growth Archives - at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Tag: growth

Hong Kong Graffito: I am not human being

How to Compare Yourself For Motivation, Not Madness

As a social species, we continually compare ourselves to those around us.

It’s natural.

Unfortunately, as a species with social media (and traditional media with society pages), we don’t actually compare ourselves to peers anymore, we compare ourselves to personas.

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Natural Born Heroes book cover

High Time for “Natural Born Heroes”

Talk of heroes seems stale when it takes (only?) an eponymous action camera for one to “Be a Hero” – and yet, from the author of “Born to Run” comes a new tale of heroic outcasts that is also a wake-up call for the everyday person to become a hero…

What Hero?

Chris McDougall’s latest book, “Natural Born Heroes,” out April 14, 2015 strikes at an issue that is at the heart of some current confusion:

For one, talking of “heroes” seems a thing of the (mythical) past at best, a failed understanding of human imperfection at worst.

It’s become a label affixed to people doing what they prepared to do (like firefighters; just think of all the “heroes of 9/11″…).
It’s attached to people doing something that’s simply human: caring and being strong for others.
And, worst of all, it’s the tagline for Youtube “heroics” that are just action sports, if that.

Even worse, our idols seem far from any heroic ideals.
Success, in fact, seems something for sociopaths.

After all, those people upheld as great examples of success are the ones who are rich and famous (or at least rich) as – following another pattern of ‘extremization‘ – we make money the only measure. And if not money, then fame. Popularity, at least.
Their character, the sources and consequences of their money, i.e. their supposed success, don’t matter anymore, then.

The good person who did some kind of heroic deed, meanwhile, is looked at somewhat askance.

“Why would you risk your life for others? What’s the profit in that?” is the immediate thought.

At the same time, though, we still want to see and respect values. We treasure the person who is strong not for himself but for others. We long for adventure and meaning.

Here, however, we also find a problem.

Reading a title like “Natural Born Heroes” will probably make you think only of people who were genetically gifted with special skills and characters.

Enough recent books have mentioned (e.g. Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes–and What We Can Learn from Them), if not been all about (e.g. The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance), the genetic component to athletic prowess, for example.

“Me, I’m no hero,” you will more likely think.

And that’s exactly where “Natural Born Heroes” draws you in and carries you through the story of the WWII resistance fighters on Crete and McDougall’s discovery of their skills in our times.

It reads just like a story of just such people who must somehow have been gifted, only waiting for the right conditions of adversity in which to excel – but there’s an almost immediate twist:

If the people who are the heroes of that story are supposed somehow to have been born as extraordinary specimens of our species, then a hero awaits in every stereotypical basement-dwelling nerd. And every playboy and outcast and ordinary laborer.

And that is just the point.

As McDougall argues throughout the examples he gives in Natural Born Heroes, jumping between the shenanigans of our World War II resistance’s heroes on Crete and modern representatives of the skills he is talking about, the “what” of hero training is what leads to natural born / everyday heroes. And, we all could be them.

“[H]eroes [aren’t] a different breed–they just had different breeding.” (Chapter 4)

“The art of the hero wasn’t left up to chance [for much of human history]; it was a multidisciplinary endeavor devoted to optimal nutrition, physical self-mastery, and mental conditioning. The hero’s skills were studied, practiced, and perfected, then passed along… The art of the hero wasn’t about being brave; it was about being so competent that bravery wasn’t an issue. You weren’t supposed to go down for a good cause; the goal was to figure out a way not to go down at all.” (Chapter 3)

Now, I believe this is quite a re-reading of history, but as a goal, it certainly isn’t the worst.

We live in a time in which we have all the conditions for such a re-reading and such practice towards greatness, after all – and we are using them to discuss the minutiae of TV series while getting fat rather than form the fandom of life.

I just have to think back to my high school days (which were before the internet and even before most computer games).
And, there was a martial arts student who was strong but couldn’t run far, many soccer players who couldn’t even manage a single pull-up, and the highly intelligent kid who remembered everything he wanted but was so in his head he thought he would always be able to think himself out of any dicey situation… and apparently, with kids ever more indoors and playing only on tablets and computers, even balancing or playing tag has now become an issue.

Weakness Is a Human Strength

It does not end with physical skills, though.

Noticeably, McDougall is big on virtue. Yes, he says that heroes were created through the above “what,” but also that it is ultimately the “why” which brings forth the hero.

“Virtue isn’t respectable these days, and we’ve certainly seen enough hypocrisy among so-called moral leaders to question what they tell us to do,” he quotes one of his interlocutors. “But at some deeper level, we still instinctively idolize the kind of heroic behavior we claim is foreign to us, and keep acting on the heroic urges we claim we don’t have.” (Chapter 5)

The hipster, or the equally-as-ironic critique of the hipster, would even go so far as to claim that all such virtue and heroics is either self-serving or unreal, I fear. Just look at the example of what goes for personal development nowadays: It is, all too often, all about gaming the system and bending the rules for one’s own gain and appearance of greatness.

When one of personal development/lifestyle design’s biggest guru’s biggest claims to fame are the most turns in the shortest time in tango dancing, and having tricked his way into a lower weight class and then technically k.o.-ed, i.e. thrown out of the ring, his opponents in a martial arts tournament, it is more than refreshing to hear such an earnest call for virtue.

In fact, “Natural Born Heroes” doesn’t even stop at virtue.

McDougall refers to a lesson from Plutarch, which taught that “Heroes care. True heroism… isn’t about strength, or boldness, or even courage. It’s about compassion. … Empathy… [is] a source of strength, not softness; the more you recognized yourself in others and connected with their distress, the more endurance, wisdom, cunning, and determination you could tap into.” (Chapter 5)

Later, too, where I have found personal development pros claim that you have to cut your ties to people, be they friends or family, if they are not 100% supportive (useful?) to you, McDougall calls for compassion which “really springs from our raw animal need to figure out what is going on around us and the smartest way to respond. It’s your social spider web, a protective netting of highly-sensitive strands that connects you to your kinfolk and alerts you the instant one of them runs into the kind of trouble that can find its way back to you.” (Chapter 15)

What shall I say? Take that, egotistic preppers who think the apocalypse will be won by every man to himself…

In all that, where so many a physical feat seems to be all just about a record to break, McDougall (re-)discovers something that often seems to have been forgotten: that there is a deeper meaning in the pursuit of physical (as well as mental) fitness. Xenía, compassion, also expresses itself with/as the usefulness of a person to his/her group.

This idea is neatly summarized in Parkour’s, Georges Hébert-inspired/inherited, motto “Être fort pour être utile” – Being strong to be useful (as it has long been translated in articles around David Belle; it is “Be fit to be useful” in McDougall’s rendering); and it is the same spirit that I have seen in ninjutsu/To-Shin-Do, which Stephen Hayes has long been presenting as a practice for a protector.

Complete and Useful ‘Strength’

Sports and fitness are currently mainly seen as practices to get oneself lean (or built), but there is a usefulness and fascination (and fun!) with a very serious background when one looks at the modern era through the historical example:

“We’ve been living a lethal fantasy, Hébert realized. We’ve lulled ourselves into believing that in an emergency, someone else will always come along to rescue us. We’ve stopped relying on our own wonderfully adaptable bodies; we’ve forgotten that we can think, climb, leap, run, throw, swim, and fight with more versatility than any other creature on the planet.” (Chapter 26 – and Hébert was writing before WWI !)

We are now also ever more specialized, not just in work, but even in such fun, but, as McDougall quotes Hébert again,

“An individual who is satisfied with performing in exercises or sports of entertainment … but ignores the art of swimming, self-defense, or fears vertigo, is not strong in an useful manner. … A weightlifter or a wrestler who cannot run nor climb, or a runner or a boxer who doesn’t know how to swim, or cannot climb, is not strong in a complete manner.”

Never mind so many a current intellectual or ordinary person incapable of running for a few miles or pulling him-/herself up a wall or roof… (which I’ve argued to be a better sign of fitness than things like running a marathon, long before).

Here, there is so much fun and usefulness, be they for health and fitness or in preparation for whatever trouble you may happen to find yourself in, it is hard to believe that we need a wake-up call for that.

But from moving to throwing to finding food around us, we clearly do.

We aren’t – sorry, can’t resist bringing in my own concern here – not at home in this world, with the situations we may encounter and as the beings we are.

Beings who, to get back to what McDougall describes yet again, should “[aim] for the hero’s holy trinity: paideia, arete, and xenía: skill, strength, and desire [compassion]. Mind, body, and soul.

The Downside

Natural Born Heroes book coverIf there is one serious downside to the book, it is that it felt a bit short on the modern expression of such skills, the practical ideas to follow up on. McDougall visits people who represent those skills, here and there, but what they do and what there is to learn, to me always just felt shown in appetizer-sized bits.

The videos McDougall has been presenting on Outside Online illustrate these practices rather better (and maybe gave the impression that they would be the main focus when Natural Born Heroes‘ red thread is actually the WWII story).

McDougall’s book presentations (in person) seem much more focused on these practical skills rather than the WWII kidnapping, too (and so I wonder if a follow-up practical handbook, or a guide to relevant training courses, at least, is already in the works).

The story of the Cretan resistance was captivating nonetheless.

It was hard to put the book down – and at the same time, what I kept wanting to do more than anything was to put the book down, watch the videos and read the articles about the skills Christopher McDougall suggests we could and should be learning in order to turn us ourselves into heroes.

And, above all that, to go out and really learn and practice these skills.

In fact, I’m sure to be at the next parkour meeting in the city nearby. The tallest tree in my backyard will get a climbing rope put on it (again). And I’ve been exploring the edibility of wild herbs and the healthiness of real food, anyways.

This may all not be particularly heroic yet, but even if it’s just playing at following examples, it’s both a fun diversion and a great practice of useful skills for the now and any possible futures.


Relaxing with Curiosity Cola

Mountain Running Decisions, Willpower and Ego

I think there are limits [in ultra-distance running]… but I don’t think anyone actually ever reaches theirs.
Anton Krupicka in Kilian’s Quest S04E05.

For training and gear testing – and of course, for the fun of it – I found myself running around the lakeside road to ‘my mountain’ (the Traunstein) again.
Traunstein - Blue MorningIt was a nice-enough day with a lull in the worse weather that had been moving in.
With an insulating layer and a Windstopper top, what I wore felt rather too warm.

One week before, the temperatures had been even higher, the sun was shining, hardly any snow was visible any more, lots of people were out and about on that beautiful day.
A mother with a twin stroller, running on the lakeside road? Check.
Two old men already coming down the mountain that morning? Check.
Young hikers out for a day of fun? You betcha.

on the Traunstein

Spring was definitely arriving, between the sunshine and the flowers.

Flowery View, Traunstein, Traunsee

That was then. The week later, it still seemed a nice-enough day, but more of a dusting of snow on the upper reaches of the Traunstein was proof of the worse weather that had started moving in.

Getting higher up the mountain, whose top kept itself shrouded in clouds, the expected wind kicked up, too.

Only that it pretty soon was enough wind that the two layers that had just seemed too warm started feeling too cold; out came the windproof/waterproof jacket and pants that have become my constant companions on such tours.
And still, looking around, listening to the wind, noticing some snow start to fall, it was not enough for me.

A man whom I’d seen at the foot of the mountain came past me as I’d decided to turn back, and of course I didn’t like turning back when someone else went on – but it’s just this sort of social comparison and ego-kick that gets us in trouble. Turn back I did.

Not Doing, at least Not Comparing

Not doing anything isn’t the best thing for growth, of course.
Doing will lead to comparison, however, and that may make for some dangerous challenges.

Even on the nice day a week before, I had noticed that.
Compare yourself to those who are really fast, and you may feel like you belong in a wheelchair.
Walk past hikers, and you feel pretty okay with yourself.

And now, with social media, comparison has all the worse a context, especially upwards to the truly extraordinary people.

The only solution, same as it’s always been: If you are not among the best and greatest who have to compete, retreat from the competition.
Be(come) good enough and better, living for yourself.

(As I said before, at least sometimes, “winning is for losers.”)

Know when to pull back to keep yourself safe and go on another day; be happy not in comparison to others but with what you are able to do.

Having gone once across to, over and around the mountain, and back, and then still having been able to head right on to the train back to my wife – that had made me happy.


Having felt the need to turn back even as I could have gone on (and saw someone else do so) this time, that left me feeling daunted by the mountain, especially as a bit more sunshine would break through the clouds as I was on my way back.


It was only a wee bit of sunshine, though, and at least I got on my way back, not stuck in cold and wind up a mountain, which could just as well have been the case.

Out Further, Comfortably Inside

Becoming at home means both drawing back, making oneself comfortable, and pushing at boundaries, growing.

And here lies an interesting insight from recent science:
“Ego” – that is, willpower – apparently becomes “depleted” as we use it.

So, the more you force yourself to do something, to act in a certain way, and the more you simply have to make decisions, the weaker your power over yourself will become.

Choices such as what to have for breakfast are enough to drain ‘ego’ a bit; by afternoon, you just reach for the worst kind of quick sugar fix.

It doesn’t matter if the choices are inconsequential or important, they all require an effort that the brain will start to have trouble with.

Interestingly, there is an insight from the seemingly physiological side of things that sounds related:

When we feel that we just can’t go on, e.g. running, it may not actually be the muscles that are fatigued to the point of not working anymore, apparently.
Rather, it is our brains triggering a survival mechanism, looking to conserve some energy in case we should still need it later.

In both cases, choices (to make, or just the choice to go on) are necessary, and our mental household of energy is the decisive factor for how this will fall.

To a large extent, our conscious minds may be contributing (and we can learn to override some of these processes), but the real decision falls outside of its purview.
Rationality looks like it plays a role, but its main role may well be to rationalize the decision that came about at a deeper level.

Hypo-egoic” behaviors that don’t need such willpower because they have become ingrained in us, though, can go on – and we see that in running, where it’s necessary to forget the ego and just become motion if we want to go on at a certain point.

This is also, and more usually, the point of habits.

Make something a habit, and it will happen on cue and without a conscious, rational, energy-draining decision about it being necessary.

Just try to make sure you create good habits for yourself, be they going out for regular runs, turning back when things get too dicey, or regularly cooking good food, not flopping down in front of the TV with a beer when you really, really, would love to make more in and of your life…

Relaxing with Curiosity Cola

… but don’t forget to take your relaxation seriously, too ;)

Dampfbad - Steam Bath

Of Sweat, Sweets, and Self

When you sweat, it’s you that sweats; when you enjoy something sweet, it’s you tasting and enjoying it. Isn’t it?

We often think and speak as if we were truly just the conscious part of ourselves – and it’s a fundamental and consequential way we fail to be and make ourselves ‘at home’.

We are “brain owners,” I recently heard in a podcast;

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First Youtube video

The Inspirational Idiot…

You’re not an online superstar influencer, not a recognized thought leader, just an average guy – so, why are you even talking?

“Public” has become the new currency of the attention economy, it seems.
For success, it’s necessary and sometimes even sufficient to be well-known. Be known, and your word counts. Be known, and your supporters will rally around you all the more when your detractors attack. Be known, and the influence you wield in social media serves as proof that you must be worth that same influence.

First Youtube video

Social media:
You want to present something, you present it.
First reactions I ever got:
1, “lol..he looks like an old fashion Vampire….!”
2, “…presented by Gaylord Focker”

Self-validation, even for the less-known person, comes from likes and shares, and what succeeds there is that which draws attention, makes people click “like” before they’ve even read anything more, entices us to click on through link-bait headlines. The easy, extraordinary, attitude-affirming, giving a sugary boost to pampered selves. It’s the rise of the online influencer.

And thus, even as privacy concerns mount, there are all those who look for influence, “klout,” and attention. Sensible curators of the deluge of information, insipid thought leaders, inspiring role models, peddlers of solutions both sensible and snake-oil.

Whether it’s intellectual(ist) endeavor or lifestyle design, personal development or athletic achievement, it’s the pinnacles of publicity that seem to have become the only real models. The influence and the influencing reinforce each other. If you’re not the fastest, the richest, the most-widely adored, what are you even thinking, trying to teach anyone anything? If you were good, you’d already be known.

But don’t forget to also have production values that are of the greatest and presentations that are perfect, for anything less than a TED talk (with the cachet and the cues to be wowed and applaud, now!) will not do. It’s social media, where everyone can share their ideas – and the trolls are fed.

Moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world’s champions. -Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Or so, spending too much time online can make things look. It inspires some, but it also inspires ire and a search for the faults. It makes it even more difficult than it always has been to just be average and aspire to better. But of course, we all are somewhere around average, on average, and we all start small and somewhat stupid.

The Minimal Helmsman (cp. here) ;)

The Minimal Helmsman
(cp. here) ;)

Maybe it’s just because I, too, am an exceedingly small fish in a worldwide ocean of ideas and people shouting for attention, but it seems to me that we are overlooking a need for fewer superstar geniuses and more inspiring idiots and everyday adventurers (like ourselves).

The average people who are just so-called friends interacted with online and showing something of how they are living ordinary lives extraordinarily – with all the usual problems of making a living, of being in relationships that are going more or less smoothly, of having dreams as well as doubts and fears, but also of learning more, of keeping up fitness, of having issues which are close to their hearts and which they want to influence for the better – it is them who seem rather more inspiring to me than all the usual “influencers” and “thought leaders” thrice removed.

The superstar people are so attention-catching, of course a person will be influenced by it, maybe get caught up in it… but it’s even easier with them than anyone else to just chalk their success up to luck and lucky genetics, hard work under different circumstances, different conditions and characters. Things to maybe learn from, likely just pack it in because one will never be like that.

It bears repeating: The superstars and attention-getters aren’t the mythical gods and goddesses without any problems we make them out to be. They, too, have started out small and stupid and they, too, have their faults and face their own demons and challenges.

Social comparison with them, if you don’t happen to be the kind of person who has to aim the highest and won’t be undaunted by the difference in (seeming) accomplishment, is a recipe for just giving up. Some of them may say, and gain their success by saying, that you, too, can do just what they did, but their very success makes it more difficult for anyone else, for anyone but them would just be a copy-cat also-ran.

Yet, if you want to live better, grow stronger, learn more, then do aim to become your better self.

Don’t aim for anyone else who’s out of reach, for they are not you, though. Just start, acknowledge the strength that lies in weaknesses, the obvious it makes the faults that need work, and get going. This way, you’ll also discover the things you’re good at. And hopefully, you’ll discover that the measure of the good that is public, and especially online, attention is at least as much of a distraction as it is real. What’s more important is that you actually live *your* life, to the best of your abilities. And better.

I’ll be right alongside you ;)

The Metal Steps on the Ttraunstein ascent

The Fear and The Real Danger

Just as I was planning what and where to explore this year, running, I was asked if I should really participate in any such events, do anything like that. “So long, so far up and around mountains, so tiring – don’t you think it might be dangerous?

It is an integral part of living to avoid those things which are uncomfortable, threatening, dangerous. Even the most basic forms of life have mechanisms for moving towards that which they require to live and reproduce, and away from that which would threaten them.

As we humans are beings with an awareness of ourselves and our mortality, this becomes all the more complicated. Not stronger, perhaps, but layered and manifold:
Awareness of our mortality has produced many a cultural practice and religious idea, in burial practices and notions of rebirth or afterlife. It drives us to produce works of art, to have and spread thoughts that will have an influence, or at least to reproduce and be remembered. Awareness of our very own personal mortality can make us retrench into conservatism or open up to more active, aware, engaged living.

And yet, whether it drives us this way or that, we will see dangers and have fears.

Most of the time, they are based on something that has been a danger during much of humanity’s history. Often enough, they are uncomfortable, but not as bad as to become phobias that leave us dysfunctional in some way. We don’t feel comfortable around wild animals (and are afraid of snakes but not of the electric cables that are, nowadays, rather more dangerous); we don’t want to be in front of too many people – or perhaps, with too few friends. We avoid certain foods because we don’t know them or had had them make us sick… It makes sense, or at least doesn’t hurt.

There is a special problem that we as human beings face, though: As our understanding of happiness is often misguided, so are our fears often focused on the wrong things.

Our minds are made to focus on the extraordinary and out-of-our-hands. So, we fear flying, but quickly become comfortable driving a car. We fear the sudden danger of shark attacks on the beach, but forget all about the slow and insidious danger of getting a sunburn and perhaps, later on, skin cancer.

As Oliver Burkeman writes in “The Antidote:”

“Seeing a television report of a terrorist attack on foreign soil, you might abandon plans for an overseas holiday, in order to hang on to your feeling of safety — when, in truth, spending too much time sitting on the sofa watching television might pose a far greater threat to your survival.”

The Metal Steps on the Ttraunstein ascentRegarding my running, as I mentioned above, I’ve found resistance among relatives about all the things that could possibly go wrong. It’s not healthy, there may be an accident, maybe you’d get caught in bad weather,… It’s like in Burkeman’s example, except it’s not a terrorist attack, but a death during a run.

I love it when my wife sees me off on a run telling me to take care, I gladly tell her that I certainly will – but I also think to myself that going out for a run *is* the way I take care of myself.

After all, what isn’t feared is that not doing something “crazy” like an ultramarathon (and often enough, even just training runs and little explorations in heat or cold) may mean not having the motivation to train well the rest of the time, to eat well, to organize life so as to be able to do more, to live with passion and fulfilling potential.

The truth is and remains that: You will die.

The only choice is whether you will have lived fully and sensibly until then, or will just have existed and kept yourself cowering in fear. Funny thing about being human: There are some more things which we should, perhaps, fear – exactly those slow and insidious problems that add up over time and don’t push themselves into our attention. Most of all, those things that feel easy, good, comfortable while doing them, so that their negative consequences some time down the road are easy to deny. The vast majority of things we fear, however, are dangers – if not only just discomforts – we’d do better making ourselves more comfortable with.

Life lies in and beyond them, where we get to action, develop knowledge, skills, and perhaps wisdom, and come into our own.

The challenge, as usual, is to realize what is a warning to heed, what non-warnings (in fact, comforts) are actually dangerous (such as the comfortably easy life of fast food and the sedentary lifestyle), and what discomforts we’d better take on ourselves because they are necessary for our living fully.

Not even that many people.

Adventures, Records… and Extra Ordinary Life

[Cross-posted from The Ecology of Happiness]

Many of the people who are hailed as great examples of personal development and have cult followings online, showing how life could be much better, how you could come to be great – like them – present their elevated status all through grand adventures, world travel and world records, knowledge of languages.

The world could use more people who don’t just give in to whatever is currently normal, but is quite the fluke if you take a long-term historical perspective. We could well use more ideas for how to take the best of modern living, and live it so that all the world could share that standard of living without the slightly problematic resource requirement it would have if it were based on current European, let alone American, consumption.

Unfortunately, the adventure-consuming, world-traveling, lifestyle business-supported way of life itself – even if it is lived out of a single bag of just a few possessions – is a high-consumption lifestyle in large part enabled only by an all-too-affluent (or wishing it were) part of the world. Thus, not the way forward. That’s not to say that it’s all bad.

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