from beginning to end), its route along a seemingly endless strip of commercial property, and the fact that it runs all night, it’s also a popular route for homeless people. Some ride the bus all night, scraping together the $6.00 for a day pass and traveling from one end of the Valley to another. There’s a reason that the route has the nickname of “Hotel 22.”
Even during the day, there are a good number of homeless aboard the bus. After more than a year of riding the bus consistently, I’ve begun to recognize people. There’s one person who is particularly notable because he won’t let anyone see his face. To accomplish this, he keeps a newspaper that he holds over his face, far too close to read anything on the pages. This morning, I spotted him as he was boarding the bus, fumbling for change and searching with his hands for the location of the farebox.
I’ve never talked to the man with the newspaper. In fact, I’m not even sure of his (or her?) gender. He sits quietly on the bus, waiting for his destination. (He must rely on the automated announcements to know where to get off.) But I do wonder why he won’t allow others to see his face. Maybe it’s disfigured in some way, and he’s embarrassed, or maybe there’s a different explanation. But what’s certain is that hiding his face affects his life in significant ways. I don’t know how he earns his money (if only for bus fare), but it can’t be easy when his every interaction is conducted behind a piece of newsprint.
While it’s unfair to compare this man’s predicament to my life situation in any way, I do see parallels to a larger life lesson. We all have barriers that limit what we accomplish. Some of these are physical: for example, it’s no secret that most athletes are much taller than average; at a decidedly average 5-foot-7, I’m unlikely to be playing basketball in the NBA anytime soon. But far more of our barriers are mental. We let emotions like fear, inadequacy, and uncertainty prevent us from reaching our potential. Instead of taking action to improve our situation, we let our dreams slip away, thinking that we don’t have what it takes to realize them. We let our imperfections get in the way.
I don’t know if the homeless man who rides the 22 will ever shed his newspaper. I hope so: even if he has some sort of physical abnormality, his situation can only improve when he summons the courage to allow himself to see. In the same way, I’m done with letting fear and insecurity keep me from realizing my potential. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I’m slowly figuring it out. One thing’s for sure: I’ve been given too much to let it all go to waste. And I don’t intend to.
On Marathons and Community
At the end of July, I ran my first marathon. While my training routine did not at all resemble any of the marathon training plans out there (what reputable trainer would advise you to run really long distances but to train only 3 times a week, and then stop running entirely for the two months leading up to the marathon?), I still finished in a very respectable time of 3:49:06. I walked away from the finish line feeling sore (limped would probably be a more accurate description), but with a heightened desire to run a marathon again sooner rather than later. (For what it’s worth, you can follow my training for the California Internationl Marathon in Sacramento, which I’ll be running at the beginning of December.)
One of the interesting features of most large marathons these days are the pace groups. In essence, the marathon organizers select teams of experienced runners who can finish the race in a particular amount of time. Those runners show up at the start line with signs indicating that finishing time, and then run at a relatively steady pace through the marathon, using GPS devices or their watches to keep them on track. I ran with the 3:50 pace group, and it’s the main reason that I finished so well.
At the beginning of the race, there was a huge pack of runners following the pace team leaders. However, the pack dwindled as the race wore on, dropping dramatically at the midway point of the race as the half-marathon runners (aiming for a 1:55 pace time) broke off from the group towards their finish line. Nearing the 20-mile mark of the race, we were down to about a dozen runners.
Being able to run with people that I was confident would run the race steadily and evenly, and at the pace that I want to maintain for the race, was a big advantage. At the beginning, the pace felt ludicrously slow; by the end, I was having a lot of trouble keeping up, as my lack of training was beginning to show. The pace group was great for another reason, though: it effectively became an impromptu support group. We were a group of people who had not known each other the day before, yet we encouraged each other, told stories, laughed, and cheered “3:50!” at the spectators who showed up to cheer us on. Near the end of the race, as I was having difficulty and was at risk of falling behind, an older man encouraged me to catch up to the group, and even led me past them in the last mile. With his encouragement, I found energy that I didn’t know I had and finished the race sprinting.
With all the commotion and hubbub at the finish line, I never saw any of the pace group members after the race. However, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d experienced something special. I’d experienced a community of people bound together by a common purpose. In this case, it was the rather arbitrary goal of running 26.1 miles in 3 hours and 50 minutes. But for that four-hour span, we turned what could have been a really trying experience (running by oneself for four hours straight is a major test of character) into a really fun and rewarding one.
I was left wondering why communities like this one aren’t more present in our everyday lives. The only thing that I’ve come up with is that we make ourselves believe that things will work out better if we experience life on our own. There are definitely risks in sharing our experiences with others. However, my experience running the streets (and the red bridge) of San Francisco has convinced me that the rewards are greater.
Information and the World of Tech
I ended up going home (to Waterloo) this past weekend on a spur-of-the-moment decision. My itinerary email from Travelocity was dated 10:47 AM on Friday, and the plane pushed back from SFO right on time at 3:25 PM the same day. That’s not something I plan to do often, but it was something that I needed right now, if only to provide perspective on my life. I’ve been driving pretty hard for a while, and needed to take a step back in order to evaluate where I am, where I want to go, and whether or not I’m on track to get there.
Working for a major technology company in Silicon Valley means that there’s constant discussion going on about the field, your company, and even your project. There’s a whole meta-industry that’s sprung up around high tech and the Valley, providing commentary that ranges from tabloid quality (Valleywag and the like) all the way up to the largest media outlets in the country.
In some ways, it’s really exciting that there are people out there who are interested enough in the industry to spend time writing about it. Given how fast things move around here, it’s important to have voices providing intelligent critiques and reflection on the stories of the day. When done right, the process serves to sift through the constant flow of information and figure out what’s really relevant in the long run. However, too many of the outlets that cover the technology sector end up doing the opposite: by reporting on every story, no matter how important or how trivial, they tend to obscure the important stories by overwhelming us with minutiae.
And, in the short term, following along can be fun: it’s exciting to read about every rumor and prediction, read people’s reactions, and to weigh in with your own opinion. It’s an order of magnitude more exciting when people are commenting about things that you have involvement with. In the grand scheme of things, however, these stories are not unlike flash computer games or episodes of The Bachelorette: diversions that, while fun at the time, sap our time and our productivity and distract us from our goals. It’s escapism, like any other form of mindless entertainment.
I’m choosing to recommit myself to the continuous process of making sure that the information I take in is worth my time: that it’s intelligent, thought-provoking, and perspective-expanding. A complementary goal is to put my focus on production (ideas, thoughts, software, and so on) rather than consumption. Consumption needs to be a means to an end: something that we do consciously, in an attempt to improve ourselves in some way and ultimately improve what we produce, rather than being an end in itself.
Of course, there will always be times when I’ll just want to escape a little, and that’s fine. But it’s all too easy to take in what others have to say without thinking critically about it and responding in a thoughtful, reasoned way. I intend to make this forum my outlet for those responses. Feel free to join me.
The journey begins
At the beginning of my journey here, I thought I’d offer some words to explain what I hope to accomplish through my writing and what you can expect from me.
In my younger years, I was quite opinionated, and I didn’t hesitate to share those opinions with anyone who seemed even slightly interested. However, I’ve lost that trait in the last number of years, as school and life intervened. Developing reasoned arguments is a skill that requires practice to maintain, and I’ve gotten rather rusty. In addition, I feel like I’ve reached the point where I have something to contribute to conversations on a variety of topics, particularly the field in which I’ve trained and to which I have chosen to devote my time and energy.
That field is computer software, and it’s one that I’m familiar with and passionate about. However, that passion isn’t always for the technical details, important though they may be. Rather, I’m concerned about the big picture, about ideas. And sometimes, I’m interested in non-technical things as well. I like to examine the systems and structures that touch my life, whatever their nature, and I’ll write about them here when I feel inspired.
I hope you’ll join me along the way!