There is no spoon… Why You Are Only As Old As You Act

I get told fairly often that I need to start taking it easier. That I need to write larger, or make the font size bigger on my laptop. That my eyes are going to go soon.

Friends and family hint that I’m too old to be practicing jujitsu, or parkour, or running obstacle races because when you start getting to my age you don’t heal as fast. You’re more fragile.

I hear other people talking about how their memory isn’t what it used to be, and that they just can’t stay up late and get up early like they did when they were young. That they can’t exercise because of their bad back or that their grip strength is failing.

I think it’s all crap.

There are plenty of examples out there of older people who live incredible, fulfilling lives and do things that would be impossible for people far younger. There is the 96 year old sprinter who is still setting records and the 87 year old German gymnast who can still rock the parallel bars.  Just a quick YouTube search also turned up this 93 year old yoga instructor, and this 80 year old athlete who I’m not sure I could keep up with.

Some of you might be trying to explain away their strength and mobility by saying they hit the genetic jackpot, but I disagree. If you listen closely to their stories there is one thing they all have in common.

They’ve never stopped moving. They’re continuing to push themselves every day of their lives.

Yes, it’s true that you’re at a disadvantage as you age. From a biological standpoint you have become irrelevant. So sure, if you give up, If you slow down and spend more time lounging in comfort, a downhill slide isn’t all that far in your future. But is the simple fact that you are aging the cause?

I think the answer is a resounding NO!

Let me illustrate with a little example. If you spend the day digging postholes for a new fence, unless you have  good pair of gloves, you’ll end up with blisters. But if you spend a few months digging postholes your hands will toughen. You will have calluses so thick that you won’t ever need gloves again.

Why does this happen? The cells of our bodies are continually dying and being replaced. This happens at different rates for different types of cells. Bones and connective tissue are slow, muscle and skin is pretty fast. But lets get back to those blisters.

When the blisters pop and the skin begins to regrow, it will be a little thicker and a little tougher in response to the additional stresses you put on it while you worked.

The same thing happens when you lift weights or carry heavy loads. The muscles and bones respond by adapting to be ready for a similar load in the future. The muscle fibers grow stronger. Bones grow thicker. All of the connective tissues around the stressed joints get stronger as well.

Unfortunately this works in the other direction as well. If you don’t stress the system, when tissue cells are replaced, the body conserves energy by making them a little less strong in anticipation of easy days ahead.

This mechanism is universal. If you don’t uses your eyes in a way that stress them, they will become weak. If you don’t use the full range of motion in your hips, you will begin to lose that mobility. Biologically if you don’t use it, you lose it.

Think about that for a minute. Does this explanation make sense? If you’ve lost a step did it happen before or after you stopped pushing yourself? Did you take some time off only to find out that you could no longer do things that were once effortless? I’m betting I know the answer.

Of course this is a hard thing to accept. Every ache and pain, every annoying decline in performance, is essentially your fault. Luckily, this also means you can reverse the process.

How to Take Action

The first step is prevention. Think about what you want to still be able to do into your twilight years and make a plan. If you want to stay as young as those in the videos above, you need to find ways to continually challenge your body and mind.

  • If you want to be able to play in the floor with your grandchildren years from now, you should be spending as much time as you can sitting on the floor now in preparation.
  • If you want to be able to read without glasses at 90, you need to be spending time outside in nature where you are continually shifting your focus between the near and the far and the minuscule and the massive.
  • If you want to keep your mind sharp you need to find activities that push you to your limits every day. Start building a memory palace. Learn a new language. Travel to a foreign country where everything is unfamiliar and novel.

The second step is to begin the rebuilding process. Be patient. Find your comfortable limits, and then push just a bit past them. Then do it again and again. Here are a few place to go to get started:

Mobility and Flexibility

Mobility WOD – Kelly Starrett is the godfather of restoring mobility. If you want to be as limber as a seven year old girl (mine is like Gumby) he can help you get there in ten minutes a day.

Strength

Gymnastics Bodies – Coach Somer’s program will build you a strong flexible body from the ground up. The progressions are so slow that many people become frustrated and try to skip ahead. Don’t do it. Every set and every rep is designed to steadily load your tissues in a way that will turn you into a physical beast, whatever age group you might fall into.

Vision

In his excellent book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, James Gleck details the method that the great man used to maintain his eyesight. Focusing near and far, utilizing all of the muscles the manipulate and focus the eyes.

Memory

Moonwalking with Einstein – lays out several strategies for developing a bulletproof memory as it traces the author’s journey from journalist to memory champion, plus it’s a really fun book. I’ve recently read that memory problems are not a dysfunction of the brain brought on by aging, but a failure to consciously develop the system used for recalling the massive amount of information that we absorb during the course of our lives. What you really need is a better system of organization. You can learn some here.

Overall Health

Movement Matters and Move Your DNA – These two books by Katy Bowman are on my “read every year list”. Not only is she self-deprecating and funny, but she has an entirely different philosophical approach to living a happy life as a human. She is also wickedly smart.

Ok, those should get you started. If you happen to know of something else that should be on the list feel free to contact me and let me know. Also, if you have any other great examples of incredible older athletes, I’d love to hear them. Now I’ve got to get to bed, I’ve got jujitsu in the morning, and I don’t want to be late.

How Sprinting Showed Me I Was Lazy: The altMBA and Telling Myself Lies

The last month has been a complete whirlwind. I’ve been sprinting with all I’ve got toward a single big goal. In the midst of this work I’ve discovered something. I’ve been lying to myself for years.

Before I explain my chronic self-deception, you might be wondering what this sprint was that showed me the error of my ways. The answer is four weeks of wonderful hell called the altMBA.

I won’t go into all of the details here, but here’s the quick version. A few years ago Seth Godin created a program to replace the overlong and ridiculously priced MBA programs that send thousands of fortune seekers spiraling into debt each year in pursuit of a piece of paper. In his version of the institution there is no accreditation. You don’t receive a degree. There are no continuing education credits. The course is intensely focused on building situations in which you can rapidly learn the practical concepts required to run a business.

In a single month, I read ten books. I shipped fourteen projects in four weeks. I analyzed and provided feedback on an additional sixty. I wrote 22,325 words, not including my feedback on others’ projects. I spent hours and hours collaborating with, and learning from, an amazing group of people. I spent roughly 56 hours in video chatrooms hashing things out with my revolving working groups. Together we faced our fears and challenged ourselves and cheered each other on. It was amazing.

So how was I lying to myself? Well, if you total up all of those activities, it comes out to about 34 hours a week that I was spending on the course. See what I’m getting at? I was able to “find” all of this time, while still taking care of all of the big things in life that needed to get done.

I made it to all of the kids’ end of year programs for school. I was at every soccer game and practice. I was even able to help Crystal with getting things set up for all of her art shows. It wasn’t easy, but I did it.

So lets dig a little deeper. I write roughly 1500 words in an hour. Some quick math reveals that while I’ve been whining in my journals about not having enough time, I could have been writing roughly 51,000 words a month. That’s virtually a book a month that has gone unwritten for years! So why have I not been doing this?

That’s a very good question. Let’s take a look at how I found that time. First, I said no to everything that wasn’t classwork or an immediate family obligation. Second, I refused to go to sleep until I got the work done. The shipping deadline was midnight on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. I ducked in under the wire several times, but I made it happen. Finally, my obligation to my team and the commitment I’d made when I joined the course gave me the leverage I needed to keep myself on track when shiny objects threatened to pull me away from my work.

None of those things are easy. They require dedication and willpower. Somehow I found it in the framework of the course. I didn’t want to let anyone down. I didn’t to waste the tuition money. I didn’t want to disappoint my coaches. So I did it, and it was like most things in life I’ve been afraid of, it wasn’t as hard as I’d thought it would be.

So where do I go from here?

Right now I have momentum. I don’t want to lose it. My plan is to post to this blog on Tuesday, Thursdays, and Sundays, just as if the class were still going on. I’m committed to continue this journey and I’ve decided to take you along. I can’t guarantee that it will always be eloquent, but there’s a chance it will usually be interesting.

The blog isn’t the focus however. It’s only going to be a window into my world. The real work is elsewhere. Here are the commitments I’ve made that will move me toward my goal of becoming a self-supporting writer.

  • I will write 500 words of fiction (minimum) every day for the rest of the year.
  • I will complete and submit one story per quarter to the Writers of the Future contest
  • I will finish the next two books in my science fiction series before the end of the year

There are a lot of other things that go along with those commitments, but I don’t want to overly clutter the post. I’ll detail those out as they come up.

So that’s it then. I’m done lying to myself and ready to let the words flow again. It’s time to get started.

Faith and The Universal Yes Man

Faith is a wonderful and a terrible thing, and unfortunately I think it might be at the root of many of the problems plaguing our society today.

I’m not talking about religion, well  not exclusively about religion. To me faith is any complete and unquestioning belief in a person, or an idea, or an institution, or an information source that allows no deviation from the message.

The way I see it, having faith is a necessity. It’s the foundation on which we build our lives. We need trusted sources of information. These might be holy books, or pundits, or authors, or researchers, or professors, or online communities. For most of us, it’s several of these in combination.

These information streams become heuristics for living our lives. They shape our self-images. They provide stability, and certainty, and a starting point for our dreams and plans. Our sources may differ, but we all have these core information streams that guide us.

But faith in these streams also creates problems. See faith cannot coexist with logic. When a debated question comes down to diametrically opposed facts, the only way to settle the point is for one side to agree that their trusted source is wrong. The fall back position becomes “I don’t believe that”. All evidence is useless in the face of a failure to accept the validity of the opposing source’s facts and when that happens the discussion is over. These sorts of justifications were common in the recent (2016) US Presidential election for both the candidates and the voters.

The problem that arises is that sometimes our faith really is misplaced.

 

People are wrong. Some sources have their own agendas. Sometimes they only have part of the picture and are making incorrect inferences from that incomplete information. Sometimes facts are colored by personal experience and perspective. Any of these can lead those who follow them astray.

Of course none of this is new. As long as there has been a human race, there have been irreconcilable questions of faith. What is new is that we have a massive justification engine (Google) always within reach.

In a few clicks  support can be found for any position one might take. In a few more you can find just as many sites backing an opposing one. Doubt is universal, and so the question again becomes one of faith, not facts. You choose which source to believe and you move forward.

Complicating this is ego. In our newly interconnected world, our beliefs are often on display. With every share, and every like, and every accepted friend request, we’re aligning ourselves behind our chosen sources. We’re also building a complex network of very visible alliances.

Inevitably, those people and causes with whom we are aligned diverge from our personal beliefs. It’s just not very likely that we’ll continuously agree in all respects with another human being, or with a movement composed of them. Usually it’s in small ways at first, but eventually some of  those divides can become significant. When that happens, our ego is a barrier to changing direction.

We all hate to publicly admit we were wrong.

In the past the audience for such a reversal was limited, and the ego barrier was small. Today that’s different. The most recent number I could find for the average number of Facebook friends was 338 (the median was 200) in 2014. I think it’s a safe assumption that that number is much higher two years later. Friend lists tend to be mostly family and well… friends, i.e. people like us. That’s a lot of people to disappoint.

When that moment arrives, it is far easier, for some, to consult Google, or as I call it, the universal yes-man. It takes a lot more self-confidence to endure the displeasure of your friend list. Certainly this isn’t the case for everyone, but many have been conditioned by the like-engine to avoid disappointing their audience at all costs.

So where does that leave us?

In the first place, it’s important to question your faith.

I understand that it’s difficult, but if the writers and news feeds and pundits and other sources that you’ve built your foundation upon are unable to withstand scrutiny from another perspective, or if their facts are not verifiable through other sources, they are unworthy of your faith. Yes, this takes work, but isn’t it time well invested?

Second, you must understand that algorithms are not always your friends.

Search algorithms are intended to return results that are similar to things you’ve enjoyed or searched for in the past. They only want to make you happy. Unfortunately that can give you a warped view of the world if you’re not careful. By all means use Google to your advantage, but be careful to research both sides of the argument. Look at the quoted facts and trace them to their sources. Understand which sites are merely trying to drive traffic with inflammatory headlines and sensationalized perspectives. Make an informed choice.

Finally, be brave.

It may seem like you will be ridiculed, or ostracized, or heckled, or even attacked for failing to follow the party line. You may be called a flip-flopper or a fence-sitter or something even worse. The thing is, none of that matters. The people who are worth being around will respect you for your courage and will understand your dissent. As I said earlier, no one completely agrees with every aspect of the party line. Whether the subject is politics, or religion, or nutrition, or education, each true opinion is as unique as a snowflake. Own yours and the honest people will respect that.

 

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