Recently, with all the running, I’ve also been finding an interest in inspiring books by endurance athletes, describing their personal story. Dean Karnazes has been in that circuit for a while already, Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run has only just been released, Rich Roll’s Finding Ultra came out a little while ago.
In a way, Tim Ferriss should be mentioned, as much as I dislike the self-promotion and adulation involved in his work – or is that life? – as one person who’s not just into fitness, but also general learning, experiences, lifestyle – an exploratory lifestyle after a certain fashion, just not often with the deeper growth towards living in this world, deeply involved, rather than skimming over experiences. Still, even butting heads, he is an inspiration…
The three endurance athletes, though, are particularly fascinating to me. All three were hardly born and raised to become uber-athletes, but rather went through quite some troubling times. Two of the three at least even went through overweight and unfit times. Karnazes was rather famous for his literal pizza on the run, but Jurek and Roll both are, contrary to many a popular belief about the diets that would enable triathlon wins or marathon runs, vegans.
All are people who actually perform ultra-endurance feats that are hard to believe. Ultramarathons going for a hundred, if not hundreds of, miles, for those who think a marathon is just a warm-up, on the road and on trails. Ultraman triathlons, for those for whom the Ironman triathlons are too easy. Several on consecutive days, at that.
It’s only in their extraordinary feats – and their particular foodways – that they gain such wide attention, though. On the one hand, that makes them all the more inspirational. On the other hand, it also makes them appear like very particular kinds of freaks, quite unlike average you and me – even though they are not (just) genetic freaks, and certainly not the greatest of self-promoters.
… and Knowledge
Something similar seems to apply more generally, when it comes to learning, literacies, and smarts, as well: Unless you are a Nobel Prize-winner or Stephen Hawking, you don’t exactly get much attention for your knowledge and erudition.
Extreme feats of memory garner some interest/attention, for some time – but they are parlor tricks more than knowledge.
Things seem to work in a truly similar way to sports feats when it comes to languages.
Learn languages quickly and become polyglot, claim that you know a dozen languages and show it, and you will get some attention for it. Here, there’s a mix of the extraordinary and the inspirational/accessible, yet again.
The focus on truly extraordinary skills, and people, once again makes it seem like we are talking about freaks, not merely geeks, though. - And in fact, enough documentaries about people with extraordinary skills focus on those with Asperger syndrome who have one truly extraordinary talent – but are hardly able to even just communicate in ways that we’d consider normal.
Most polyglots (of note and example) – just like the endurance athletes – didn’t simply grow up to be so. They weren’t all in a decidedly multilingual environment, learning it all as children (and maybe even hating it). They may have had some talent for languages, sure, but they also had to make a decision and find a way to learn what they wanted.
World Literacy? Well-Rounded?
So, I still wonder where a more general sense of literacy, of learning well and acting on it, goes missing. There are at least some books (and more websites) on becoming polyglot – but where is the support, the drive and inspiration, for becoming truly literate about this world and our place in it?
In this area, there are tomes that purport to tell you what you really need to know (and did or didn’t learn in school); there are tons of practically-oriented guidebooks (just think “… for Dummies“ or “Teach Yourself…”), but outside of re-runs of MacGyver, you don’t exactly see many masters of useful knowledge, jacks of all trades. Let alone, inspirational people who learn and run.
In fact, learning itself is often being denigrated nowadays. You learn what you must in school, what you really need in talking to others or checking helpful websites – or just in doing. The very passion to know something because you have an interest in it, or because you know it will help, is often ridiculed.
Balance, Drive, and Life
The very word nerd shows how balance is lacking, at least in the public eye. You seem either a jock, or a geek. You study, or you do sports. You have one field that you focus on, and you forget about all the rest.
Especially in ecological matters, literacy is sorely lacking – even when it comes to understanding the needs and signals (both helpful and misguided) of our own bodies and brains, let alone their relationship to green surroundings, diets and agri-culture… – but people think it’s not any problem.
Where are they living? In *this* world, as *this* body now reading these words and processing them, breathing and digesting, feeling and thinking?
Life needs – and should be – learning. And learning for life – to live well, so that life can continue to flourish – is getting ever more important, whether in order to deal with the craziness of the modern world successfully, to get by and make the best of things should they get even crazier, or to create better alternatives. And it’s not just bookish learning, but also the learning of skills and the maintenance and improvement of fitness.
After all, what are the challenges in our lives?
- To be fit enough for fun and in case of trouble.
- To eat in ways that keep us fit and healthy, not make us fat and unfit.
- To talk with others even if they don’t speak our (first) language, and to understand where we and others come from, especially when we see matters in different ways because of our different social or cultural backgrounds.
- To be able to use modern technologies to our best advantage (whether that be in work or entertainment), knowing what to look up and interpret in what ways – but without losing the ability to turn them off when that’s better – or necessary – for us, and the knowledge and skills to not depend on them.
- To live in ways that make happy without costing the Earth (and to understand that we are currently in such a conundrum, but would also have the means and power to live better).
So, where are the Renaissance men – and women – who refuse to believe that you can’t know more, have a healthy mind and a healthy body, and therefore do it, and use it to good ends? And how stupid are we to give attention to those who could inspire us to that only when they are relentless self-promoters – then shake our heads in wonder and turn back to TV and lolcatz?
You have a life of your own. You can live it fully, truly better, really in this world, going far whether in great adventures or small, creating and contributing, learning and listening. Or you just think you know it all well enough, look for some fun and excitement, and slide down to your grave. Your choice.